Sunday, June 10, 2012

Does an Emphasis on Scholarship Raise a Law School's U.S. News Rank?

This was the intriguing question asked by Mark Osler at Law School Innovation.  He stated,

"Law schools across the country seem to share a common belief:  That if their faculty publish more academic scholarship, and place it in better journals, then the U.S. News ranking of the school will improve.  Schools have expended great time and expense on this project, and reshaped their faculties in pursuit of this goal.  In hiring and at tenure review, most places view scholarship as being more important than teaching, in part for this reason.  This belief has played a role not only in restructuring our institutions, but our values.

Is it a myth?

Looking back over several years of rankings, I have trouble identifying schools for whom this tactic was successful.  After all, if scholarship can result in a long-term improvement in the rankings, shouldn't there be success stories? 

So tell me-- where are they?  What are the schools that managed, through increased scholarship rather that other factors, to significantly improve their rankings over the long-term (as opposed to brief jumps)?"

One comment stated: "Florida State, perhaps? The improvement (in rank--it was always a good school) might be due to other factors, but it seems that FSU engaged in a deliberate program of pumping up its scholarly profile right around the time it began to gain ground on Florida, with which it is now basically tied. It's possible that Alabama fits this profile, as well, but it's hard to isolate the causes without knowing the z-scores of each school on all of the factors for several years going back. They could have both just started spending a lot more money per pupil, which has its own (I think pernicious) influence on the US News rank."

Paul Caron suggested Pepperdine at his blog.  However, a comment stated, "Without taking anything away from Pepperdine's impressive hires, I do not think the data support that this was the reason for Pepperdine's rankings rise. In your own annual look at peer assessment rankings vs. Overall US News rankings, Pepperdine's peer assessment significantly lags its overall ranking. if that were the only factor in the rankings, Pepperdine would now be ranked about 20-30 spots lower. I have not done a complete analysis, but I think their rise would be more closely tracked to employment statistics."

Osler's question is a very important one.  Law schools spend a significant part of their budgets on encouraging scholarship.  They also base much of their hiring decisions on who can improve a law school's scholarly reputation.   Is this money being wasted when it can be better used elsewhere?  Are law schools basing their hiring decisions on the wrong criteria?

(Scott Fruehwald)

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The entire rankings process, in any field, must admit of both winners and losers. For one school to move up, at least one school must move down. Unlike the situation in present-day major professional sports, where attempts are made, with pretty good success, of bringing parity to a league (such that almost all teams have a decent chance of making the playoffs and winning a championship), in legal education, the folks at the head table, though fighting amongst themselves for positions of honor, will gang up on the interlopers who want to move their seats from the secondary tables. It is, of course, much easier for a school to plummet in the rankings, though often that involves a cluster of other schools each moving up one or a few places at best. The only information that ultimately should matter to those who wish to be lawyers is this: "Does this law school prepare me to practice law in a way that will cause employers to want to hire me, if I do all that I should be doing as a student?" The only way to measure that is to do surveys of practicing lawyers, asking them questions about their own education and about the performance of those whom they have hired. I daresay the correlations between success in practice and legal education factors will be higher for many factors ignored by US News and almost irrelevant of some of the factors US News currently takes into account. I've yet to meet a lawyer who ascribes his or her success to the fact that he or she attended a law shcool whose faculty included one or more members who wrote scholarship for other scholars. I have met many lawyers who tagged as factors in their success the practical value of a particular teacher's course, an experience in a clinic, a legal writing professor's insistence on careful expression, a faculty member's willingness to sit down with a student and dissect the reasons for the student's academic struggles, and the practical content of courses focusing on lawyering.

Posted by: Jim Maule | Jun 12, 2012 6:47:58 AM

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