As the head of a major customer of American law schools, I am concerned about the impact of U.S. News & World Report‘s annual law school ranking.
The ranking sells magazines. It generates heat, not light. In the legal industry, we’re used to this art form — a magazine develops a ranking using a questionable approach, lets loose with this year’s version and then starts reporting on its own pseudo-news as if it’s something to which we should pay attention. For the most part, it’s not.
I have two major gripes with the U.S. News phenomenon.
First, I’d like to take up the cause of “nondesigner” law schools. I’ll focus on the University of Pittsburgh School of Law but there are many “Pitt Laws” in our markets — law schools with dedicated teachers and researchers, fine student bodies and solid market reputations that, alas, do not rank them with Yale or Harvard.
The real Pitt Law was hammered this year in the U.S. News ranking and dropped 16 places, from 57 to 73. Other law schools experienced abrupt movements up and down this year’s ranking as compared with last. Such sudden changes among stable institutions reveal more about the ranking than the law schools themselves. If change comes slowly to law firms, it comes even more slowly within academia.
I am a graduate of Yale Law School. It was and is a great place — but it’s no Pitt Law. Yale Law is the same tiny size it was 50 years ago — about 165 students per class. The 50 largest law firms in the country now employ about 65,000 lawyers. Yale Law today, sad to say, is quantitatively beside the point to most of the country’s leading law firms. And, of course, “Yale Law” is merely a metaphor that embraces Harvard, Stanford, Chicago and the other “designer” law schools whose entering class sizes are frozen in time like the fetching smile of a prom date you haven’t seen in 40 years.
Consider the impact of the real Pitt Law on my firm. We have 29 partners and 60 lawyers overall who are graduates of Pitt Law. It has supplied us with a global development partner, a global general counsel, a global head of litigation and the managing partner of one of our largest offices. It trains great leaders as well as great lawyers not only because ideas matter there, but also because emotional intelligence and analytical intelligence go hand in hand. It doesn’t sit well with me when Pitt Law is unfairly maligned.
I understand that the presidency of the Harvard Law Review is the legal equivalent to the Heisman Trophy. But there aren’t many of them, and not all of them really perform at the next level. Consider the storied National Football League career of Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta, who played at the Harvard of college football — the University of Miami. Such ruminations won’t take you long; his lackluster career was over in a flash. Compare the still blooming career of that fabulous quarterback from the “other” Miami, Ben Roethlisberger. It’s what you do between the lines that counts, and from that perspective I see little discernible difference among the top graduates of scores of law schools.
Here’s my second gripe: My firm and firms across America depend on law schools to solve the diversity riddle. If they don’t graduate minority lawyers, we can’t hire them. I’m worried that the mindless competition created by the U.S. News ranking could lead law schools to skew their admissions processes away from admitting minority applicants.
A recent report in the New York Law Journal cited the dropping enrollment of minority law students and described the view of law school deans that efforts to scramble up the U.S. News list are partly to blame. With law schools focusing on quantifiable items as the best way to climb the charts, minority and other deserving candidates with less stellar scores may be left by the wayside.
I was such a candidate. My LSAT score was mediocre. I was a hard-working kid from West Virginia University, and Yale Law placed a bet on me. If Yale Law had been paying attention to some prehistoric version of U.S. News, I would never have made the team. I would not have been editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal nor law clerk to Chief Judge J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia or Associate Justice Byron White. In the age of U.S. News, can the “Pitt Laws” afford such risk-taking?
My law firm and others like it live at the intersection of globalization and regulation. Our industry is crucial to economic development around the world, as we advise and advocate in response to cross-border movements of people, products, services and capital and to the ratchet-like intrusions of governments into the marketplace. We can’t do our job without the scores of “Pitt Laws” continuing to attract, educate and acculturate thousands of talented students.
If you are a beleaguered law school dean, know that this customer pays not a damn bit of attention to the U.S. News ranking — nor should your applicant pool.
Peter Kalis is the chairman and global managing partner of K&L Gates.