When I last wrote about law school rankings (in the summer of 2007), it was in response to a post at the Law School Innovation blog rounding up some reporting and commentary on law school rankings, including an article in National Law Journal about a potential boycott of magazine rankings surveys used by the magazines to rank the schools. I don’t know whether any schools actually protested through a boycott, but yesterday’s Wall Street Journal gives the schools more food for thought.
Their front-page article, Law School Rankings Reviewed to Deter ‘Gaming,’ discusses the practice of some schools to admit lower-qualified candidates only to their part-time programs, where the qualifications of the students do not figure into the rankings by U.S. News & World Report. The potential impact on rankings resulting from fixing the loophole might create an incentive for schools to change their practices, with negative effects for students:
Counting part-timers would roil the law-school rankings, which have a big impact on where students apply and from where law firms hire. A number of law-school administrators interviewed about the potential change contend it could have another effect: narrowing a traditional pathway to law school for minorities and working professionals. Those groups often perform worse on the important Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, and schools could feel pressure to raise their admission thresholds.
A change in criteria would “catch the outliers but punish part-time programs that have existed forever and aren’t doing it to game the system,” says Ellen Rutt, an associate law-school dean at the University of Connecticut. If U.S. News makes the move, many schools with part-time programs would have a tough choice: Leave their admission standards for part-timers unchanged, which could hurt their rank, or raise the standards, likely shrinking the programs and cutting revenue.
My own school (University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law) had a robust evening program. Even though I was a full-time student, I grew familiar with the quality of the part-time students because many of my elective classes were taught in the evening (in order to make them available to the part-time students). If there was a significant difference in the amount or quality of classroom participation by students, I sure don’t remember it. (Of course, I have no idea if the part-time students at McGeorge were any “less-qualified” on paper than my full-time classmates.)
While I don’t think rankings are meaningless, I hardly think they are as important as many employers and applicants seem to think they are. It is distressing to me to see so much emphasis on a school’s ranking, especially when I read in the article about measures schools take specifically to improve their ranking.
If you’d like more detail about the article before you read it, read this post at WSJ Law Blog. Some of the commenters have very strong feelings about the magazine’s ranking system.
For an alternative ranking, see Brian Leiter’s Law School Rankings.