February 10, 2010
ABA Concerned With US News Ranking Law Firms
The National Law Journal web site features an article that details the American Bar Association's reaction to U.S. News and World Report's decision to rank law firms. The ABA doesn't like it. No sir, they don't like it at all. The House of Delegates approved a resolution at the current mid-year meeting to "examine efforts to publish a national, state, territorial and local ranking of law firms and law schools." Now that the magazine has decided to rank law firms, the ABA is just noticing law school rankings? And that law schools have chaffed over the magazine's power to slot them in tiers? I'm reminded of the scene in Blazing Saddles where Mel Brooks as Governor William J. Le Petomane and his cabinet are informed that the town of Rock Ridge is in danger. As the governor urges action he says, "We've gotta protect our phoney baloney jobs, gentlemen!" It's not that the ABA shouldn't have concerns about the methodology U.S. News would employ for ranking firms. It's that law school deans have blasted the law school methodology for years and no one from the ABA ever expressed anything but a passing interest. I supposed it matters who is being scrutinized (should that be spelled with a "w") before all the harrumphing begins.
Note that the American Lawyer and other pop legal news magazines have ranked firms annually in by billing, size and other statistical factors. This apparently never posed a problem, if for no other reason that these magazines are read mostly by legal professionals. Now that a general audience magazine with apparent expertise in rankings is getting in the game there may be problems. The most significant of these to the ABA is not controlling the context or the outcome of the rankings. I think the ABA will find itself facing the same problems as the schools. If academics refuse to answer the survey questions, U.S. News simply uses the best available information or estimates to rank schools. The magazine can do the same thing with firms. As firm rankings take hold, would it be possible that firms will manipulate statistics to game it's place in the rankings? That's how law schools react. See the LLB post New Study Examines How Law Schools "Adapt" to U.S News Rankings for more details on specific practices.
The NLJ article quotes Brian Leiter as saying "Unfortunately, a mere investigation won't do much. Everyone with any knowledge of education or statistics or survey methods who has examined the U.S. News rankings has come to the same conclusion: They are irresponsible, misleading and provide consumer misinformation. This has had little or no impact on the irresponsible practices of U.S. News." I don't disagree with him at all. But I do see a problem in the ABA response when it seems driven only by how rankings affect its membership. It's as if the only ABA contact with law schools is that seven year visit. After that, everyone is on their own. My prediction: firms in the top tier will like their position and will promote it in advertising and recruitment of clients. The rest will complain that the rankings are unfair. Have we ever heard this before? The NLJ article is here. [MG]