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The Judge Rules: imperfect law school rankings tell us something about complacent Russell Groupers

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The latest league tables — published by The Guardian earlier this week — confirm that for law it remains Oxbridge … and then the rest

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The media love league tables — they offer easily delineated winners and losers, an assessment of who’s up an who’s down, comparisons to football and the Eurovison Song Contest.

Yes, the media has a shallow love affair with rankings; but so does the legal profession.

Lawyers are so keen on rankings that two of their brethren-turned-publishers — former barrister and in-house counsel Michael Chambers (who runs Chambers & Partners) and ex-solicitor John Pritchard (owner of the Legal 500) — have made a mint from directory publishing.

So why should law schools be any different? The answer is, they’re not.

Without doubt everyone from pipe-puffing dons at Oxbridge to T-shirt bedecked lectures at former polytechnics will have pored over The Guardian newspaper’s law school rankings released earlier this week.

But just as debate rumbles over the actual value of the Chambers & Partners and the Legal 500 directories, does The Guardian list — and similar tables, such as the QS World University Rankings — provide a real indicator of law school quality?

Yes. But not on a specific point of whether law school A is absolutely better than law school B, or whether attending law school C will guarantee a job or enhanced further study relative to law school D.

What the rankings provide is a clue to trends, as well as a guide or explanation of law firm and chambers recruitment decisions. On the first point, if you take The Guardian’s word, then the trends don’t look that encouraging for a collection of historically high-profile Russell Group law schools.

Wheeling out the football analogy, big names such as Exeter, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Southampton and Warwick all placed in what can only be described as mid-table mediocrity. While some relatively obscure institutions — Oxford Brookes and Robert Gordon in Aberdeen — ended up in surprisingly higher positions.

A simple analysis suggests that many historically well-respected Russell Group universities have been resting on laurels and need to pick up their games. As Legal Cheek has reported in the past, a view is emerging among some legal sector academics that some big name provincial law schools adopted a pile ‘em high mentality once the last government ushered in enhanced tuition fees.

Of course, The Guardian researchers could be talking rubbish. The QS survey places many of those Russell Group institutions much higher up its rankings. But then the QS researchers have to tackle universities across the entire globe, while Alan Rusbridger’s mob can focus on the relatively narrow parameters of the UK only.

And if you fancy a different set of results, get Uncle Google to serve up recent findings from the Research Excellence Framework and the National Student Survey. Just as newspapers and broadcasters provide poll of polls analysis, perhaps the legal academia commentators should cobble together a collective survey of law school ranking surveys.

Regardless, The Guardian and QS and other research teams agree that Oxbridge still rules the roost. Dark and light blue law faculties are ranked head and shoulders above the crowd — which is part of the reason that so many law firms and chambers cast their trainee and pupillage nets no farther.

It is not the only reason — some firms and chambers look no farther than the ancient universities because they studied at those institutions. All the equality and diversity initiatives in a human resources director’s bag of tricks will not completely overcome the phenomenon of people recruiting other people that look, sound and have had similar experiences to them.

Cambridge and Oxford continue to ace the law school league tables because they are universities of very high quality providing an intensely personal system of education. They are elite because they attract the brightest students; the brightest students apply because the institutions are elite.

Ultimately, as with all league tables, the rankings simply tell us what we already knew.


Previously

Oxbridge takes top honours in latest law faculty league table [Legal Cheek]