Sunday, March 19, 2006

What are law schools doing?

The commodification of legal education, and every way to measure its quality. We are working in a time when law school rankings drive us all too much. The U.S. News rankings, which are driven largely by reputation among other academics and a bit by reputation among the federal judiciary. Some would rather use the Leiter rankings, and any other rankings you can imagine. Law schools obsess about rankings and ways to measure quality. The ABA statistics, counting publications by faculty members, counting citations by others, counting citations by courts, counting citations by the Supremes, or counting involvement in drafting or testifying on legislation. Wow! What a lot of ways to define quality.

But do any of those measures of quality translate to anything that the students actually benefit from? Potential students and their families, looking at the tremendous cost of law school want to know the best place to spend their money. They want the best education for the money, and the best placement the student can achieve. The name on the diploma can affect the first job upon graduation, and possibly, the career path after that. The mythology building up in the country right now makes parents and students so nervous that parents are sweating over getting the child into the right preschool, much less the right law school. So of course, they want information, unbiased, objective measures of quality that will help them measure among the law schools.

My daughter is a sophomore in high school and took the pre-pre-SAT. We have been deluged with college information pamphlets. This happened with my son as well, four years ago. You do start to feel over-whelmed. Every glossy publication wants to tell you what a wonderful place X university or college is, and why they are the perfect place for your child. Well, they can't all be the perfect place for each student, can they? But you can't tell that from the admissions pamplets. You are drowning in information that does not help you to distinguish among the schools in any meaningful way. Do they stress hard sciences? Or is history their strong suit? Is this school really about literature? Or do they aim for pre-med? Engineering major available? It would be helpful to know that sort of thing, and the sort of culture of the place. Not some bland, committee-produced mission statement, but the driving idea that has distinguised X university from the other places over the years.

So, I am guessing that is the sort of information that potential law students would really benefit from on law school admissions materials. I know that they like to meet law professors at the fairs. It is hard to get the profs to go, but some will, and it says a lot about the schools that can muster somebody to attend.

Perhaps it is self-serving of me, since I am working at a lower tier school, but I really do think that most law schools outside the very top layer, are very close in quality. And in fact, I am not convinced that the top layer gives the student a much better experience except in terms of better, sharper classmates. (am I cynical?) I have been very impressed at the quality of professor at the two law schools where I have worked -- St. Louis University and now, Suffolk University. Prof. Joseph Glannon works at Suffolk -- students know him from his stellar books on Civil Procedure and Torts. He's as great a teacher as he is a writer and his students are darned lucky to have him in class. And we have other professors just as excellent. I have had the great good fortune to sit in on some of their classes.

From the student's point of view -- I am not sure having Suffolk on the diploma will help you get hired outside of the Boston area, where we have a pretty good reputation. And that might be a big problem. If you want to work on Wall Street, or for a silk stocking firm in NYC or Washington, D.C., you probably had better think about going to Harvard or Yale, Stanford, perhaps a handful of other top-rated schools. If you want to be a good lawyer and know how to get the work done, probably any of the rest of the law schools will do a very good job training you.

But as a student, you have to do your part, too. You have to put in the time: Spending 4-6 hours a day preparing for class is a good idea. Do not skip class! Outline, and start early, keep up through the semester. Studies show and continue to show: your 1st year grades are the best predictors of how well you are likely to do passing the bar. Your LSAT score bears only a slight resemblance -- the 1st year grades are a much better predictor.

No comments: