Effective and Ineffective "Law Porn":

As the chair of George Mason's hiring committee, and therefore a presumptive U.S. News voter, over the last several weeks I've been the recipient of huge amounts of what has come to be known as "law porn"--brochures and other materials meant to inform me about the wonderful qualities of various schools.

Most of it simply goes in the garbage. But I have looked at some of it, and I've made some relevant conclusions about effective and ineffective law porn:

(1) If you're going to brag about something, make sure it's something worth bragging about.

Exhibit A is the fourth-tier law school that sent a brochure of faculty publications over the last decade. I noticed that I had personally published more than this entire faculty. This school did not rise in my estimation.

Exhibit B is the low-ranked school that sent a large placard bragging about the fact that it now has four former Supreme Court clerks on the faculty. The school gets points for originality in design. This 9 X 12 placard is beautifully designed, and, unlike the average law porn, requires no opening to read, so the information is conveyed very efficiently, and can even easily be absorbed on the way to the trash can. Unfortunately, the information that this school has four Supreme Court clerks is likely to make readers think less highly of it. First, what could be more gauche than bragging about how many former Supreme Court clerks are on your faculty? Second, Supreme Court clerks are overvalued in the academic market (though not as much as they used to be). It turns out that I happen to know, or know of, two of this school's former clerks, and they are excellent scholars. But someone less familiar with this school's faculty would be tempted to conclude that this school is hiring clerks just to be able to say it has former clerks. Finally, one of the four trumpeted faculty members is actually a "visiting professor." There is probably more to this story, but the message conveyed from the limited text of this law porn is "we're going to spend a lot of money to tell you how proud we are to have this individual on our faculty, even though we don't think highly enough of this individual to offer him/her a tenure-track position."

Exhibit C are schools, that, assumedly to make their faculty feel better, include everyone in their publication lists, including faculty who haven't published anything outside a bar journal or a new edition of their casebook in a decade, and including faculty who aren't even expected to publish, such as legal writing faculty and librarians. The achievements of the faculty the school should focus its bragging on are lost in the sea of information about the clinicians who just published an op-ed in the local newspaper. Similarly, consider a law school that trumpets its new faculty hires, most of whom are clinical and writing instructors whose backgrounds betray no prior scholarly backgrounds. I'm sure many of these folks are fine clinical and writing instructors, but I'm not going to be especially impressed that Third Tier Law School recently hired three clinicians who attended Second Tier Law Schools and then practiced at Local Law Firms I Never Heard Of while publishing nothing. It's not that there is anything wrong with such hires, as one hardly needs to have attended Harvard and worked at a major international law firms to be a great clinician (and it may actually be a disadvantage) but the implicit message of focusing on these hires in a school's law porn is that the school has nothing better to brag about. To sum up Exhibit C, is your law porn showing how great your law school is, or how egalitarian it is? If the latter, then don't waste your money.

(2) Give stuff, not brochures. I was just thinking about how I needed a new flash drive. The University of Kentucky sent me one, with its school logo, and a file with info about how great the school is. I may never read that file, but I'll keep and use the flash drive, and I'm still more likely to read that file than most law porn. Thanks, UK! If you can't give stuff, at least design the brochure so it stands out, and may actually be read, as with the 9 X 12 placard described above.

(3) Don't send alumni magazines. These are meant for alumni, and they typically focus on things alumni care about, not things that professors at other law schools care about.

(4) Don't address the brochure to "chair, faculty hiring committee" as opposed to actually finding out who the chair is, and addressing it personally. The former address gives away that the mailing is law porn, and is therefore about 200% more likely to wind up in the trash bin, unread.

(5) Don't focus on recent and upcoming endowed guest lectures. Any law school with enough money can get just about any professor to speak on just about any topic. The fact that Richard Epstein, or Akhil Amar, or Bruce Ackerman, swung by last year tells me nothing substantial about your law school. On the other hand, if a law school has a surprisingly vigorous weekly workshop program, do send a brochure about that, because it shows that your school has an ongoing, interesting intellectual climate, not limited to when the famous stars show up once a semester.

UPDATE: Many of the comments start with the premise that "law porn" is actually going to affect U.S. News rankings. The evidence is to the contrary, as the faculty reputation portion of rankings has been remarkably stable, regardless of schools' investment in propaganda. As more schools send out this material, it becomes even less likely that it will affect rankings. Nevertherless, I assume that schools that send it would at least like to create a favorable impression in the minds of recipients, regardless of U.S. News, hence my advice.

Co-Conspiratory Orin suggests in the Comments:

I think UVa Law School does it best. They send out a journal that has excerpts from scholarly articles and detailed profiles of particular faculty members. It's a very interesting read. For example, in the last issue they had profiles of Caleb Nelson and Risa Goluboff. I was familiar with Risa's work but not Caleb's; I had heard excellent things about it but I don't think I ever sat down to read one of his articles. I found the profile fascinating, and it left a very positive impression of the law school.

Some commentors also suggest that a focus on the broad accomplishments of law schools, such as how successful they are in placing graduates, their skills programs, and whatnot, should go into the reputation rankings. Sure they should, but how do you convey this information in a way that both appears objective (and thus persuasive) and also holds the interest of the intended audience sufficiently long that it gets absorbed? No one is going to read through pages of explanations of the curricular innovations underway at 100 different law schools. Relatedly, some commenters point out that what impresses professors may not impress prospective students, alumni, and practitioners, and vice versa. True, but if your audience is professors, it makes sense to send material geared to them, no?

What should a law school that actually wants to improve its U.S. News reputation rank do? The only thing I know that definitely works is to get acquired by a more prominent university (see Michigan State and Penn State law schools), and bask in the reflected glory.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. A weakness in the US News Ranking System for Law Schools:
  2. Effective and Ineffective "Law Porn":
A weakness in the US News Ranking System for Law Schools:

David's post on the "law porn" sent out by law schools to try to improve their US News rankings highlights a more general problem with the system. A substantial part (25%) of a school's ranking depends on ratings by randomly selected professors at other schools. Another 15% is based on a survey of randomly selected lawyers and judges.

Here's the problem: there are some 190 ABA-accredited law schools in the US. The average professor doesn't know much about what is going on at the vast majority of them. If I spent my time keeping up with the faculty publications, curricula, student quality, and so forth, at the other 190 law schools, I wouldn't have any time left over to do my own research and teaching. Realistically, I only know something about the top 30-40 schools (and even then with far from complete thoroughness), plus a handful of others that I am familiar with for some special reason (e.g. - I went there to do a presentation, and therefore know the faculty). I suspect that the same is true of the lawyers and judges. They too have their own work to do, and therefore can't spend their time keeping track of the doings at dozens of law schools.

This doesn't mean that the surveys are completely useless. Some valuable information can still be gleaned from them, especially if the errors of the ignorant US News voters somehow cancel each other out, leaving those knowledgeable about a given school to actually determine its ranking. However, I suspect that errors are not randomly distributed, and that there are some systematic biases. In particular, the voters are less likely to recognize the quality of schools that have recently improved their faculties and/or student bodies (this hurts George Mason, among others), less likely to give high rankings to schools outside major metro areas on the East and West coasts, and so on. I also suspect that the professors - and even more so the lawyers and judges - are likely to base their evaluations in part on what was true when they were in law school rather than regularly updating their evaluations of schools outside the top 20 or 30.

No doubt, there are also other biases that will affect survey responses in an environment where most of those surveyed are necessarily ignorant about the vast majority of the schools that they rate.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. A weakness in the US News Ranking System for Law Schools:
  2. Effective and Ineffective "Law Porn":