Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What Law School Rankings Should and Shouldn't Do: A Former Law Dean's Perspective

Leiter's Law School Reports reprints a very thoughtful email from Professor Paul L. McKaskle, former Dean of the law school at the University of San Francisco, suggesting that there are really two tiers of law schools: the top six or ten or twenty "prestige" schools and te rest.

For proper evaluation of law schools, there are probably two tiers and each tier should be evaluated with different criteria. First, there are what I will call the “prestige” law schools–Harvard, Yale and another six to twenty schools (depending on whom one asks). Many of the students admitted to these schools have glittering credentials and some are truly gifted. If a student is interested in a career in academia (especially at a “prestige” school) or is interested in clerking at the Supreme Court or for top Court of Appeals judges, or employment at a top 20 (or even a top 50) law firm (or hot public interest firms such as NAACP LDF) then the prestige of the school is of considerable importance. A truly gifted student may even benefit from intensive contact with a faculty member who is on the cutting edge of some legal field. Sponsorship is extremely important too, and top faculty at top ranked schools can do a much more effective job of this than someone in a lesser school.

However I think the biggest advantage at being at a top ranked school for most students is the chance to interact with other very bright students–who are more plentiful at top rated schools. John Roberts, no matter how talented he may be, would have been very unlikely to be where he is today (or this Fall) if he had gone to, say Notre Dame, rather than Harvard. It isn’t that the teaching at a Harvard is “better” (whatever that is) it is the combination of prestige, faculty who can sponsor and other very bright students that make the difference. (I have a niece who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard LS who has some horror stories about neglectful teaching–but she studied with very bright students.) ...

So the other tier in my classification includes the other 140 or 150 odd schools which do not qualify as what I refer to as a “prestige” school. It is these schools for which the USNews evaluations by professors, judges and practitioners are likely to be inaccurate or at least seriously misleading, because it is probably impossible for any small group of professional “evaluators” (law faculty or practitioner) to evaluate with even a pretense of accuracy. Many such evaluators may simply be a look at last years evaluation with a quick look at the LSAT range (which for the “bottom” schools is pretty atrocious) in making a decision. Indeed, as you noted, it is because of the impossibility of evaluating all law schools that you confine
yourself to simply analyzing the top fifty or so law schools–and even fewer for specific characteristics.

What makes one law school in this second tier better than another? Ithink, first of all, it is more important that the school be a place where the student can learn how to be a competent lawyer. (A good student at Yale can probably figure most of this out on his or her own.) I suspect that even in a “lesser” school the quality of classmates is an important factor (something the reported LSAT figures measure somewhat). Good teaching is important, and I think there is a correlation (though imperfect) between good teaching and a reasonable amount of scholarly productivity. Good teaching includes mentoring and other non-classroom interaction, not simply classroom teaching and the latter may be a more plentiful quantity at a school where publication isn’t the foremost requirement of a faculty member. But all of this is something which is incredibly difficult for an outsider to measure (it is pretty hard to measure inside as well). I don’t pretend to know how such evaluation should be done, or even what various factors should be considered, but I don’t think USNews comes within a thousand miles of knowing how to measure this for what I define as “non-prestige” schools–except possibly by using the LSAT data....

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