Research Documents the "US News" Effect on Law Schools
Karen Sloane
The National Law Journal
December 3, 2009.

Like it or not, U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of law schools profoundly influences the way those schools are managed, spend resources and are perceived internally and by the outside world.

That is the conclusion reached by two sociology professors who interviewed more than 200 law school administrators, faculty members and prospective law students and combed through other statistical data. Their report, "Fear of Falling: The Effect of U.S. News & World Report Rankings on U.S. Law Schools," has been released by the Law School Admission Council, which partially funded the research.

"One of the things that surprised us most is what a big impact the rankings have," said Northwestern University associate professor Wendy Espeland, who co-authored the report with University of Iowa assistant professor Michael Sauder. "They affect so many aspects of legal education."

The rankings have become a routine consideration in law school decision-making, according to the report, and pressure to move up in the rankings influences the way law schools distribute their resources.

The study's conclusion that law schools have several ways of gaming the system likely won't surprise the many critics who have charged that the rankings are easily manipulated and are harmful to the educational mission of law schools. Most of the interviewed administrators said that the rankings hurt law schools, but some believed that they add transparency and accountability to legal education. The magazine bases its rankings on reputation, selectivity, placement success and faculty resources.

The researchers considered ways in which that pressure has changed the role of law school deans, admissions officers, career services personnel and faculty.

Administrators consistently reported that they have allocated more money toward merit-based scholarships in order to attract students with high LSAT scores, a factor that accounts for half of a school's selectivity score. That leaves less money for need-based scholarships, which in turn can hurt student body diversity because applicants from lower income groups tend to have lower scorer LSAT scores, the researchers found.

Similarly, many administrators said that they spend a significant amount of money on brochures and marketing materials that they send to other law schools and judges to gin up better results on the reputation survey. To a lesser extent, administrators said that they had increased career services staff, hired junior faculty instead of senior faculty and spent more on record keeping to improve their positions on the list.

The researchers found that some schools have employed ethically questionable tactics, such as categorizing students as part-time or probationary so their LSAT scores would not count, although U.S. News recently started including part-time students in its analysis. Some schools cut first-year class sizes then aggressively recruit transfer students, the study found. Other schools hired graduates on a temporary basis so they would be considered employed for the U.S. News survey.

"One general consequence of this type of gaming is that many administrators report becoming distrustful of other law schools. The belief is that certain schools will do anything they can to raise their numbers, even if these strategies entail ethically questionable or unethical activities," the report says.

The growing influence of the U.S. News ranking is putting even greater pressure on law school deans and other administrators, who often are held accountable for changes in rank. It's not simply faculty and students who care about rankings, the researchers reported, but also university presidents, trustees and state legislators. In fact, strategies to improve a law school's ranking are now a standard part of the law school dean hiring process, according to the report. Career services personnel also feel pressure to help boost ranking, as U.S. News requires statistics on the employment status of graduates after nine months. One career services director told the researchers that her staff spent six weeks trying to track down students who had not responded to their employment inquiries, and even considered hiring a private detective to locate those graduates.

The rising influence of the U.S. News law school rankings, which debuted in 1990, has made it more difficult for law schools to control their own reputations, the researchers concluded. Faculty members and administrators characterized drops in ranking as "demoralizing" and "devastating" and said that they can spur harsh criticism from students. The prospective law school students interviewed reported that U.S. News ranking were the biggest influence on which schools they apply to.

"What our findings show, however, is that what rankings have done is create an incentive system that pressures administrators to make decisions directed toward improving rankings, decisions they might not otherwise have made had they relied exclusively on their professional judgment about what is best for their school," the report concludes.

The study followed on the heels of a report released in October by the Government Accountability Office that found that the race among law schools to boost their U.S. News ranking was the biggest factor in rising tuition. The schools need more tuition income to pay the high salaries demanded by top faculty and offer the courses that attract the best students, the GAO found.

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