By SHAUNA K. PEARSON
The ranking of American Law Schools by US News and World Report last week brought a host of questions from the Association of American Law Schools about the validity of the ranking system.
AALS sent out a letter signed by the deans of almost every law school in the United States cautioning students not to take the rankings at face value. The letter reminded students there are a lot of factors involved in deciding which law school to attend.
“I think the concern of AALS is that when people try to rank law schools based on the opinions of lawyers and judges, it’s difficult to know enough about any one school to give an accurate ranking,” said Scott Cameron, associate dean of the BYU Law School.
He said ABA and AALS both put out reports with information about individual law schools, but neither organization ranks the law schools like US News and World Report. The ABA Official Guide to Approved Law Schools gives information about enrollment, LSAT scores, GPA, faculty and curriculum, among other things. The guide is 470 pages long.
“The ABA tries to give more data points that would assist a student in making a decision,” Cameron said. “It is more comprehensive than the abbreviated list that a news magazine would put out.”
He said news magazines such as US News and World Report feel it is their duty to give students some consumer information about law schools. People are very interested in this information, Cameron said; it is the largest selling edition of US News and World Report.
The magazine’s “America’s Best Graduate Schools” edition should be on newsstands by March 22; the more comprehensive guidebook comes out April 6, Cameron said.
According to Cameron, the ABA book has been out for months. ABA is concerned people will only look at the rankings.
“They’re too simplistic,” Cameron said. “With a football ranking, you can see the strength of a schedule, and the teams play against each other. You can’t do that with law schools.”
He said ABA and AALS recognize that the rankings of US News and World report are not going to go away. They just want to educate students about the additional points of comparison they need to be aware of when selecting a law school.
He said students should look at things like faculty, location and strengths of specific schools.
“What is the best place for one person may not be the best place for another,” Cameron said.
US News and World Report agreed.
“The interesting point is we have a lot in common with the point of view expressed by the deans in the letter,” said Amy Graham, director of data research for US News and World Report.
She said the magazine urges students to look at the rankings as a measure of the academic strength of the law program at each school. However, it recognizes there are other factors involved in deciding which law school to attend, like cost and location.
Although many factors should be considered, Graham said an important factor is the reputation of the academic program. This information is provided by surveys filled out by practicing attorneys and judges as well as deans of law schools.
She said in 1987, the first year the rankings came out, they were entirely based on reputation.
Although lawyers, judges and deans may not know everything about a particular law school, Graham said they all have their informed opinions about what the best programs are.
She said a lot of opinions are based on literature that lawyers, judges and deans receive from the faculty of various law schools, and on people they know who have graduated from those law schools.
“Basically, our rankings give people a place to start,” Graham said. “We try to combine a lot of dimensions about the quality of academics at the various schools, and you have to do some kind of weighting.”
She said the ABA Directory is a good complement to the US News and World Report guidelines because it does not focus just on academics but includes information about the lifestyle associated with each particular school.
Law schools like the University of Texas Law School, however, are not so sure they agree with the position of US News and World Report.
“Regardless of how the law school ranks, our opinion has always been that the criteria used (by US News and World Report) puts large public law schools at a disadvantage,” said Juan Zabala, dean of admission at University of Texas Law School.
He said it is inadequate to do a ranking of something so complex as the legal-education system in the United States. The system used by US News and World Report is not complex enough to rank the 180 law schools in the United States.
“I don’t know if that will ever be remedied,” Zabala said.
He said the ranking system favors small law school over large public schools because it does not take economies-of-scale into account. He said UT Law School spends less per student because it has larger overhead costs for things such as electricity.
One of the goals of UT Law School is to educate a large number of Texans. For that reason, the law school is subsidized by the state and other private donors, so their tuition is “laughably low.”
“To be honest, we could be silly and triple our tuition, then give two-thirds of that back to students in scholarships,” Zabala said. “If that would shoot us up in the rankings but not change anything else, then it tells you something about the inadequacy of the ranking system.”
Zabala said the real risk is that students will look at the rankings and take them at face value. He said many students may be misled into choosing a law school based on rankings they think are valid.
“I suspect there is more impact than I would like to admit,” Zabala said.
He said students would be well served by looking at more than one “beauty-pageant” report. He suggested students look at all the other rankings — such as the the Insiders Guide to Law Schools — and take the differences into account when choosing which law school to attend.
He said doing a real comparison of legal education becomes very difficult and tedious, but students making an important decision like which law school to attend need to be willing to put in the research time to find the law school that is right for them.