Thursday, February 12, 2009

Rankings and discipline: A two-part MoneyLaw series

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

Do the U.S. News & World Report rankings hurt law schools? Yes, according to Michael Sauder and Wendy Nelson Espeland, The Discipline of Rankings: Tight Coupling and Organizational Change, American Sociological Review (February 2009):
Using a case study of law schools, we explain why rankings have permeated law schools so extensively and why these organizations have been unable to buffer these institutional pressures. * * * Rankings create a benchmark for excellence in legal education from which to evaluate how each school measures up. This arbitrary yardstick imposes a metric of comparison that obscures the different purposes law schools serve and generates enormous pressure to improve ranking statistics.
U.S. News has agreed as much. Bob Morse of U.S. News doesn't contest Sauder and Espeland's conclusions: "Sauder and Espeland found that the vast majority of law schools have implemented policies to manage their positions in the rankings. They contend that in the face of intense competition with other schools, many law schools devote extensive resources to manipulating rankings, spending heavily to maintain their rank."

In the face of legal education's constrained and declining resources, this is a terrible result.

Again, the magazine agrees:
It's inevitable that the U.S. News & World Report's Law School rankings would have an impact on law school academics and how law schools are managed, but the fact is that this effect couldn't be further from our intent. The main purpose of the rankings is to provide prospective law school students with much-needed — and clearly desired — comparative information to help them make decisions on where to apply and enroll. In today's legal job market a student's choice of law school plays a considerable role in getting that all-important first legal job. That job is particularly important since some new law school graduates have accumulated over $150,000 in debt just to get their J.D. degree and many need to start paying off their student loans.
U.S. News protests that it never meant to warp the managerial incentives of law schools and their deans, but that is precisely what that magazine's rankings have done. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

In its own defense and to its credit, U.S. News declares that it "is always willing to work with law school deans and other legal educators to improve the rankings." Very well then. In my capacity as the founder and principal writer of MoneyLaw, I'll accept Bob Morse's invitation. In the second half of this series, I will suggest a few ways to structure law school rankings so that they might provide sound rather than perverse managerial incentives.


Anonymous Matt said...

I think that further study has shown the "good intentions" theory of infernal road work to be incorrect, and that it turns out that the road to hell is in fact paved with frozen used car salesmen and TV news people.

2/13/2009 9:20 AM  

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