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When Stephen McAllister, the dean of the University of Kansas School of Law, learned that his institution had plunged 37 spots in the latest law school rankings, he invited students to an open forum where they could air their gripes and share their worries. Plummeting to a precipitous 100th place, just one slot away from the lower “third tier” in the rankings by U.S. News & World Report, the University of Kansas had some damage control to do. About 90 students gathered in Green Hall on the Lawrence, Kan., campus the day the publication released the rankings. Most of those attending were jittery first-year students who needed reassurance that they had picked the right place for law school, despite the school’s slide from No. 63, McAllister said. There was a bright spot, however, in the school’s descent. “My request for additional resources has always fallen on deaf ears. That might change this year,” he said. The situation at the University of Kansas demonstrates the serious attention that law schools across the country pay to the annual rankings. While most law schools decry rankings for failing to represent the true successes of their institutions, they also recognize that where they end up on the list is crucial to wooing strong applicants, raising funds and getting their graduates into top firms. As a result, some schools are directing resources-or even gaming the system-to boost their scores on the annual survey, a move that critics say compromises legal education. The 800-pound gorilla The rankings, have become “the 800-pound gorilla of legal education,” according to Jeffrey Stake, a law professor at Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington.
Big Movers in U.S. News Rankings
Schools that rose the most in the top 100
School Change New Rank
University of New Mexico +30 69
Pepperdine University +22 77
Tulane University +15 41
Schools that fell the most in the top 100
School Change New Rank
University of Kansas -37 100
Indiana University-Indianapolis -32 95
University of Denver -18 95
University of Oklahoma -10 77
Emory University -9 32

Last week, Stake helped lead a symposium at the Indiana law school called, “The Next Generation of Law School Rankings.” Participants included Judge Richard Posner of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and professors from Northwestern University School of Law, Georgetown University Law Center, University of California, Berkeley School of Law and many more. Concern that the rankings are prompting law schools to change their operations in hopes of increasing their scores, all to the detriment of legal education, informed the program. “There are incentives being created out there that are not good for law students,” Stake said. His school came in 36th this year, up four spots. U.S. News & World Report is aware that “some of the schools have a numbers game,” said Robert Morse, director of data research for the publication. He said that it has modified its methodology in some ways to help alleviate the problem and may continue to do so. This year, for example, the magazine changed the way it measures each school’s Law School Admission Test (LSAT) numbers because of concerns that schools were not reporting the figures accurately, Morse said. Those changes have stirred controversy of their own, with some saying they now create a disadvantage for minorities. The publication receives enormous attention and scrutiny because it has virtually no competition in law school rankings, Morse said. “It’s scary. It’s taken on a life of its own,” he said. On that point, Stake agrees. Stake and his colleagues worry that some law schools, in order to elevate their rankings, have begun to rely more than ever on LSAT scores and grade-point averages-two factors that weigh heavily in the publication’s rankings. Such reliance means that students with more diverse backgrounds may be excluded from incoming classes. “There goes the Peace Corps, there goes a Ph.D., there goes work experience,” he said. He points to several ways law schools may try to increase their rankings-to the detriment of law students. For example, schools can delay granting sabbaticals or leave to their professors until the spring semester in order to improve their student-faculty ratios for the survey. That means an overload of courses in the fall and a thin selection in the spring. They also can divert students with lower LSAT or grade point averages to their part-time programs, the credentials of which have less weight in the ranking computations. The result is a two-tiered system where students with perhaps more diverse backgrounds and experiences are separated from other students whose LSAT scores and grade-point averages happen to be high. Law schools may also reduce their first-year class size, the class that the publication uses to compute some of its data. Such a move could cause students who may otherwise have been accepted into the school to wait until their second year to attend their first-pick school. The U.S. News & World Report rankings, which include law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, list the top 100 schools in ascending order. The rest of the schools are broken down into the “third tier” and the “fourth tier.” Schools in those tiers are listed alphabetically. (The magazine also ranks other graduate programs, as well as colleges and universities.) The scores generally are based on expert opinion about the quality of each school’s program and on statistics measuring the quality of the school’s faculty, research and students. The rankings of the top 10 schools change only slightly from year to year, with bigger variations occurring in the bottom 50. A common criticism is that tiny variations from one year to the next in some of the factors, such as peer assessment or assessments by lawyers and judges, can create significant changes in a school’s overall placement. This is also the case with employment statistics. One relatively easy way to move up is by more closely tracking students’ job placements after graduation. The factor can make a significant difference in ranking, and schools that thoroughly report where their students go-and thus show a higher percentage of graduates who are employed both at graduation and nine months after-can gain an advantage over those whose data are incomplete. McAllister, at the University of Kansas, attributes much of his school’s decline in the rankings to its failure to keep close tabs on that information. Next year, the school will put more resources toward it, he said. A big improvement A big reason the University of New Mexico School of Law shot up 30 points to 69th place was its improved employment tracking, said Dean Suellyn Scarnecchia. At graduation time last year, the school took a more “methodical approach” to tracking job placement. She said the rankings were “not that important” to the University of New Mexico, since it is the only law school in the state. Even so, she said that this year’s results were validating, particularly in light of the institution’s bargain-basement tuition rate of $7,500 per year. A closer watch on job placement after graduation also was one of the chief reasons Tulane University Law School jumped 15 points in the survey to 41st, said Dean Lawrence Ponoroff. For this year’s ranking, the school directed its career counselors to find out “more aggressively” where students went to work after they graduated, he said, adding that when the publication released the rankings, student morale was high. Still, his enthusiasm is guarded. “[This year's ranking] is a much more accurate representation of the quality of our programs, but I personally cannot see this as a great accomplishment,” he said. Damage control Susanah Mead, the interim dean at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, also shares that skepticism about the rankings, although she realizes their importance, especially now. Since the rankings were released last month, she has spent much of her time trying to bolster the school’s image. When its score tumbled 32 places to 95th, she dashed off a letter to the school’s entire student body. Her letter described the rankings as “flawed,” but nevertheless observed that the university could not “ignore the reality that those who are unfamiliar with law schools and legal education consult rankings.” Her letter also invited students to attend an open forum, scheduled for later this month. “It just makes me sick,” said Mead, referring to the drop. “I’ve been at this law school since 1978, and I know that we are a far better school now than we were five or six years ago.” A big reason for the Indianapolis school’s fall in the rankings was the wrong information its admissions office gave the publication, she said. Morse, with U.S. News & World Report, confirmed that the school had made a mistake in reporting some of its numbers. “We were shocked,” said Mead, adding that this was “a tough time” for the school. The university will work to improve its rankings next year, she said, but only to a certain extent. “There are a lot of schools that spend huge amounts of time on this. We don’t have any interest in gaming the system, but we certainly want to put ourselves in the best light that we can,” she said. Part of what prompts the criticism about the rankings, said Morse, is a misunderstanding about their purpose. The rankings, he said, are intended to help prospective students choose schools that will enable them to get jobs as lawyers when they graduate. “We’re not defining success,” Morse said. “We are not producing something for the deans and faculty.” Third-year student Wendy McGuire Coats, at Pepperdine University School of Law, knew where her school was ranked when she started, but she said that the school’s own promotional materials had more influence in her decision. She also was well aware that Pepperdine gained 22 slots to 77th place this year. “The ranking represents something we already knew,” she said.

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