Numerical rankings could be coming to the law schools that U.S. News & World Report categorizes as third tier — meaning those 42 schools would be subject to the same up-and- down fluctuations watched so closely among the top 100.

U.S. News research director Robert Morse told legal educators during the Association of American Law Schools annual meeting in San Francisco last week that he is considering extending the numerical rankings in the new edition, which is due on March 15. The change would bring the law school rankings in line with recent modifications to the publication’s Best Colleges rankings.

“It’s something that we’re looking into,” Morse said. “We do have ranking scores for all law schools but, editorially, we didn’t want to say, ‘This is the 188th law school [representing last place].’ “

U.S. News now provides numerical rankings for the top 100 law schools, but combines the remaining schools into third and fourth tiers without distinguishing between the schools in each tier. Schools within each of those tiers are listed alphabetically. Morse said that the bottom 25% of law schools would continue to be ranked alphabetically.

“We think the public finds numerical ranking more understandable,” Morse said.

Critics told Morse during the AALS meeting that the tier format creates an artificial distinction between the schools on either side of the cutoff between the numerical rankings and the third tier. One questioner described the third tier as being relegated to “outer darkness.”

Several deans at third-tier law schools said Monday that expanding the numerical rankings either would not make a huge difference or would be a benefit. Bloggers and others have used U.S. News‘ methodology to extend the rankings beyond the top 100, and U.S. News will inform unranked law schools of their ranking if asked, said Bryant Garth, dean of Southwestern Law School, which is in the third tier.

“It’s not a big event,” Garth said. “Everybody suffers from the fact that there can be huge swings in the rankings year to year, which are meaningless. It will magnify the importance of your particular number, which the top 100 schools already have to deal with.”

New York Law School Dean Richard Matasar said he would prefer to see U.S. News reduce the number of schools it ranks numerically rather than expand it, since there is very little difference between the quality of education offered at most schools. The most prestigious legal employers pay attention to the rankings of the top schools, but make virtually no distinction between all other schools, he said. Thus, assigning numerical rankings outside the top 20 or so schools creates the false impression that there is a clear difference in quality of education or job prospects, Matasar said.

“How they do the ranking right now doesn’t make sense,” he said. “The difference between No. 6 and No. 9 or 100 and 101 is minimal. You’re really taking things that are essentially identical and treating them as though there is a difference.”

Wayne State University Law School Dean Robert Ackerman welcomed the prospect for change. “I think we would prefer to be listed by rank rather than alphabetical order,” he said. He noted that the latter tends to place his institution toward the bottom of the list. “Psychologically, I think it makes a difference that we are listed at the end of the third tier,” Ackerman said. “I think people would make less of a distinction between schools ranked 1 through 150 than they now do between the second and third quartile.”

Garth noted that a certain comfort level comes with inclusion in the third tier, where schools aren’t compared head-to-head. “You never know what will make a difference to a prospective law student,” he said.

Law school administrators attending the AALS meeting also pressed Morse on the validity of employment statistics reflected in the U.S. News rankings, and asked why the publication doesn’t do more to ensure that the reported figures are true.

Morse acknowledged that some law schools game the rankings, which take into account the percentage of graduates with jobs at graduation and those with jobs nine months after graduation. However, he noted that U.S. News uses the same definition of employment — which includes those in non-legal jobs and temporary jobs created by law schools — as do the American Bar Association and the National Association for Law Placement. Those groups should take the lead in devising a new way to report employment data, he said.

“If the ABA comes up with a new definition or calculation standard, U.S. News would go along with it,” Morse said.

Karen Sloan can be conacted at ksloan@alm.com.