Let’s Talk Law School Rankings

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I hate the US News and World Report law school rankings. That’s hardly a secret. It’s not the methodology issues that bug me. Rather, it’s the over-reliance many law school applicants place on the rankings when choosing between offers from law schools.

I loved, after the rankings were released last week, that one of my clients sent me an email that said, “You are so right about the rankings being bogus.” Now, obviously, there is a difference between a top 5 school and a Top 100 school, and I can call the rankings “bogus” without denying there is some truth regarding the quality of the education offered and the job propects faced by graduates. However, the groupings are more valuable than the specific rank. Obviously, if the rankings didn’t change from year to year, USNWR wouldn’t sell any magazines (tragic, really…). No one is really choosing between NYU and NYLS or Georgetown and Catholic. The choice you are faced with is much more subtle than that and a one or two or even ten point drop should not unduly influence your decision about which law school to attend. This is especially true if you fail to understand the reason the ranking changed.

If you’re a new reader of my blog, I recommend you learn more about my perspective on the US News and World Report law school rankings by reading these posts:

Additional Insights About Law School Rankings

What do the Law School Rankings Really Mean?

Fluctuations in Law School Rankings

An additional thought:

Part-time programs now count. That means that schools will part time programs were significantly disadvantaged by the new calculations. Did George Washington Universitybecome less of a law school in the last 12 months? Absolutely not. It’s sad that the Dean felt compelled to write to all who sent in a deposit to explain how the part time LSAT and GPA stats are the reason for the drop in ranking. Anyone who suddenly decides not to attend GWU for this reason is making a big mistake.

Because Brian Leiter is right about the rankings, I’m joining his fan club by not linking to or re-publishing the new 2010 Law School Ranking results here. If you want to know what a law professor thinks is important in ranking law schools, see Professor Leiter’s results here.

And yes, I’m taking questions.

And, read my blog post tomorrow for an exciting announcement!

7 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Law School Rankings

  1. A copy of the GWU Dean letter:
    I am delighted that you have made your first seat deposit and that you will be joining us in August 2009. The class of which you will be a member promises to be the strongest in the history of GW Law.

    You may be aware that this year our ranking by U.S. News and World Report fell from 20 to 28. I, like most law school deans, believe that such rankings systems are fundamentally flawed and that students should not give any one factor, including commercial rankings, undue emphasis when making the important decision of which law school to attend. I cannot avoid the fact, however, that for many individuals the U.S. News rankings play an important role in the law school selection process. For this reason, I am writing to share my views concerning GW Law’s placement in this year’s U.S. News rankings.

    First and foremost, I want you to know that the only changes at GW Law during the past year have been for the better and have enhanced the opportunities for success that our students enjoy. Among the factors that I believe an applicant should carefully consider when choosing which law school to attend are depth and breadth of curricular and clinical offerings; internship and placement opportunities; talents and academic achievements of the student body; quality of teaching and scholarship; the spirit and cohesiveness of the community; strength and commitment of the alumni network; and reputation of the institution among legal scholars and practitioners. In each of these areas in the past year, GW Law has remained steady or improved.

    So what explains our U.S. News ranking? The answer is a change not in our law school, but in their methodology. In prior years, U.S. News did not rank part-time programs or include statistics for part-time classes in its overall school rankings. This year, the magazine created a new ranking for part-time programs. This new part-time ranking compares part-time programs with part-time programs. In this ranking GW came out #2 in the country. There is not, however, a similar ranking that compares full-time programs with full-time programs. Part-time median LSAT and GPA scores were, for the first time, combined with full-time scores to determine a school’s overall ranking. This change had an impact on the rankings for some law schools that have large part-time programs, including GW. Had U.S. News compared full-time programs with full-time programs, GW Law’s overall ranking would have been higher.

