The Ideology of US News (or any Other) Law School Rankings: Does It Change What Law School Applicants Should Do?

There’s a terrific article by Malcolm Gladwell in the most recent issue of The New Yorker.  Gladwell’s focus is on college rankings but along the way he talks a little about US News law school rankings (and his argument applies to both).  Rankings—especially the US News rankings—have long been favorite targets of diverse constituencies, ranging from law schools who believe they’re underranked (which includes just about everyone, and especially those like the farcically self-ranked Thomas Cooley Law School) and the ABA, which pitches and moans about “cooked” data and figures carping is enough (despite the fact that it clearly has the power to force law schools to provide more meaningful data).

Gladwell’s point is more interesting but, ultimately, if you’re a law school applicant, it leaves you with the same question as other criticisms.  OK, but what am I supposed to do?

First, his point.  Gladwell’s certainly correct view is that college and law school rankings, by weighting heterogeneous factors differently (how much does reputation count? whose view of reputation matters? is selectivity more important than greater success with a less selective class? and so on), rankings reflect an ideological bias or, less prejudicially, ideological decisions.  With different weightings, the results of rankings would turn out quite differently (and kudos to Brigham Young and the University of Colorado and Alabama law schools for making Gladwell’s top 10 law schools when the relative weights of factors are reconfigured).  Now that’s not the same as picking and excessively weighting patently ridiculous factors (Cooley’s library-intensive criteria, for example) that don’t pass the laugh test.  Gladwell’s point is that if you credibly re-weight good faith criteria, you can come out with quite different rankings than the ones US News publishes.

What difference does this good theoretical argument make for law school applicants?  Not much and quite a bit.

Back to core principles.  Your investment in law school is an investment in a career, as a longtime law firm partner recently suggested on this blog.  What most people want out of a career is a good living in a job they enjoy.  In turn, that means that the front-end investment in law school is an investment is earnings potential and career flexibility (to the extent that you want to delay closing options).  Some people want and need more career flexibility, some people need (or can have) less.  There are much more detailed posts about these issues elsewhere on this blog (in the “Law School Admissions” and “Beyond Law School” categories) and I won’t repeat those discussions here.

In turn, that means that law school application and law school admissions decisions are highly individualized.  So, what’s the right use of credible law school rankings?  They’re proxies for what you want out of your law school investment, that is, earnings potential and flexibility.  Period.  And they’re proxies, which means, as I’ve discussed before, that they’re not perfect translators of your best law school options.  Their value depends on what you need from your law school investment and on any prior constraints on your flexibility that you may have (a family that ties you to a certain area after law school, for example).

They do have considerable rough value, however.  Why?  Simply because they reflect, in large part, what employers use in their hiring decisions.  That’s true in both directions—higher-ranked law schools are higher-ranked in large part because of the broad success of their graduates after graduation, and their higher rank contributes to that success.

That’s a self-reinforcing cycle, of course.  Gladwell thinks that’s a little unfair, as if rankings are a race that everyone should start at the same point.  That’s because he isn’t going to law school, paying a lot of money or incurring a lot of debt.  If you are, you care about the value of your investment.  No credible financial advisor suggests that it’s unfair that Borders isn’t valued as highly in the marketplace as Amazon.  Your money is in trouble if you sunk it into Borders common stock, and there are a lot of law schools that are similarly risky investments.  Law school is an investment, just the same as plunking money on Borders but with more significant long-term consequences; the right answer is that you make the best investment decision and get the highest likely return you can, including in non-monetary factors like long-term career satisfaction.

Were I to construct a perfect law school ranking system for law school applicants, it would be pretty simple, based on employers’ hiring decisions and the long-term success of graduates of law schools.  Of course, it would need to include significant regional variations, temporal criteria (short- and long-term success), and the like.  Although the current US News rankings don’t map those criteria precisely, they’re a decent initial guide.  You need to know how they weight certain factors and determine those factors’ relevance to you.  You and your law school application and admissions advisor also need to account for your individual opportunities and constraints, financial aid prospects, and other factors.

In the end, your ranking of your best law school alternatives probably won’t correspond to US News’ view, for some of the reasons Gladwell suggests.  That doesn’t diminish their value as an initial rough-cut proxy for the criteria that matter to any law school applicant—the value of your considerable investment of time, money and emotional energy in law school.  So, how much do critiques like Gladwell’s matter for law school applicants?  Not much, because you should not be deterred from employing rankings as a significant tool in your application and admission decision toolkit.  Quite a bit, because they remind you that the rankings don’t precisely reflect what you need to know to make your best admission decision.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on February 18, 2011.

2 Responses to “The Ideology of US News (or any Other) Law School Rankings: Does It Change What Law School Applicants Should Do?”

  1. […] interesting commentary on the Gladwell article by Kyle Pasewark (of Advise In Solutions […]

  2. […] Reporter posted about this interesting story. Here is a small section of the postIn the end, your ranking of your best law school alternatives probably won’t correspond to US News‘ view, for some of the reasons Gladwell suggests. That doesn’t diminish their value as an initial rough-cut proxy for the criteria that … […]

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