Rankings shmankings

Yesterday, in a surprisingly touching ceremony, my Columbia Law School basketball jersey was "retired." Backstory: For the last seven years, Columbia and NYU law schools have had an annual basketball game between student teams to raise money for public interest law, with a 10-minute faculty game at halftime; I've played in each of these games, earning a kind of incredibly minor celebrity status as a result (as documented, for example, here); last week, I played in my last such game, both because of my impending move to Cornell and the nagging injuries that go with my advanced age (even older than Robert Parish when he retired). Today, a colleague of mine noted that I'm probably the only member of an American law school faculty to have his basketball jersey retired.

If so, that's because of the ridiculousness of the category. Which brings us, once again, to the topic of law school rankings. No doubt, every law school dean could find some set of criteria by which to measure educational quality such that her school comes out on top: most vending machine soft drink options per student; most comfortable library chairs; highest Wisconsin bar passage rate among students whose first names begin with the letter Q; etc.

Or, to take a real example, consider the report released yesterday by the National Law Journal, which ranks law schools according to the percentage of graduates who become first-year associates at the NLJ's top-250 firms. My current employer, Columbia Law School, comes in number 1 on the list (for the second year in a row), and my future employer, Cornell Law School, comes in number 6 on the list, just ahead of my alma mater, Harvard Law School, at number 7. Although the appearance of a school on the top 20 or top 30 of the list may have some relevance to a prospective student, the relative rankings are, or at least should be, meaningless.

Consider that Yale Law School ranks number 19, just behind Boston University Law School and just ahead of Boston College Law School. Nobody in her right mind would think that going to BU, Columbia, Cornell, or any of the other schools ranked ahead of Yale on this list would make it more likely that she could land a top firm job right out of law school if that's what she wants to do. The reason that Yale does poorly on the NLJ list relative to the other excellent schools is that a much higher percentage of Yale grads CHOOSE to do other other things right after graduation, such as judicial clerkships, government jobs and in some cases, academia.

This is all so blindingly obvious to anybody with any familiarity with the market for recent law school grads, that it's hard to believe that it wasn't also obvious to the National Law Journal. But insofar as the point of the NLJ rankings was to sell magazines (or drive traffic to its website), I suppose it has succeeded, and my posting of the link above only helps the NLJ. What those of us who have been criticizing the US News rankings for many years didn't realize was that it's possible for a nationally known publication to try to displace US News with an even worse ranking system.

Posted by Mike Dorf