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Law Schools Shouldn't Grub For Rankings—A Commentary by Michael Seringhaus ’10

The following commentary was published in The Hartford Courant on April 2, 2008.

Law Schools Shouldn't Grub For Rankings
By Michael Seringhaus ’10

In April 2006, the law school deans of America raised a hue and cry against U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings of their institutions. In an open letter, they cautioned against relying upon numerical rankings and implored applicants to evaluate law schools holistically. It was an appealing message: Deans don't agonize over law school rank, so neither should you. But today, the group most in need of that pep talk seems to be the law school administrators.

At law schools across the country, rank fluctuation is serious business. The annual U.S. News graduate school rankings hit newsstands Friday. Before the day was out, several law school deans had issued schoolwide e-mails apologizing for slips and pledging to regain lost ground.

Interim dean Makau Mutua of the University at Buffalo Law School — which dropped from 77 to 100 in the rankings this year — pledged to do everything in his power "to rectify this situation as quickly as possible. My goal is to get this law school into the top 50," he said in an e-mail to students Friday, which was leaked to the popular legal tabloid website Above The Law.

Even deans safely in the top 50 seemed equally anxious about decidedly smaller dips in rank. Law students at the University of Minnesota (which slipped from 20 to 22) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (down two places to 38) received damage-control e-mails.

Dean Carolyn Jones of the University of Iowa College of Law responded to that school's slight slide (from 24 to 27) by admitting that "hundreds of hours of sophisticated thought by alumni, faculty and staff" have gone into "studying the U.S. News rankings" — an initiative "informally dubbed the Apollo Project."

As a law student, I find it worrisome that a respected dean can issue a letter whose sole purpose is to minimize the importance of the U.S. News rankings, then turn around and obsess over those very rankings.

To understand why law school rankings are so maddening to administrators, it helps to know why they are so unrealistic. Because each state administers its own bar exam, most law schools are regionally biased to some degree. A handful of top schools are considered national — meaning their graduates can and do find work in legal markets across the country — but at most schools, graduates often end up working in-state.

Ignoring this, U.S. News piles all schools into a single national ranking. This is misleading and unhelpful, since it encourages prospective students to weigh law schools as interchangeable commodities as opposed to entities with strong local ties.

Moreover, the ranking system seems hopelessly rigged. All schools are evaluated by the same standards and consequently chase the same prize — but schools at the top are very rich, and usually very old.

These schools (like Yale) tend to run lavish programs with low faculty-to-student ratios, colossal libraries, a wealth of clinical programs and generous loan-repayment offers.

Such largesse is supported only partially by tuition; the rest is funded by alumni donations and endowment interest. As such, these institutions set a hopelessly high bar for younger schools. To climb in the rankings, deans must scramble to mimic long-established schools.

Deans should certainly take heed of their rank — it matters a great deal to students. But they should not rush to counteract routine blips with policy revisions tailored specifically to pander to U.S. News. By adjusting sound academic policies to improve their school's rank, administrators prioritize vanilla criteria chosen simply because they are easily measured.

Magazine editors shouldn't be de facto deans, and — for law schools in particular — one size does not fit all.

For students, the defining aspects of law school really aren't captured in rankings. Relationships with classmates hinge more on personalities and life stories than test scores; academic life is shaped by the atmosphere at the school — relationships with specific professors, clinics, grading policy — not the number of printed volumes in the library.

The deans had it right in 2006: Rankings mania is unhealthy. Now, if only they believed that.

Michael Seringhaus is a first-year student at Yale Law School, which is ranked No.1 in the latest U.S. News & World Report.