A I sit down to write about this third and final question, I realize that I have covered most of what I wanted to say in the second of the three part post on law school rankings.

 In answering the question, is it a flaw in the methodology that school ranks dont change, I believe it is not for the reasons given in my last post.

In looking a little bit into what this tells us about students, I feel it tells us three things:

1.  The top students are VERY aware of the status of the school they are attending.  Students with good numbers are, to be frank, choosing to go to the top schools.

2.  Related to this, students want to go where other, better students go.  If all a law student wanted to do was have a chance to shine (ignoring other factors) a Tier Four would be a perfect situation.  Less competition and a greater chance to shine.  Clearly that is not the case as top students continue to attend top schools.

3.  Jobs jobs jobs.  Students are going to the schools that have the best job prospects, and for 150K who can blame them for wanting to minize risk?  Sure a scholarship minimizes risk, but the policy of most non-top 25 schools has been to not renue scholarships if you dont hit a certain class rank, leaving you stuck twice (low rank and having to pay more money) meaning you will owe more and make less than you thought going in.

 Nothing too earth shattering tonight.  I’ll do a first week recap pretty soon.

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. 

In my last post I said I was going to discuss three issues in separate posts starting with a discussion of how the top schools came to be the top schools.  Let me start by saying I honestly do not know, and I don’t really have any concept of how a historian really interested in the subject would find out, so I am merely offering my view on one possible (although I feel likely) possibility.

 

So a look at the top schools reveals a few things that I find telling.  First, all of the Ivy League schools are among the top chunk of schools.  A lot has already been written about how the Ivy’s became the standard of “elite” schooling in the United States, so I will not attempt to rehash this, only to say that the success of their undergraduate schools likely led to similar success at the law school level.  These top undergraduates either chose to stay at their school or go to another school that they had been highly exposed to.  So to start, insert all of the reasons that have been documented for the Ivy’s success at attracting the top students, and extrapolate them to their law schools.  This same method could really be used for all of the schools in the top part of the rankings (well known undergraduate schools becoming the top ranked law schools) but to stop here would be a complete cop out.

 

I think the next major factor was industry between World War 2 and the release of the first law school rankings.  American industry was powerful and a manufacturing economy still thrived domestically.  Predictably the flagship institution in a state with several of the nations top companies (Michigan) would be near the top of the rankings (interestingly, Michigan has fallen slightly over time, a fall that correlates with the fall of the auto industry).  This same logic can be expanded to explain why top law schools popped up near other major cities (Stanford, Chicago, Northwestern, GULC, and NYU).  Simply put, big business means lots of legal jobs which means better job prospects for local schools which means more students wanting to attend. 

 

The true oddballs in the top group in terms of explaining popularity are Duke and Virginia.  Sure both have excellent undergraduate schools, but why did these two institutions succeed to begin with?  In the case of Duke, I have no answer and have really found no answer that explains the schools rise, so I will punt.  Suffice to say, it is an excellent school today and will continue to be a destination for some of the nations best and brightest and I would be shocked if it fell out of law students good graces.  With Virginia, I believe a combination of DC, history, and a lack of other options to the south (which may also explain Duke’s success) led to the school’s ability to attract top students and thus appear near the top of the original law school rankings.

 

Essentially, undergraduate name equals law school name, and in many cases it was likely the pure success of the undergraduate school that led to the success of the law school, but when it comes to slicing between talented undergraduates that are and are not at the top of the rankings (for example Notre Dame or Wash U) it is really an issue of access to legal markets as far back as 50 years ago.  I could be way off, but I said I would try to offer an explanation and this seems like a plausible one to me.

Law: Following Like Sheep

August 31, 2007

A while ago I was surfing the net and came across an article about the self-perpetuating nature of law school rankings (and most other school rankings for that matter).  I tried to find a link to the article but couldn’t, I apologize.  The article basically asserted that, barring any massive changes in school policies, law schools keep about the same desirability level to students from year to year and since many rankings rely heavily on student selected factors (namely by trying to measure where the highly qualified students are tending to go, often by using GPA and LSAT as indicators) this lack of change also leads to a lack of change in the rankings of schools.   This phenomenon, if true, would help to explain the stagnation at the top of the rankings for the last 20 years (namely that, since USNews started ranking schools, the same 14 schools have occupied the top spots every year.   Similarly, this helps to explain many recent changes in the rankings, for example the quick rise of Wash U in recent years (due largely to offering significant scholarships to students with high LSAT scores, thus making Wash U more desirable to top students) and the fall of the University of Chicago from a tie for fourth with Columbia to its current position (which I will assert has something to do with their reputation for rigor and the demanding quarter system, but of which were turn-offs to me and others I know during the admissions process).  This also helps to explain how overrated schools like Cornell continue to maintain a high ranking for no clear reason other than students feel like the “Top 14” are significantly better than the next set of school. So if this is true, three important questions must be asked:   

  1. What accounts for the original rankings, that is, how did the “top schools” once become the “top schools”?
  2. Is this lack of change a good thing, bad thing, or neither?
  3. Does this represent a flaw in the method of ranking, or does it tell us something about these schools and law students?

