Thursday, October 16, 2008

Penn's Rankings Problem

As U.S. News voters figure out what rating to give each school, and start focusing more on educational quality, Penn Law seems to be quite well-positioned -- sky-high student satisfaction ("academic experience" rating of 96 in Princeton Review), great bar passage rates, on curriculum, we'll have to see what they submit for their "Best Practices" survey today (thanks to all who have submitted so far!).

But Penn faces a real ceiling on these "quality assessment" surveys: its legal writing program. Like Yale, it's taught by 3Ls. This ceiling prevents Penn from having an "outstanding" JD program ("5"), instead, I'm inclined to think they should get a "4" ("strong"). Particularly where one of its chief competitors, Northwestern, has top-10 legal writing, clinical, dispute-resolution and trial advocacy programs (Penn's nowhere on any of these lists, from last year's U.S. News surveys) and an increasingly innovative, practice-oriented curriculum, all of which point to a "5" in the survey, Penn needs to fix this soon.

Here's what the recently released Princeton Review "Best 174 Law Schools" says: "The only gripe that many Penn students express is with the first-year legal writing program. While some report positive experiences, many complain that the program is of poor quality and 'instructed by third-year law students that often don't have a lot of real-world experience outside of the summer clerking opportunities.'"

Remember, the question in the U.S. News survey is to rate 1-5 the quality of the school's J.D. program, and so some relevant indicators include: bar passage rates relative to entering credentials; levels of student engagement and satisfaction from the recently released Princeton Review law school rankings <> and implementation of findings from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement; and the strength of the curriculum, particularly in critical areas like legal writing and clinical offerings.

Why give so much weight to legal writing? Three reasons: (1) one of the most important skills for lawyering; (2) arguably the most important class in law school (I think so); and (3) frequent complaints from lawyers about new graduates' ability to communicate effectively in various forms.

So Penn, it's time to spend some money on real legal writing professors. The people who head Penn and Yale's progams may be terrific, but there's only so much one person can do. The law student instructors may be doing a good job given what they know, but... they're law students. Georgetown has moved away from this model in last few years -- are there any more schools out there that still do this? My colleague Hillel Levin's excellent and ongoing series of posts on legal research and writing didn't even mention this 3L model -- I assume, because it's so rare these days.

Last year, Penn's quality assessment # was 4.4 from lawyers/judges, and 4.3 from law professors. I would have been inclined to recommend giving Penn a "5", and still want to see what they submit on Best Practices of course -- but until Penn beefs up legal writing, I'm inclined to give Penn a "4" and hope you do the same.

Criticisms of this approach to the survey are always welcome, but you need an alternative. Right now, hundreds of professors and next month, lawyers, are doing the survey, mostly based on no information at all, and in the process, profoundly shaping the institutional incentives facing law schools.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Professor Solomon's information about Penn's Legal Writing course is outdated. Penn is moving toward the model used by Georgetown and a number of other schools, where full-time faculty teach to large classes and are supported by teaching assistants who teach small classes. Penn now has two full-time legal writing professors, who teach some classes directly to 1Ls, and a host of JD-degreed librarians who teach the research component of our course.

Furthermore, although I would be betraying my kind to say that full-time faculty are not the ideal, I would put my 3L instructors, chosen in a rigorous and competitive process and teaching in small classes in a highly structured and closely supervised program, up against almost any fellow or adjunct teaching Legal Writing at another school.

Anne Kringel
Legal Writing Director and Senior Lecturer
University of Pennsylvania Law School

10/28/2008 2:41 PM  

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