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When students from American University Washington College of Law picked up their caps and gowns two years ago, they were also given survey forms by the Office of Career Services. The school wanted to know how many of the new J.D.s already had jobs lined up. AU even added a sweet incentive: Anyone who returned the survey before graduation had a chance to win a new DVD player. Also, any grad who didn’t have a job was offered help finding one. The school was trying to give their soon-to-be-former students a boost into the real world. But the survey also allowed AU to gather reliable information on its students’ employment rates at graduation, according to OCS Director K. Jill Barr. Sure enough, that index leapt from 57 percent for the class of 1999 to 77.5 percent for the class of 2000, the latest information provided to U.S. News & World Report. The campaign paid off. Last week, the much-criticized but much-discussed annual graduate school ratings by U.S. News put AU among the top 50 law schools in America. It was the first time that American, a steady second-tier school for years, had made the elite first tier. AU came in at No. 49. “It’s fine to be recognized, and we have reason to celebrate,” says Claudio Grossman, dean of the Washington College of Law. “But these rankings have not driven this institution.” To be sure, though, the double-digit increase in the percentage of students with jobs upon graduation and a lower student-faculty ratio brought about by the addition of 23 new professors were key factors in AU’s score in the rankings. For most law schools, the U.S. News rankings are hard to avoid. While many say they don’t care about them, just about every dean in America has an opinion on the rankings. And, certainly, nobody who has a chance to be in the first tier wants to be left out. Left out was what the University of Maryland School of Law was last week, falling back into the second tier after hitting the No. 50 mark in 2001 for the first time. At the same time, upstart George Mason University School of Law, which ranked in the first tier in 2001 for the first time, came in again at No. 47. It is hard to ignore the effect that a top tier spot can have on a school. After its push into the top tier last year, George Mason’s Arlington-based law school watched applications nearly double to over 4,300 for fall 2002. The school concedes that some of those applications likely are from students who never would have considered GMU had it not been in the top 50, and probably will not attend. “There are some applicants who may not look below the top 50,” says GMU Director of Admissions Anne Richard. At the same time, Richard points out that the school’s pull of non-Virginia applicants has grown. “The applicant pool has typically been a little heavier on out-of-state students,” she says. “This year, we were even heavier out-of-state,” with over 60 percent of the applications originating from outside Virginia. For GMU’s leadership, a top tier ranking and the consequent increase in interest in the school, while celebrated, is not enough. The youngest law school in the region, George Mason — founded in 1979 — aspires to the likes of George Washington University Law School (No. 25) or the College of William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law (No. 32), says Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Daniel Polsby. “We have long been very concerned about our reputation. The better our reputation is, the better our students will be, the better opportunities we will be able to give our students,” says Polsby. “Everything kind of feeds on itself.” APPLICATIONS UP AT MARYLAND At the University of Maryland, garnering a top tier spot attracted more students to the school as well. “We’ve had an 85 percent increase in our applications for next year,” says Dean Karen Rothenberg. For fall 2001, the school sent out the same number of admission offers as prior years, but 100 more students accepted than expected. With 100 extra students to fit into classrooms, Maryland’s student-faculty ratio of 1-to-13.4 last year edged up to 1-to-14.3 — a factor, Rothenberg says, that contributed to the school’s fall from the top tier. “We were a victim of our own success,” she says. Pointing to increased reputation rankings given by lawyers and judges and higher LSAT scores for incoming students, Rothenberg says, “We actually improved. We just got kicked out by others that moved in.” That won’t happen again, she vows. The school admitted a smaller class this year to bring the student-faculty ratio back down. And, hoping to attract top students interested in the hottest markets, Maryland recently opened a biotech program in Montgomery County. “I want to be ranked within the top 10 public law schools,” says Rothenberg. “Where am I now? I’m in the top 25.” STUCK AT THE TOP Indeed, while many hope to change their law school rankings, that can be difficult to do, especially within the top tier. The order of the top six law schools — Yale University, Stanford University, Harvard University, Columbia University, New York University, and the University of Chicago, respectively — did not change from last year. Locally, Georgetown University Law Center remained at No. 14; the University of Virginia held steady at No. 7; and George Washington moved only slightly, from No. 23 to No. 25. According to U.S. News, the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law did not return the survey and was not ranked. Much of the lack of movement among the top schools has to do with the structure of the U.S. News rankings. A school’s selectivity — measured by LSAT scores, GPAs, and acceptance rates — makes up 25 percent of the score, while success in placing students in employment accounts for 20 percent. Faculty resources — expenditures per student, student-faculty ratios, number of books in the library — are worth 15 percent. The largest measure by far, however, is a school’s reputation (40 percent), which is decided by deans, faculty members, lawyers, and judges. “Every year I’m asked to rank 180 law schools and I do it,” says GW Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Roger Trangsrud. “But my knowledge is largely confined to a couple dozen law schools. It’s something better, I guess, than asking the guy coming down the street … but not by much. It’s frustrating.” But for those on the edge between tiers, any changes in their scores can make a difference. “I don’t think that at any of the five local law schools there have been any dramatic changes in programs, faculty, or students that would justify a dramatic movement up or down,” says Trangsrud. “The difference between schools is so small that the slightest change in one of the categories can produce a large change in the rankings.” Howard University School of Law moved up from its regular perch in the fourth tier to the third. A higher student-faculty ratio — 1-to-18 this year compared with 1-to-13.4 in last year’s rankings — was balanced by a dramatic 15 percent increase in the percentage of students employed nine months after graduation. Now the school boasts over 90 percent employment nine months out. For Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law, the drop from second tier to third tier was not totally unexpected, says newly installed law school Dean Douglas Kmiec. The latest rankings used information from 2000 and 2001, figures already set in stone before Kmiec came on board last year. Even as the school was looking for a new dean, it lacked an admissions director, a vacancy that has since been filled. “This is already outdated information,” says Kmiec. “We’re more interested in what we’re doing today.” He adds, “Every one of the Washington schools … is running a different program than law schools outside of Washington. There is nothing [in the U.S. News rankings] that asks, ‘How many internships do you have at the Federal Communications Commission?’ “

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