Law league table debunked

February 27, 1998

LAW SCHOOLS have launched the most sustained attack to date on United States college rankings in the magazine US News and World Report. In a letter to 93,000 law school applicants, they warn the rankings may be "hazardous to your health".

No sooner were the rankings released than US News admitted they were critically flawed. It conceded that Duke University's law school had been incorrectly ranked, throwing out the overall rankings of nine law schools and the job-placement ratings of 11 others.

The law school letter was based on a highly critical study of the magazine's methods, paid for by the Association of American Law Schools. It urged students choosing between 180 law schools to take their time, do their own research, and "avoid the temptation of relying on rankings".

US News has carved a lucrative niche in consumer and education journalism with its annual college rankings. They sell so well that a number of competitors have entered the business.

Prospective students, alumni, faculty, employers, and even lawmakers who vote on university funding, are said to pay close attention to them. University administrators and professors, however, complain that they are trivial and deceptive.

The letter, backed by a $50,000 study, was one of the harshest complaints to date and was endorsed by deans of 164 of 180 law schools approved by the American Bar Association. There was speculation that it reflected law school insecurity about applications, down a third in ten years.

The US is famous for the numbers of its lawyers, but the profession is feeling the political heat, with conservative reformers calling for measures to curb "frivolous" lawsuits and restore "justice" to criminal law. Second-tier law schools may be vulnerable to bad press following a low ranking.

John Sexton, dean of the New York University School of Law, called the rankings "misleading and dangerous. I hope that US News will think about whether the profits generated by its rankings are purchased at too great a cost to its own journalistic integrity."

The rankings formula has become increasingly complicated and distinguishes between universities by fractions of a point. Aside from a few surprises, they confirm the obvious - with Yale, Harvard and other household names routinely scoring close to the top.

The study complained that Law School Admissions Tests results of incoming students are what chiefly shapes the rankings, along with questionnaires sent to deans asking them to grade "academic reputation", often of schools they have never heard of.

This lends itself to tactical voting and surreptitious campaigns.

For law schools the magazine ranks all 180, not just the top ten, 20 or 50.

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