US News and ABA Dustup Over Rankings: What It Means for Prospective Law Students

An American Bar Association committee recently issued a report complaining about shortcomings in the US News law school rankings, which the committee suggested had effects including some upward pressure on tuition, an overemphasis on the LSAT and an underemphasis on diversity.  Nevertheless, the committee concluded, the US News rankings were likely to continue to be influential.  US News subsequently issued a pointed response in its own defense.

Arguments about rankings and their usefulness is a ritual wherever such things are not “settled on the field.”  I’d feel a little better about the ABA’s being down with the people if it didn’t exercise an undisputed monopoly over bar admission.  Where’s the outrage about overemphasis on the bar exam, where “pass” is set at a percentage of takers rather than a score, and functions simply as a means to control the number of lawyers eligible to enter the profession?  Good for current lawyers, certainly, but not evidence of great concern for law students.

But that’s for another day.  The ABA committee acknowledges that, like it or not, the US News rankings are here to stay.  Why the defeated resignation?  Rankings are inevitable in a society that, like ours, is a mass society that is relatively open (that is, you don’t need a pedigree to be snapped up by prestigious institutions).  Why moan about that?  It’s what we are and, in lots of ways, it’s good.

Rankings are a way for consumers to sort a mass of information in a relatively sensible and communicable way.  We use rankings because we need them—there are too many choices otherwise, and we don’t have time or a level of information sufficient to organize all available data on our own.  If you’re planning to be a lawyer, US News probably wasn’t the first and won’t be the last rankings system you use—for your career, there are AmLaw rankings, Vault rankings, you name it.

Indeed, one of the ABA’s criticisms of US News seems weirdly off the mark and demonstrates the inevitability of rankings.  Does anyone really believe that US News created the heavy reliance on the LSAT, rather than law schools themselves?  And why?  Because the LSAT is the easiest way to make a rough cut through thousands of applicants.  It’s an efficiency device.  At the start, there’s no personal knowledge of applicants (if there is, it’s usually the result of connections, not merit).  Undergraduate GPA is too variable; there are too many schools with too many systems.  The LSAT, by contrast, is a good initial sorter—not because it’s the best possible instrument but because schools need a reasonable sorting device, and the LSAT is what they have.

To say that rankings are inevitable doesn’t mean that debates about their quality are irrelevant.  The ABA may or may not be right about its individual criticisms.  But what this corporate dustup should do for prospective law students is to clarify how to use rankings.

If you’re applying to law school and trying to determine your target application group, you will use the US News rankings (and perhaps some others as well).  Not only is nothing wrong with that, but it’s something you should do; among others, prospective employers are very much aware of those rankings and changes in them.

Using rankings isn’t being their vassal, though.  Rather, the best use most prospective law students can make of the rankings is as a rough instrument that begins rather than ends your research into the schools that will be the most appropriate for you.  The ranking itself may continue to be one factor in that decision but just one, and probably not of an outsize weight in comparison to other factors.

Quite apart from rankings, we’ve talked about certain of the questions you should ask law schools you’re considering about their success in this tight market and how much merit-based financial aid should figure into your decision (and how you can leverage it between schools).  You will also probably want to know about career options (not just salary) and geographic flexibility (which drops off sharply by law school rank).  There may be personal factors to consider—which law schools seem responsive to people with your demographic characteristics, for example (there are many ways of subtly gleaning that kind of information).  If you have options, your level of comfort at any law school is critically important; to determine that, on-site visits are irreplaceable as long as you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for before you arrive.

I’m a practical person and Advise-In is a practical company.  You use what you have and what matters to employers.  So use rankings, by all means.  But also know that rankings can’t substitute for the intensive process of realistically working through your hopes and desires to secure your best law school admission outcome and greatest enjoyment of law school.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on August 16, 2010.

2 Responses to “US News and ABA Dustup Over Rankings: What It Means for Prospective Law Students”

  1. […] but “Best Value” Law Schools): Learn to Use Excel Instead Last week, I talked about the usefulness and limits of the US News law school rankings to prospective law students.  Later in the week, National Jurist (through preLaw Magazine) […]

  2. […] didn’t really need a study to tell us that.  And what it means for the use of rankings is that law school applicants and students should care about rankings because employers do.  And care a lot because employers care a lot.  That’s the proper reason why law school […]

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