Friday, August 21, 2009

Ambition and Rankings: "We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us"

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I was reading the Wall Street Journal's Weekend Journal this morning, and the De Gustibus columnist, Eric Felten, waxes on about the USNWR ranking of universities and liberal arts colleges.  I was struck by this observation early on:  "However predictable the listing has become, and however arbitrary the methodology, U.S. News remains the standard arbiter of such things as whether Cornell is more prestigious than Johns Hopkins. (Last year it was Cornell, but this year it's Johns Hopkins, which slipped ahead to grab the coveted #14 slot.)  No one takes such distinctions seriously—like an 89.7-point wine rating, college rankings are a vain attempt to give clear-cut answers to subjective questions."

The second part of this sentence is so obviously true, and the first part is so obviously false, at least in the world of lawyers and law schools, it gave me pause to reflect.  Felten's take is that the rankings are really about getting ahead, and what going to Harvard or Princeton means if you want to end up writing comedy scripts in Hollywood or doing buy-out deals on Wall Street.  I was prepared to mock this, but on further review, maybe there's something to it.

We had our "welcome back" faculty luncheon yesterday, and somehow I got on the subject of ambition with a colleague who is a career-long (and very successful) academic.  This was to the effect (as to me) that you can take the boy out of the Type-A environment, but you can't take the Type-A out of the boy.   That is, if I were the same chronological age as my faculty peers - at least in chronological seniority - being ambitious Images might well be the usual hallmark of starting a career, establishing one's place in the world, developing prestige and reputation, getting tenure, saving for the kids' college education, etc. - and thus not particularly remarkable.  So when one is in one's second or third career, what does it mean to be ambitious?  

Yes, I think the rankings do have something to do with our subjective views of getting ahead, and I do think there's something about the legal profession that makes OUR rankings so powerful.  I used the phrase "progressing up the food chain" with my colleague, and in what industries or professions is the food chain as quantitative as the legal profession?  I can still remember my first introduction to the National Law Journal Law Firm 100, sitting there in 1977 as a clueless 2L in an interview room at Stanford with a partner from Kelley, Drye & Warren telling me that this was "need-to-know" stuff as I was thinking about my career. 

Here's my thesis.  Felten is right in saying that nobody takes undergraduate rankings seriously because the relationship between getting ahead and one's undergraduate degree is fairly attenuated, except in rare cases.  That appears to be the case, generally, with med schools as well.  Our son just started med school at what would be considered an elite school, but the universal reaction among doctors was that where one went to med school simply didn't make a difference (one's residency may be a different matter).  Business schools have their rankings, but MBAs and the companies who hire them don't seem quite as pathological as we do. There are thousands of undergraduate universities and colleges, and, for the latter, ranking is a mere bagatelle. 

My observation, however, over 30 years of a career, is there's a lot of self-selection in the process of becoming a lawyer, and even more in becoming a big law firm lawyer or a law professor.  I suspect the first element of that self-selection is a particular orientation to progressing up the food chain (says one who knows).  There ain't that much to distinguish us; for all that we are white, black, Asian, Muslim, Jewish, whatever, we aren't all that diverse when we get too far below the derma.  (I remember that being my instant reaction upon walking into the room at the first law firm partners meeting I attended after returning from five years in the business world.)  There are only dozens and not thousands of law schools.  Law firms (and even, I think, government agencies employing lawyers), at least compared to all forms of business organization, are relatively uniform in organizational structure.  In other words, it's easy to see a well-defined food chain in the relatively small, homogeneous, and closed legal community.  

Hence, as I was saying to my friend and colleague, having returned from our summer in Michigan, where I was productive in the way law professors should be productive over the summer, albeit in our lovely house in our lovely resort town, returning to my responsibilities over the academic year in a city (Boston) in which many would give their eyeteeth to live and work, doing a job (teaching) I love to do, and concluding that this particular life was (or should be) idyllic; nevertheless, I find myself having to confront from time to time my own visceral reactions to the food chain - that is, higher (whatever that means) is better than lower.  And why, at my age and status in life, should I care?  In the words of Pogo, perhaps "we have met the enemy and he is us."*

* Ten bonus points if you know why the picture is relevant.

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