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Here’s What Happened When a Law School Dean Challenged a U.S. News Ranker

Jan. 11, 2016, 7:35 PM

There are many law school rankings, published by various outlets and based on a variety of criteria, but one ranking gets almost all the attention: U.S. News & World Report’slist of America’s best law schools, published annually since 1987.

The rankings are based on a number of factors: acceptance rates, LSAT scores, placement success, and a school’s “reputation,” for example. Because theU.S. Newsrankings are taken so seriously, law school deans often find themselves obsessing over — and perplexed by — these metrics.

On Saturday, at the American Association of Law Schools’ annual meeting in New York, the AALS’s Section for the Law School Dean hosted a panel on law school rankings. There were at least a couple hundred people in attendance. Many in the room, including the moderators, directed their frustration at Robert Morse, Chief Data Strategist forU.S. News.

When the meeting was opened up for questions, Nebraska Law School Dean Susan Poser stepped up to the microphone. “I don’t know anything about schools except the one I went to and the one I’m at now,” Poser said. “How do you justify asking us to rank the prestige of other schools, and how do you justify giving this component such a large weight?”

When Posner finished her question, the crowd broke into eager applause. Morse smiled and waited patiently before defending the rankings.

“Broadly speaking, we’re surveying leaders who’ve risen up the ladder, and we believe they at least have a gut feeling about other schools’ positions in the marketplace,” he said. “We believe that when you aggregate all those ratings, it’s a reflection of where that school stands relative to its peers.”

When Morse finished, Poser had already sat down, but you got the feeling many in the room would’ve liked her to push back on his answer.

The moderators for the panel were David Brennen, Dean of the University of Kentucky College of Law, and Martin Katz, Dean of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

In addition to Morse, the speakers were Jack Crittenden, Editor in Chief ofThe National Jurist, and Robert Franek, Senior Vice President atThe Princeton Review.

Big Law Business rounded up the best quotes from the discussion.

Robert Morse (U.S. News & World Report)

“We’re doing the rankings to serve prospective law students and parents. We’re not doing the rankings for the law schools or law school deans.”

“It’s on purpose that we don’t include faculty journals or things measuring faculty achievement. We’re not measuring law school faculty academic achievement.”

“U.S. News was not the organization that decided to make LSAT a required test for legal education. U.S. News rankings are reflective of what goes on in legal education. We’re certainly not trying to set policy or manipulate schools.”

“In the field of legal education, reputation is still important. The image of a student’s school is still very important to getting a first job, to getting an important clerkship, to working at a certain firm.”

“U.S. News is in favor [of competition from other rankings]. Competition drives us all to produce better websites, get better data.”

“We’re not resting on our laurels. We’re not sitting in our office in Washington saying, ‘We’re number one.’”

“U.S. News is definitely open to feedback. We believe we have an open door policy: any dean or top administrator can call us up, and we’ll talk about their ranking or at least offer them a detailed explanation.”

“We’re also open to talking about suggestions to changes in the methodology. A lot of the changes we’ve made over time have evolved from conversations we’ve had.”

“We’re wary of advocacy. We believe we can read right through it if somebody is suggesting something that will clearly benefit them. Hopefully we’re smart enough to understand that. We listen, but we never promise anything.”

Jack Crittenden (The National Jurist)

“The legal academy have made their own bed: law schools used to be similar, so all you looked at was prestige.”

“If I were running U.S. News, I’d drop the professor reputation component.”

“We think the reputation component can be valuable, but it shouldn’t dominate or take over your survey. At the end of the day, there are still only about 14 schools that can be most prestigious.”

“Now people have so much news, so much info, it’s almost information overload. We can help bring order to the chaos.”

“We’ve done stories over the years on the U.S. News rankings. Most of them derived from the frustration and anger of law school deans.”

“This is a golden age for law school deans. They have the chance to differentiate themselves. Every law school can be the best at something.”

Robert Franek (The Princeton Review)

“We’ve been unapologetic about making rankings by going straight to the students.”

“There are so many rankings that lack substance. List creators have figured out they get a lot of eyeballs. It’s easy to hang out a shingle and say your rankings have substance. I hope consumers are discriminating.”