Do Law Schools Need a Second Ranking From 'U.S. News'?

Some fear an emphasis on faculty publications is the last thing law schools and students need.

February 18, 2019
University of MIchigan law school

U.S. News & World Report has announced that it may start a second ranking of law schools -- and some observers of legal education fear that the new ranking would create the wrong incentives.

The rankings outfit already has a ranking of law schools -- based on factors such as surveys of law deans and lawyers, test scores, undergraduate grades of students, and admit rates. This ranking has been criticized by some who believe it encourages law schools to spend their aid budgets on non-needy students with high test scores and grades. A much higher proportion of white law students receive aid than do black law students, studies have found -- even as law schools say they want more diversity in their classes.

The new ranking would focus on the impact of faculty research, using analyses of citations to determine the typical impact of faculty publications. U.S. News says that the new data would produce their own ranking and would not be part of the formula for the "best law schools" ranking it has been doing for years.

A long-standing criticism of law schools is that they are too expensive, and that they should focus more on teaching and finding ways to minimize what they charge, which would in turn enable students to reduce their borrowing.

Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a group that pushes for more data on law schools to be public and for more of a focus on the costs of attending law school, said that the new U.S. News ranking being planned is not what law schools need.

"Just because something can be ranked doesn't mean that it should be ranked," he said. Law schools need to focus on things other than faculty research, he added.

"If schools respond to these incentives, it will severely limit their attention to what matters in legal education today," McEntee said. What should they focus on? "Access, affordability and curricular innovation," he said.

Brian Z. Tamanaha, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Failing Law Schools (University of Chicago Press), agreed.

"We know that law schools will do whatever they can to improve their ranking," he said via email. "This new ranking will have the same consequence, prompting law schools to maximize this specific set of narrow metrics. Law schools already prioritize research, and allocate substantial resources to its production, too much as it is in my opinion, and this will likely make it worse."

Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News, defended the idea of starting a new ranking. He sent this statement: "U.S. News is going to emphasize scholarly impact by using different indicators that measure citations, not volume. U.S. News has been looking for ways to measure faculty quality at law schools, and analyzing scholarly impact in legal academia is a widely accepted measure. Prospective students are looking for schools with the highest quality law school faculty who are making an impact in legal academia and the law. This analysis would provide students with important information to make such comparisons."

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