A few years ago, I had a long conversation with the one of
the legal academy’s most successful scholars. During this exchange, he/she opined that the study of rankings was a mere
pastime for legal academics--albeit a pastime he/she quite enjoyed--rather than a topic that warranted the sustained attention of serious scholars. Since I was writing my
contribution to the “Next Generation of Law School Ranking” at the time, I
remember thinking to myself how strange it was that a rigorous analysis of the “800-pound
gorilla” of legal education, chocked full of practical policy suggestions, was
ipso facto less weighty than an article read by a handful of specialists.
Although I agree that my colleague accurately conveyed the prevailing wisdom, I have gradually concluded that the low-brow status of rankings research has more to do with the norms of the academy than the larger enterprise of knowledge creation. Moreover, an ostrich-like approach to our changing times has huge risks that are irresponsible to ignore. For these reasons, I am now willing to openly defend the value and significance of so-called “rankings scholarship.”
The study of rankings is primarily the study of markets
within a multi-billion dollar legal education and legal services industry. Rankings scholarship owes its existence to
the rapid proliferation of information, made available by U.S. News and other sources, to evaluate the relative benefits of a
3-year, $100,000+ investment. This
development has gradually eroded away the cartel-like control over legal
education enjoyed by several organizations that historically have been very
friendly to—or in some cases, staffed by—legal educators.
This transition period is loaded with incentives to slant law school information. It is also fraught with uncertainty and the potential for sub-optimal equilbria that inflate costs, mislead students, and invite radical change in how law schools are accredited.
Although internal labor markets have operated for decades within the legal academy, the advent of rankings has given rise to a strong external market for law students. The internal labor market for law professors is based on scholarly productivity, but the external market for students is based on future employment prospects and value-added by individual law schools. Success in these markets require two very different institutional strategies, and only a handful of schools—already at the top of the food chain—have the resources to play them both.
Yet, law schools are run primarily by tenured faculty. This is a group with little practice or expertise in making hard choices that will be judged by market market forces. And rather than thinking through difficult institutional issues, many legal academics have a strong incentive to just focus on their scholarship in the hopes of landing a lateral offer at a place with more resources and thus fewer problems--i.e., in the language of L&E, there is a collective action problem.
To this group, yes, rankings scholarship can be dismissed as a pastime. But even if positional competition works well for many law professors in the short run, there are serious structural limits to how long the current system can continue. For those interested in an orderly transition to a new legal education marketplace that serves the interests of students, practicing lawyers, and society, the serious study of rankings-cum-markets is an absolute necessity.