Hidden-In-Plain-Sight: Lessons Learned From The 2018 US News Law School Rankings

The Importance of Having A Reputation Management Strategy

The overall ranking of law schools and “who’s up and who’s down” analysis surrounding the release of the annual U.S. News Graduate School issue make all the headlines. But go a step further and law school communicators and deans can glean valuable insights from data in the 1) academic peer reputation ranking and 2) the bench and bar reputation (B&B) ranking that are literally hidden-in-plain-sight.

Since U.S. News does not compile or release both these reputational rankings publicly, Kivvit conducted an analysis of the 2018 rankings to inform communicators of potential strategies to improve their ranking in 2019. Not only is reputation a significant factor, it’s the “softer” input of all the inputs that determine where a school lands on the national list. Taken together, the two reputational assessments determine 40% of a school’s overall U.S. News score.

Kivvit’s analysis found that a law school’s standing in the national ranking is rarely the same as its ranking in both reputational categories. And this divergence begins at the very top: Yale, the nation’s top law school in this year’s ranking, is locked in a three-way tie for highest academic reputation, and drops to 3rd place when ranked by B&B reputation.

And Yale is not alone. One-in-five top 30 schools have reputational deficits, defined by Kivvit as when a school’s overall ranking is higher than its reputational ranking. In fact, 18% of schools have an academic reputation deficit of at least 10 positions while nearly one quarter of schools have a B&B reputation deficit of the same magnitude.

The fact that such disparity can exist in the rankings demonstrates why law school communicators should take into account a school’s reputational rank in addition to its overall standing. Doing so will allow a school to better understand its relative position among peers and set realistic benchmarks for reputation building in the future.

Communicators should note that it’s necessary to have a long-term approach to reputation management. A majority of schools had no change in academic or B&B score compared to 2016, and the schools that improved the most in reputation only increased their scores by 0.2 points. Therefore, schools should not expect dramatic changes in either academic reputation or B&B reputation scores from year-to-year.

Based on our analysis, B&B reputation was the harder of the two categories for schools to improve in. Only 15% of schools increased in their B&B score even as B&B voters proved to be more generous than academic peers. On average, B&B scores were 0.4 points higher than academic reputation scores and in extreme cases, academic and B&B scores could be up to a full point apart for the same school. Although schools may never know all of the lawyers, recruiters and judges that U.S. News polls to calculate B&B scores, the B&B rating provides a guidepost for schools to assess their reputation in the broader legal space.

There are undoubtedly those in the industry who take issue with the U.S. News methodology, but the lesson learned from this year’s ranking is that managing your school’s reputation is mission critical. Ranking by each reputation category provides the clearest view of each school’s perceived standing within academia and the legal industry at-large. From there, schools can determine which audience and strategy offer the greatest opportunity for improvement, whether its peer-to-peer law faculty marketing or consistent outreach to the local legal community. Regardless of whether a school needs to erase a deficit or protect a surplus, the work of reputation building begins with taking advantage of the data that is hidden-in-plain-sight.

Zach Silber, Director, Kivvit

Kent Holland, Managing Director, Kivvit