NYSBA Announcement on US News Decision to “Rate” (Not Rank) Law Firms

New York State Bar Association President Stephen P. Younger (Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP) sent this message today to the group’s members:

As many of you know, U.S. News and World Report announced earlier this year that, working with Best Lawyers, it was going to publish this fall a ranking of law firms, both on a national and local level. The New York State Bar Association believed that this had the potential to be harmful to many lawyers and law firms, and questioned whether it was possible to conclude that any lawyer or firm was better than another. In February, we brought this matter to the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates and submitted a resolution calling for a study by the ABA, looking into the question of "whether a statistically significant sampling will be used to support fine distinctions between the ability of one law firm in a particular community when compared to another." After a vigorous debate, a resolution supporting a study was adopted, and the ABA has begun that effort. This resolution received significant publicity, both in newspapers and journals of general circulation and in legal publications.

On June 25, U.S. News announced that it would not rank law firms. Instead, it would rate firms, which should avoid some of our most significant concerns. Its announcement said: "Because firms were often separated by small or insignificant differences in the overall score, the Best Law Firms rankings will be published alphabetically within tiers rather than as a numerical ranking." This is the exact argument we made when we presented our resolution to the ABA.

Placing firms in tiers lessens somewhat the vast oversimplification inherent in representing that the quality of law firms can be measured in a rank, numerical order. Furthermore, using tiers rather than numerical ranking lessens the unfairness and inaccuracy of representing that a law firm is number one in a metropolitan area when, in fact, in all likelihood there are several firms of equal quality.

This is a very positive development. The State Bar Association will continue to follow this matter to best assure that the concept of the ranking of law firms does not become a reality.

It strikes me that if the ABA really wanted to help improve legal education, it would do everything in its power to pressure US News to end its flawed law school rankings (soundly criticized by Brian Leiter, for example, here).  Many of the same problems that Mr. Younger identifies with law firm rankings apply to law schools, too.  "Small or insignificant differences in the overall score," "vast oversimplification," "unfairness and inaccuracy"?  That sounds familiar.

Why might bar associations be complacent about law school rankings but mobilized in opposing law firm rankings?  Here are three possible explanations.  

  • First, bar associations are made up of practicing lawyers, for the most part.  Practicing lawyers are the ones who will "win" or "lose" financially if US News ranks law firms.  For ego purposes, a practicing lawyer may be pleased if his or her alma mater receives a high law school ranking, or dismayed if it doesn’t, but for lawyers who have already been practicing for several years, fluctuations in law schools don’t impact their wallets in an immediate, measurable way.  Plus, most law schools are not profit-seeking institutions, so law school rankings may be perceived to do less financial "harm" to any one identifiable person’s livelihood. 
  • Second, practicing lawyers in leadership positions of bar associations likely went to law school before the US News rankings era, so they don’t understand how much the rankings have influenced legal education for the worse.
  • Third, practicing lawyers — regardless of experience level — already know where their law schools rank in the pecking order.  For those lawyers to whom those sorts of things are important, they have had time to integrate the ranking information into their professional and personal gestalt.  But ranking law firms is a scary unknown.  It might be that the pecking order — as determined by US News — wouldn’t square with lawyers’ view of themselves, their practices or their advertising.  When I worked at a large law firm, one of the supervising partners told me that the American Lawyer‘s publication of  profits-per-partner did more to change the legal profession in the last 25 years than any other factor.  The change was not salutary, in this partner’s view; it led to more cold-blooded business decisions in law firms and greater dissatisfaction among lawyers.  Ranking law firms likely would have a similar impact.

If the ABA, NYSBA and other bar associations wanted to pressure US News to end its ranking of law schools, they could.  In my opinion, members of those associations don’t have enough of a financial or personal stake in law school rankings to spur them to act for the common benefit of the legal profession.

-Bridget Crawford 

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3 Responses to NYSBA Announcement on US News Decision to “Rate” (Not Rank) Law Firms

  1. JohnSteele says:

    Here’s another possible explanation. (I’m not defending the USN&WR rankings, but rather explaining.)

    Law school rankings are important for what they do more than what they say. That is, they set up a ranking system for applicants, students, transfer, and law firms to use as a proxy for student quality and desirability. When a law firm goes to hire, they generally hire at (1) local law schools; (2) schools where their partners attended; and (3) the highest ranked schools at which they can succeed in recruiting. So, the rankings it much easier for firms to make complicated recruiting decisions in the absence of deep, meaningful data. Hence law firms benefit from school rankings (while professors don’t) and most firms would not benefit from firm rankings.

  2. Bridget Crawford says:

    I think you make a good point — that law firms benefit from the proxy function of law school rankings.

    Thinking about the proxy function of rankings a bit more, how might that argument extend to the law firm context? My guess is that prospective clients might use law firm rankings as a proxy for lawyer quality and desirability, too. But consumers of legal services are such a disparate group that they could and would not likely bring enough pressure to bear on, say US News, to rank the firms in face of opposition from bar associations.

    This points toward the need for law schools themselves to organize if they don’t “like” the rankings. But organization has been notoriously difficult. Indeed for all the talk of the intellectual bankruptcy of the rankings, and calls for boycotts, elite and non-elite schools (my home institution included) continue to participate in them.

  3. ChrisZ says:

    I’m not convinced that tiers do a better job than pure rankings. Comparing things as complex as law firms or schools along a one-dimensional measure has inherent problems, but whether you express that comparison as a more continuous spectrum or break it up into chunks just changes how those problems manifest. A continuous ranking may give the impression of more distinction that actually exists between very close schools throughout, but tiers creates a much larger arbitrary distinction between schools at the high end of one tier and the low end of the one above. Effectively, tiers bundle up the problems created by the one-dimensional ranking and dump them on a few firms or schools, while rankings spread them out.

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