Saturday, March 3, 2012

Are you in the “Top 14”?

Sorry, number fifteen.
Reading about the legal “academy” is pretty fun (unless you’re a recent J.D. grad who is still fuming over your high student debt load and your poor job prospects).  One of the things I’ve always chuckled at is their reference to the “Top 14” law schools.  The schools (and graduates of the schools) that fall just inside of this cutoff like to refer to it, because it’s better to be in the “Top 14” than the “Top 15" (sorry, UCLA).  And of course, those outside of it like to refer to the “Top 20,” or even the “Top 25.”  (Anything beyond that is sacrilegious in the academy; sorry, Boston College.)  And for some purposes (e.g., landing a federal clerkship) the more meaningful cutoff is probably the “Top 5” or maybe the “Top 10.”  But where does the “Top 14”—mathematically an even number, but rather odd for ranking purposes—come from?

PaulCampos explains, as he admires

. . . the sheer absurdity of the situation: the surviving rump of an otherwise defunct news magazine [US News & World Report] has somehow managed to call the tune to which all law schools dance, because prospective law students are obsessed with these rankings.  (The total emptiness of the rankings as an actual measurement of anything other than their completely self-referential circularity is illustrated by the fact that the same 14 schools -- out of 200! -- have remained in the "top 14" since the beginning of this imbecilic system more than 20 years ago).

Why does all this matter?  Law is a status-obsessed profession, and it becomes ever-more status-obsessed the higher one gets in the legal hierarchy. It's no longer possible to get on the Supreme Court without having attended . . . Harvard or Yale.  . . . It's extremely difficult to even become a legal academic if one went to a law school below what the rump wing of a bankrupt news magazine has declared to be the 98th percentile of legal academia.

The US News & World Report rankings, in turn, have been blamed (rightly or wrongly) for causing nearly all of today’s problems with legal education.  But who is really to blame?  The US News rankings?  The students who worship them?  The law schools that play along with it all?  The law schools that admit to providing false data to move up the US News rankings?  Or, "it is what it is," and no one or thing is to blame?  All good questions.

You can read more from Paul Campos, a law school professor who broke ranks and founded the Inside the Law School Scam blog.  (I’m sure Paul is quite popular among his peers in the academy, not to mention is employer.)

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