This was recorded by a bug in the USNWR headquarters while they were discussing the upcoming law rankings:
"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out."
Ohhhhkay... I might be making that up. But in this case, the perception both mirrors reality (Yale and Harvard are pretty good schools) and it creates reality. If USNWR were to suddenly, one year, rank Yale as a T4 would BigLaw stop hiring them? No. But it is the both the reflection and arbiter of the popular will.
When employers look to hire from schools that they are not as familiar with, they need some way to gauge their relative merits. For lack of a better resource, many turn to USNWR. Let's say you're a newly minted Florida Coastal grad trying to get a job with a small firm in Arizona. You will have some difficulty because of your schools perceieved weakness, much moreso than if your school was in the top 100. You would have to be that much more scintillating in your interview.
But it is more important in the way it mirrors the perceived reality. It allows you to indentify the sure bets (the T14-20). It tlets you rank the relative merits of regional schools (What are the best schools in Florida? In the Philly region? In Arizona?)
It gives you a quick reference to figure things out. For example, I can look at the rankings and assume that UArizona is a more highly regraded school in Arizona than ASU. I would be right. I would know that in Florida, the perceived wisdom is that the pecking order goes UF, FSU, UMiami, with the rest (Stetson, FIU, Florida Coastal etc.) bringing up the rear. I'd be right there as well.*
But this is true only in the generalities. It gives you a place to begin your search, not a place to end it. Once you get of the T14-T20, rankings matter less and less. But.... think of all the people you've met, both prospective law school students and law school students who trtuly believe that a school ranked 40 is better than a school ranked 75. Now remember that many of these same people will be making hiring decisions in the future,,,, woe is the world...
USNWR is a tool. A good tool. But if you rely on it too much, you'll be a tool.
*See the long debate over this- yes, UM is good for jobs in SE FLA. FSU is good for govt. jobs. Stetson has some nice trial advocacy. But overall, this is a true statement.