Law School Rankings and the Science of Belief

“If a belief guides practical actions, it works best if it is true, but if a ‘belief’ defines a group identity then it can still work, or even work better, if it is not true.” – Neil Van Leeuwen, “The Puzzle of Belief,” Cognitive Science Vol. 47 (2023)

The comments and reactions to a recent essay, “A New Way to Rank Law Schools,” were more revealing about the nature of law school culture than I had originally assumed. I proposed that the traditional methods of assessing university law school programs are not only limited but are also misleading. I discussed a new set of filters including, first, a larger geographical ranking, followed by regional U.S. characteristics that affect legal teaching, and a “corruption” filter that assesses law schools according to their ability to resist political conflicts of interest, administrative cost escalation, and violations of neutral principles in how legal doctrine is presented to students, among other institutional factors.

I then created a new ranking of U.S. law schools that are making some progress in shortening the length of the degree (some are offering a two-year J.D. and blended synchronous–digital delivery) and using more consistent managerial methods regarding teaching standards, student trade preparation, and curriculum experimentation. Such experimentation includes mixed-degree programs in the arts and sciences, as well as applications of law in areas where programs have some natural advantage (such as the University of Montana in natural resources, the University of Illinois in engineering, the University of California, Los Angeles in media, or Texas A&M University in agriculture). One law school, St. Mary’s in San Antonio, Texas, recently became the first U.S. law school to offer a traditional, ABA-approved J.D. degree fully online in an efficient format that combines synchronous and asynchronous instruction, but that is also fully integrated with open access to all campus programs, faculty, and assets.

But something else became evident among many other law schools that have been in the shadows of the “elite” schools for decades: they seem to actually enjoy it, to prefer it, or, at least, to tolerate it. That seems counterintuitive until you start to unpack what motivations underlie many law school deans, and their larger university administration and faculty, including what conflicts of interest either keep their competitive instincts in check or purchase their obedience to the status quo: An unusual number of law school administrators graduated from Yale and Harvard Law, and this affiliation tends to overwhelm their allegiance to their own institutions.1 This helps consolidate traditional ranking hierarchy that is ordered around a small set of “elite” law schools, because elitism is believed to be a central element of prestige, and higher education markets itself on this metric, above all others.

[Related: “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Law School”]

So, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that some of the feedback I received viewed my re-ordering of the law school “caste system” as heretical, irreverent, or just plain incongruous, as it leads to a fundamental cognitive dissonance among many members of the law academy. (As one law dean put it, “If Yale or Harvard were suddenly re-ranked much lower, it couldn’t be legitimate.” He didn’t explain why.) The new ranking method that I proposed also came from “the outside.” It was not from the U.S. News & World Report, which is embedded in the legal scholar’s mind as a totem—that rank must be set on the visible altar of mainstream ritual, and that means a comforting consensus (which is also palatable to the academy’s collective political mind). It also shouldn’t be surprising to see some resistance to a belief system about law rankings, because the entire intellectual realm of law itself is organized into beliefs.2

There was something else that caught my attention, which I didn’t explicitly consider before: the entire U.S. legal academy, and not just its administration, is effectively “infiltrated” by law professors who either attended one or more of the “elite” law schools, especially Yale and Harvard, or who still aspire to have some affiliation with them as a visiting lecturer, to publish through them, or to hire their graduates so as to showcase “prestige” in their otherwise isolated regions of the country. This creates a systematic “incumbency advantage” that makes it difficult for the legal academy to switch or change its consensus viewpoints and take reputational risks by re-ordering the ranking hierarchy. In business it used to be said that “nobody gets fired for hiring IBM.” Law schools, likewise, are corporations—corporate culture dominates their behavior.

It is quite startling to measure the number of law school deans and professors who went to Yale, for example.3 The deans, especially, reinforce solidarity with their legal alma mater. And if it isn’t Yale Law, then the other “elite” schools are often compared to them. Unfortunately, a reverential obedience to cultural consensus is precisely what the modern law academy transmits to each and every new cohort that comes through its doors—while often filling the young law school student’s mind with an effective ideological nihilism concerning American law, the Constitution, or any social practices and preferences that it considers a source of social injustice, including law and order.

Yale and Harvard cast a long shadow across America (the Coasian “smokestack” problem that I discuss here), not only among the academy but also in popular culture. They are a national brand mark of prestige that most institutions are desperate to claim. Like other manifestations of belief, however, they can have a deleterious influence on clear thought, and a corrupting influence on a larger American culture of mature defiance, reasoned perception, and individualism. Yale, especially, is the modern central symbol of progressive moralism that will bend with the political breeze into any shape necessary.4 This is among the reasons why Robert Bork, in his brilliant The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law, warned us of an intellectual surrender to ideological beliefs. Our elite law schools, including Berkeley, Stanford, Chicago, and NYU, are as much political operations as they are schools that transmit basic legal information.

[Related: “You Are the Constitution”]

This means that law’s most central asset—its most vital quality that reinforces its integrity as a human social system—is objectivity. And in the modern American law school that trains our future lawyers, legislators, judges, and legal administrators, the political distortions that students have often been subjected to for seven or more years in a U.S. university law program (undergrad and graduate school) make that necessary objectivity a more distant ideal. Objectivity and neutrality are not phenomena that are consonant with belief, except to the extent that belief is a principle, and not a cause.

But here is the problem: the law academy has so co-mingled and corrupted law with ideology that it is assumed that legal matters are per se political, that they cannot even be defined, framed, and resolved except through a political prism, and that politics cannot be pursued except through law.

