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Rankings to Get ABA Review

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A. Vincent Buzard
Photo by Jensen Larson

The ABA will study how a variety of organizations rank law firms and law schools, though debate on the measure in its House of Delegates proved to be the most contentious of any of the resolutions considered.

Recommendation 10A, passed by a narrow voice vote, was prompted by a forthcoming ranking of law firms nationwide by U.S. News & World Report, conducted in conjunction with its Best Lawyers survey of law firms. The rankings are to be published in October.

The magazine has long ranked law schools, which has vexed many deans nationwide. The ABA Journal reported on the controversy in “The Rankings Czar,” April 2008. Wording of the recommendation was expanded in the hours before the House met to include law school rankings and to strike any direct references to U.S. News.

On the House floor, most of the resolution—asking lawyers to consider whether such rankings promote diversity, pro bono activities and other “core values” of the profession—was stripped away by a vote of 203-183.

The House narrowly defeated, 209-190, a motion to indefinitely postpone the measure so that the ABA’s Ethics 20/20 Commission may study lawyer rankings.


In a report accompanying the resolution, its sponsor, the New York State Bar Association, said, “We know based upon the experience of the U.S. News … ranking of law schools that there will be significant issues regarding the validity of the rankings.”

A federal Government Accountability Office study found that U.S. News’ widely read rankings of law schools are a factor in driving up the cost of legal education, with schools spending more in pursuit of higher rankings, the New York bar’s report said.

In a blog post, Bob Morse, U.S. News director of data research, wrote, “U.S. News and Best Lawyers welcome the opportunity to discuss both our law school and law firm rankings with the ABA,” noting the magazine’s “long-standing offer, which has never been acted upon,” to meet with the ABA.

The ABA report said the association should study whether “law firms will be induced to change their methods of operations and drive up the cost of legal services to the public in the same way that the cost of legal education has been distorted.”

A survey of clients will be one component of the rankings methodology. Lawyer disclosure of client names may constitute an ethics violation in some circumstances, the report claimed.

ABA President Carolyn B. Lamm urged the House to table the measure, saying it may violate the First Amendment and laws against restraint of trade. “If we pass something that is legally incorrect, we will all be exposed. This is a matter for the press,” she said, “and I’m sure they won’t let it lie if the ABA takes a legally incorrect position.

“Just because you’re irritated about what some new ratings agency should do, that doesn’t mean we should dash off and take a position,” added Lamm, a partner at White & Case in Washington, D.C.

But the position of A. Vincent Buzard, a past president of the New York State Bar Association and a partner at Harris Beach in Rochester, carried the day. If the ethics commission plans to review rankings, he said, “what’s the harm in passing the resolution? Let’s just get it done.”

Lamm said after the resolution passed that she would ask the ABA’s Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar to examine school rankings, and the Ethics 20/20 Commission to review firm rankings.

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