Monday, June 11, 2007

Specific Rankings

The USN& WR rankings take a fair amount of criticism from Moneylaw contributors and for good reason. No one knows exactly what the rankings mean. The most devastating criticism from my point of view is Nancy Rapaport’s study showing that, once you pass the first few law schools, the next 50 or more are separated by a couple of eye lashes. This means that being 35th or 49th means little except to the same types of people who vote for the political candidate with the catchiest slogan and to those who then have to contend with those people.

Why not a ranking based on what a school actually does. For private schools the most important ranking is probably average starting salary of graduates or rate of return on student investment. Private schools, after all, do not exist because of the rationale that legal education is a public good. I understand that not every student attending a private school takes the highest paying job offer but, a clean ranking by starting salary, adjusted for cost of living, would at least isolate what many students are after. Plus, if the graduates are really that good, presumably they would be made private sectors job offers they can not refuse.

For public schools why not number of graduates taking public sector jobs or practicing in firms with 5 attorneys or less. Public schools students are subsidized at one level or another because someone somewhere along the line convinced people that legal education is a public good. (And not, as I think, a method of income redistribution from lower ranks to higher ranks.) If it is manufactured at inefficiently low levels it must be because the prices in the market do not reflect the true value. So why not measure the public schools by the number people who actually do something other than attempt to fully internalize the benefits of an education someone else contributed to. I know the subsidization varies from school to school so we would work out some kind of ratio.

I am personally not that keen of bar passage rate being goal of every law school but I understand the vast majority of students do take the bar and hope to practice law. But bar passage rate tells you very little. For example, suppose you are a student with a 3.5 GPA and a 150 on the LSAT. Is it bar passage rate that is important or is it bar passage rate for students like you? An informative bar passage measure is one that accounts for different qualifications of entering students. Most students with a 4.0 and a 178 will pass the bar at any school. The idea that schools that primarily admit these students also get credit for a high bar passage rate makes no sense at all.

I can think of other measures but they all come down to a School deciding what its role is and then measuring its success. This is very different from what typically goes on: A faculty examines what its school does and then decides that those are its goals and gives itself an A. My sense is that the only thing good about USN&WR report is that it takes the rankings out of the hands of complacent faculties and administrators who serve them.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does a public school have to be judged exclusively by contribution to public services? Couldn't the public good be keeping really smart lawyers in the state where they can help the economy (perhaps as transaction cost engineers or perhaps as entrepreneurs with legal training) or serve as political and intellectual leaders after getting private sector training? Private start-up schools can't manufacture the prestige associated with even an average state's flagship school and therefore can't adequately fill this gap in attracting students over the short-term. It's true that a state can use lawyers from other states or attract native lawyers to return home after going to other state's law schools, but these may be more costly or unsuccessful than keeping them at the local school in the first place. Moreover, the school itself may be a net plus to the economy by providing jobs, attracting students as temporary and potential long-term residents, helping vendors, assisting real estate markets etc. It may be that there are more efficient industries to subsidize, but the measure of the law school's success would still be the ultimate economic and social return (which is much broader than just the starting salary of the or the number of public interest jobs assumed by students). Even on a narrow public interest model, private sector lawyers help with legislation or do pro bono and non-profit work years after they graduate. It would be difficult to capture that return in a one year measure.

6/11/2007 12:32 PM  
Anonymous chris musillo said...

>>My sense is that the only thing good about USN&WR report is that it takes the rankings out of the hands of complacent faculties and administrators who serve them. <<

I'm not so sure that this isn't a good enough aim in and of itself.
I think that perfect is the enemy of the good in law school rankings. Which is to say that any criticisim lobbed at USN&WR ought first be fired at law school administration.

6/12/2007 11:26 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Dear Mr. Anon. I think we actually agree. Most of the factors you list would be counted a forms of public service.

6/21/2007 6:50 PM  

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