Bill and I conclude our paper on rankings with four recommendations - 3 for law schools and 1 for U.S. News. Here they are, with some additional commentary from me (which Bill may not necessarily endorse):
1) Non-elite schools should emphasize scholarships over scholarship.
A law degree is an extraordinarily expensive investment (tuition, living expenses, foregone income). Understandably, students are price sensitive. If law schools outside the top tier want "better" (higher LSAT) students, cutting their price either by lowering tuition or by increasing scholarship awards is a pretty good strategy. Elite law schools face a pretty inelastic demand curve; non-elite law schools don't. They can fill seats at high tuition, but they will lose the competition for the "better" students.
Now, the LSAT is far from being the best measure of whether someone is going to be a good lawyer, let alone a good law student. (It is pretty good at predicting first year grades, not as good at predicting upper class grades, and, of course, says nothing about the other dimensions of a person that might make him or her a good lawyer or student.)
Cutting tuition or increasing scholarships will hit the faculty hard, if done in any serious degree. Faculty slots will have to be left open, teaching loads increased, support for research and travel curtailed. Maybe legal scholarship is better off from having 190+ schools with professors writing articles; but maybe it isn't.
2) Market schools to legal employers to convince them that the quality of legal education matters. Employers prefer the top schools. The rest of the pack needs to figure out if doing something differently (more attention to legal writing? more clinics? making all students take accounting?) turns out better lawyers. Once a school finds something, it has to sell the employers on it. That's going to be tough and take some investment in careful study and analysis of the impact of program changes.
3) Schools in declining or stagnant legal job markets are in for a tough time. If your school is not in a fast growing legal job market, you need to get your students in front of those employers and tell prospective students about how you are doing it. Perhaps consider moving to a better location. There are a lot of schools in New York City and its environs, for example. A stronger school in a weaker market could buy/merge with a weaker school in a strong market like New York and make both schools better off. This seems radical today, but in the early 1900s mergers and other combinations between law schools and universities took place quite a few times. To pick on my own state, there are nine law schools in Ohio, located in slow growing or stagnant legal job markets: Ada, Akron, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo. (Columbus and Cincinnati are doing OK as job markets generally, but the growth in legal jobs is less than spectacular.)
4) U.S. News should take steps to limit gaming. For example, they could eliminate the part-time game by requiring schools to report the LSAT and UGPA numbers for part-time as well as full-time program students. If net transfers in are large, the school is likely playing games with the 1L numbers (I'll leave it to U.S. News' editors to define "large"). These changes would make U.S. News' rankings better in the sense that the rankings would be less susceptible to strategic behavior. They wouldn't improve the rankings in the sense of making them more accurate assessments of educational quality. Being better at doing U.S. News-style rankings strikes me as worthwhile, even if it isn't as worthwhile as creating a better system of rankings entirely.