What exactly do the US News rankings measure?

Let me be frank: If you can’t answer this question, then you have no business relying on the rankings.  Once you do answer the question, you’ll realize you have no business relying on the rankings.

With a little research, you’ll find that US News’ methodology has little if anything to do with the quality of education you’ll receive at any particular school, or the likelihood of employment in the fields you’re targeting post law school.  The methodology mostly measures admission statistics and “reputation,” and the latter really not very wellI’ve written numerous times about this problem before, so I won’t rehash the various flaws again.

But I do want to try to answer the obvious question: if the rankings are so fundamentally flawed, why do so many people in law world give them such weight?  One reason is that they fed well into the longstanding elitism of big law firms, as Prof. William Henderson details in this brief history of what he calls “the pedigree bubble.” The feedback loop between the most selective schools and the big law firms is a closed one: the firms hire almost exclusively from the elite schools (now often called the “T14” based on the US News rankings), and then tell themselves that they must be the best (without ever really experiencing the grads of other schools).  And US News reputation surveys are sent to and completed largely by a handful of lawyers in the big law firms.

Once the law schools started playing along, by manipulating their entrance numbers however they could (e.g., targeting scholarship money to attract high LSAT scores, offering more and more application fee waivers), and by aggressively marketing their schools to those who might fill out the US News reputation surveys, they couldn’t stop.  They had essentially affirmed that the rankings meant something, and if the rankings mean something, then applications naturally go down at those schools which don’t maintain their rank.  Fewer applications mean lower admission standards (to maintain class size), which means decline in the rankings, etc. 

In essence, the law schools pay attention to the rankings because you do.

So can you stop drinking the Kool-Aid?  Well, yes and no.  Certainly, you can (and should) do significantly better research on which law schools are best for you, given your specific career goals. But it also makes good financial sense to apply to some schools in part because they might offer you substantial scholarship money based on your LSAT score—and that’s how you take on your role as a bit player in the rankings machine.

How will it end?  Prof. Henderson thinks the pedigree bubble is bursting, and I hope he’s right. Time will tell.

In the meantime, do your research, and don’t trust anybody else’s arbitrary and flawed ranking system.