Professor Paul L. McKaskle, former Dean of the law school at the University of San Francisco, sent the following interesting remarks about rankings by e-mail (as a follow-up to an earlier thread), and kindly gave me permission to post them. I've opened comments, since the issues raised by Professor McKaskle warrant discussion. He wrote:
I think the idea of a comprehensive national ranking for ALL law schools is absurd. It is one thing to say some schools are in the top ten or twenty, and generally speaking the rankings for schools in that range are probably not that far off. But, beyond that, not only is there little reliable information that would allow an accurate comparison but I'm not sure that there is any meaningful definition of what makes one "lesser" school better than another.
For proper evaluation of law schools, there are probably two tiers and each tier should be evaluated with different criteria. First, there are what I will call the “prestige” law schools–Harvard, Yale and another six to twenty schools (depending on whom one asks). Many of the
students admitted to these schools have glittering credentials and some are truly gifted. If a student is interested in a career in academia (especially at a “prestige” school) or is interested in clerking at the Supreme Court or for top Court of Appeals judges, or employment at a top 20 (or even a top 50) law firm (or hot public interest firms such as NAACP LDF) then the prestige of the school is of considerable importance. A truly gifted student may even benefit from intensive contact with a faculty member who is on the cutting edge of some legal field. Sponsorship is extremely important too, and top faculty at top ranked schools can do a much more effective job of this than someone in a lesser school.
However I think the biggest advantage at being at a top ranked school for most students is the chance to interact with other very bright students–who are more plentiful at top rated schools. John Roberts, no matter how talented he may be, would have been very unlikely to be where he is today (or this Fall) if he had gone to, say Notre Dame, rather than Harvard. It isn’t that the teaching at a Harvard is “better” (whatever that is) it is the combination of prestige, faculty who can sponsor and other very bright students that make the difference. (I have a niece who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard LS who has some horror stories about neglectful teaching–but she studied with very bright students.)
For these ‘prestige” schools, the USNews evaluations are probably more or less accurate. By most measures (USNews measures as well as others) Harvard or Yale are the top ranked law schools–tops in faculty evaluation, tops in practitioner evaluation, tops in writing productivity of the faculty (except maybe for Chicago), tops in law clerk placement at the Supreme Court (and in Courts of Appeal as well, I imagine) and tops in placement at the top five, ten or fifty law firms. A handful of other schools are not far behind. One can quibble about exactly where on the list these other law schools would fall. You have suggested that Boalt is unfairly downgraded a few places (and as a Boalt alum, I agree). But for these schools it is just a quibble and the ranking probably has very little effect on the quality of students accepted by any of them. (Until recently, when tuition at Boalt skyrocketed, I know a number of students who chose Boalt rather than Stanford simply because of the cost.)
But the number of students who are “truly gifted,” even at prestigious law schools, is very limited. Somewhere between 90 to 99 percent of the students in law school today do not fall in that category. Not even all students at the top five or ten law schools fit that category. There may be only a handful of “truly gifted” students at lesser schools (Steve Shiffrin [ed.-now a Cornell law professor], who went to Loyola LS in L.A, is an example from the past). But, that doesn’t mean that many of the “lesser” students won’t be good lawyers–some will be enormously successful. But, what would be a “good” law school for these students is, probably, something which should be measured differently than for what I have classified as “prestige” law schools. I don’t mean to suggest that the factors which put a law school at or near the top of the list are irrelevant, but only that they should be given different weight.
So the other tier in my classification includes the other 140 or 150 odd schools which do not qualify as what I refer to as a “prestige” school. It is these schools for which the USNews evaluations by professors, judges and practitioners are likely to be inaccurate or at least seriously misleading, because it is probably impossible for any small group of professional “evaluators” (law faculty or practitioner) to evaluate with even a pretense of accuracy. Many such evaluators may simply be a look at last years evaluation with a quick look at the LSAT range (which for the “bottom” schools is pretty atrocious) in making a decision. Indeed, as you noted, it is because of the impossibility of evaluating all law schools that you confine
yourself to simply analyzing the top fifty or so law schools–and even fewer for specific characteristics.
What makes one law school in this second tier better than another? Ithink, first of all, it is more important that the school be a place where the student can learn how to be a competent lawyer. (A good student at Yale can probably figure most of this out on his or her own.) I suspect that even in a “lesser” school the quality of classmates is an important factor (something the reported LSAT figures measure somewhat). Good teaching is important, and I think there is a correlation (though imperfect) between good teaching and a reasonable
amount of scholarly productivity. Good teaching includes mentoring and other non-classroom interaction, not simply classroom teaching and the latter may be a more plentiful quantity at a school where publication isn’t the foremost requirement of a faculty member. But all of this is something which is incredibly difficult for an outsider to measure (it is pretty hard to measure inside as well). I don’t pretend to know how such evaluation should be done, or even what various factors should be considered, but I don’t think USNews comes within a thousand miles of knowing how to measure this for what I define as “non-prestige” schools–except possibly by using the LSAT data....
I agree completely that LSAT data is an imperfect measure. It can be gamed, at least somewhat (though I doubt it would raise the quartile marks by more than a point.) LSAT doesn’t say much about other characteristics of the student body which may be equally important--or even more important--in terms of the learning environment. (I am chair of our Admissions Committee and I have the chance to look at hundreds of files, and among them are people with only so-so LSAT scores but other characteristics that are remarkable, and also some people with high LSAT scores whose other characteristics are mediocre or even alarming.) Although I suggest that the only (modestly) valid factor reported by USNews is the LSAT data, I don’t think it is an ideal measure by any means. And, to the degree it is the only somewhat valid widely available factor it puts highly unfortunate pressure on schools to admit based primarily on the LSAT, ignoring other interesting characteristics of an applicant. (Should I refuse to admit someone who might lower our third LSAT quartile score who is very interesting–a Russian immigrant who learned English at age 17, earned stellar undergraduate grades while working full time and has done many other interesting things, when, alternatively, I can admit someone who has an LSAT which is two points above our first quartile–thus might raise it--even though he was only a moderately good student in an undemanding major in a middling college who has no discernable interests?) But since it is the only somewhat valid data which USNews reports, it is the best of a bad bargain!
As usual, non-anonymous comments are preferred, though substantive, on-point anonymous comments will be permitted.