As a newcomer from a career in public service and private practice, my first year as dean of Rutgers Law School-Newark has been marked by surprises. Most of them have validated my decision to enter the academic world. One surprise has, however, left me deeply disturbed because it undermines the integrity of legal education and the diversity of our profession: the prominence of the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings.
I had hoped that the American Bar Association’s study of the rankings would result in their demise, but the study’s tepid conclusion – that the rankings are “not entirely benign,” but a fact of life – vastly understates, in my view, their harm to legal education and to the profession.
As the rankings have grown in importance, they have come to pervade law-school decision-making in wholly inappropriate ways.
First, the rankings encourage schools to look primarily, if not solely, at LSAT scores and grade point averages in admitting students; as a consequence, they foster a narrow-minded approach to admissions that degrades the diversity of the legal profession.
Assume that you are asked to consider two applications. The first applicant, the product of a impoverished and otherwise disadvantaged background, has worked his way through a “lesser” college, and has an LSAT score and grade point average that are remarkable, given his circumstances, but slightly below your average; the second, who attended prep schools and graduated from a better-known college, offers an LSAT and transcript slightly above your median, although his undergraduate school is notorious for inflated grades. Which one do you admit?
If the decision is based on an assessment of who is likely to be the better attorney, you may well select the first candidate, because that person has shown an ability to adapt to difficult circumstances and a determination to succeed that will serve him well, and because, quite frankly, LSAT scores and grade point averages simply do not correlate to success as a lawyer.
Without hesitation, however, many law schools will admit the second candidate. Why? There is only one dispositive consideration: the first candidate will hurt the school’s ranking; the second candidate will improve it. It should surprise no one that the rise in prominence of the U.S. News rankings has coincided with a decline in the diversity of the legal profession.
“Diversity” is drawn increasingly from people whose educational background reflects no relative disadvantage. Why? Such candidates allow schools to satisfy diversity concerns without hurting the rankings. Our profession is poorer for this logic.
Second, to the extent that the U.S. News rankings imply that some schools produce better lawyers, they leave an unfair and false impression. There is simply no correlation. Some of the best (and worst) lawyers I have known have graduated from the highest-ranked schools, while other great lawyers have graduated from lesser-known or lower-ranked schools. There is no pattern consistent with a numerical hierarchy from 1-100.
But the problem runs deeper than favoring people with educationally privileged backgrounds, discouraging diversity and leaving the outside world with a misleading impression. The rankings also have a corrupting effect on law school culture.
Because so little separates schools, relatively minor adjustments in data can catapult a school in the rankings. Realizing this, some schools have sought to manipulate the data by engaging in various practices designed to “game” the reporting to U.S. News. Some have admitted “weaker” students early in the summer so their scores and grades won’t “count” against the overall average; some have encouraged at-risk graduates to defer taking the bar exam so that bar passage rates will not be affected; some have withdrawn offers of acceptance upon learning that a student has chosen another school, so that their enrollment percentage remains high; some have manipulated faculty-student ratios; and some have gone so far as to inflate the average LSAT score.
As the ABA panel found, moreover, the ranking race causes some schools to raise tuition not in order to improve the quality of legal education but in order to engage in gimmicks designed to influence the rankings.
How are we to inculcate in our students a passion for justice and integrity when we tacitly condone such shenanigans?
There are many great law schools. Each has its own culture; each has left a unique mark on legal culture. Prospective students and employers would be better served by taking the time to visit or otherwise research the schools they are considering, rather than relying on a shorthand ranking that mismeasures qualities it deems important while failing utterly to consider qualities that, as educators and lawyers, we should all value.
John J. Farmer Jr. has been dean of Rutges Law School-Newark since July 2009. Previously, he was a litigator in private practice, a federal prosecutor, New Jersey attorney general and senior counsel for the 9/11 Commission.