August 14, 2007
Blogs and Law School Rankings
Posted by Gordon Smith

Jay Brown of TheRacetotheBottom.org has a working paper on blogs and law school rankings. It contains a bit of discussion about blogs and legal scholarship -- ground that was covered quite comprehensively in the Bloggership Conference last year -- but the main thrust of the article is that blogs "represent a cost effective mechanism for improving a law school's reputational rankings and, perforce, its overall rankings in the infamous US News and World Report."

Hmm. Let's look at the evidence presented by Jay:

  • Law school ranking depends importantly on law school reputation, which in turn depends on scholarly reputation, which in turn depends on law review placements. Law reviews have a "modest number" of "prestige slots," and those slots tend to be allocated to professors at top tier law schools, thus creating a self-perpetuating reputational loop. Even if professors from a lower-tier law school manage to generate multiple top placements, law school reputations are notoriously sticky, and marketing campaigns designed to change those reputations are expensive.
  • SSRN is also biased in favor of top-tier law schools. The evidence here is that the most downloaded professors are at top-tier schools. (Downloads are based on reputation ... see above.)

In contrast to law reviews and SSRN, blogs are egalitarian. Anyone can start a blog. As for the connection between blogs and law school reputation, Jay writes:

There is no definitive data on the relationship between an active, popular blog and law faculty reputation. Nonetheless, common sense and conventional wisdom suggests that a high quality blog can result in increased reputational benefits for the blog sponsor which in turn can generate increased awareness of the relevant law school.

And this:

[H]igh quality, substantive specific blogs arguably provide disproportionate benefits to lower tier schools. For these law schools, the dearth of information about academic reputation is the most severe. It is probably fair to say that most of those who respond to the US News Survey have at best spotty understanding of the 180 or so law schools included in the rankings. As a result, a reputation score can arise from incomplete information, anecdotal information, or information unrelated to a school’s academic achievement.

Any widely disseminated positive information can increase awareness of an institution among the small number of people who fill out the survey. This may occur through the introduction of innovative programs, the sponsoring of widely noted and attended conferences, and other similar developments. But dissemination will be slow and the costs high. Blogs require fewer resources and will reach a broad audience more quickly.

None of this strikes me as wildly implausible, though  the argument as a whole contains an astonishing number of causal links, most of which are supported only by "common sense." This is, of course, typical in arguments about reputation. The question that Jay would like to answer but cannot is whether blogging, even good blogging, by a law professor enhances the reputation among academics of that professor's sponsoring law school. Even without answering that question, some law schools have begun to recruit top bloggers in an effort to enhance their reputation. I won't name names, but I suspect that the practice will become clear soon enough.

Even if blogging has some effect on law school reputation, we might wonder whether blogging is the most productive means of obtaining such an effect. As noted above, Brown claims that blogs "represent a cost effective mechanism for increasing reputation," but is that true even when you consider the opportunity cost of blogging? Brown himself notes that a "good blog is an avaricious consumer of time." Perhaps that time would be better spent writing articles? On the other hand, some have observed that bloggers tend to be productive scholars ... which way does the causation run there? Perhaps blogging generates more ideas or germinates ideas more quickly or creates scholarly networks in which co-authoring is more likely. Is blogging a win-win proposition? I hope so.

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