Law school rankings: The results are out, but do they really matter?

US News & World Report released its annual law school rankings Tuesday, reviewing about 200 schools. The rankings can have a powerful impact on universities, experts say. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Scenes from Harvard Yard just off Harvard Square are seen in this April 2009 file photo. Harvard Law School ranked just behind law schools at Yale University and Stanford University in this year's best law school rankings, according to US News & World Report.

US News & World Report released its annual rankings of the country’s best law schools Tuesday.

The list, which includes the top 145 best places in the US to start a career in law plus about 50 additional unranked schools, also includes specialty rankings in areas such as environmental law, intellectual property law, and tax law. Topping this year’s list were law schools at Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago, which were evaluated using 12 quality measures such as the school’s assessment by current lawyers and judges, student LSAT scores, and bar-exam passage rates. 

But do the news magazine’s rankings, which some view as the arbiter for top-notch academia, really play a large role in college admissions?

A 2009 study in the journal Research in Higher Education revealed that the US News rankings improved the quality of the next year’s admissions pool primarily at institutions ranked in the top 25 or at schools that moved from the second page of the magazine’s rankings to the first page.

Kevin Cary, policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank devoted to improving educational policy, argues the ranking system is deeply flawed because it favors proverbial institutions with an elite status.

Instead of focusing on the fundamental issues of how well colleges and universities educate their students and how well they prepare them to be successful after college,” Mr. Cary said in a report, “the magazine’s rankings are almost entirely a function of three factors: fame, wealth, and exclusivity.”

When it comes to law schools, law professor Brian Tamanaha writes in his book “Failing Law Schools” that the US News rankings are among the most powerful forces driving behavior at law schools today.

In a New York Times review of the book, Stanley Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, writes that this behavior is, at times, deceptive.

“A law schools dean who knows that the rank of her school will in large part determine the faculty it can attract, the quality of the applicants, the support provided by her university and the job opportunities of graduates will be tempted to fiddle with the numbers by (among other things) reporting high salaries for graduates when the pool surveyed is a tiny fraction of those who have the school’s degree."

Additionally, the rankings have delineated a host of sad priorities for law schools, said New York Times reporter David Segal in an interview with the American Bar Association Journal.

"It doesn’t help that law schools are just completely obedient to the set of standards and jump through any hurdle that is erected by US News,” said Mr. Segal. “This is just a recipe for a bunch of self-interested decisions.”

The bottom line, said Robert Morse, editor of US News & World Report, in a note on the website, is that the rankings are done to provide one tool to help prospective law school students choose the best school for them.

“We at US News firmly believe the survey has significant value because it allows us to measure the ‘intangibles’ of a college that we can’t measure through statistical data,” Mr. Morse said. “The Best Law School rankings are not done to provide law school academics a benchmark to measure their school’s progress or to influence or be an instrument to direct educational policy decisions.”

Here are the top 20 law schools, according to the list:

1. Yale University

2. Stanford University

3. Harvard University

4. Columbia University

5. University of Chicago

6. New York University

7. University of California-Berkeley (tie)

7. University of Pennsylvania (tie)

7. University of Virginia (tie)

10. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

11. Duke University

12. Northwestern University

13. Georgetown University

14. Cornell University

15. University of California-Los Angeles

16. University of Texas-Austin (tie)

16. Vanderbilt University (tie)

18. University of Southern California (Gould)

19. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

20. George Washington University 

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