Just as the Egyptians marked the passage of time by the flooding of the Nile Delta, Above the Law can mark time by the release of the annual law school rankings by U.S. News. Or, more precisely, to the deluge of “get off my lawn” complaints from crusty old deans complaining that the rankings are useless and should be entirely ignored. Unless their school made a significant leap. Culling the public statements of these “butthurt deans” is such a joyous task we’ve labeled it a parade.

They proclaim that the rankings are “not accurate” and unreliable because they constantly shift and that students can receive an excellent education regardless of a dismal ranking. Every time a law school drops, a Communications grad toiling in an administrative office gets his wings.

Some people work really hard explaining how no ranking of this kind could have any value. After all, no one gets as worked up about the rankings for undergraduate institutions. Or B-schools, or even med schools. Isn’t that proof that all these rankings are arbitrary?

Well, it turns out you really, really, should be paying attention to law school rankings, and here’s the evidence to prove it….

We honestly should have seen this revelation coming when ATL put out its own ranking of law schools. The ATL methodology focuses not on “inputs” like undergrad GPAs, but on “outputs” like jobs, making it different from the formula under the U.S. News hood. Even though the ATL method also gives weight to features like cost and ignores features like “OMG look at all the books in the library,” the two rankings bear a lot of similarities at the very top. You’d think a massive change in methodology would turn the U.S. News ranking on its head. The fact that it didn’t at the uppermost echelons suggests there’s something mutually reinforcing in the mix.

It’s something that just doesn’t happen with other rankings. In Ben Taylor’s recent piece in Forbes, he breaks down the value of rankings for every kind of educational institution and discovers that the value we place on law school rankings is entirely justified.

It’s so commonplace to ignore undergrad rankings that it’s a cliché:

By now, many parents have begun to ascribe to the familiar advice: “a good college match is more important than a top rank”—and for good reason. First, according to a study by economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale (first conducted in 1999 and followed up in 2011), there is little to no difference in future earnings between those attending an “elite school” (ex: University of Pennsylvania or Williams College) and those attending a “moderately selective school” (ex: Penn State or Miami University of Ohio) after 20 years.

At the end of the day, as long as your options aren’t Harvard and Lower Death Valley Teacher’s College, a rankings gap isn’t too important to a student’s long-term prospects. Frankly, this is apparent when checking out the incoming class at an elite law school, where powerhouse Ivies, small liberal arts colleges, and state schools from around the country are all represented. So go out and pick the school with the best football team for all we care.

Business school rankings highlight a slightly different problem:

Like real-world businesses, MBA programs must constantly adapt to changing business climates and modern markets. In contrast, law and medical schools tend to teach the same curriculum year after year, and are much slower to implement new classes. If a business school can introduce a dynamite new program in a critical sector (like technology management), it can leap up in the rankings on the strength of its new offerings—sometimes jumping 5-10 spots in a single year. This makes any one year of rankings less critically important, as the quality and relevance of a school may shift significantly in two or three short years.

But the cream of the crop is still pretty steady, right? Well, to some extent, but it turns out that different ranking methodologies produce varied results that keep the business school world from becoming “too entrenched.” That Harvard MBA is always an asset, but gleaning exactly which school tops which other school is hardly obvious.

Medical school rankings are kind of important, but Taylor notes that where a student performs his or her residency is a huge factor in deciding on a school. Finding a school with connections in the right place can make the difference between living in Chicago and living in Dallas, probably more than a particular school’s ranking can.

What about rankings in legal education?

And so we finally arrive at law school, where as it turns out, rankings couldn’t be more important. For starters, consider that the top 14 schools in the nation have remained unchanged for 25 years—without a single new contender since US News started publishing law school rankings in 1989. Yes, the exact order among these 14 has changed a bit from year to year, but the top 14 (often abbreviated as the T14), has maintained its elite, unassailable status.

Taylor provides scatterplots of the employment scores of all the law schools and the employment at “top firms” scores of all the law schools. These factors aren’t centrally important to the U.S. News methodology but are absolutely crucial for the ATL rankings, and… look at that, the T14 schools top both lists. Perhaps it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that the most employable future lawyers get the best grades and LSAT scores. Perhaps law firms, especially at the top, are creatures of unshakeable habit. Whatever’s going on, any serious ranking (defined as “one concerned with getting a professional career out of a professional school”) is going to privilege the T14, not because of “tradition” or “bias,” but because the proof lies in the gelatinous desert product. If a ranking deviates from there, it’s because it privileges something else over “getting you a job.” Which can be a good thing (“getting you out of there with the best salary to debt ratio”) or a bad thing (“this school’s faculty has more SSRN citations!”). Choose wisely when evaluating those rankings.

But whatever you do, mind your rankings.

Why Law School Rankings Matter More Than Any Other Education Rankings [Forbes]

Earlier: The Annual Parade Of Law Deans Butthurt Over U.S. News
2014 ATL Top 50 Law Schools


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