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Rankings Shift Could Force Big Changes at U.S. Law Schools (1)

Aug. 19, 2021, 8:00 AM

The U.S. News & World Report rankings are a powerful force in the world of law schools. Deans’ careers can rise or fall on their schools’ rankings, which affect everything from student recruitment to alumni giving to faculty retention. So when U.S. News announced in 2019 that it was considering creating a new ranking for law schools, heads turned across the legal academy.

Bloomberg Law received an email Aug. 19 from U.S. News stating that in June 2021 it decided that it would not proceed with its previously proposed law school scholarly impact ranking. However, we feel it is important to discuss concerns legal academics have about such proposals.

The crux of the U.S. News proposal was to develop a new measure of a law school’s prestige based on the “impact” of the scholarship produced by its faculty. This impact score would be calculated by counting the number of times a professor’s work was cited by other professors, and perhaps by courts.

Skeptics immediately raised objections. The most general challenge is that judgments of scholarly merit are inevitably subjective and cannot be quantified. Others expressed concern about biases against women, scholars of color, interdisciplinary scholars, and those in less-cited research areas.

But the citation-based rankings have supporters as well. They argue that the new approach will bring some needed objectivity to a system that is biased in favor of the old-school powerhouses and leaves little room for entrepreneurial upstarts to improve their standing.

A Change Could Impact Faculty Recruiting, Promotion

As with many debates in academia, this might sound like a tempest in a teapot. But if U.S. News changes its ranking system, law schools will be pressured to alter how they recruit and promote faculty.

In particular, law schools will likely focus on professors with the most citations, instead of interdisciplinary credentials, peer-reviewed publications, or diversity. Ultimately, this affects who trains the next generation of lawyers and which ideas are circulated to courts and other legal decision-makers.

In a recent study of the law school lateral hiring market, we show that a focus on citations would result in dramatic changes in law school hiring. We find that the professors recruited into the top law schools are not necessarily the ones with the most citations. The citation counts of law professors who move to the most elite schools in the country—places like Harvard and Yale—are barely distinguishable from the rest of the field.

One could argue that the top law schools do not always hire the best people. But hiring a new professor for a lifetime appointment is a major investment for a law school, one that is given serious consideration by the entire faculty. We should be cautious about rejecting this collective wisdom for a citation-counting metric.

As a general matter, we find professors’ citation counts are only weakly associated with getting hired at a higher-ranked law school. Law schools place more weight on publications in elite law reviews and peer-reviewed journals. But none of these statistics explains very much; subjective judgments about professors’ scholarship appear to play a much larger role in the hiring market.

Citations Ranking Could Lead to Less Diverse Faculties

This means that a move toward a citation-based ranking would likely initiate a profound shift at law schools. Citations would become the new coin of the realm as the old currencies lose their value.

The result would be law school faculties that are less intellectually diverse, law students who are less prepared for the complex social and economic realities of practice in the 21st century, and legal scholars who make fewer useful contributions to broader public conversations about the law.

The new citation-based ranking has not yet been implemented, so there is still time to change course. The U.S. News announcement has provoked a wave of opposition. Many law school deans opposed the move, as did organizations such as the Society for Empirical Legal Studies. This pushback alone is reason enough to hit pause on any major changes.

Notwithstanding the problems with the proposed citation-based ranking, the leaders at U.S. News should be commended for their efforts to improve the law school ranking system. The current rankings already create skewed incentives for law schools, especially in the admissions process.

But suddenly shifting to an invalid faculty impact measure would ultimately reduce the quality of legal education. The best path forward is a slower, more deliberative process based on input from a range of stakeholders, including students, alumni, and faculty.

(The first paragraph of Aug. 19 story was updated to reflect that U.S. News was only considering a new ranking. Second paragraph was added to indicate that U.S. News decided not to pursue this new ranking.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Joshua Fischman is a professor of law at the University of Virginia with research interests in law and economics and empirical methods.

Michael A. Livermore is a professor of law at the University of Virginia whose work focuses on environmental law, regulation, and data science and law.

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