Law: Small Line Between Consistent and Stagnant

September 2, 2007

A few days ago when I set out three questions to answer in later posts, I was feeling particularly ambitious.  A few days and lots of pages of reading later, I am feeling less of that “go get ‘em” attitude, but a promise is a promise, so I sent some time today mulling over the question, is it a good thing, bad thing, or does it not matter if law school rankings change very little.

I really think the answer to this question depends on your view of what constitutes a top law school.  Any ranking includes a subjective methodology that leads to a certain set of factors being weighed in a certain way.  Although methodologies are, in a basic sense, a set of criteria and scores, some general “goal” of a ranking exists.  What I mean is that before you can start assigning components of a formula, you must have some picture of what the formula should measure.  A few examples might make this point clearer.

Let’s say your goal is to measure the “best” law school in the Midwest (which you take to mean Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.)  In order to do this, you must decide what constitutions the “best” school.  Perhaps you are of the opinion that the “best” school is the one that gives you the best opportunity to pass the bar in the state the school is in relative to the schools cost.  This is of course an extremely simple example that only includes two factors:  Bar Passage Rate and Cost.  If you define best in this way, one simple methodology would be to multiply the three year cost by the inverse of the bar passage rate by the cost of the school so that as passage rates go down ranking goes down and as costs go up rankings go down. 

Now let’s say that you are more concerned with another issue, say the issue we talked about in the first post.  Let’s say hypothetically you define best as the school that the most qualified students choose most often.  This is of course a much more complicated proposition.  Factors that might be considered here are GPA, LSAT, yield, and selectivity.   

From where I’m sitting (in my tiny dorm room), I see four primary ways people could define “best law schools.”

1.       The best law schools are the ones that offer graduates the best overall career prospects.

2.      The best law schools are the ones with the best combination of talented students and faculty (and of course arguments could be made about what a talented faculty actually means).

3.      The best law schools are the ones that are generally considered most desirable to law students.

4.      The best law schools are the ones that, given an identical student, would make the student a better lawyer at the time they left school.

When it comes to “the law school rankings” by which I mean the US News rankings, it seems to me that although they attempt to include all four of these factors, the rankings are skewed towards the first three. 

What US News does VERY well is offer an accurate assessment of definition 1 and definition 3.  As many of you will jump to point out, there is a chicken and the egg problem here, but the rankings are an extremely effective measure of definitions one (because legal employers are extremely aware of the rankings and often vary their hiring standards to be softer for students from high ranked schools and tougher/impossible for students from low ranked schools) and definition three (because of the focus on selectivity and class strength measures).  

 Category two is somewhat accomplished by the class strength and assessment scores.  Definition four is addressed only in passing and if this is your definition of “best” (which I contend it should not be) then the rankings are a very poor assessment of best. 

So why do I go through all of this?  Simple.  Because if you accept that the definition is definition four, then you should find the relatively low amount of change from year to year to be a sign of big trouble and flaws.  Certainly faculty hires and fires and administrative policies will effect the actual improvement to your lawyering skills that a school can provide.  

I contend that “the best” law school is the one that either has the best students or, more likely, is the one that will help you get the best jobs.  Here the US News rankings are fantastic and if you accept this definition (as I do) then it is a darn good thing the rankings don’t change much.  

How could it be good that rankings don’t change much?  First there is the descriptive value.  Firms don’t alter their hiring practices particularly much from year to year.  As a result, major school shifts from year to year would not be consistent with what the rankings are supposed to measure.   Furthermore, this lack of change makes the decision on where to attend a more educated one, and more/better information allows people to make better decisions, which I feel is a good thing.  Imagine that you want to go to “the best” school, as defined as the one where you will have the best job prospects.  So before you pick on, you look into some rankings and find a few that are “the best” and pick the one that is the best fit for you.  Then, next year, the rankings COMPLETELY change.  Perhaps firms started picking names out of a hat for hiring practices.  Clearly this makes the information on which you made your decision not useful and it made your decision a bad one.  Now compare this to the current situation with relatively unchanged rankings.  You want to go where you will have the best employment chances, you pick the school that offers it, you get out, and you get what you bargained for.  Seems pretty equitable.   

Now clearly this view is based on the fact that I don’t want my school’s employment numbers to change, but think of this from an equity standpoint (Rawls’ Veil is now being pulled out and put over everybody’s face).  I contend that if you believe that stability in this sense isn’t a virtue, then you are also saying that you would not be opposed to having students essentially pick schools at random.  More information is good.  Better information is good.  

To bring this back on topic, IF you feel “best” means most desirable, most highly regarded, best students attend, or best job prospects, then a little amount of change is a good thing.  If you feel “best” means that it will do more with the same student, then consistent rankings are problematic not in that they are consistent but in that they are consistent and are not reflecting a consistency in the factor they are setting out to measure. 

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