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[Andrew Morriss (guest-blogging), August 15, 2005 at 8:33pm] Trackbacks
What to do about law school rankings:

Bill and I conclude our paper on rankings with four recommendations - 3 for law schools and 1 for U.S. News. Here they are, with some additional commentary from me (which Bill may not necessarily endorse):

1) Non-elite schools should emphasize scholarships over scholarship.

A law degree is an extraordinarily expensive investment (tuition, living expenses, foregone income). Understandably, students are price sensitive. If law schools outside the top tier want "better" (higher LSAT) students, cutting their price either by lowering tuition or by increasing scholarship awards is a pretty good strategy. Elite law schools face a pretty inelastic demand curve; non-elite law schools don't. They can fill seats at high tuition, but they will lose the competition for the "better" students.

Now, the LSAT is far from being the best measure of whether someone is going to be a good lawyer, let alone a good law student. (It is pretty good at predicting first year grades, not as good at predicting upper class grades, and, of course, says nothing about the other dimensions of a person that might make him or her a good lawyer or student.)

Cutting tuition or increasing scholarships will hit the faculty hard, if done in any serious degree. Faculty slots will have to be left open, teaching loads increased, support for research and travel curtailed. Maybe legal scholarship is better off from having 190+ schools with professors writing articles; but maybe it isn't.

2) Market schools to legal employers to convince them that the quality of legal education matters. Employers prefer the top schools. The rest of the pack needs to figure out if doing something differently (more attention to legal writing? more clinics? making all students take accounting?) turns out better lawyers. Once a school finds something, it has to sell the employers on it. That's going to be tough and take some investment in careful study and analysis of the impact of program changes.

3) Schools in declining or stagnant legal job markets are in for a tough time. If your school is not in a fast growing legal job market, you need to get your students in front of those employers and tell prospective students about how you are doing it. Perhaps consider moving to a better location. There are a lot of schools in New York City and its environs, for example. A stronger school in a weaker market could buy/merge with a weaker school in a strong market like New York and make both schools better off. This seems radical today, but in the early 1900s mergers and other combinations between law schools and universities took place quite a few times. To pick on my own state, there are nine law schools in Ohio, located in slow growing or stagnant legal job markets: Ada, Akron, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo. (Columbus and Cincinnati are doing OK as job markets generally, but the growth in legal jobs is less than spectacular.)

4) U.S. News should take steps to limit gaming. For example, they could eliminate the part-time game by requiring schools to report the LSAT and UGPA numbers for part-time as well as full-time program students. If net transfers in are large, the school is likely playing games with the 1L numbers (I'll leave it to U.S. News' editors to define "large"). These changes would make U.S. News' rankings better in the sense that the rankings would be less susceptible to strategic behavior. They wouldn't improve the rankings in the sense of making them more accurate assessments of educational quality. Being better at doing U.S. News-style rankings strikes me as worthwhile, even if it isn't as worthwhile as creating a better system of rankings entirely.

Steve:
I would wager that if a school acquired a reputation for turning out skilled legal writers, its marketability to law firms would increase tenfold. The question is whether law schools have the ability to teach writing ability in a significant way, or if the only reliable way to turn out good writers is to recruit a better class of student.
8.15.2005 10:20pm
Rob Rickner (mail):
My law school has invested heavily in recommendation 1 and I've had some time to think about it. I have to ask, how is buying better students not gaming the system? First, it takes money away from programs that would actually distinguish a school. Combining a CPA type program with a tax law program would certainly put students in demand. Second, it only makes US News and World Reports less accurate by artificially inflating LSAT scores a few points by bringing in some ringers.

It might be a decent long term stradegy. You buy a few good students, and a small percentage of them are bound to end up partners someplace. However, that is a huge gamble to take on some LSAT scores.

I personally benefitted from this program, but I really didn't deserve the money. Unimpressive grades and a decent LSAT score should be a huge red flag, not a reason for granting a scholarship. How did they know I wasn't going to slack off in law school?
8.16.2005 12:23am
Paul McKaskle (mail):
The problem with an LSAT score is that it isn't very predictive of how a single individual will do. It is only useful for predicting how a group of like LSAT score people will do. A group of a hundred with an LSAT score of, say, 170 will have a large percentage who do well (or at least adequately if the median of the class is at or near 170) but a few--at the 170 level maybe only a handful--will not do well at all. A group of a hundred with an LSAT of, say, 155 will have some who do quite well but not nearly as many as the group of a hundred who have a 170 LSAT, and more of them will do poorly. Even a few of those with lower scores will do OK, and a very small number will do quite well. Unfortunately, there is little available to predict which ones will do well or will do poorly in either group. The very pronounced advantage for a law school of admitting students with high LSATs is that the ratio of successes to failures will be better in a high LSAT group (as well as enhancing the USNews ranking--which is an unholy driving force these days).

Grade-point scores are more variable. There is a wide variation between undergraduate schools, both as to the rigor of various programs and the degree of grade inflation. But, likely, a truly stellar gpa even with a less than average LSAT means that the student will at least get by--probably because he or she has learned to work hard at studying. But for students with high LSATs and low gpa-s it is more variable. It might mean that a student has no decent study habits which will sink even a fairly bright student in law school. But, it might also mean that undergraduate studies simply didn't present any challenges but law school turns the student on. Also, gpa tends to be less relevant for students who have worked for a number of years before coming back to law school. I have seen high LSAT/low gpa students flunk out and I have seen them end up at or near the top of the class.

I teach at a school that teeters between 2nd and 3rd tier on USNews rankings--2nd tier several times and 3rd tier in other years (though our LSAT scores are usually in the middle of the second tier)--and I have seen lots of students with high LSATs and low gpa-s and vice versa. (We rarely get students who are very high on both since they get into Boalt or Stanford--the top ranked schools in our region.) Most years much of the top of the graduating class is made up of students with high LSAT scores, but occasionally one with a low score does extremely well--one year a student with an LSAT in the then equivalent of the low 150s (well into our bottom quartile) but with a 4.00 undergraduate gpa graduated first in the class.

But, the pressures of USNews does distort who gets scholarships and who is admitted. The really interesting student with a fabulous background and a good undergraduate gpa gets pretty short shrift if the LSAT is low--even if it is only a point below the expected bottom quartile for the year, and I think the law profession is the worst for it.
8.16.2005 1:31am
Richard Bellamy (mail):
Is not the assumption in the above recommendations that schools value high U.S. News rankings over, say, profitability?

For suggestion 1, for example, if I am a fourth tier law school, charging gobs of money, why would I want to become a third tier law school that charges less? Why aren't I very happy as a profitable fourth tier law school?
8.16.2005 10:19am
BrewerBoy (mail):
Richard, you are coming out of the assumption that law schools earn most of their money from tuition. In fact, this doesn't even come close to covering the complete costs of an education. By becoming a "cheaper" third tier school, they are trading a decline in profitability from tuition (something that wasn't a source of profit in the first place)for the increased probability of having more prosperous alums who will shell out the big bucks later--That's where law schools become profitable.
8.16.2005 10:50am
Houston Lawyer:
I believe the whole ranking system is pernicious. The only person who's opinion really counts when it comes to the ranking of law schools is that of the potential employer. The vast majority of practicing lawyers in any geographical area (who inevitably are in charge of hiring) have established opinions of the quality of the schools in their area, and consequently, the quality of the students who graduate from such schools. If you go to a law school from outside of the area, they will likely only know of it if it has a well established national reputation. Trust me, practicing lawyers do not keep a copy of U.S. News around to fact check the ranking of lesser known schools.

To top that off, the vast majority of aspiring lawyers will have significant geographical limitations on where they will attend law school. A truly helpful survey would poll attorneys within each state as to how high up in a class a student must be at a given school within that state to be hired by that attorney.

When I attended the University of Texas School of law, out of state admissions were limited to 10% of the class. That limit had subsequently been expanded to 20% or 25%. Now I read that the limit will be increased to 50%. UT has always been the most selective law school in the state and is a state supported school. In addition, a large majority of its students remain in Texas to practice. My understanding is that the cap was increased in order to raise the average class LSAT and GPA and help the school's ranking.

What business does a state school have in improving its ranking at the expense of the residents of that state?
8.16.2005 12:20pm
Non-elite scholar (mail):
Of course, recommendation #1 only works if a few schools follow it. Otherwise it just becomes a race to stay in the same place. Also LSATs are more important than undergraduate GPAs, but not so much more so that you can completely ignore UGPA.

A bigger problem with recommendation #1 is that it could cause a big hit in your academic reputation. Our staff tells us that academic reputation makes up the single biggest portion of the US News score. Academics are quick to complain and word gets around. Those devoted to scholarship (typically also the most connected with people at other schools) will leave and tell others why. The word will quickly get around that school X has abandoned scholarship, cut resources, etc. Result: Decline in the academic rep score, which is worth more than the LSAT.

It seems like the schools that have climbed dramatically in the rankings typically have gone out and bought a lot of scholars and poured money into being an academic powerhouse (e.g. GMU, UNLV). Others who have prominently devoted themselves to being "teaching" schools (e.g. Gonzaga) have declined.
8.16.2005 12:39pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
The student finally gets to teach the teacher. Paul McKaskle was my civil procedure professor for 2 years in law school, 2 years instead of one because I have disabilities for which I now know my law school was required to but did not reasonable accommodate during my enrollment in law school there.

I have to say the most valuable part of my legal education were those two years spent in Professor McKaskle's civil procedure class. In my 16 years litigating for the right of an autistic to become a lawyer in the State and Federal Courts of California and Florida, several times to State Supreme Courts, Ninth and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeal, and the United States Supreme Court (Virgil Hawkins, history repeating itself), with no help whatsoever from my law school, it is Professor McKaskle's civil procedure class that has made me very hard to beat on procedure.

Professor McKaskle may not know it, but it is his teaching style that was so helpful in instilling his lessons in my 100% perfect autistic memory. For a person with autism, a visual demonstration is much more effective than merely reading instructions and rules, and Professor McKaskle provides his students many demonstrable examples in his class, for example, live skits of defective service of process. The legal educatinal and testing system should learn from his example.

This leads to my comments about the current LSAT and law school rankings discussion. First, I would like to say that my law school provided a very good bread and butter legal education. The problem there, however, is one of violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Americans With Disabilities Act against the law schools' disabled students in how the school jockeys for rankings, including the LSAT and bar passage.

Instead of realizing that disabled people may score low on the LSAT, certain types of standardized law school examinations, and the bar examination precisely because of the failure to provide equally effective necessary reasonable accommodations to level the playing field, utilization of standardized examination formats, and failure to vigorously tailor the law school program to the individualized needs of these disabled students (even to the extent the school takes no initiave to identify disabilities in the population of students who are struggling), the law school has for many years imposed a truly draconian grading curve designed for about a 20% attrition rate over the three years of law school through graduation. The idea of the draconian grading curve is that through competition, the "cream" will rise to the top. I know, I sat on the law school's Academic Standards Committee as the student representative.

Unfortunately, unless the law school ensures that all disabled students are full appropriately reasonably accommodated to truly level the playing field, the "cream" that rises to the top does so at the expense of an unequal playing field that penalizes the disabled student population precisely for being disabled and for not being provided the necessary accommodations. What the law school needs to do is spend much more funding on ensuring the appropriate educational style, testing format, and reasonable accommodations necessary for its disabled students to succeed, not fail. After all, in my case, my unpaid student loans (if half had not been discharged) would now be approximately $300,000. As a disabled person, a single mother who went to law school through hard work at tremendours expense to better my family's lives, I think I had a Federal right to much more assistance from my law school than I have received.

This leads to the testing problem. The LSAT, and many states bar examinations, are standardized tests utilizing Essay and multiple choice format that puts a premium on people with short term working memories and the ability to read long passages quickly. People with autism and learning disabilities due to the different wiring of their brains (defective myelinization), and an assymetry causing language to be processed in the right brain hemisphere (symbols and pictures) rather than the left brain hemisphere (language), who have short term working memory impairments and slow reading decoding, simply cannot succeed at this type of testing, which skews the results in favor of people who do not have these types of disabilities. Bartlett (2nd Cir) has already dispelled the idea that the "essential functions" of a lawyer require quick reading decoding ability. The Medical Profession is moving toward a clinical examination in real-time (a live actor and computer simulation) that is a much different format than these standardinzed tests. The reason I passed the California Bar Examination, and cannot pass Florida's is because California bases 1/3 of its bar examination grading on the Multistate Performance Test which does not test short term working memory, whereas Florida does not (despite being ordered about 8 years ago by former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice, now Eleventh Circuit Judge, Hon. Rosemary Barkett to implement that testing in Florida).

Under critical disability analysis and strict scrutiny applicable to qualified individuals with disabilities, the present LSAT, certain types of standardized law school examinations, and virtually every bar examination in this Country fail to meet the required anti-discrimination standards. Whereas a clinical examination would measure legal research ability, negotiation skills, client skills, and many other actual "essential functions" real lawyers perform that cannot be measured by the present standardized testing, the current standardized testing, LSAT, certain types of law school examinations, and many states bar examinations do not. No one goes into any court and tells the judge relief should be granted because choice "C' is the correct answer.

I can testify from my own experience preparing crib notes to assist (accommodate) my short term memory impairments, that I have no trouble arguing against the best of them despite having short term working memory impairments. Moreover, written pleadings are all prepared under open-book format out-of-court for filing in the court. So why are these standardized tests examining disabling impairments that are not essential functions of what lawyers actually do, and penalizing and skewing the outcomes against disabled people?

If bar examiners really cared about protecting the public, real-time clinial examinations would be implemented immediately, and no law student would walk out of law school upon graduaton without a license thereby allowing their training to became stale.

This leads to the next problem -- perpetuation of unlawful discrimination. The law schools that bias grades and testing against disabled students as explained above, thereby rendering the playing field unequal, and thereby further relegating disabled people to lower class ranking and unequal career opportunities, graduate these disabled students into a legal profession where every opportunity is measured upon the foundation of the unequal standardized testing and grading discrimination foundation of the non-compliant law school.

Many employers only hire top 10% or law review graduates. I have seen many clerkships in Federal Court advertised for top 10%, law review, and strong writing skills. By basing this criteria on the law school foundation of inequality and an unequal playing field, disabled law school graduates are virtually ensured they will be excluded from every career advancing opportunity available to their non-disabled peers. If a law school either failed to provide necessary reasonable accommodations or provided inadequate reasonable accommodations in violation of Federal anti-discrimination laws, resulting in career injury to its disabled student in the form of say an unequal bottom class ranking, this ranking fact will be utilized thereafter as hiring criteria and criteria for qualification to judicial clerkships and the Bar and Bench -- in this circumstance, perpetuating the unlawful discrimination injury that occurred at the law school level.

Beyond the obvious remedy for such perpetuation, e.g., 42 U.S.C. Sec. 12134, 28 C.F.R. Sec. 35.130(b)(1), (b)(3), the question remains, how does one measure the quality of a disabled person who was discriminated against by his or her law school by failure to provide necessary reasonable accommodations, when later in his or her career the reasonable accommodation are provided and that fact alone (non-compliance vs. compliance with Federal anti-discrimination law) allows the playing field to be leveled in a way that finally show-cases the disabled person's talent as a top flight excellent writer? Should that person then be excluded based on the skewed law school top 10% law review criteria, thereby continuing the past effects of unlawful discrimination based on the various law schools' inconsistent approaches to properly accommodating their disabled students?

I know for example, that Harvard does provide appropriate accommodations to its law students, whereas my law school did not. How does one measure top 10%/law review when the underlying schools' anti-discrimination compliance are completely inconsistent, skewing the measurement criteria? It may well be that a disabled person whose reasonable accommodation rights are violated by a 2nd or 3rd tier law school, would be in the top 10% and on law review at Harvard "with" the appropriate accomodations, since outcome is very frequently accommodation-sensitive among the disabled population.

I think many times "diversity" is based on race, ethnicity, and gender, but what about disability? In this mad rankings race, disabled people who truly have talent and a lot to give are being completely left out. Am I the only disabled person who belives this needs to be changed?
8.16.2005 4:52pm
Confused Reader (mail) (www):
Why are law schools with such (supposedly) liberal and leftist faculty and administrators so obsessed with obtaining societal rewards such as prestige and high ranking? Why not just have a good law school that produces people who can practice law (providing you stay ABA or state approved)? Why be obsessed with ranking? Sure, there is the, everyone does it, I want my good career, but these same people lecture (and I do mean lecture) about legal ethics, doing the progressively moral thing, and the evils of Enron. Maybe they are not all obsessed or are afraid to say they are not obsessed and do not care if they are in the fourt tier.
8.16.2005 5:02pm
Andrew Kvochick (mail):
I realize that this is anecdotal, but FWIW...

In my own experience, I refused to consider tuition. Toledo offered me free tuition (not bragging - they offer it to everyone that stays awake through the LSAT). I eventually chose Case Western, the most expensive school on my list, for the other reasons you talk about - innovative skills programs, strong reputation, and what I perceived to be a much stronger job market in Cleveland. The free t-shirt didn't hurt either...

Of course, maybe this is an apples and oranges comparison. Is Case considered an elite school?
8.16.2005 5:29pm
Manfredo Felice (mail):
I think one option which was not discussed would be a greater emphasis on specialization. It seems to have served Tulane University well; although usually ranked in the 25-35 range, the school's reputation has been greatly enhanced by the fact that there is a discreet area of practice (Admiralty and Maritime) in which it is almost universally considered to be the best.
8.16.2005 5:44pm
Confused Reader (mail) (www):
Tulane's admirality and maritime speciality is a good example of part of what I am wondering.

By focusing on being great in something, it seems a school does more good then moving up the ranking.

I am under the impression that New College in California does something like this and for those purposes is not interested in ABA approval.
8.16.2005 6:48pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
Initially, when I was in law school, I thought Tulane had a great admiralty and maritime program. However, after litigating against a graduate of Tulane's admiralty/ maritime program, Jacob Munch, Esq., Vice Chair of The Florida Bar's admiralty and maritime law committee, as well as a graduate a the Merchant Marine Academy and Third Mate's licenses, I am not impressed. I only took one class in admiralty/maritime law, but it was enough to know Mr. Munch knew nothing about 46 CFR pt. 10 captain licensing when he put on a perjurer who claimed to have an ocean unlimited master's license, which turned out to be grossly untrue, and the Middle District of Florida Federal Court, Hon. James D. Whittemore, caught the perjury. If people want to see for themselves, check out PACER, Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, Petrano and Petrano v. The Vessel Mistress, Case No. 8:04-CV-2534-T-27 JDW EAJ. Word of warning, if you ever come across this attorney, check and recheck the credentials of Mr. Munch's expert witnesses on your own accord. I hope Tulane's other graduates don't follow Mr. Munch's example.
8.17.2005 1:25am