We assume this is all OK, that it is merely the status quo, the natural way, even, by which law is reckoned. But the law school industry has gotten away with a terrible fraud, namely, that legal problems are intrinsically embedded in value philosophy. What it doesn’t want to admit, or bother to separate, is that social, political, moral, or ideological issues are indeed vital to wrestle with, but law, defined as law, is a totally separate issue.5 To act otherwise is intellectual dishonesty, and worse, intellectual corruption, especially as it influences legal pedagogy.

Law training’s highest learning objective is to promote intellectual independence, not beliefs through which law is operationalized or perpetuated.

1 See Bryant G. Garth, “Having it Both Ways. The Challenge of Legal Education Innovation and Reform at UCI and Elsewhere: Against the Grain and/or Aspiring to Be Elite,” UC Irvine Law Review 10, no. 0 (2020): 373.

2 See Gerald B. Wetlaufer, “Systems of Belief in Modern American Law: A View From Century’s End.” American University Law Review 49, no. 1 (October 1999): 49–80.

3 See Pierre Schlag, “The Empty Circles of Liberal Justification,” Michigan Law Review 96, no. 1 (1997).

4 See Neil Van Leeuwen, Kara Weisman, and Tanya Marie Luhrmann, To Believe Is Not to Think: A Cross-Cultural Finding,” Open Mind: Discoveries in Cognitive Science 5 (September 2021): 91–99.

5 “The Pure Theory of Law undertakes to delimit the cognition of law against [other] disciplines, not because it ignores or denies the connection, but because it wishes to avoid the uncritical mixture of methodologically different disciplines (methodological syncretism) which obscure the essence of the science of law and obliterates the limits imposed upon it by the nature of its subject matter.” – Hans Kelsen, Pure Theory of Law, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Matthew G. Andersson

    Matthew G. Andersson is a corporation founder and former CEO, management consultant and author of the upcoming book “Legally Blind,” concerning law education. He has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Guardian, Time Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Journal of Private Equity, the National Academy of Sciences, and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize report by the Chicago Tribune. He has been a guest on CBS, ABC, CNN, Bloomberg, Public Television, and the BBC, and received the Silver Anvil award from the Public Relations Society of America. He has testified before the U.S. Senate, and Connecticut General Assembly concerning higher education. He attended Yale College where he studied Russian language under department chairman Alexander Schenker; the University of Texas at Austin, Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the LBJ School of Public Affairs where he worked with economist and White House national security advisor W.W. Rostow. He received an MBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in Barcelona, Spain and the U.S. He is the author of a text on law and economics used at Northwestern University, DePaul University College of Law, and McGill University Faculty of Law. He has lived and worked in Russia and Eastern Europe for a Fortune 100 technology company in strategic joint ventures. He is a jet command pilot, flight instructor, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

    View all posts

3 thoughts on “Law School Rankings and the Science of Belief

  1. Rankings have always been a joke. A significant factor in engineering school rankings is the ratings by (wait for it) deans of engineering schools. Dean Smith is not going to rate engineering school run by Dean Jones poorly—despite that poor rating may be warranted—because the following year Dean Jones might reciprocate.

  2. ” the law academy has so co-mingled and corrupted law with ideology that it is assumed that legal matters are per se political, that they cannot even be defined, framed, and resolved except through a political prism, and that politics cannot be pursued except through law.”

    The only solution to this is to allow anyone to take the bar exam — to eliminate the ABA’s stranglehold on bar admission. We haven’t always had law schools, and the overwhelming majority of our Supreme Court Justices never attended one. And what’s not mentioned very often is that most law school graduates then have to take bar prep classes to actually learn what they need to know.

    Most of the existing law schools, including the first one (Tapping Reeve Law School) evolved out of students wanting to pass the bar exam (that anyone could take) and eliminating the law school prerequisite likely would lead to a new generation of innovative (and far cheaper) law schools that wouldn’t necessarily have this political bias.

    Furthermore, why can’t law be an undergraduate major like engineering or nursing? Those are licensed professions with a great deal of responsibility — people can die if they make a mistake. And how do we justify calling a law degree a doctorate — it is, at best, a masters degree. (A doctorate is at least five years, at least sixty graduate credits, and a published dissertation involving unique research…)

    Law degrees used to be LLBs — Bachelor of Laws — until the law schools just decided to start calling them doctorates in the 1960s. And in most common law countries, they *are* undergraduate degrees — and should be that here. Except that law schools are cash cows and why should universities only charge for four years of tuition when they can get away with charging for seven…

    It will be interesting to see how the declining enrollment sorts itself out, particularly after 2029 when the children not born in 2008 won’t be graduating with undergrad degrees. Some have predicted that half of American colleges will close by the end of the decade, and I suspect that will include a not insignificant number of law schools as there simply won’t be enough young people to fill all the seats.

    Notwithstanding that, I think that eliminating their monopoly on access to the bar, and the resulting competition it would create, would work wonders to address the political bias issue.

  3. ” An unusual number of law school administrators graduated from Yale and Harvard Law, and this affiliation tends to overwhelm their allegiance to their own institutions.”

    What is the median tenure of these administrators? How many of them are leaving each year to a higher position somewhere else, or to become a judge, or even a partner in a respected firm? The mean average of college presidential tenure is now down to 6.5 years, why shouldn’t we expect to see the same thing in law schools?

    Likewise with the faculty, how many of them are moving on to the bench or the cushy corner office at a firm? (And with law school enrollment only 75% of what it was a decade ago, how many are considering this out of necessity?)

    If you are not going to finish your working days at your current institution, how much loyalty do you really have to it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *