If you listened only to law faculties and deans, you'd think that U.S. News & World Report's ranking of law schools was a terrible development. Virtually every dean of every law school approved by the American Bar Association annually signs a letter (173 of 194 deans in 2007), sent to everyone who takes the Law School Admission Test, enumerating the flaws in the magazine's "mathematical formulae" and concluding that any ranking system that purports to measure all law schools by a single yardstick is "unworthy of being an important influence on the choice you are about to make."
We're not convinced. U.S. News is influential among prospective students at least in part because the magazine does what the law schools don't: give law students easy-to-compare information that sheds light on their long-term employment prospects. Law schools could easily supply that information themselves, but they choose not to. In fact, as the collective head shaking about the rankings has increased, the growth of the large law firm sector -- which pays salaries that justify the rapidly escalating cost of legal education -- has made the rankings more important.
Our research suggests that prospective students care a great deal about their post-law school employment and bar passage prospects -- information that law schools could readily compile and supply. We found that rather than work to provide applicants with the kind of information they say they want and need, law schools tend to report information in a manner that undermines the applicants' ability to engage in meaningful comparative assessments on measures that matter.
These practices, which range from puffery to borderline deceit, are all aimed at improving their U.S. News rankings. As a result, even as the rankings have become more important, they have become less reliable.
A simple solution is available that would both diminish the importance of the U.S. News rankings and enable prospective law students to make more enlightened choices. The only question is whether law schools will do it on their own or, if not, whether the ABA will make them. With the U.S. Department of Education now carefully scrutinizing the ABA's accreditation authority, the ABA has an added incentive to pay attention to student needs.
The annual kerfuffle over rankings is the result of two quite different perspectives. Law faculty generally believe that a law school's relative standing is, or ought to be, judged by some measure of scholarly output. In contrast, aspiring lawyers, who face decisions on whether to assume increasing debt loads to pay spiraling tuition costs, and who have only sparse information on their eventual employment prospects, want the information they need to make a wise investment decision.
From the second perspective, the U.S. News rankings serve a valuable purpose. The rankings coordinate the decisions of desirable job applicants and legal employers. Because employers are more likely to recruit at higher-ranked schools, and because schools provide virtually no usefully comparable postgraduation employment data, the rankings serve as a reasonable way for prospective students to estimate their chances at landing a big-firm job.
How important are job prospects to those applying to law school? Students are willing to accept a school of lower ranking if graduating from that school will help them find a job. Our statistical analysis found that regional law schools in large, growing legal markets (controlling for other factors) attracted more high-LSAT students between 1993 and 2004 than did schools located in small or struggling legal markets, even when the schools in struggling markets were ranked higher.
This makes sense. Because many national law firms often interview at lower-ranked schools near their offices, admission to a lower-ranked school in a major legal market may, in some cases, provide better access to a coveted large law firm job. For example, in 2004, 54th-ranked American University in Washington, D.C., had 54 Am Law 200 firms interview on campus, compared to 31 interviewing at 23rd-ranked University of Iowa.
There are dozens of other cases where geography produces a large disparity between rank and the number of firms that interview on campus. And our data suggests that, when choosing among nonelite schools, many students are willing to discount U.S. News rank in favor of location. Law schools in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco have benefited from this market trend.
This is occurring, and the U.S. News rankings are becoming more important, because of the explosive growth of large law firms. Over the last 40 years, as economic growth and globalization have increased the volume and complexity of corporate legal work, these firms have absorbed a progressively larger proportion of the nation's law school graduates.
According to data recently collected by The National Law Journal (a sibling publication of The American Lawyer), in 2006, the nation's 250 largest law firms hired nearly 7,000 entry-level associates, roughly one-sixth of the 42,673 J.D.'s granted by ABA-approved law schools.
As the largest firms expand their recruiting, they inevitably must recruit further down into the hierarchy of law schools, diversifying the makeup of the major firms. For example, among the New York law firms that eventually became part of The Am Law 100, 73 percent of all lawyers hired between 1950 and 1965 came from Harvard, Yale and Columbia. By 2002, these three schools provided only 15 percent of new associates, and less than 40 percent graduated from a top-10 school.
In deciding where to recruit, these firms are influenced by the U.S. News rankings. Our analysis of data from the National Association for Law Placement reveals that U.S. News rank is the single best predictor of on-campus interview activity by Am Law 200 law firms. And BCG Attorney Search, a recruiting firm, annually produces a 280-page guide to legal hiring based on recruiting at the U.S. News top 50 schools.
Although large law firm jobs are not what every law graduate wants, these jobs are important beyond their numbers. Just as national firms' starting salaries have soared, so has law school tuition. Between 1987 and 2005, the average public law school's resident tuition increased 448 percent, from $2,398 to $13,145, while the average private school tuition increased 224 percent, from $8,911 to $28,900.
Although virtually all law schools discount their published tuition through merit- and need-based grants, the costs borne by law students are real. During this same period, the average amount of law school debt ballooned 431 percent, from $16,000 to $85,000.
This debt load might not be particularly troubling for those who land a job with a starting salary of $160,000 per year, but the median starting salary in a two- to 10-lawyer firm is less than $50,000 per year. We believe that the strong appeal of the U.S. News rankings to prospective students is directly attributable to its ability to provide information on the likely economic benefits of the increasingly costly J.D.
As the importance of the U.S. News rankings increases, so does the incentive to game the system. Law faculties may love to hate the rankings, but they pay attention to them because the rankings affect the enrollment decisions of law students and the happiness of alumni and administrators. Unfortunately, some of the measures that some law schools have taken to improve their status seem like the equivalent of using a particularly dodgy tax shelter.
One way that a school can try to improve its ranking is to boost its LSAT or undergraduate grade point average statistics. This emphasis has had two consequences that we think are bad for legal education.
First, during the last 15 years, the pursuit of higher entering credentials has pushed many law schools to reduce or eliminate "whole person" review in an effort to drive up the numeric entering credentials.
Each applicant is increasingly evaluated on the basis of whether he or she will boost the school's median LSAT or undergraduate GPA from the prior year. In the process, major life accomplishments, such as military service, nonprofit work, running a business or student leadership, are marginalized. This is the wrong message to be sending to aspiring lawyers who we hope will one day occupy prominent and influential positions.
Second, and more perniciously, schools have also adopted accounting tricks to boost their median LSAT. U.S. News relies on information that law schools report to the ABA, in part because it hopes that the law schools are more likely to be honest with their accreditor than they might be with a magazine. But because the ABA requires reporting only of full-time day student LSAT and GPA information, a loophole exists with respect to part-time and night students. In virtually all cases, the part-time LSAT and GPA numbers are lower.
Our research suggests that a sizable number of law schools have shrunk their full-time programs over the last decade or so and compensated by starting or expanding their part-time programs. That these changes have occurred with little or no public acknowledgment from most of the schools involved suggests that they are more likely motivated by concern with rankings than by educational goals.
The law schools' record on postgraduation employment is even less flattering. U.S. News asks law schools to report the percentage of each graduating class that is employed at graduation and at a later point (currently nine months after graduation). Since the mid-1990s, both statistics have steadily climbed for most schools in all four U.S. News tiers. Between 1997 and 2006, the employed-at-nine-months figures climbed from 83.9 percent to 91.5 percent.
Unfortunately, during this same period, the overall first-time bar passage rate declined from 83 percent to 78.6 percent, largely due to many states raising their passing score. Because results from a second bar exam would not be available nine months after graduation, the increased employment can only come from employment in jobs that do not require a law license.
Obviously, the numbers do not add up. University of Iowa sociologist Michael Sauder, who has interviewed more than 120 law professors and administrators for his rankings research, heard examples of alumni taxi drivers who are "employed" for the purposes of U.S. News rankings. We have collected many other examples. Such practices only serve to mislead students into purchasing an expensive legal education. In the process, legal education is losing its credibility.
It is not reasonable to blame U.S. News for law schools' decisions to distort the numbers. In fact, U.S. News has modified its rankings over time to include more reliable data. Rather, law schools and the ABA have failed to adopt effective self-regulation.
If law schools are serious about diminishing the importance of the rankings, a simple solution is available: supplying more detailed information in a standard format that would allow students to make direct school-to-school comparisons.
As the sole accrediting agency for law schools, the ABA is the best available organization to collect and publish the information. The ABA has the authority to mandate the compilation of detailed school-level data about on-campus interviews, the proportion of graduates taking jobs in specific practice settings (including the percentage of graduates who are employed in jobs that do not require a law degree), and median starting salaries by practice setting.
This information should be subject to regular independent audits, and schools that misrepresent data should be punished. In addition, to facilitate use of this data, the ABA should make it available to the public in a downloadable spreadsheet format.
These changes would have several beneficial effects. Most importantly, law schools that invest in career services or curriculums that attract potential employers would be rewarded. Better information could enable many schools to showcase their comparative advantages and foster niche curriculums, such as criminal justice, public interest or civil trial advocacy.
If schools were to enable school-to-school comparisons on measures that permitted a sensible evaluation of a three-year, $100,000-plus investment, students would be able to choose schools based on how well the school fits the students' needs rather than its U.S. News rank. It might even spur some real price competition among schools, slowing the trend toward ever-higher tuition and resulting debt loads.
Similarly, the ABA should work with the National Conference of Bar Examiners to construct a database that would permit prospective law school applicants to predict their eventual Multistate Bar Exam score based on their entering credentials and the law school attended. Bar passage is a major concern for many students, and if some law schools provided students with a significant leg up on the bar, prospective students would have a viable alternative to U.S. News with which to evaluate their alternatives.
By facilitating transparency and accountability, the legal academy and the ABA can end the tiresome annual ritual of abusing U.S. News, and focus instead on creating incentives that work to the long-term benefit of students and the bar.
If legal academics take their mission as educators seriously, they will opt for competition that serves the interests of our students. If they want to be leaders, they need to act the part.
William Henderson is associate professor of law at Indiana University, Bloomington. Andrew Morriss is H. Ross and Helen Workman professor of law and professor of business at the University of Illinois. Their article on rankings and postgraduation statistics, "Measuring Outcomes," is available on the Social Science Research Network (http://ssrn.com/abstract=954604) and is forthcoming in the Indiana Law Journal.