LAW & FOOTBALL: RANKINGS DOUBLETHINK

For many people, the holiday season means an intense focus on college football. This year, a 12-person committee develops weekly team rankings. They will culminate in playoffs that produce head-to-head competition for the national championship in January.

A recent comment from the chairman of that committee, Jeff Long, is reminiscent of something U.S. News rankings czar Robert Morse said about his ranking system last year. Both remarks reveal how those responsible for rankings methodology rationalize distance between themselves and the behavior they incentivize.

Nobody Wants Credit?

Explaining why undefeated Florida State dropped from second to third in the November 11 rankings, Long told ESPN that making distinctions among the top teams was difficult. He explained that the relevant factors include a team’s “body of work, their strength of schedule.” Teams that defeat other strong teams get a higher rank than those beating weaker opponents. So even though Oregon has suffered a loss this year, its three victories against top-25 opponents jumped it ahead of undefeated FSU, which had only two such wins. Long repeated his explanation on November 19: “Strength of schedule is an important factor….”

Whether Oregon should be ahead of FSU isn’t the point. Long’s response to a follow-up question on November 11 is the eye-catcher: Was the committee sending a message to teams that they should schedule games against tougher opponents?

“We don’t think it’s our job to send messages,” he said. “We believe the rankings will do that.”

But who develops the criteria underlying the rankings? Long’s committee. The logic circle is complete.

Agency Moment Lost: Students

In his November 14 column for the New York Times, David Brooks writes more broadly about “The Agency Moment.” It occurs when an individual accepts complete responsibility for his or her decisions. Some people never experience it.

Rankings can provide opportunities for agency moments. For example, some prelaw students avoid serious inquiry into an important question: which law school might be the best fit for their individual circumstances? Instead, I’ve heard undergraduates say they’ll attend the best law school that accepts them, and U.S. News rankings will make that determination.

If they were talking about choosing from law schools in different groups, that would make some sense. There’s a reason that Harvard doesn’t lose students to Boston University. But too many students take the rankings too far. If the choice is between school number 22 and the one ranked number 23, they’re picking number 22, period. That’s idiotic.

In abandoning independent judgment, such students (and their parents) cede one of life’s most important decisions to Robert Morse, the non-lawyer master of the rankings methodology. It’s also an agency moment lost.

Agency Moment Lost: Deans, Administrators, and Alumni

Likewise, deans who let U.S. News dictate their management decisions say they’re just responding to incentives. As long as university administrators, alumni, and prospective students view the rankings as meaningful, they have to act accordingly. Any complaint — and there are many — should go to the person who develops the rankings methodology.

All roads of responsibility lead back to U.S. News’ Robert Morse, they say. But following that trail leads to another lost agency moment. In March 2013, Lee Pacchia of Bloomberg asked Morse if he took any responsibility for what’s ailing legal education today:

“No…U.S. News isn’t the ABA. U.S. News doesn’t regulate the reporting requirements. No….”

Agency Moment Lost: Methodology Masters

Morse went on to say that U.S. News was not responsible for the cost of law school, either. Pacchia didn’t ask him why the methodology rewards a school that increases expenditures without regard to the beneficial impact on student experiences or employment outcomes. Or how schools game the system by aggressively recruiting transfer students whose tuition adds revenue at minimal cost and whose lower LSAT scores don’t count in the school’s ranking methodology. (Vivia Chen recently reported on the dramatic increase in incoming transfer students at some schools.)

Cassius was only half-right. The fault lies not in our stars; but it doesn’t lie anywhere else, either!

The many ways that U.S. News rankings methodology has distorted law school deans’ decision-making is the subject of Part I of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis. Part II investigates the analogous behavior of law firm leaders who rely on metrics that maximize short-term Am Law rankings in running their businesses (e.g., billings, billable hours, hourly rates, and leverage ratios).

Aggregate Rankings v. Individual Outcomes

In the end, “sending a message” through a rankings methodology is only one part of an agency equation. The message itself doesn’t require the recipient to engage in any particular behavior. That’s still a choice, although incentive structures can limit perceived options and create first-mover dilemmas.

Importantly, individual outcomes don’t always conform to rankings-based predictions. Successful participants still have to play — and win — each game. That doesn’t always happen. Just ask Mississippi State — ranked number one in the college football playoff sweepstakes after week 12, but then losing to Alabama on November 15. Or even better, look at number 18 ranked Notre Dame, losing on the same day to unranked Northwestern.

Maybe that’s the real lesson for college coaches, prelaw students, law school deans, and law firm leaders. Rather than rely on rankings and pander to the methodology behind them, focus on winning the game.

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