How Partisan Bias Affects Law School Rankings
by James A. Bacon
Virginia is known for the number and quality of its law schools. Eight law schools are located in the state, nearly one to 1.1. millions of inhabitants. Nationally, there are 192 law schools for 330 million people, or about one for every 1.6 million. Woohoo, we have lawyers in the wazoo!
The University of Virginia is widely considered the most prestigious of Virginia’s law schools, taking an 8th place in the latest rankings US News & World-Report survey. George Mason University and William & Mary Law Schools are also highly rated, tied for 30th on the list. Washington & Lee and the University of Richmond rank (almost) equally in the first quartile.
It’s debatable whether college and university rankings are helpful or pernicious, but there’s no doubt that they confer bragging rights and drive applications. Unfortunately, Michael Conklin, a business law professor at Angelo State University, found that the rankings are influenced by the political leanings of law school deans and certain professors whose opinions are incorporated into the “peer rankings.” of the reputation of law schools.
Peer ranking is given a weight of 25% in the overall ranking formula. Writing in “Law School Rankings and Political Ideology: Measuring the Conservative Penalty and Liberal Premium with Updated Ranking Data for 2023Conklin argues that in our politically polarized age, partisan opinions affect these peer reviews. liberal schools, he finds that a partisan or ideological sanction causes the most conservative schools to drop 14.4 places in the national ranking and gives the most liberal schools a bump of 9.6 places.
The implication is that GMU’s Antonin Scalia School of Law, ranked 4th from the top of Conklin’s list of the nation’s most conservative law schools, would rank significantly higher in the US News & World-Report ranking if the subjective criteria of reputation were excluded.
Regent University School of Law ranks 142nd nationally and Liberty University ranks near the bottom of the rankings. American News scale, residing in an undifferentiated mass of the last 45 schools that American News does not rank individually. Most likely, both schools, which are part of universities founded by fundamentalist Christians, would be labeled as “conservative,” and it’s a safe bet that their rankings are also dragged down by peer reviews.
Conklin cites a 2013 finding that 82% of law school professors were Democrats while only 11% were Republicans. A 2015 Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy study determined that the disparity between conservative and liberal law professors was due to partisan or ideological discrimination. Conservative faculty members were likely to be more credentialed, as measured by service with former Supreme Court clerks, participation in law review, and number of articles published.
Political polarization — and the law school’s skewed reputation — appears to have worsened over the past two years, Conklin says.
When he first conducted his study in 2020, Conklin found a 20.8-point gap between the most conservative and most liberal schools. In 2020, the gap has increased to 24 points.
The harm caused by discrimination against conservatives extends beyond the harm caused to conservatives who cannot get jobs as law professors. Discrimination provides inferior legal education, argues Conklin. When a majority of judicial districts have Republican-appointed judges, theLaw school students pay a high price for not being exposed to conservative thinking. Understanding the best arguments on the Conservative side would better equip Liberals to champion Liberal causes. Likewise, he suggests, “most people would probably prefer to hire a lawyer who is familiar with — and therefore better equipped to deal with — conservative arguments and conservative judges.”
The solution, suggests Conklin, is simple. Stop including peer review scores in rankings and rely on objective metrics like student-faculty ratio, average student debt, spending per student, and over-the-bar rate .