April 04, 2006
Variation in US News Reputation Over Time
Posted by Bill Henderson

This is a special US News rankings guest post. Many thanks to Gordon for the opportunity.

With release of this year's U.S. News & World Report rankings, law professors, administrators, students and alumni are once reflecting upon how our respective law schools can improve our position in this zero sum game.  Last year, Andy Morriss and I wrote an article for the Next Generation of Law School Rankings Symposium that examined the market for high LSAT students.  (If you want all the Moneyball lessons from that analysis, click here.) The dynamics of academic and lawyer-judge reputation is something we hope to examine in a forthcoming paper.  In the meantime, here are two scatterplots that tell an interesting story (and corroborate findings by Dan Filler at Concurring Opinions): [Click on scatterplots to enlarge!]



Here are three observations.  I welcome more in the comments.

First, USNWR academic reputation does not change much overtime.  Where a school was in 1992, which is the first year that U.S. News published it full rankings, explains approximately 93 percent of its current U.S. News academic reputation.  Especially for the top 50 schools, there is funnel effect with progressively smaller variations over time. 

The San Diego and George Mason "miracles" can be seen in the top graph (blue and green circles at ~ 65 for 1992 and ~ 50 for 2006), which equals approximately +15 spots (ranking from 1 to 180).  Objectively, in terms of faculty productivity, perhaps these schools deserved a larger bump, especially over a 14-year time horizon.  (Brian Leiter says as much here.)  Yet, the GMU/San Diego miracle probably reflects the outer limit of how well a law school can do (at least in the USNWR rankings) by hiring and retaining talented scholars.  Moreover, would the miracle have occurred in less attractive metro areas, in terms of amenities and spousal professional opportunities, than DC or San Diego?  I doubt it.

Second, lawyer-judge reputation has a lot more variation but the same familiar funnel effect.  This explains why Dan Filler's post summarizing up/down lawyer-judge movements is dominated by lower ranked schools--the errors are not randomly distributed (it is also why the fit line seems off center).  However, one large winner is George Mason (+17 between 1992 and 2006 in overall reputational ranking), which is high for a school that started in the Second Quartile in 1992.  Is that bump attributable to scholarship, or the Law & Economics conferences that Henry Manne (former dean of GMU) sponsored for judges during the early to mid-1990s?  Perhaps the Lawyer-Judge reputation is just a noisy variable.  On the other hand, because few law schools have strategic plans that attempt to reach judges and lawyers (beyond alumni), there might be quite a bit of opportunity for movement. 

A third point relates to the "positional competition" that Andy Morriss and I discussed in our LSAT paper.  Why does every law school strategic plan, formed in the crucible of USNWR rankings angst,  emphasize a plan of more and better scholarship when, empirically, such a strategy is unlikely to produce substantial improvements relative to peer schools?  Scholarship is a highly portable asset.  Highly productive scholars tend to have tremendous upward mobility.  When all schools compete on the basis of scholarship, it drives up costs with no clear social benefit to students, institutions, or society. 

Moreover, as Andy and I discuss, this system is not sustainable over the long-run.  Outside the first tier, our regression results clearly show that students with marginally higher LSAT scores routinely trade down in USNWR ranking for (a) lower tuition/debt or (b) proximity to a vibrant corporate legal market.  In other words, the choices of students (i.e., the market) are remarkably rational--why go $10K more into debt to move up ten spots in the second tier, especially if the higher ranked school is in a weak or dying legal market?  In this environment, a scholarship-first strategy can really backfire for many law schools that are not already highly ranked. 

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