HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Friday, March 18, 2011

From Guest Blogger Jennifer S. Bard: What Law Students Don’t Understand About The Us News Rankings, How It Can Hurt Them and What We as Law Professors Can Do About it.

Bard The US news rankings came out today and although I promise this won’t reduce the amount of health law blogging I’m going to do, there’s a convergence of events this year that deserves discussion.

I think it’s fair to say that these rankings affect us as law professors differently than they do our students or prospective students. A rise in the rankings brings happiness and increased applications while a reduction is often followed by a Dean’s departure.   Also, strong regional preferences aside law professors do give considerable thought to the prestige (and its proxy US News Rank) when choosing among employment offers.  We also spend a lot of time complaining about their inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Finally, at least in terms of the rankings we control—that in our own specialties—they do a good job of highlighting the schools that really are putting their resources into a specialty area.  None of us in Health Law would dispute that this year’s list encompasses the programs leading our field—and congratulations to those programs for being deservedly recognized.

But the question I have is what the general rankings mean to our students.  I’d suggest that since most of our students come to law school with the plan of becoming lawyers and then proceed to take on considerable financial debt, they are looking at ranking as a proxy for employability.  And if so, they are making a big mistake.

It’s certainly fair to say that law students are very aware of the rankings.  A Kaplan 2010 survey of LSAT takers revealed that 86% of respondents felt that “a law school’s ranking…very important” or “somewhat important” in their application decision-making. And although US News itself has tried to put these numbers in context, it is difficult to explain why higher isn’t always better. I think that reflects a serious misunderstanding of the fact that the law business is, for the most part, very regional.  While the large law conglomerates often describe themselves as “national” or “international” in fact that reflects their presence in a number of different locations.  While certainly Big Law partners and associates spend plenty of time travelling, in the end every practicing lawyer is licensed in one or two individual states.

Outside of Big Law, the emphasis on location is even greater.  Lawyers build practices and acquire clients in the state where they are located. If your dream is to go home to New Hampshire to practice law, it’s just not true that going to a school ranked 65 on the West Coast is better than going to the newly constituted University of Hampshire which seems to be bringing up the rear of this year’s rankings.

You wouldn’t know that by reading US News. Exhibiting a common mistake in statistics, most prospective law students seeing a list of law schools imagine that the ranking reflects directly the ability to get the job they want on graduation—wherever that happens to be.  Not true.  Just because you can put things in numerical order doesn’t mean you know what that means.  This is because “[o]rdinal measurements describe order, but not relative size or degree of difference between the items measured. “ A law school ranked 20 is not necessarily twice as good a choice for an individual student as one ranked 40.

At every level from number one in the class on down, most students get jobs with firms or companies who either know them through a part time job or (more likely and) have hired other graduates of their law school.  And although you wouldn’t know it from reading most of our websites, most law school graduates end up practicing either pretty close to where they went to school or somewhere they have personal ties –in which case familiarity with the law school itself isn’t so important.

What prospective law students in their 20’s don’t know yet is as exciting as it sounds to strike out on your own and get a job in the big city at some point family needs—whether of their own children or their parents—tend to nudge people in the direction of home.

While there are many examples of successful transplants, law firms with any interest in retaining a new hire beyond a year or two are well aware of how unlikely it is that a student from a very different region with no visible ties to their cities will actually make a permanent home, let alone be an asset in building a client base.  And the lower that student is in her class, the less likely they are to risk it.  The other important factor is debt load.  A generous scholarship may make it more reasonable to attend law school someplace you would never want to live. 

And yes of course, like everything else, things are probably different in the T-14.  I’m not worried that Ithaca can’t absorb the graduates pouring out of Cornell every year—but on the other hand I think a student in the bottom third of a T-14 law school on the West Coast will find more closed doors on the East Coast than if she had spent three years building her reputation with the bar of her chosen city using the resources of a top 50 law school in another location.  Dealing with the realities of life as we know it—yes, all things being equal, it’s probably better to go to Harvard than not.  But things drop off pretty quickly after that and employers in Chicago will need a good reason to overcome their skepticism that a law student from the Southeast is really going to get into ice fishing.

I think one reason students are misled is because other areas of academic competition are not so regionalized and really do value prestige over location. If you want to go to graduate school at Princeton it’s probably OK that you attended one of the UC schools and no one would suggest that transferring to Rutgers would make admission more likely.

It may well be that the frustration expressed over the last two years that students were “deceived” into going into substantial debt with no real prospect of work is because they borrowed money to go to a law school with a higher rank but less job prospects. See here  and here.  

What can be done?  One thing could be the transparency which the ABA and others are urging on us all.   Perhaps we should not just publish the range of salaries but also the locations of these jobs.  This could be harder than it sounds.  The first few years out of law school are often times of substantial movement.  It also won’t reflect students who have personal ties in a location or who follow a partner to his or her home. But the weight of those numbers will still be useful. Equally useful, and already available but probably not often used, is information about the location of a school’s alumni. 

Another thing we could do is intervene much more strongly in the choices they make as law students.  I see career services and externship programs working hard to make opportunities available which students don’t take because they are spending a lot of time on co-curricular activities which will “look good on their resume.”  Being an extern in a legal setting or even volunteering somewhere legal services are being provided is not only educational, it is a chance to approach employers with a solid track record rather than faceless strangers. That way even if the specific location does not have an opening, they have made themselves known to a network of lawyers who can sincerely recommend them to other employers on the base of their work product—not their participation in activities with other law students.   

This advice may brings cries of protest from everyone who believes it was their published note or moot court victory which got them the job they wanted but remember three things: 1) there are many fewer jobs available than when the vast majority of law professors graduation; 2) the students we teach are for the most part seeking careers as lawyers—not academics and 3) they are graduating with debt levels higher than our mortgages.

Am I suggesting students should ignore US News Rankings?  Not exactly.  Within individual cities or regions they probably do a pretty good job of at least reflecting, and probably shaping, local perceptions.  And, again, probably always better to go to Harvard than not.  But it is simply not true, as many law students may well believe, that a higher ranked school in an area where you don’t want to practice afterwards and with a limited alumni base in your dream location is automatically a better choice than a lower ranked school where you do want to practice. Throw in the debt load factor and the matrix is even further from US News’ list. All of us want to kvell when our schools rise in the ranks (or simply hover near the top) and for faculty there are very real differences in resources available for scholarship, but perhaps it would be helpful to look at our own employment history data and think about how it, and other realities of legal practice, could best be presented to both current and prospective students.

 --  Jennifer S. Bard, Guest Blogger

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The administration at my school claims that lawyers really don't know very much about the US news rankings, so as a result any degree that is not (1) from a school in a lawyer's region or (2) from a top 20 school is equally worthless. So if you are looking for a job in Miami, a degree from a Florida school or from Columbia helps, but degrees from, say, Wisconsin and North Dakota (to name two faraway schools with very different rankings) are equally worthless.

This topic would be a neat article, but it would require a gigantic lawyer survey with well-crafted questions.

Posted by: ML | Mar 22, 2011 8:17:21 PM

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