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U.S. News to Launch New Way to Rank Law Schools

Bob Morse, director of data research at U.S. News & World Report. Courtesy photo.

 

U.S. News & World Report plans to launch a new law school ranking—one that will sort schools according to the “scholarly impact” of their faculties.

The new ranking, announced Wednesday, will be separate from the closely watched “Best Law Schools” ranking, at least initially. But U.S. News’ chief data strategist Bob Morse said in an email message Thursday that the publication will “seriously consider making it a factor to measure faculty quality,” for its overall law school rankings that will come out in 2020.

To gauge the scholarly impact of each law faculty, U.S. News said it has partnered with legal periodical publisher William S. Hein & Co. Inc. to track both the number of articles faculties produce as well as the number of citations in other scholarship that professors’ work generated over a five-year period. That, in turn, is intended to measure how productive and influential law faculties are.

“Prospective law school students are looking for the highest quality law school faculty who are having an impact in legal academia and the law,” Morse said. “We believe this analysis of citations will provide students with important information to make such comparisons.”

U.S. News isn’t the first to come up with the idea of tracking the scholarly impact of law faculties. University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter pioneered the method of using citations to rank law faculties, and his work has been carried on by University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Gregory Sisk and several other co-authors. Every three years, they update their citations data to show the most cited faculties and individual scholars. (The 2018 update showed Yale Law School, Harvard Law School, and the University of Chicago to have the greatest scholarly impact.)

Sisk said on Wednesday that U.S. News’ entrance into the scholarly impact picture is evidence that citations are a useful measure of law faculty performance and law school quality. But he cautioned that many of the details of how the ranking will be compiled are unclear.

“As with any such project, the proof will be in the pudding,” Sisk said. “We may not know for a couple of years how it is coming together, how it relates to the general U.S. News ranking system, and whether the approach and results are reliable.”

Up to this point, Hein’s online database hasn’t been a useful tool for gathering data on citations because most law professors don’t have individual profiles that link back to their work on the platform. (Sisk and his colleagues use Westlaw to compile their data.) Sisk welcomed the possibility that law schools will create those individual profiles in the Hein database in response to the U.S. News scholarly impact initiative.

For now, U.S. News is asking each law school to provide a list of its full-time faculty so it may begin collecting citation data. Sisk noted that his rankings count only the citations of tenured faculty—not pre-tenure faculty or faculty without traditional scholarship expectations, such as clinical professors and legal research and writing professors. Scott Fruehwald, a former legal writing professor at Hofstra University Maurice A. Deane School of Law, took to the Legal Skills Prof Blog to condemn the decision to exclude non-tenure track faculty from the U.S. News analysis, arguing that it ignores the reality that non-tenure track faculty also produce vital scholarship.

“In sum, the devil will be in the methodological details,” Sisk said. “But an ongoing debate about methodology could be a healthy thing as well.”

It’s unclear when U.S. News’ scholarly impact ranking will be released, but it won’t be in conjunction with the upcoming Best Law Schools ranking, which typically comes out in March.

It remains to be seen if and how U.S. News would eventually incorporate its new scholarly impact research into its rankings. It’s possible that it could use the scholarly impact ranking to reduce its reliance on the peer reviews—which are surveys sent out annually to deans, administrators and recently tenured faculty, as well as lawyers and judges. Those assessments currently count for 40 percent of a school’s score in the rankings. Shifting some of that peer assessment over to the scholarly impact ranking would presumably add a more objective measure to criteria that are now wholly subjective.

Pepperdine University Law Dean Paul Caron, who closely follows the U.S. News rankings on his TaxProf Blog, said Thursday that he thinks the publication’s push to evaluate the scholarly impact of law faculties is a positive development. Tracking citations isn’t a perfect method, but it’s the best objective way to measure legal scholarship, he said.

“The simple fact is that law schools vigorously compete to hire the best faculty, and research is far and away the most important determinant,” Caron said. “Prospective law students properly care very much about a law school's reputation, so it make sense for U.S. News to rank law schools on this objective measure.”