Benchmarking Law Schools

How should law schools be judged? Reuben Guttman questions the current law school rankings and urges law school professors to follow suit.

In the United States, law school deans have now had more than a few weeks to digest the latest rankings by US News and World Report.

Setting aside whatever specific criteria US News employs to rank law schools, by any account the true quality of a law school is a function of only two variables: the students who attend the school and the faculty that does the teaching.

As law schools strive to climb the US News ranks, much attention is given to enrolling students with high college grade point averages and high Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) scores.  These are two of the key criteria that US News factors in its ratings. Curiously, diversity is not one of those criteria and while employment is considered a factor, the specific type of employment is not a consideration in the rankings.

Do these criteria yield those who will have the most potential for being great lawyers, judges, legislators or scholars?  Who knows?  They are simply the criteria that US News analyzes when it ranks law schools.  By this standard a student with a near perfect grade point average who never took a single math or science course would be favored for admission over a chemical engineering major with a B or B plus average.  Or the criteria might favor a student with a near perfect undergraduate grade point average who never learned to write.

The larger point is that a third party – a publication whose interest is in generating advertising revenue and not in the first instance producing great legal minds – is influencing who will be the next generation of judges, advocates for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and counsel who advise multinationals on regulatory compliance.  Really?  A third party is affecting the choice of individuals who will determine how our world will be governed and compliance enforced.

Does this make sense?  In an era where legal interpretation often depends on mathematical or scientific analysis, do we really want to overlook students who endured the rigors of an undergraduate math and science education at the cost of a perfect GPA?  Do we want to place inordinate value on test scores as an indicator of the ability to write coherently or to assimilate information and express a view?  These days admissions officers use these criteria – with unwavering allegiance – simply because they are the criteria established by US News and not necessarily – at least in the first instance – because it is the only way to find students with potential.

While these criteria could very well be an indicator for potential as a great legal mind, the unwavering use of the criteria simply to achieve a for-profit publication’s approval undoubtedly hamstrings admissions officers in selecting entrants to the legal professions that may have valuable skills.

As to the faculty, US News appears to put some premium on scholarship.  This means law schools are urged to hire those teachers that publish.  But publish what?  Do faculties of law schools have to publish books and articles that are useful to practitioners, judges, or legislators or, at least, indirectly impact the lives of people?  No.  They just have to publish.  And as they are urged to publish, they strive to publish about things that no one has written about.  Consider these articles: Postmodernism and Dworkin: The View from Half-Court, 17 Nova L. Rev. 799 (1993); South Park & The Law, 14 Tex. Rev. Ent. & Sports L. 47 (2012); Professor Kingsfield: The Most Misunderstood Character in Literature, 33 Hofstra L. Rev. 955 (2005); and Capital: Conferring with the Flowers: History and Class Consciousness in L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz, a General Theory of Magic and Law, 20 S. Cal. Interdis. L. J. 67 (2010).

Does the focus on the esoteric advance the profession or prepare students for the practice?  Even Justice Roberts recognizes the irrelevance of this type of scholarship.  During the Fourth Circuit Judicial Conference, Justice Roberts stated, “If the academy wants to deal with the legal issues at a particularly abstract, philosophical level, that’s great and that’s their business, but they shouldn’t expect that it would be of any particular help or even interest to the members of the practice of the bar or judges.”

Somewhere there must be a group of law professors and Deans who are willing to blow the whistle and say the system needs to change.  Maybe at least someone will take the hint.