Law school rankings: Important or wildly misused?

The snow has (almost) finally melted , the temperature is rising, and the clocks have been set forward. So you know what that means — time for the annual release of the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings!

The 2016 rankings were released Tuesday. Ever since US News began releasing its rankings, there has been very little change in the top 14 schools (T14 as they are often referred). Outside those schools, some celebrate their ascension in the ranks while other schools downplay the whole notion and meaning of the rankings. Other schools simply ignore the rankings all together. One school used to release its own rankings.

It is no surprise that Yale takes the top spot again, with a “tie” for the No. 2 ranking between Harvard and Stanford. The remaining schools in the T14 reflect some of the most elite and well-respected institutions in the country. Two area schools are on the list, the University of Virginia at No. 8 and Georgetown at No. 14. George Washington University slipped two spots, falling outside the top 20 with a very respectable  No. 22 ranking this year.

In more local news, the University of Maryland School of Law (my alma mater) slipped one spot to No. 47, while the University of Baltimore School of Law jumped 13 spots to No. 122. Maryland received top billing for some of its specializations and programs, ranking fifth for both clinical education and its part-time program, while the school’s health care law program was ranked second. UB was ranked as the No. 23 school for part-time legal education.

As The Daily Record noted, the deans of both of the state’s law schools downplayed the importance of the rankings. Indeed, skepticism of the rankings is widespread, with the American Bar Association not even recognizing the list.

“The validity of U.S. News’s rankings has long been a source of contention among legal educators, but few deny its influence with prospective students. And at a time when demand for law degrees is at a historic low, the pressure on law schools to place high—or at least hold steady—is arguably more intense,” The Wall Street Journal noted.

Though U.S. News describes its methodology for the rankings, I have my own doubts. The concept of “ties” in rankings floors me, for example. I also have trouble understanding how a law school that only has been in existence since 2009 and only just received its full accreditation can debut on the list at No. 30, ahead of some schools that have been engaged in legal education for more than a century. Also, the list stops assigning rankings after No. 149, leaving several schools with unpublished rankings. Doesn’t having unpublished rankings sort of defeat the whole purpose of a national list? Or is No. 149 simply the “mercy rule” line of demarcation?

Despite the widespread shadow cast upon the rankings, it is hard to discount them fully. The list is certainly considered by at least law school applicants. I know that I looked at the US News rankings when first considering and applying to law schools. Did Maryland’s ranking factor into my decision to attend? I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. Anyone who knows me can tell you how much pride I take in my alma mater. I love my school and am honored to say I am a graduate of UMD Law. And yes, the school’s ranking and national reputation is part of that pride.

So how do I feel about the rankings and Maryland’s one step slide? I’m not fazed. A numerical score cannot change the almost 200 years of rich history for excellent legal education that UMD Law has provided since it was founded in 1816. It’s no surprise that many of UMD Law alumni have gone on to hold esteemed positions government, law, and business.

So do the rankings matter? I suppose, but I suggest we all take them with a grain of salt.