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Law School Rankings: How Much do They Really Matter?

posted by Mitu Gulati

I've long assumed that law school rankings are very important to law student choices regarding where to attend school. After all, why else would law schools themselves care so much about the rankings -- sometimes even hiring and firing deans based on this single variable (my assumption here is the most in the academy don't see there to be much of substance in the rankings -- but I may be wrong).

A wonderful new study from Albert Yoon and Jesse Rothstein, "Choice as Revelation" two of my favorite empiricists in the academy (I loved their prior paper about mismatch), challenges the conventional wisdom.  As I understand the core finding, students don't attach much difference to small differences in rankings. They care about other things in these choices among close competitors.  Strikes me that this is an important finding.

This is not to say that students don't care at all about rankings; they do -- especially at the very top (Harvard, Stanford, Yale).  After that though, not so much.  

The abstract reads:

Education is a credence good. While the virtues of education are widely embraced, its qualities are difficult to discern, even among its consumers. The sizeable and increasing cost of tuition – as in the case of U.S. law schools – only add to the stakes. In response, law school rankings have emerged, with the purported goal to help students make more informed choices. While these rankings have generated both interest and debate, an important question has remained unanswered: how do prospective law students perceive these schools? Drawing upon data provided by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), we analyze the universe of law school applications for the period 1989 through 2017, creating a revealed preference ranking of law schools based solely on where applicants choose to matriculate given their offers of admission. We find that applicants strongly prefer Yale, Stanford, and Harvard, and to a lesser extent other schools in the top 20, but do not draw such sharp distinctions outside of these schools. For all but the very top schools, we cannot rule out that schools adjacent in the rankings are equally preferred by admitted students. We also separately analyze the application, admission, and matriculation stages of the law school matching process. Applicants apply broadly, we find, but that admissions and matriculation decisions hew closely to academic indicators. Our revealed preference rankings are similar those of the U.S. News law rankings at the top but bear little resemblance for the remaining schools. Our rankings offer a compelling alternative to commercial rankings, which are opaque and highly manipulatable. Our analyses also highlight the limitations of ordinal rankings, which by themselves can suggest meaningful differences amongst alternatives where they do not exist.

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