Law Schools

Jockeying for position by law schools predated US News rankings; long-standing elite identified

  • Print.

U.S. News & World Report started ranking law schools 25 years ago, but the publication did little to change the law school hierarchy, according to an article by three law professors.

Little movement has occurred between segments of the hierarchy since the 1920s, according to the article to be published by the Indiana Law Journal. “Moreover, while the U.S. News rankings have brought the competition among schools for places within the hierarchy more into the open, the competition—including aspects similar to those decried today—long predates the rankings,” the article says.

Calls for law schools to decline to participate in the U.S. News rankings are based on the false premise that eliminating the ranking will end the schools’ quest for status, the authors conclude.

The National Law Journal (reg. req.) notes the article, available on SSRN, by law professors William Henderson of Indiana University, Olufunmilayo Arewa of the University of California at Irvine, and Andrew Morriss of the University of Alabama.

The authors developed a list of longtime elite law schools looking at 16 factors, including resources, judicial citation to scholarship, AALS membership, faculty hiring, earlier rankings attempts, and law-firm partner statistics.

Their “established elite” list includes many schools listed as the best in a 1928 report, and it includes the schools that supplied a majority of U.S. Supreme Court clerks across time: California at Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, Michigan, NYU, Pennsylvania, Stanford, Virginia and Yale.

Their “rising elite” names schools that improved their status beginning in the 1940s through the 1960s: Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Minnesota, Northwestern, Texas, UCLA and USC.

While 25 years of U.S. News rankings have not fundamentally changed the law school hierarchy, they have changed the internal operations of law schools trying to manipulate the rankings, the authors argue. They call for more stringent regulation of questionable practices by law schools, and more flexible regulation of law schools to encourage innovation.

The article surveys the history of law schools to show how some emerged as elite, how their teaching methods became standardized and how tuition became higher.

Until the early 20th century, law schools emphasized practical training and focused on training lawyers for local markets. Between 1890 and 1920, the number of schools more than doubled, and the number of students increased almost five times. During this time the ABA sought to professionalize the legal industry, partly through the reform of legal education. The academic model of legal education emerged at Harvard and a few other law schools in the late 19th century. Harvard emphasized the case method, and by 1920 it became the primary method of teaching at many law schools. Law school faculties shifted from a practice-oriented to a research focus and expanded their curriculum to three years.

“Its proponents argued that the changes were necessary to improve the quality of legal education; others have less charitably characterized them as vehicles for excluding minorities, immigrants, and women from the legal profession and driving up the price of legal services by restricting competition,” the article says. “The shift was controversial from the start and is once again being challenged today.”

The ABA joined with a new group, the American Association of Law Schools, to push for improvements; schools that joined the AALS, with requirements for faculty-student ratios, were considered high-status. The hierarchy was also reflected in tuition levels. By the 1920s, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Pennsylvania were charging significantly more.

Price competition began to wane as the academic schools, using the ABA and the AALS as regulatory vehicles, had common standards imposed on all schools, the article says. As demand for legal education increased—partly because of subsidized student loans—law schools transitioned to the 20th century academic model of legal education. Scholarship became increasingly important for mobility within the hierarchy, both for law schools and professors. By the 1950s, law schools were competing for the best students through scholarships and for star faculty members.

Elite status was reinforced by the hiring patterns of elite law firms, which hired from the best-reputation law schools. The pattern persists today.

“Hiring the top 25 percent of the top 10 law schools’ classes remains a low short-term risk strategy for many legal employers—the “no one ever was fired for buying IBM” approach,” the article says. “But this is a time of considerable disruption in the legal marketplace, and not just for graduates. A potentially enormous opportunity exists for employers to cut their costs and improve their outcomes by hiring people who have skills such firms need who did not go to the top schools. …

“We believe schools that find ways to innovate and firms that are early adopters of different hiring strategies are likely to gain competitive advantages. After all, IBM ended up selling its laptop business to Lenovo.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.