Stanford Law School
Stanford Law School (Photo: King of Hearts via Wikimedia Commons)

Only three of California’s 19 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association improved on the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings this year, and the long view looks even worse.

Alarmed at California’s consistent tumbling in the rankings, one dean has rallied his colleagues to lobby U.S. News to adjust its law school graduate employment rates so they more accurately reflect the economic realities in each state.

That methodology change would better reflect why states with low employment rates have more trouble finding jobs for their law school graduates, said Tom Campbell, dean of the Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law, which dropped 14 spots this year to No. 140 and has declined 36 spots during the past three years. With an 8.3 percent unemployment rate, California ties with Michigan for fourth highest in the ­country.”It’s very stark, when you look at the effect over three years,” Campbell said. “California is still coming out of the recession, which has nothing to do with the quality of a law school. Knowing this, an adjustment or standardization would be similar to how U.S. News treats bar passage. That’s what gave me the idea.”

Not a single California school has seen a cumulative increase in ranking during the past three years — notwithstanding that Stanford Law School; the University of California, Berkeley School of Law; the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law; and Pepperdine University School of Law each maintained their rankings.

State unemployment rates are indeed a factor in the relatively poor performance of California law schools, Bob Morse, director of data research at U.S. News, confirmed. But the ABA’s requirement that law schools release more detailed information about the types of jobs their graduates land also moved the scales. Graduate jobs rates account for 20 percent of a school’s overall rank.

“What the data was masking previously was that at California law schools, many of their graduates weren’t going into real law jobs,” Morse said. “Whether that will change when the California economic improves isn’t clear, but their rankings decline was in part caused by that.” Still, Morse said, U.S. News would consider any changes Campbell proposes.”Trying to get all the law schools in California to speak with a united voice is institutionally difficult, but we are in agreement on this,” University of San Francisco School of Law dean John Trasviña said. “As a state, all the law schools dropped for the past few years in the rankings, but it’s not because the quality of all the schools suddenly dropped.” San Francisco ranked No. 106 two years ago, but fell out of the top 147 schools this year and moved into U.S. News’ unranked second tier.

Illinois fares even worse than Califor­nia in term of unemployment, with a rate of 8.9 percent, but an adverse rankings trend is less clear there. Four of the state’s nine law schools maintained their rankings this year, while two moved up and three declined. Chicago-Kent College of Law dean Harold Krent was skeptical of the California proposal. His school has fallen 10 spots during the past two years, which he attributed to increased competition students face for jobs in urban areas and the state’s overall economy. “I think U.S. News would say, ‘Employment rates do reflect on your school, and more importantly, on your students’ chance to get a job.’ ” Krent said. “ Students want to know that, and I’m just not sure the proposal has many legs.”

WEIGHTED BAR-PASSAGE RATES

Under Campbell’s plan, U.S. News would give more weight to a school placing 70 percent of recent graduates in jobs in a state with an 8.3 percent unemployment rate than it would a school with the same placement rate in a state with 4.2 percent unemployment. “It isn’t just self interest,” said University of California Hastings College of the Law dean Frank Wu, whose school has dropped 12 spots during the past three years. “They do this with bar passage results already, because of high levels of state-to-state variation. That has little to do with the quality of the school.”

Campbell approached U.S. News last year to request the change, but it was deemed too complicated, Morse said — Should the numbers be adjusted by statewide unemployment? The employment rate for professionals or for everyone with a graduate degree?

Susan Poser, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Law, isn’t sold. Her state posted the second-lowest unemployment rate in the country at 3.6 percent, but that’s hardly the only reason the law school moved up 35 spots during the past two years, she said. “I would probably think such a change would be unfair in some ways, and [U.S. News] would have a hard time figuring out what states should be adjusted and how to determine which schools are national in scope.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.