There have been a few big law school scandals that are either clear manipulations of data designed to game the U.S. News & World Report rankings or are reactions to the pressure of making the U.S. News “numbers” and filling a class. That yearly March-April collective decanal shudder or sighof relief is much like how CEOs and CFOs must feel when they find out whether their quarterly earnings met, exceeded, or failed to meet their projected earnings. Make no mistake: the repercussions that accompany a school’s drop in the rankings (or when companies don’t meet their projected earnings) are ugly. That’s why schools spend so much time playing to the rankings and why companies can find themselves in hot—sometimes felonious—water with unsavory “earnings management” decisions that push a company into outright dishonesty.
The one thing that we know about sentient beings is that they respond to incentives. Whether the subject is Pavlov’s dog or a law school dean whose school is ranked 99th in the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings, people will tend to do that for which they’re rewarded. Whether what they do is ethical, though, is another question. With so many examples of “schools gone wild,” it’s difficult for law deans and law faculties to tell their students that lawyers shouldn’t lie. The law schools that have misstated their stats are sending the message that lawyers shouldn’t lie, unless: (1) lying will make their lives easier; (2) verifying the facts is too much trouble; or (3) the likelihood of getting caught—and punished—is low. That’s not the message that we should be sending. So why do law schools misrepresent their stats to U.S. News?
We could talk about the pressure that law schools face from their faculty, students, alumni, and university administrators. We could talk about the fact that U.S. News asks for very little information that actually reflects the quality of a school’s education, or that its ordinal ranking system grossly misstates the differences among schools. We could talk about the increased competition for students in a declining market8 and about the very real threat that some of the key changes in law practice will force some law schools to close. But what I want to discuss is the ease with which people can find themselves caught in a lie and how our lies affect what we’re trying to teach our law students.