Do the Rankings 'Punish' Law Schools?

A new study argues that the rankings have the power to discipline and punish law schools.


Do the U.S. News & World Report Law School rankings punish and discipline law schools? Yes, according the article "The Discipline of Rankings: Tight Coupling and Organizational Change" in the February 2009 American Sociological Review by professors Michael Sauder of the University of Iowa and Wendy Nelson Espeland of Northwestern University.

The authors say, "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." Sauder and Espeland argue that examining educational rankings in the context of disciplinary power provides an explanation for the effect that the U.S. News & World Report rankings have on law schools. The result, they assert, is a situation perfectly suited for generating anxiety, uncertainty, meticulous monitoring, and discipline.

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. Sauder says, "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."

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 is always willing to work with law school deans and other legal educators to improve the rankings. In fact, U.S. News has outstanding offers to such groups as the Association of American Law Schools, National Association of Law Placement, Law School Admission Council, and the American Bar Association to meet to discuss their views on the rankings and suggestions they have to improve them.