    GW Law has had a part-time program for more than 100 years, and it is a program in which we take a great deal of pride. Unlike the full-time program, the part-time program serves as its primary constituency a unique group of individuals who live and work in the D.C. metropolitan area. The applicant pools for our full- and part-time programs are quite different in some key respects. Our full-time applicants come from around the globe, and the majority either has not yet been in the workforce on a full-time basis or has worked full time for only 1 or 2 years following college. By contrast, our part-time students typically have been in the workforce for a number of years. Through their extraordinary professional achievements they bring great richness to our law school community. In many cases, the greatest strengths of our part-time students are not reflected in their undergraduate grade point averages or LSAT scores, but rather in the diversity of their experiences. And, each year, our part-time students continue to achieve positions at the top of their class alongside their full-time colleagues. Graduates of our part-time program include present and former U.S. senators, federal and state court judges, a former U.S. attorney general, and many other leaders of the bench and bar.

    Until this year, U.S. News apparently had recognized the uniqueness of part-time law students and had allowed law schools to operate these valuable programs free from the pressures of numerical rankings. Given the weight many prospective students place on commercial rankings, I fear that law schools will now be forced to reevaluate the way in which they historically have admitted applicants to part-time programs. I fervently hope that those schools that have served this special community of students will continue to do so without their efforts being diminished by the pressure to maintain LSAT and GPA medians for ranking purposes.

    When viewed over time, it is clear that most law schools’ U.S. News rankings move either up or down on a regular basis, and, additionally, that the magazine periodically changes the methodology it uses to rank law schools. Resulting sudden and sometimes dramatic changes in rankings obviously do not reflect sudden and dramatic changes in reality. I can assure you that, regardless of rankings, the national and international reputation of our institution will continue to prosper and that we will maintain our commitment to serving all of our students.

    As I mentioned above, the only changes that have taken place at GW Law are positive ones. To name a few:

    * Our fall 2009 application volume increased by 8.5% and the fall 2009 admitted applicant pool is the strongest in GW Law history.

    * We have increased scholarship and grant funds by more than 50% in the past three years.

    * One of our graduates currently is clerking on the U.S. Supreme Court and another GW Law graduate will begin his clerkship on the Court next fall. In the past 6 years, 5 GW Law graduates have been selected for Supreme Court clerkships.

    * GW Law continues to rank among the very top law schools placing graduates in the 250 largest U.S. law firms.

    * We continue to expand co-curricular opportunities for our students, such as the new Journal of Energy and Environmental Law.

    * We have further strengthened our commitment to public interest by creating the position of associate dean for public service/public interest.

    * We are increasing opportunities for students interested in international law. Most recently the Law School established the prestigious Gruber Foundation International Law Fellowship, which funds a student to clerk for the International Court of Justice at the Hague.

  2. James on said:

    I think it’s very difficult for any applicant who is not a “top-tier” applicant to deal with the pressure of the annual law school rankings. The rankings make the law school decision seem as if you don’t go to a top school, you won’t be getting a good education. I understand that the top schools can leave give students better job prospects than a lower ranked school; however, I think it’s madness that someone thinks that the quality of education is far better in a top school rather than a lower ranked school. Do people really think that professors at a top ranked school are going to teach their students secrets of the law that professors at a low ranked school aren’t privy to?

    One of my peers is trying to decide between three schools in California – all of which are Tier 1 schools. She ended up making her decision based purely on the US News rankings, which I think is a terrible mistake. She visited all three schools – loved two of them, and wasn’t too thrilled with the third. She ended up going with the school she didn’t like purely because it was ranked 3 spots higher than the other two schools. It’s sad that law school rankings have such a bad effect on applicants.

    • James, thanks for your comments. Your friend made a huge mistake. This is exactly my point! Why would you choose a place you hate because of a magazine? Total silliness. That person is not exercising good judgment.

  3. Ann, I’m so glad you posted this. After putting down my deposit at a school that is slightly lower ranked (by two places) where I actually like the weather and the school, I stumbled across this:

    http://www.annaivey.com/iveyfiles/2009/04/a_law_school_professors_advice_to_an_applicant

    and started to freak out because she says “First, if you are choosing between top-tier schools, go to the best school you get into.”

    Then I came to your page and your post (and James’ comment) and it made a lot of sense. Thanks for being a rock during the law school admissions process.

    • Thanks, Kiki. You’ll do well in law school and distinguish yourself, and your individual accomplishments do matter! It’s not just about the brand name school you associate yourself with – it’s what you do with what you have that matters.

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