Although I favor the second approach, I think the first has found its way into this blog and other blogs more frequently. In particular, there seem to be far more posts ranking law schools by USN&WR, SSRN downloads and Leiter-type rankings than those focusing on how to make law schools and their faculties more effective. (By the way, what does citing each other and ourselves mean in the absence of consideration of judicial citations?) The concern with relative appearance is consistent with massive mail outs listing new hires and faculty publications that are as glossy and useful and sometimes as embarassing as beer commercials.
The disconnect between law school competition and law school quality can be understood by thinking of the markets in which law schools compete. In the input market, they compete for professors and students. In both cases, schools seem driven by what others will think of the inputs more than by actual productivity. In hiring, those ranking law schools for national publications are far more likely to be impressed by hiring 5 Ivy League graduates that 5 highly ranked graduates of non elite schools and most law schools fall into line. If you want to use the Moneyball analogy, it’s as though Billy Beane decided in advance that any player coming up through the Pirate’s farm system would always be ranked after one coming up through the Boston's system regardless of any other information. In effect, hiring is driven by splash, not substance.
With students, schools compete for the highest LSAT/GPA. This is not that far off; it makes good sense to admit students who are likely to succeed in and after law school. On the other hand, the quality of the educational experience can also be enhanced by having diverse students. Here, competition is exclusively for minority students, particularly those with high LSATs and GPAs -- often the least diverse diversity. Just how much schools are willing to sacrifice LSAT and GPA for a more diverse student body is not clear. And, the willingness to look beyond race as a source of diversity is nonexistent. Diversity-talk is in large measure just talk.
In output markets, schools do appear to be moderately concerned about bar passage although it is a statistical after thought in the USN&WR rankings. Luckily, alums get upset when the rates are low and deans wanting to keep their jobs are motivated to address the issue. But look back at Moneylaw posts. Compare the number relating to publications, citations, and downloads with the number addressing bar passage or any possible measure of teaching success. Not that bar passage is a good measure of teaching effectiveness. Bar passage divided by entry level LSAT scores would be far better.
The consideration of service as a measure of law school success? Well . . ., enough on that.
In the output market, by far the most important factor is scholarship. I am not sure when it happened but it seems like it was the late 1980s when schools and professors became counters as opposed to quality assessors when to comes to scholarship. This is also about the time of hyper self-promotion and the proliferation of symposia articles with authors chosen on the basis of who they are as opposed to whether they have anything new to say. My guess is that if one plotted articles by year we would have an upward sloping curve that increased at an increasing pace. It is equally likely that the quality curve is flat, at best.
In short, (too late now, I know) competition among law schools only increases the quality of legal education if you believe that 1) the credentials of faculty applicants are predictors of careful teaching and important research, 2)bar passage alone is a measure of effective teaching, 3) LSAT and GPA plus race alone make for an intellectually interesting and diverse student body, and 4) numbers of articles or downloads is the same as meaningful scholarship.
Those are the factors on which law schools compete. The connection between those and excellence in legal education is not obvious. In my view, MoneyLaw would be better served by more suggestions on how to make law schools better.