The new arms race for USNWR law specialty rankings

The USNWR law “specialty” rankings long operated this way: schools would identify one faculty member whose specialty matched one of the various USNWR specialty categories (legal writing, trail advocacy, tax, etc.). USNWR would send a survey to those faculty asking them to list up to 15 of the top schools in those areas. USNWR would then take the top half of those schools who received a critical mass of votes, and rank them based upon who received the most votes—just ordinal rank with no total votes listed. For many specialty areas, that meant 10 to 20 schools. And for the other 180 to 190 schools, that meant blissful ignorance.

USNWR changed that methodology this year in a couple of ways. First, its survey asks voters to rank every school on the basis of this specialty on a scale of 1 to 5, similar to how the peer reputation survey works. Second, it ranks all the schools that received a critical mass of votes (i.e., about 10 votes—and most law professors are not shy about rating most schools). Third, it now lists that reputation score, ties and all.

The result is that almost all schools are ranked in almost all categories. And now your school might be 33d or 107th or 56th or something in a category.

The result in some categories is comical compression in some categories. A score of 2.0 (out of 5) gets you 91st in International Law, and a score of 1.0 (the bottom) gets you to 177th. Ties are abundant—after all, there are usually at least 180 schools ranked, and given that the scale is from 5.0 to 1.0, and that virtually all schools are in the 4.0 to 1.0 range, there are going to be a lot of ties.

Worse, now schools can advertise their top X program, when X in the past typically wouldn’t drop past 10 to 20. Now, top 30, top 50, top 100 all earn bragging rights.

So now there’s a new arms race. Schools know exactly where they sit in this year’s survey, how tantalizing close the next tranche of the ratings are (because of the ties), how much higher that ranking is (again, because of the ties), and the temptation to pepper prospective voters with more marketing materials in the ever-escalating race to climb the ranks of a new set of specialty rankings. In the past, it was blissful ignorance for those below 20th. Today, it’s all laid bare.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe schools will mostly ignore the change to the specialty rankings. The compression and ties alone should cause most ot ignore them. But, I doubt it. The allure of rankings and the temptation of marketing departments to boast to prospective students and alumni about some figure (especially if that figure is higher than the overall USNWR rank) will, I think, overwhelm cooler heads.