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When Mack Player became dean eight years ago, Santa Clara University School of Law was ranked in the often-forgotten fourth tier of U.S. News & World Report‘s annual law school survey. Two years later, the Santa Clara, Calif. school moved up to the third tier and stayed there for another six years. And earlier this month, Santa Clara broke into the second tier — putting it in 85th place overall — in its effort to catch up to top 10 perennials Stanford Law School and the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. So what made the difference? It’s the accumulation of a lot of little things, said Player. He partly attributes the change to the availability of new degrees, the clout of Silicon Valley and an improved applicant pool caused by a favorable portrayal of lawyers in the media. What the school hasn’t done, Player said, is retool its academic programs just to fit the criteria used in U.S. News‘ rankings. “[ U.S. News] changes the criteria every year for the deciding factors, so it’s difficult to know what to focus on,” he said. While U.S. News doesn’t release individual rankings within the second through fourth tiers, the magazine does disclose individual rankings to the schools. Player said this year’s ranking was 85th, while last year Santa Clara ranked 89th and the year before it was in 105th place. Player doesn’t look at what he’s done over the years as a massive overhaul of the system, but more of a “tweaking.” The latest American Bar Association statistics show that Santa Clara has a 79 percent first-time bar passage rate, up 9 percent from 1997. The increase also influenced Santa Clara’s move to the second tier and gave it the edge to tie sixth in the state for first-time bar passage rates. And even while Santa Clara sat in the third tier, the school’s intellectual property program was ranked in the top 10 for five years in a row. Such inconsistencies have caused some critics to doubt the validity of the magazine’s rankings. Player was formerly an associate dean at Florida State University. When he came to Santa Clara he quickly zeroed in on several problem areas, one of which was the tracking of students after graduation. Traditionally Santa Clara would give the graduate a card to send in when he or she was offered a job. But school officials quickly discovered that even though students were getting jobs, Player said, “they just wouldn’t send in the card, no matter how many times we asked them to. “Now we badger them. When we hand out the placement cards at graduation we tell them about the rankings and say, ‘Fill this out, it will help with the quality of the school; it will help you get jobs.’” U.S. News looks at the number of graduates that have jobs within six to nine months as a part of the ranking criteria. In the eyes of the magazine, absence of a reply means the student didn’t get a job after graduation. In 1994, Santa Clara reported that 60 percent of its students had jobs in the six months after graduation. This year, Santa Clara ranked fourth in the state, with a 98 percent employment rate nine months after graduation, placing it 33rd in the country. Student placement and career counseling were important enough that Player hired Skip Horne as assistant dean for law career services three years ago. Horne came from the University of Texas School of Law and knew how the improper tracking of students can lead to a noticeable drop in the rankings. After educating faculty and students about the importance of student tracking, Horne instituted a tough-love policy for the students: Graduates cannot receive the paperwork required from Santa Clara to proceed in the bar exam process until they fill out a career placement survey. Not surprisingly, Santa Clara now sees about 75 percent of its graduates promptly fill out the two-page placement form. According to Player, Santa Clara’s reputation with law firms and judges has been improving every year, yet another deciding factor for U.S. News, since lawyers and judges are polled on their impressions of the school. Santa Clara received a 2.8 out of 6.0 this year in that area. Meanwhile, the school tries to capitalize on its Silicon Valley location. Last year, it took an existing high-tech program and morphed it into the High Tech Law Institute, an intellectual property program that offers an LL.M. and both international and high-tech law certificates. The institute was created for post-law degree students looking to enhance their existing practice or reacquaint themselves with IP law. Elizabeth Powers, executive director of the institute, graduated from the law school in 1989 and was involved with the high-tech program before it became an institute last year. In order to get greater recognition for the “rather nebulous” high-tech program at Santa Clara, she went to local law firms for help. “I wanted to get the legal community involved so we could fund more academic programs, conferences and visiting speakers,” she said. She persuaded Morrison & Foerster; Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; and Weil, Gotshal & Manges to donate funds and sit on the board of directors. The LL.M. degree in intellectual property law has been gaining in popularity, due in part to the high-tech demands of Silicon Valley. And it doesn’t hurt that Santa Clara County has the highest number of patents created in the United States, according to the Sunnyvale Center for Innovation, Invention and Ideas. The institute is accepting 25 students for next spring and has been receiving applications from around the country.

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