Thursday, April 23, 2009

USNWR's methodology for ranking legal writing programs - your comments welcomed

There's obviously a lot of interest in the specialty rankings among legal writing folks since the 'ol site-meter nearly blew a gasket this past week recording all the "edu" hits after we leaked the top 10 list on Monday and then published the full list last night

That list, posted here, includes the programs one would generally expect to find although, to this casual observer/blogger, Northwestern's top 10 ranking seems odd given their adminstrators' well publicized Jihad against job security for clinicians, librarians and legal writing profs.  That ranking undoubtedly reflects the voters' opinions about NW faculty, not the actions of their bosses, although one can understand the potential mixed message this sends about the relationship between job security and having a top program. 

Surprisingly, some topflight programs didn't make the list this year.  Ones that immediately come to mind include:  U. Denver, U. of Louisville, Marquette, Thomas Cooley (TC's Dean won the 2002 Golden Pen Award . . . duh!), Texas Tech, and Touro, among many others. 

Here is the criteria, copied from the password protected USNWR website, for ranking legal writing programs. 

These specialty rankings are based solely on votes by legal educators, who nominated up to 15 schools in each field. Legal educators chosen were a selection of those listed in the Association of American Law Schools Directory of Law Teachers 2007-2008 as currently teaching in that field. In the case of clinical and legal writing, the nominations were made by directors or members of the clinical and legal writing programs at each law school. Those programs that received the most top 15 nominations appear in descending order.

Please comment below about whether you think the legal writing program rankings are a good thing or not and we may later post the best responses on this blog.

I am the scholarship dude.

(jbl).

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The U.S. News & World Report rankings of legal writing programs are out again. They include and celebrate a variety of programs that are doubtlessly effective, innovative, and rigorous. But they no doubt exclude programs equally effective, innovative, and rigorous. My program is not on the list, so feel free to dismiss this post as sour grapes, though I hope civil, polite sour grapes.

A common (if not universal) feature shared by the top programs seems to be a faculty member who is known in the legal writing world.* Typically, that is someone who has written a legal writing text or texts. That's a good reason for a program to be elevated – it includes someone who is known in the discipline for excellence. The presence of an identifiable “name” certainly suggests a good program. A legal writing author on the faculty demonstrates that the faculty has at least one member who has committed time and intellectual energy to the discipline. Ideally, that author will pass on to students, and to others on the faculty, his or her knowledge and enthusiasm.

The more significant question, however, is whether the presence of a “name” in legal writing makes a program better than others. I think that is not at all obvious.

The overall rankings of law schools take into account a wide variety of factors, from hard numbers, like test scores, to softer numbers, like student-teacher ratio, to the softest of numbers, like reputation. The legal writing rankings, however, take into account only one factor - the opinions of a small group of people, assessing their friends and familiars.** They have little to go on. They do not sit in on classes. They do not review student work. They do not know the kinds of experience the faculty members (outside the “famous” ones) bring to the table. They do not count the number of assignments or page counts, the number of credits, or the amount of time spent in conference.

It is obvious why they don’t – they can’t. But *those* are the variables that seem meaningful in the assessment of a legal writing program. It is not the availability of a “name,” but the skills, interest, and achievement of the teachers, and the work they do speaking in the classroom and commenting on the papers. Without those factors being considered, the rankings are, in essence, a popularity contest.

* This is not the only recurring feature, of course. For instance, many of the top programs (with notable exceptions) also provide improved status for legal writing teachers, which we should all appreciate.

**I do not mean to imply cronyism, but simply awareness.


Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

Jim.

Posted by: anonymous | Apr 23, 2009 4:09:22 PM

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