Friday, October 15, 2010

The Law School PR Game

It's that time of year - just before US News sends out voting ballots for annual law schools rankings - when my mailbox fills up with all kinds of postal detritus from other schools touting their new hires, programs, etc., all in the quest to convince me that they are a school on the rise (as compared to all the other schools from which I also receive mailings). I don't know anyone who actually looks at, lead alone reads, the dozens of annual reports, newsletters, alumni magazines and postcards (aside, perhaps, those from an alma mater). In my own case, there is no delay between their removal from my mailbox and their insertion in the trash. Assuming most professors treat this stuff like I do, the question becomes, why do law schools continue to pay to send them, especially in difficult economic times?

I have yet to see any reliable data on the total cost of the mailings or on their effects on the US News Rankings (if any). In that absence of any data, I begin with the following two suppositions: (1) the cost of mailings is not huge, but neither is it insignificant to law schools, most of which are currently operating under tight budget constraints; and (2) the mailings have virtually no effect on the US News Rankings. These are testable hypothesis, but I know of no actual tests that either confirm or falsify them. Assuming (in the absence of evidence) that the two suppositions are correct, we have a puzzle: law schools are expending scarce resources on mailings that bring them virtually no benefits. Why would any rational dean continue to countenance such wasteful spending?

My best guess it that law schools have become caught in a game in which they are less concerned with any positive reputational benefits of mass mailings than with the potential costs of not playing along with everyone else.  Law schools could be concerned that if they suddenly declined to participate in this collective waste of money, they would suffer reputational damage that could negatively effect their US News rankings. Thus, the chief benefit for law schools of the mass mailings may be as a signaling device to show that they have the resources to play the same stupid game as other law schools.

Another part of the signaling function of law school mass mailings game may be to deal with a type of cognitive bias affecting US News "voters," known as an "availability heuristic."  How easily a given law school comes to mind could well effect how an individual "voter" ranks it. In that respect, the mailing serves as simple reminder to voters, in the hope that they will more easily recall something positive they recently read about a particular school. This presumes, of course, that voters who receive the mailings actually look at them long enough to process the information they contain.

As it happens, I'm not a US News voter this year, but even if I were the mailings would not likely affect my cognitive biases, at least not consciously, because I simply don't pay enough attention to them to affect my thinking. This week, I  received approximately two dozen mailings from as many law schools. I am unable to report which schools they came from, or what they were touting. Given that, how might they affect my voting?

Of course, my sample is n=1. No doubt some law professors really do pay attention to this stuff. But I doubt they comprise a significant enough plurality to affect any outcomes. That, of course, is another empirically testable hypothesis for which I have no data.

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