Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | May 5, 2015

A fascination with ranking and measuring

IMG_2006 - CopyMy grand-daughter, Molly, now almost 5 years old, has recently become fascinated with being “First’ — first in line when her pre-school class is headed to the restroom, first in the door when we walk home from school, first to get her snack when we get there. We have no idea why, when, or how she even learned about the idea of being First, though the concept did seem to emerge just since she started pre-school. Why is she suddenly so focused on this type of measurement?  Of being ranked?

There must be something innate in human beings that makes us want to measure and compare. But sometimes, I think top-ten-headerour culture is list-mad. Yes, David Letterman’s nightly “Top 10” lists are nothing but fun. (We’re going to miss you and your lists, Dave!) But we devour rankings like candy, like junk food, like heroin. They’re addictive! Type “Top 10 …” into your search engine, and you will find everything from the top movies, books, videos and songs, to the “best” cities to live in, to retire in, to raise your kids in, to be an engineer in. You will find rankings of sports teams and athletes, web sites and world economies. Many lists rank by popularity or sales. Others rank by longevity or size. Any factor — or groups of factors – can be used to develop a ranking system.

The annual unveiling of the U.S. News & World Report’s Education Rankings, which has morphed since 1983 from just rankings colleges in general, to include hundreds of rankings of educational institutions — and not just graduate schools (law schools, business schools), but any kinds of schools (charter schools, magnet schools, religious schools, private schools). They also now have dozens of other categories of rankings (health, money, travel, cars), within which there are other categories (doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, health plans), all leading to rankings within rankings within rankings. Obviously, publishing rankings has been paying the bills at U.S. News & World Report.

2003.AmLaw 100-aWhen I first started working at The American Lawyer, I noticed that most of the editors and reporters absolutely hated having to compile and report on the magazine’s annual Am Law 200, the  “Fortune 500“-like list of the biggest and richest of firms in the U.S. Part of the problem was purely technical — in 1997-1998, they were just figuring out how to use a spreadsheet to capture and organize the information from this reporter-driven survey, which included a firm’s gross revenue, net operating income, profits per partner, revenue per lawyer, and numbers of equity partners, non-equity partners, and lawyers overall.

But many of the reporters had gone to Columbia Journalism School, or had worked their way up to join the staff of the prestigious American Lawyer by reporting on one of the company’s many local or regional newspapers (Legal Times in Washington, DC; Legal Intelligencer in Philadelphia; Daily Business Review in Miami; Fulton County Daily Report in Atlanta; Texas Lawyer; New Jersey Law Journal; and Connecticut Law Tribune.)  Many of these reporters had also gone to law school.

Brills THE TEAMSTERSTheir hero was the founder of The American Lawyer, Steven Brill, who had first made a name for himself by writing an expose of the Teamsters, and who also started Court TV just as the O.J. Simpson trial was becoming a national obsession.  Reporters at The American Lawyer were very keen to get “The Story,” to expose some wrong-doing within the ranks of American lawyers and American law firms. They wanted to be investigative reporters, like Brill. They didn’t want to have to report on no stinkin’ rankings!

The problem was that the readers were fascinated with the rankings that The American Lawyer cranked out every year.  And though the reporters hated having to write about these survey results, even they had to admit that, despite the magazine’s many journalism awards for its exemplary writing, the monthly issues that included survey results were the most widely read, and sold the most advertising.

As I was coming on board in the late 1990s, as Special Projects and then Research Editor, Elvis was leaving the building. Brill sold Court TV, and then shortly after that, he sold the print division, which included not only The American Lawyer, but several other publications and a budding book division. And then, under new management then the surveys began to multiply. Before long, the Am Law 100 became the Am Law 200, the associates surveys went from a dozen questions to 75, and new surveys were added — surveys of the technologies used in law firms, of the “diversity” of each firm, of the partners, of the law librarians, of the CMOs. The lateral moves of partners were tracked. Pro bono activities were itemized. Involvement in deals and suits were quantified.

e-As the millennium approached, the reorganized company, ALM Media, was entering the Information Age. Reporters still chaffed a bit at having to report on the latest survey results rather than the latest law firm scandal, but with the ascendancy of the practice of adding “e-” to every other word in the English language (e-business, e-commerce, e-courts, e-discovery, e-publishing) came the corresponding shrinking of the world of print journalism. Reporters — and editors — were glad to have jobs.

And gradually, data / numbers / information became an even more profitable business for the company. They started a new Legal Intelligence division, completely separate from the journalism side of the company, and sold the rankings in spreadsheet format. Law firms, corporate legal departments, and legal consultants and vendors purchased subscriptions to all the data that was compiled, and continues to be compiled, in a central password-protected database.

People can’t seem to get enough data. We are fascinated with the numbers. Especially when they are used to measure US versus all the rest of THEM out there. And especially when WE come out on top.

No use rebelling against these rankings no matter how frivolous or odd (e.g. Top 10 Modern Encounters with Mythological Creatures; Top 10 Weird Times that Animals Got a Taste for Human). They are here to stay. A fascination with ranking and measuring seems to be built into our chromosome structure.

1stAnd for my grand-daughter Molly, she will always be Number One in two areas: Firstborn, and first grandchild. No one can ever take that ranking away from her.

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