Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Lessons from the U.S. News Rankings: Are Law Schools Overinvesting in Scholarship?

Interesting reflections on the just-released U.S. News law school rankings:

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...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.

Here are three observations....

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....

Second, lawyer-judge reputation has a lot more variation but the same familiar funnel effect....

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.

As I explored here, it is interesting to think about the application of Moneyball to law school hiring. [See also What Law Schools Can Learn from Billy Beane and the Oakland Atheltics, 82 Tex. L. Rev. 1483 (2004).]  Bill and Dan's posts suggest that the comparative advantage of selecting for productive scholars as a rankings boost is waning. [Believe me, I don't mean to suggest that this is nearly the only reason to select for scholarship, just a reason that rational schools might care about.] Billy Beane himself has remarked that the irrationalities he exploited in his early career (overvaluing the five tools, undervaluing walks and HRs) have largely been washed away, and he is finding it harder to exploit new advantages against well-managed peer teams....

Are law schools in the same situation? And, if so, what should the smart money be spending cash on? Employment? Marketing? Facilities? Remember: the goal of this spending is to get as much relative peer-to-peer growth for your buck as possible. So, pretend you are a law school dean. What is in your next budget?

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