Monday, October 13, 2008

U.S. News Survey: Vote Quality, Not Reputation

The U.S. News surveys -- the primary determinant of the overall rankings -- are now in the boxes of hundreds of law professors around the country, due in a few weeks. Next month, it's the lawyers' turn. Discussion in the blogosphere and elsewhere have referred to these as "reputation" surveys, which is misleading -- so let's stop doing so. Respondents are supposed to be actually assessing the quality of each school's JD program. U.S. News used to call them "reputation" surveys, but has not since 2002. The label, nonetheless, persists. This may seem like a small point, but I think it's quite important.

Here's what U.S. News asks law professors: "Identify the law schools you are familiar with, and then rate the academic quality of their J.D. program at each of these schools. Consider all factors that contribute to or give evidence of the excellence of the school's J.D. program, for example, curriculum, record of scholarship, quality of faculty and graduates."

U.S. News calls this its "quality assessment" surveys. They're asking law professors as experts on legal education, not as experts on public opinion ("reputation"). And lawyers and judges are asked the same thing as experts in lawyering (to assess "academic quality") except they are asked to particularly consider the degree to which schools prepare students for practice.

So if you were considering Yale, for example, and thought the question was what is the school's reputation on a scale of 1-5, of course the answer is "outstanding" ("5") or at least "strong" ("4") -- after all, it's the #1 law school in the country, according to the dominant rankings system! But if you were actually assessing the quality of their J.D. program, you might take into account the low student satisfaction ratings relative to their peers; the bar passage rate in New York, where most of its graduates take the bar, that were lower than Cornell and Cardozo last year, among others, despite its students having the highest entering credentials; and the fact that first-year students get most of their feedback in Legal Writing from upper-level law students, leading to legions of complaints from lawyers and judges about the work product of Yale summer associates and entry-level lawyers. And so you might say that the academic quality of the school's J.D. program was more like "adequate" ("2") or "good" ("3"), and rate the school as such.

By sticking with "reputation," we're not answering the question (as we often scold our students for doing), and also saying it's OK to answer the survey year after year according to last year's U.S. News rankings (which after all determine reputation) and in the absence of any real information on relative educational quality. The result is no competition on the quality of the service provided (legal education), and instead various attempts to "game" the rankings by buying LSAT scores (how much does your school spend on this practice?), shifting students into a part-time program, reducing the size of the first-year class, and other devices.

Time for a change. For a different approach that actually focuses on assessing quality, see here, and I'll have some more thoughts on available indicators to look to in the days ahead. And no, faculty scholarship, which has little to do with the quality of a school's JD program and is a poor proxy, won't be one of them.



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