A WSJ Ranking of Law Schools Would Improve Legal Education

The Wall Street Journal in partnership with the Times Educational Supplement has just released a ranking of colleges. It provides a useful corrective to the more famous rankings by U.S. News and World Report, because it focuses more on the student outputs rather than inputs. That is, while U.S. News heavily weights the credentials of incoming students, such as the SAT scores and high school grades, the Wall Street Journal weights the outputs, like student satisfaction and salaries earned at graduation. This ranking system also appears to take a more quantitative approach to the quality of the faculty, relying less on reputation and more on actual research output.

It would be hugely beneficial for legal education, if this consortium were to undertake similar rankings of law schools. It would undermine the unhealthy power of US News’ ranking of law schools, which, as with colleges, focuses more on student inputs than outputs. For instance, US News’ only reliable student output measures are bar passage rates and employment statistics. These are blunt measures: a job paying $40,000 counts as much as one paying five times much. In any event, they count for only a relatively small part of the total ranking.

It is true that US News also assesses the reputation of the school among judges and practitioners, but that reputation at least partially reflects their views of law schools at the time they were students with the result that there is only glacial change over time.  And the reputation of faculty as determined by law professors  is similarly backward looking and difficult to change.

As a result, law school deans are more obsessed with student inputs than outputs as the key to improving their US News ranking, even though it is outputs that count for students and it is outputs that educational institutions are in the business of improving. Moreover, the lack of competition among ranking institutions contributes to the homogeneity of law schools, as they all compete on similar dimensions.  But in a profession as variegated as law, law schools should be more heterogeneous in structure and objectives.  For instance, in some law schools, faculty would do well to focus only on teaching, whatever the effects on scholarly reputation, thus delivering a less expensive product tailored at improving student skills.

The Wall Street Journal’s more quantitative measure of faculty quality would also make the rankings less ideologically biased. For instance, the Antonin Scalia Law School (formerly George Mason) is currently ranked 21 in citations in the legal literature to its faculty, but its reputation is only 51st in the US News peer reputation survey.  One obvious reason for the disparity is that law professors lean overwhelmingly the left, but the George Mason faculty as a whole is on the right. More subtle effects of this ideological bias throughout likely course through the rankings, penalizing faculties that are more conservative or libertarian than the very left-liberal average.