Fear of Falling: The Effects of U.S. News & World Report Rankings on U.S. Law Schools (GR-07-02)
Michael Sauder, University of Iowa
Wendy Espeland, Northwestern University

Executive Summary

Law school rankings have received much attention in the world of legal education, but to date there has been little systematic empirical study of their effects. The goal of this study is to begin to redress this absence by developing a more precise understanding of the effects that law school rankings have had on legal education. To this end, we examine how rankings transform activities and work within law schools, how rankings influence external audiences’ perceptions of the legal education field and to what effect, and which characteristics help explain variations in the effects of rankings. We also discuss how distinctive these effects are to legal education.

Data and Methods

The primary source of data for this study was 140 in-depth, open-ended interviews with law school administrators, faculty, and staff. These interviews, conducted both in person and over the telephone, averaged 45 minutes in length and centered on how rankings have affected legal education. Other data sources were also incorporated: Data were collected and analyzed for a quantitative study of the effects that the U.S. News & World Report (USN) rankings have on prospective law students; 17 short interviews were conducted with law school admissions personnel as well as 93 brief interviews with prospective law students; organizational material produced by law schools and public information concerning law schools were analyzed, including school web sites, public Internet chat rooms, advertising material, and media accounts; and 30 in-depth interviews were conducted with business school administrators to provide comparative information.

General Effects

Redistribution of Resources and Gaming Strategies

One general effect of the USN rankings on law schools is that it has created pressure on law school administrators to redistribute resources in ways that maximize their scores on the criteria used by USN to create the rankings, even if they are skeptical that this is a productive use of these resources. This redistribution is illustrated by two examples mentioned consistently by the administrators interviewed: (a) increases in marketing expenditures aimed toward raising reputation scores in the USN survey and (b) increases in merit scholarships intended to improve the statistical profile of incoming classes. A more subtle form of resource redistribution is also described in this section: the adoption of strategies by some schools to “game” the rankings.

Transformations of Authority Relationships

A second category of effects is the transformation of authority relationships within law schools. One manifestation of this change is that the rankings create a new avenue through which internal and external constituents can question decisions made by the administration and attempt to influence future decisions. This new form of accountability, although providing some informational benefits to these audiences, has also diminished the autonomy of administrators and the value of the expertise upon which this authority is based. In addition, it has required administrators to reallocate their own time and energies in order to develop defenses and explanations of their school’s position in the rankings. A second manifestation of these changes in authority relationships is the effects of the rankings on the work of administrators and faculty within the law school. Job requirements of positions within the law school, especially for those in career services and admissions, now emphasize the management of rankings, while tending to lessen the importance of other forms of expertise previously associated with these jobs.

Consequences for School and Individual Identity

A third category of effects addressed in this report is the influence that rankings have on the identities of schools and their members. Although less tangible than other categories of effects, administrators consistently called attention to these consequences of the rankings. Two examples most often discussed by administrators are highlighted: (a) the weakening of control that schools have over their own reputations because of the rankings and (b) the psychological effect of rankings, most notably the demoralization experienced by those associated with schools that drop in the ranking.

Effects on External Constituents

This research indicates that a powerful mechanism for explaining the influence of rankings on legal education is that administrators perceive that the behavior of influential external audiences is affected by the USN ranking of their law schools. This goes a long way toward explaining why, despite the disdain that many administrators have for the rankings, they expend the energy and resources to improve the rank of their school. In this section, we present administrators’ views about the effects of rankings on external audiences. Then, focusing on the most influential of these audiences, prospective students, we offer evidence from other data sources to corroborate the perceptions of administrators. Most tellingly, a quantitative study of the effects of school rank on total applications received, total applications received from elite students, and matriculation rates shows that the rankings have a significant effect on the decisions of prospective students. The effects that rankings have on other external audiences—including employers, alumni, and university administrators—are also discussed.

The Case of Business Schools

A more restricted study of business school rankings and their effects was conducted in order (a) to assess the generalizability of the effects of rankings on law schools, and (b) to determine how different types of rankings might produce variations in effects for different fields of education. Business schools experience many of the same effects as law schools as they respond to the pressures created by the rankings. They also report, for example, redistributing resources, the existence of gaming strategies, and, to some degree, a loss of autonomy. The existence of multiple rankings for the field of business education, however, weakens some of the most common negative effects reported by law school administrators. The ambiguity created by these multiple rankings, according to business school deans, decreases the impact of small changes in rank, allows a greater degree of control over reputation, and, to some extent, increases skepticism about the validity of the rankings among external audiences.


USN rankings have changed the status system of legal education in the United States. By imposing a standard metric on all law schools, rankings establish a precise, hierarchical relationship for each school in which status is strictly defined relative to every other school. In shaping the stratification of legal education, rankings affect all schools. As the summary above suggests, the effects of rankings are wide ranging. Rankings create incentives and generate pressure on schools to boost their standing, they influence the distribution of resources—such as time, money and attention—within law schools, and they have become a routine consideration in decision making. Rankings have also influenced admissions and placement policies and have altered authority relationships, including the terms under which administrators are held accountable by external audiences. Moreover, rankings shape how members of the law school community interpret their own and others’ status, and they influence members’ identification with their schools.

While the effects of rankings are broad, they are not the same for all schools or for all units of schools. A number of factors may influence the effect of rankings, including whether a school’s ranking places them on the cusp between two tiers, their general position in the rankings, their ranking trajectory, their geographic location and its competitive environment, and their mission. Within law schools, the units that typically experience the most pressure as a result of rankings include the dean’s office, admissions, and career services. Most administrators believe that the effects of rankings are largely harmful to legal education, but there is also a minority view that sees the incentives created by rankings as improving the performance of law schools and providing useful information to external constituents. More empirical research is needed to develop or revise the findings of this research, especially to further specify variation in effects or rankings.

Fear of Falling: The Effects of U.S. News & World Report Rankings on U.S. Law Schools (GR-07-02)

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