April 02, 2007
Law School Deans & the US News Rankings
Posted by Gordon Smith

Karen Rothenberg, Dean of the University of Maryland School of Law couldn't contain herself in the wake of the new U.S. News rankings of America's top law schools: "We moved up more places in the rankings than any other top-tier law school.... It's extraordinary."

What she should have said in her statement was something like this:

The U.S. News rankings purport to be derived from mathematical formulae based on data common to all law schools. The "weights" attached to the variables are arbitrary and reflect only the view of the magazine’s editors. For example, according to the magazine, 40 percent of the rankings is based on each school's "reputation." The reputation ranking is derived from a survey of a modest number of legal academics, lawyers, and judges across the country which asks them to rate comparatively all ABA-approved law schools. Reputation is an important factor in choosing a school, but schools with excellent reputations within their communities, states, or regions may not be well known in other parts of the country. None of us has adequate knowledge about more than a tiny handful of law schools so as to permit us, with confidence, to compare them with each other.

Oh, wait. She did say that. At least she signed this statement, which is posted by the Law School Admissions Council.

So did Thomas M. Mengler, Dean of the University of Saint Thomas School of Law (Minneapolis), who gushed about the new rankings, which placed his school in the third tier, "We are quite pleased with this first ranking.... Our goal from the beginning has been to pursue our mission and deliver the best education to our students, anticipating that recognition for excellence would follow."

Donald J. Polden, Dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law, also signed the statement dissing the rankings, but yesterday he was elated over his school's Top 100 ranking: "Our strong U.S. News ranking is just one more indication of the overall strength of Santa Clara’s law school. We are gratified by the growing national recognition we are receiving."

Allen K. Easley, Dean of the William Mitchell College of Law, another signatory to the deans' statement, issued this observation after the U.S. News rankings were published:

We're pleased that the 2008 U.S. News & World Report overall ranking better reflects our strength in legal education. We also applaud our legal writing and clinical training programs, which continue to be nationally ranked.

University of Alabama Dean Ken Randall didn't sign the statement, but he may have made the most over-the-top comments of the season about his school's #36 ranking: "It is a proud day for our campus, the legal profession, and the entire state of Alabama.... We have proven that our state can offer premier educational opportunities."

I could go on, but you get the drift.

Note to deans: you cannot have it both ways. You can't claim to be oppressed by the rankings and simultaneously celebrate them. I understand the impulse to celebrate your "success" in the rankings, but success in this business can be fleeting. Feel Lawrence Sager's pain.

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