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Everyone knows April for two big annoyances: rain and income taxes. For law school deans, a third irritation comes when U.S. News & World Report issues its annual ranking of law schools. The current listing was published the week before last, creating the usual hullabaloo. Since 1990, when the magazine first concocted such measures, campus officials, alumni and even the American Bar Association have railed against the efficacy of the report and the validity of its rankings. Yet the package remains an extremely popular read among prospective students, faculty and administrators — and a profitable newsstand item. Like it or not, the subjective U.S. News survey has become a staple of evaluation, a fact of law school life. “It’s appalling,” said Richard A. Matasar, dean of New York Law School. “It creates false impressions. It’s just insane.” Kristin Booth Glen, dean of the City University of New York School of Law, was hardly more charitable in describing what she sees as a vicious loop the magazine forces her colleagues to circle. “Everybody says they hate it, except obviously the people on top love it,” she said. “But the ones who say they hate it are ecstatic when they move up a few points. And when some poor school drops a tier, there’s hell to pay. “This thing has enormous impact on people’s lives — donors and alumni and administrators,” she added. “They spend enormous amounts of money trying to influence [the rankings] by mailing out slick brochures and the like. It just eats up budgets.” Robert J. Morse, director of data research at U.S. News, is familiar with such reproach. “We’re not doing our rankings for the academic law school community. Our rankings are being done for prospective students and the general public,” he said in a telephone interview from Washington. “And we certainly try to make the point that our rankings should not be used as the sole criterion in choosing a law school. I don’t think they are.” 12 INDICATORS U.S. News employs 12 basic indicators in its process of ranking a law school. The first two — reputation among academics and reputation among lawyers and judges — are clearly subjective. The other 10 factors are: median LSAT scores; median undergraduate grade point averages; applicant rejection rate; per-student expenditure for instruction, library and supporting student services; financial aid programs; law library size; student-faculty ratio; percentage of students employed upon graduation; percentage of students employed within nine months of graduation; and bar examination passage rate. A virtual indictment of the magazine’s annual rankings was published in February 1998 by the ABA in a study commissioned by the Association of American Law Schools. The study cited “problems related to the accuracy of the data U.S. News relies on” and “intentional and unintentional biases in the subjective assessments of school quality.” Piling on with criticism was Joanna Grossman’s article published last week on a Web site maintained by FindLaw. Grossman, an associate professor at Hofstra University School of Law, wrote: “ U.S. News‘s methodology gives the greatest weight to a school’s reputation. … Twenty-five percent of a law school’s overall ranking is derived from this reputation among academics, and an additional 15 percent based on its reputation among practitioners and judges. “How is ‘reputation’ quantified? Four faculty members at each ABA-accredited law school — the dean, the academic dean, the head of the faculty hiring committee and the most recently tenured faculty member — are asked to rank every law school on a scale of 1 to 5. … They are told nothing about each school, but are instructed to take into account a wide variety of factors that may bear on academic reputation.” Legal education, Grossman concluded, “remains hostage to the U.S. News rankings” at the expense of improving educational quality. Morse offered further defense of his magazine’s ranking procedures. “We’re not saying it’s perfect, or that it’s the only way to measure. We’re definitely not holding ourselves out to be a comprehensive guide. And everybody has the right to criticize,” he said. “But I wonder if any of these deans are using our rankings as part of their advertising or branding.” Among deans polled for comment by the Law Journal, David Cohen of Pace Law School in White Plains came closest to expressing a positive view of U.S. News procedures. This year, the magazine ranked Pace third in the nation for its environmental law program. “University presidents and alumni and prospective students react to the rankings, that’s just a reality,” Cohen said. “Whether it’s fair or not is beside the point. You live with it.” But what is life in New York without complaints? Of which Joan G. Wexler, dean of Brooklyn Law School, has many when it comes to discussing the U.S. News rankings. “The survey [questions] four people on a faculty about 176 different law schools,” she noted. “Who’s to say these people are up to date? And how do you know about 176 law schools?” According to survey instructions, faculty members are told to leave blank those schools with which they are unfamiliar. TOO SMALL A SAMPLE But that only bolsters Wexler’s criticism. There are nearly 10,000 U.S. law school faculty members, she said, yet U.S. News reports questionnaires sent to about 700. The magazine further reports a 67 percent response rate, meaning that roughly 5 percent of the nation’s law school faculty members pass subjective judgment on campuses other than their own. “What’s the incentive to change?” Wexler asked. “None.” “The [ U.S. News] survey is not gospel,” said Joseph W. Bellacosa, dean of St. John’s University School of Law and a former state Court of Appeals judge. “From a marketplace and media and consumer standpoint, it offers something. On the other hand, it’s not a reliable something. I don’t think it pretends to be.” Judge Bellacosa and others point to alternative sources for prospective students in search of a campus. Namely the ABA annual unranked report on law schools, available online, and the relatively new Web-based Educational Quality Rankings (EQR), issued every two years by Professor Brian Leiter of the University of Texas School of Law. Unlike U.S. News, which looks at all ABA accredited law schools, the EQR ranks only 40. In her article, Grossman wrote, that Leiter offered “a more objective measure of law school quality than U.S. News. His … rankings were received more favorably by law school deans, who perceived fewer opportunities for manipulation than with the U.S. News rankings.” MANIPULATION POSSIBLE U.S. News‘ Morse acknowledged the possibility of manipulated figures, a point on which deans have been vociferously negative. For instance, law schools might unscrupulously inflate their rejection rates, thus making them appear more elite, by soliciting applications from candidates with no practical chance of admission. “I’m not disputing the point,” said Morse. “But I think they’re quibbling about things that don’t have a big rating in our ranking model, things that aren’t key factors.” But ratings, rankings, surveys and studies are no substitute for personal research by a law school candidate, suggested Cohen. Were he a prospective student, “I would first say to myself, look, law school is an investment of three or four years of my life, and about $100,000. I’ve got a serious decision to make. I’ve got to do a lot of research. “I wouldn’t even look at U.S. News. I’d go straight for the ABA report because it has more quantitative information,” said Cohen. “You use that data to narrow your search to 15 or 20 schools. Then you talk to people — lawyers, if you’re able to, and business people and government people and graduates. “Then, augment that research by actually going to the schools — maybe three or four or five of them. Meet the students. Drop into the career development office. See the dean. This will take about a week. It’s worth a week of your life. “You can’t get that from any book, and certainly not U.S. News.”

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