What’s good for the goose

What’s good for the goose

Harrison Rainie

The process of getting into a great law school is brutally competitive. Law School Admission Test scores and college grade point averages make or break most applicants. Once they are in law school, students depend on their class ranking or the next best proxy, their position on the school’s law review to land jobs with elite law firms and get prestigious clerkships. In other words, a handful of measurements determine whether a student cashes in or struggles.

“Leaders at law schools are rankings maniacs,” says Nicholas Lemann, who has recently completed a book on America’s merit-based culture called The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. He says that law-school faculty are often the most ardent proponents of making admissions decisions based on applicants’ LSAT scores and GPAs. Doing so has sharply reduced admissions offices’ previous practice of “overadmitting” and giving hard-nosed professors the responsibility for winnowing out the underachievers. “Most faculty members think that admitting on test scores cuts down their workload because they don’t have unqualified students in class taking up time,” says Lemann.

They object. In short, law schools are places that put enormous faith in rankings except when it comes to being ranked themselves. That is why U.S. News is in trouble with the law, again. Some 169 law school deans endorsed a letter that went to all law school applicants this year encouraging them not to pay attention to our rankings. This is the second year the deans have argued that our ranking system is flawed because it cannot take account of applicants’ “special needs and circumstances” when comparing law schools. The deans list 22 attributes that are not part of our rankings methodology that students should consider when selecting a school, such as its cost, location, religious affiliation, and whether it has a loan-repayment assistance program. The deans fear that “undue attention is being paid to the rankings,” says Gregory Williams, dean of the law school at Ohio State and president of the Association of American Law Schools.

“I’m concerned the information in U.S. News does not give an accurate picture of the relative strengths of many programs.”

We think the law deans’ advice to students is mostly right, but their conclusion about the usefulness of our rankings is off base. We agree that applicants should seek schools that offer the things that matter to them; that many of the attributes students care about, like a school’s location, cannot be part of our ranking system because we concentrate on the strength of schools’ academic programs; and that it would be shortsighted for a student to pick a school solely because of its rank.

And we know our system does not immaculately measure the academic quality of schools. Our problem is that critical pieces of data don’t exist. If there were a way to measure how much learning actually takes place in the classroom, we’d gladly give it great prominence. If there were a way to measure teaching quality, we would give it significant weight. If these deans agreed on categories that make meaningful distinctions between national and regional law schools, we would not measure them all by the same yardsticks. But most schools don’t seek a better methodology. They don’t want to be ranked at all. “It is just not possible to rank everything that matters,” says Williams.

Of course, many schools now use the LSAT as an all-purpose indicator of an applicant’s worth. This was not what the test’s creators intended. Devised in 1947-1948, it was supposed to help schools weed out the most unqualified candidates and predict the kind of grades students would get in their first-year courses, according to legal historian William P. LaPiana. A crucial decision was made at the outset that the test would not contain questions probing applicants’ general knowledge a clear signal, LaPiana says, that the creators hoped the profession would be opened up to working-class men who had shown their talent and courage during World War II. But by the late 1960s, when applications to elite schools exploded, the test that began as a way to help more young people prove they belonged in law school became a tool to exclude many applicants. The top schools felt they needed a comprehensive ranking scheme, and the LSAT became one of its key elements, LaPiana says.

Our defense of our rankings is the same as the deans’ defense of theirs: Students should be able to compare schools with each other using the most comprehensive measures available. Our rankings are not perfect, but neither are theirs.

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