 When I started this article, I intended to deal with each of these questions in this entry, but now that I look at them, I feel I would be doing everybody a disservice to tough briefly on each one, so instead I will make these three questions topics in my next few posts.  In the mean time, I welcome your feedback on these three questions.

Law: Case Open

August 14, 2007

This post started as a not at all law school related post that was going to discuss by friend’s troubles with Netters, or rather, my lack of sympathy for him about it (given the amount of cases and the size of casebooks we are supposed to read).  After typing a few lines, I decided that I didn’t want to go there given the fact that I just have to remember the cases and holdings, and he has to actually be able to locate the organs he is learning about.

So I changed directions and was going to talk about Kurzman’s roommate and poke some fun there, specifically related to his comments about Kurzman’s book, but this seemed to easy.

Eventually, I settled on talking about how my week was ruined early.

I was already planning on having my week ruined tomorrow.  This is because tomorrow, I will have my wisdom teeth, all of which are impacted, removed. 

Instead of waiting until tomorrow, HLS decided to ruin my week a day early by sending my first assignment in the mail (as I mentioned earlier).

Tonight I sat down to read the case (Regina v. Dudley for those of you with any interest) and let me tell you, it was an experience.  Sure the case was interesting (the issue being is killing one against their will in order to save a group a defense to murder) but it was written in old english and a very difficult read.

I expect law school, and especially the case method, to be difficult.  I think I am ready to do the work and I appreciate the professor’s efforts to get us ready for the case method, but couldn’t we pick a modern case?

Anyway, the case was decided about how I feel it should have been decided and I look forward to the discussion, but I am still none-to-thrilled about performing my first law school homework assignment.

Law: Cost of a Name

August 2, 2007

As I said in my last post, this past weekend I returned to my UG to participate in a workshop that taught teachers about congress.  This was an interesting experience and I confess I learned several things and met several interesting people.  I will provide more details about this later in the week, but for now, I want to talk about something I was asked this weekend.

 When I told somebody that did not know I was going to HLS where I was going, they replied “thats a great school” offhand, and we began to talk about graduate schools in general.  Eventually, the person confessed that they did not understand all of the houpla surrounding the top law schools and said that, given his understanding that you learn the same things at every law school, it seemed like you were paying a lot for a name. 

I have heard this several times, and I myself believed it to some extent, but on the drive home I was thinking about this question and decided to look into it more.

Clearly there are advantages in job placement that come with going to a top school, these are fairly well documented on the internet already and I do not care to rehash them.  What I wanted to look at is the question:  How much are students at top law schools paying for a name? 

To look at this question, I devised a very UNscientific method:  I picked a few areas with several law schools, went to the Princeton Review website and compared tuition of the top school in that market to the rate of another school in that market.  Where there were multiple “Top 15” schools in the same area, I selected the top school to compare to other schools.  Here is what I found:

Boston Area

Harvard Law School:  $37,100

Suffolk:  $35,948

Difference:  $1,152 (3%)

Chicago Area

University of Chicago:  $37,334

Loyola-Chicago:  $31,800

Difference:  $5,534 (15%)

New York Area

Columbia:  $38,120

Yeshiva:  $36,900

Difference:    $1220 (3%)

LA Area

UCLA:  $36,387*

Loyola:  $33,515

Difference:  $2872 (8%)

Washington D.C.

GULC:  $39,330

GW:  $36,310

Difference:  $3020 (8%)

 Average Difference:  $2760 (7%)

So what do these numbers show?  Not much since my method was in no way scientific, but if one were to take a lesson from this, I feel the lesson is that the difference between a “name” and “non-name” school in terms of cost is not as large as most people think (discounting scholarships, which is a huge factor for students picking between two schools).  Although students may very well be paying something more than another for the “same education” the difference here is not as large as most people think.  More disturbing, students attending schools that are not the “big name” school face noticably different job prospects and an uphill climb, but receive little tuition savings for this disadvantage.  Anyway, I do not want to draw conclusions, just put some numbers out there. As for me, I think that an average of less than 3K extra per year makes top schools seem like a steal compared to their peers in the same area.