Monday, September 1, 2008

If Yale is #1 in U.S. News, Is It the Best Law School?

[by Bill Henderson, crossposted to ELS Blog]

In a provocative post entitled "Is the End Near for Yale's Dominance", Brian Leiter reports one insider's assessment that Yale may lose three or four additional faculty members.  If that happens, surely Harvard, with its recent lateral hiring sprees, will be the best law school in the country--right? Brian thinks that predictions of Yale's decline are premature.  I agee.  But in the process Brian implicitly highlights an interesting problem: what exactly does it mean to be the "best" law school? 

Here are the vexing facts:  on a per capital basis, Yale places more people in academia and Supreme Court clerkships than any other law school;  Yale's acceptance rate is 7.3% versus 11.8% for Harvard; yet, over the last decade, the average U.S. News academic reputation score for the two schools are exactly--yes, exactly--equal: 4.840 for Harvard, 4.840 for Yale. 

Is it possible that Yale is #1 because, well, Yale is #1 -- and has been every year since USN began publication?  Brian refers to U.S. News "small school bias".  He is right.  Because of Yale's massive endowment and small student size, it enjoys a per-pupil expenditure that is roughly 1/3 its total tuition price.  According to a simulation model of the 2008 U.S. News rankings, which Andy Morriss and I recently constructed, Harvard would not overtake Yale even if: 

  • Harvard's median LSAT climbed to 180 and its median UGPA hit 4.0;
  • Harvard's academic and lawyer-judge reputation scores were both a perfect 5.0;
  • Harvard's acceptance rate plunged to less than 5%.

In fact, even with these changes, Yale would still have a nice leadership cushion.  [Note:  Similar anomalous math was noted by Ted Seto in his classic essay, Understanding the U.S. News Law School Rankings, SMU L Rev (2007).]

Yet, Yale's dominance keeps things simple.  Applicants signal their elite status by enrolling at Yale.  Judges, in turn, derive prestige by hiring Yale graduates, even though they mockingly complain that Yale clerks know very little law.  And faculty favor Yale graduates because it validates our own sense of eliteness and institutional upward movement.  We can rationalize Yale's dominance in terms of scholarship, but the real endgame is the allocation of positional goods.  It is so easy to get too caught up on the hamster wheel of envy and prestige without realizing that the energy expended does not necessarily produce anything of lasting social value.

Of course, each of us is free to determine our own merit criteria. I think  the "best" law school is the one where faculty are willing to make inordinate personal sacrifices for the benefit of the collective enterprise--and where aspiring lawyers leave the law school skilled, confident, ethical, and ensconced in a powerful professional network that opens doors and values public service.  In turn, alumnus are sufficiently grateful for the transformative experience they received that they are willing to underwrite the law school's mission and subsidize this opportunity for future generations.  This vision requires a greater focus on internal rather than external metrics.  For us human beings, that is no easy trick.

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I think it is simpler than that: the best law school is the one that most applicants want to go to. And there are very very few people who if offered the chance to go to Yale, Stanford or Harvard would reject Yale. It would take a fairly massive shift in quality of the faculty, facilities and reputation to change that.

I claim no inside knowledge but my guess is that the new dean at Yale has his own ideas about how to build a faculty for the 21st century.

Personally I have only one regret about my own decision to go to Yale: now that I live near Stanford I would love to be a member of the golf course there. Yale's course is better but it is, of course, very far away and unplayable half the year. :))

Posted by: Steve Diamond | Sep 3, 2008 7:39:41 AM

Law students shoudln't rely on just one ranking. Business students don't even look at USN--WSJ, FT and BW are far more popular. The ultimate value of a degree should be the money alumni make. The rest is subjective.

Posted by: Fred | Sep 3, 2008 1:53:06 PM

"The ultimate value of a degree should be the money alumni make."

It is sad that this passes for common sense in our world. What kind of "ultimate value" is money? Granted, rare coin collectors consider it to have intrinsic worth. (For aesthetic or nostalgic reasons?) So do money fetishists, completists, and scorekeepers. More typically, though, money is used as a conduit to other things, experiences, freedoms, etc. which, if they are not of ultimate value, are at least closer to 'ultimate value' than money is.

Just because "the rest is subjective" doesn't mean that we then must reduce our evaluations of different educational institutions down to the dollars their alumni accumulate. I contend that we shouldn't. First, money can't buy everything. Second, much of the work of finding "ultimate value" does not involve money, and thus cannot be counted by the metric proposed by Fred.

Posted by: Reader, I married Myron Scholes | Sep 15, 2008 12:24:20 PM

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