U.S. News & World Report's decision to start ranking law firms along the lines of its much-maligned law school rankings has prompted the American Bar Association to investigate the magazine's methods.
The ABA House of Delegates narrowly approved a resolution on Monday during its midyear meeting to "examine efforts to publish a national, state, territorial and local ranking of law firms and law schools." Although the final resolution did not specifically name U.S. News, officials of the New York State Bar Association, which sponsored the resolution, acknowledged that the magazine was the catalyst for the move. He noted, however, that the inquiry will look at a range of attorney and law firm rankings -- not just the one by U.S. News.
The magazine announced in July that it would release it first "Best Law Firms" rankings in September of this year, in partnership with Best Lawyers. U.S. News has long produced its popular annual law school rankings.
"[The U.S. News] rankings have a profound impact on the law schools. The deans hate it," said past New York bar President Vincent Buzard, citing reports that law school leaders juice administrative data to boost their schools' rankings. "It seemed to us that the ABA should look into the methodology of these rankings and ensure that they are reliable and aren't based on inadequate data."
While numerous publications and Web sites offer attorney ratings, sitting New York bar President Michael Getnicks worried that the magazine's plan to numerically rank firms could prove problematic and misleading.
"What considerations do you take into account when you go out and say somebody is No. 1 and somebody is No. 10?" he said.
Representatives of U.S. News and Best Lawyers both welcomed the opportunity to discuss their methodology with the ABA.
"I think the resolution is extremely reasonable. At Best Lawyers, we have long felt that transparency is extremely important," said Best Lawyers President Steve Naifeh. "We don't think we have anything to hide.
Bob Morse, director of data research for U.S. News, said the magazine has approached the ABA in the past about setting up a system for communicating about the law firm and attorney rankings, but that the organization never acted on the idea.
Naifah noted that other law firm and attorney rating organizations already use the client references and information that the new rankings will cite. The rankings also will take into account attorney diversity, pro bono work and peer review surveys.
University of Chicago Law School professor and legal blogger Brian Leiter said that the ABA should have taken a critical look at the U.S. News rankings long before the magazine turned its attention to law firms.
"Unfortunately, a mere investigation won't do much," Leiter said. "Everyone with any knowledge of education or statistics or survey methods who has examined the U.S. News rankings has come to the same conclusion: They are irresponsible, misleading and provide consumer misinformation. This has had little or no impact on the irresponsible practices of U.S. News."
The best way for the ABA to counteract the negative effects of the U.S. News rankings would be to release its own data on school quality and performance, Leiter said.
The resolution prompted a lively debate among ABA delegates. It was a last-minute addition to the agenda that originally made no mention of examining law school rankings. Opponents worried the probe could raise antitrust and First Amendment implications. ABA President Carolyn Lamm told the ABA Journal that it was too soon for the organization to take a position on the rankings and that the legal concerns are legitimate. Buzard noted that the ABA has no authority to force the magazine to make any changes.
"We're not the government and we can't tell them to do anything," he said.