More on Washington and Lee Law School

Professor Jim Moliterno of Washington and Lee Law School has a lengthy post over at The Legal White Board, which is in part a response to my post on this blog suggesting that the jury remains out as to whether W & L’s innovative curriculum is a hit among prospective law students.

I noted that despite what appears to be have been a banner year last year in admissions, “W & L’s median LSAT score was in the top 20 of law schools when it announced its experiential curriculum in 2008, and that it’s gone down every year since.”  Moliterno replies, “Actually the W&L median LSAT was steady at 166 from 2005-2010, dropped 2 points to 164 in 2011 and stayed at 164 for 2012. It has not ‘gone down every year since [the new curriculum was announced in 2008].’”

Moliterno seems to have misunderstood what I wrote, and, in retrospect, I can see that I wasn’t clear.  I did not mean that W & L’s median LSAT score went down every year.  I meant that relative to other law schools, W & L’s median went down every year.  As a result, W & L’s median LSAT was in the top 20 among law schools in 2008, and was not even in the top 30 in 2012.

I also noted that to the extent W & L’s admissions stats are taking a dramatic turn for the better, it may not be because of its curriculum, but because W & L is being especially generous with financial aid, making it, on average, one of the least expensive law schools in the U.S. News top 40 for out of state students.

Moliterno replies that when asked about the strengths of the law school, students ranked the curriculum number one, and financial aid awards number nine.  I don’t know if the students were given a list or just asked to volunteer strengths (it wouldn’t be obvious that one should volunteer “financial aid package” as a law school “strength”), but in any event I find this an odd way to determine whether the curriculum is popular among law school applicants, most of whom, of course, do not attend W & L, including most of those who receive offers of admission.  He also claims that matriculating students are increasingly likely to flag the curriculum as a factor in attending, which does at least suggest that the curriculum is either helping more or hurting less than it had been among prospective applicants, but we still don’t know whether it’s making an overall positive difference in admissions, nor is it easy to determine how much of a factor the curriculum is as opposed to generous financial aid.  Moliterno doesn’t deny that W & L has, in fact, positioned itself as a less expensive alternative (after financial aid) to other prestigious law schools. In my view, this is especially advantageous, more so than it would have been ten or even five years ago, given legitimate concerns among students about their ability to pay back large law school debt in the current employment environment. Even students who are enthusiastic about the curricular innovation would be (much?) less likely to attend if their tuition bill was 20k a year higher.  I also would like to see more than one real banner year in admissions.  For unknown reasons, George Mason had such a year in 2010, and wound up matriculating an unexpectedly large class, but it didn’t repeat itself.

Finally, I suggested that it struck me as unlikely that W & L’s curriculum will make a significant positive difference with prospective students until W & L can show that it improves employment outcomes.  Moltinero replies, “It is too early for employment data. One full class has graduated from the new curriculum, in May 2012, and that in a time of such incredibly reduced employment of new lawyers.  No innovation, no matter how much it might improve graduates’ abilities to perform, will change employment data until employers become convinced.”  I agree, but I also think it will hard to persuade hiring partners , who, as I noted, tend to think that any innovation that they didn’t benefit from in their law school days couldn’t possibly be that important.

Note that I’m not saying that W & L’s innovative curriculum won’t eventually improve W & L’s ability to attract top students.   I can’t even be sure it hasn’t started to do so.  I just think we need more evidence before we can draw the sort of wildly enthusiastic conclusions that prompted my original post.

(Posted inadvertantly before it was ready, and edited to improve the substance.)