These are the worst of times and the best of times for law schools. The U.S. News & World Report law school rankings came out recently, and if a law school moved up, it’s the best of times. If a law school moved down, these are the worst of times. Deans at law schools which saw a rankings drop will call faculty meetings and meet with irate alums. Some will polish up their ré sumé s.
On other fronts, the Illinois State Bar Association recently called on law schools to reform the way they educate students. A number of prominent law faculty and deans signed a letter calling on the American Bar Association to make it easier for law schools to lower costs.
We should all care about what influences law schools because many of our leaders have law degrees. Of our 45 presidents, more than half were lawyers. According to the Congressional Research Service, since 1945, between one-third and one-half of Congress members have been lawyers. A recent study showed that almost one in five Fortune 50 companies have a lawyer as chief executive officer, and we could expect this number to grow, given the current regulatory environment. The annual U.S. News rankings significantly influence whom law schools admit and whom they hire.
It is uncontroverted that law schools strategically engage in behavior that is solely designed to increase their U.S. News rankings. What U.S. News ranks becomes what law schools do. It’s teaching to the test for law schools.
Take the "peer assessment score" as one example. Law schools place a huge emphasis on it, and for good reason — it is the single largest determinant in a law school’s U.S. News rank. The peer assessment score measures what law professors think about specific law schools and their faculty members. To increase that score, law schools hire faculty who have published lots of law review articles.
Most lawyers agree that law professors are profoundly out of touch with the actual practice of law. For example, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. recently reflected that disconnect when he said, "Pick up a copy of any law review that you see, and the first article is likely to be…[an article] which I’m sure was of great interest to the academic that wrote it, but isn’t of much help to the bar." The U.S. News rankings and the obsession law schools have with those rankings is increasing the gulf between the legal academy and the practicing bar. Any ranking system that predominantly relies on what law professors think is based on a flawed and outdated business model.
The legal profession has experienced a sea change in how lawyers do what they do. Law firms have had to do more with less. Computer programs are now used to search documents. Contract employees are hired instead of associates. Law schools — and more specifically — law faculty have not kept pace. While law firms have gone out of business, the American Bar Association has continued to approve more law schools.
The question that needs to be asked is: What makes for successful lawyers in the 21st century and how would a new rankings system reward law schools that did the job well? Although U.S. News does not seem to care, lawyers, law schools and consumers should. The current market for lawyers rewards value added. Given this, law schools must develop leaders who are problem solvers and collaborative workers — leaders who have the integrity to say no when no one in the room wants to hear it. If a rankings system could take that into account, society as a whole would be better off.
To be sure, there are qualitative differences among law schools, and rankings can help point out both strengths and weaknesses. And perhaps a flawed system is better than no system. Yet despite the whining and handwringing from law deans and faculty members each year, they have not come up with a good alternative.
We are facing some of the most intractable problems of recent history. A ranking system that rewarded those law schools that instilled integrity, developed leaders, and graduated problem solvers would be good for the country. We must find a better test to teach to.
Dorothy A. Brown is a professor of law at Emory University School of Law and a past member of the Executive Committee of the Association of American Law Schools.