The most important thing I learned, however, was that the current mess is, in significant part, a creation of the ABA.
Bob Morse of US News admitted that the reason his magazine ranks law schools as it does is simply that the data are available. The data are available because the ABA, as a condition of accreditation, requires law schools to compile and submit them annually on a schedule that happens to fit nicely with US News' publication needs. (I understand, without having researched the question, that the ABA is unusual among accrediting agencies in this regard.) All US News has to do is to send out a questionnaire that says "tell us, too," and it gets more than enough grist for its mill.
The ABA then posts a large "confidential, keep out" sign on the raw data it has collected, preventing potential competitors from poaching on US News' monopoly unless they are able to persuade law schools to fill out a yet another obtrusive form. Schools feel that they have to comply with the ABA's and US News' requests. They don't feel they have to comply with anyone else's.
Result? The ABA has the raw data. US News has the raw data. No one else does. The ABA thus enables US News to publish its rankings and at the same time creates significant barriers to entry for potential competitors.
If the ABA could be persuaded that the current situation (one flawed but profoundly influential ranking system, no real competition) is not in the best interests of legal education, this aspect of the rankings problem could be solved.
One option would be to make life harder for US News. The ABA could accomplish this in a variety of ways: (1) annually collecting only such data as is necessary to determine whether any law school presents a pressing problem, e.g., bar pass rates, (2) collecting two years' worth of data every two years, or (3) not collecting data at all between reaccreditations. The net effect would be to raise the cost to law schools of complying with US News' requests, thereby reducing the likelihood that a large enough percentage would do so to permit credible annual rankings.
A second option (which I would prefer) would be to make life easier for potential entrants to the rankings business. The ABA could do so by web-publishing and releasing copyright protection on the kinds of stats most likely to be used in plausible rankings. If it were to do so each fall, we might well see multiple law school rankings published each spring. This would have two salutory effects. First, it would reduce law school behaviors undertaken primarily in response to the rankings. Second, it would put pressure on US News to improve its methodology.
Folks can reasonably disagree about whether rankings are bad. But unregulated monopolies are almost always bad. The ABA is charged with ensuring the quality of US legal education. Through its data collection and disclosure policies, it appears unwittingly to be supporting a rankings monopoly that creates perverse pressures on the very schools it is supposed to accredit. Perhaps it should rethink those policies.