Category: Law School (Rankings)


Choosing a law school, part 5

I thought I would say a bit about faculty – the people who teach all those classes in the curriculum. Every law school will tell you that its faculty is excellent, and with justification. Law teaching jobs are sufficiently desirable that law schools generally have many, many qualified applicants for openings. Law schools today hire very well qualified people. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest one way in which prospective students can evaluate whether a particular faculty will provide a good educational experience.

Professors come in many types. For purposes of this post, however, we can get along with a distinction between permanent faculty and part-time (frequently called adjuncts) faculty. For permanent faculty, law teaching is their full-time job. Part-time faculty, as their name implies, generally have another job and devote a relatively small amount of their time to law teaching. They generally teach one class at a school, often in the early morning or evening, and they frequently do so from year to year.

A good school should have the vast majority of its courses, particularly first year courses and basic doctrinal upper year courses, taught by permanent faculty. This is not to say that part-time faculty can’t do a good job. Many are good, dedicated teachers. Nevertheless, full-time faculty are at the school, present for students in ways that would be impossible for part-time faculty. Those professors have more time to focus on teaching, and they bring cutting edge expertise based on their research to the classroom. There are, of course, areas in which part-time faculty can do a better job than permanent faculty. For example, skills courses or courses focused on specialized topics related to practice (e.g. business planning) benefit from the day to day practical experience of adjuncts.

Accreditors give significant importance to the principle that law students should be taught primarily by full-time faculty, and accreditors will give law schools trouble if the principle is violated. Surprisingly, however, law schools sometimes overuse part-time faculty. This happens because, at some schools, permanent faculty do not want to teach first year or other basic courses. Student enrollments in those classes are high, so teaching those classes takes more time than teaching smaller seminars that may be more closely related to a faculty member’s research. It’s obviously hard for schools to force tenured professors to teach classes they don’t want to teach. Indeed, faculty who don’t want to teach a class may not do a good job.

For prospective students, a law school that does not put its full-time faculty in basic classes raises a question that needs to be answered. Do the school and its faculty really give sufficient priority to teaching students? Every school will of course answer yes, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.


Thoughts about choosing law school, part 4

Law schools compete for students by touting the strength of their curriculum, and with every school claiming that it is strong in a particular area, it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on whether a particular school really would be better than another for a student interested in, for example, corporate law or environmental law. One possible way to assess this might be the raw number of courses in a particular area, and in a sense more can be preferred to less. That having been said, I’d encourage prospective students to look beyond raw numbers when evaluating claims of curricular excellence.

A school that offers, for example, 24 intellectual property courses surely offers far more courses than an individual student could ever take. That doesn’t mean that the large number of offerings is valueless. Rather, a student should think carefully about how many courses one can profitably devote to concentration in a particular area versus the general education that forms the foundation for the successful practice of law. For example, a student may want to specialize in intellectual property, but she should also make room in her curriculum for corporations, commercial law, antitrust, employment law, and other areas that arise when considering IP issues. Additionally, I think it’s important for students to take a class or two devoted to perspectives on law like jurisprudence, law and economics, or legal history. They greatly enrich a legal education. When one adds these classes to requirements such as professional responsibility and courses people take because the subjects appear on the bar, there aren’t that many open slots for specialization. At some point, adding classes is nice, but perhaps overkill.

A student should also evaluate whether the courses offered by a school permit effective progression from basic study to advanced possibilities. Each field has basic courses that serve as entry points of study. In the corporate law area, that would probably be a course like corporations or business associations. More advanced doctrinally oriented courses might include corporate finance, securities regulation, and mergers and acquisitions. Beyond that, students might branch out in a couple of different directions. One would be toward increasingly advanced theoretical or policy study, perhaps in a seminar with a large research project. For example, a school might offer a seminar on theories of corporate governance or applications of the efficient capital markets hypothesis. The other would be towards practical application of knowledge and skills training. These classes would include classroom skills courses like drafting or trial practice, live client clinics where students actually practice under the supervision of faculty, and externship placements in law firms, companies, or government offices.

Obviously, the course content of a particular curriculum is not the only thing that determines its quality. A lot depends on who does the teaching, a subject I will address in another post. But for now, students can probably identify schools that will serve their needs by considering not only the number of offerings in an area of interest, but also the structuring of the curriculum to provide opportunities for intellectual depth and development of skill.


Welcome to the Blogosphere: 20th & H Blog by Dean Fred Lawrence

My dean, Fred Lawrence of George Washington University Law School, has started a new blog called 20th & H.  He writes:

20th and H was conceived as a place for me, as dean, to share with the GW Law community occasional thoughts about the Law School, legal education, and the legal profession, and to talk with you about some of the perspectives and insights I’ve gained through my work on campus and on the road.

Great idea!  Welcome to the blogosphere.

Fred has a recent post about laptops in the classroom:

For many of our students, the laptop has become almost an extension of their selves.  It’s how they take notes, research, write, and communicate; like it or not, those of us who were students in a pre-computer age simply can’t roll back the clock to a time when faculty members enjoyed the sight of rows of rapt faces and suffered at worse some inattentive doodling, note passing and an occasional nodding head.

Read more over at 20th & H.


Thoughts about choosing a law school, pt. 3

Legal writing programs get staffed in 3 meaningfully different ways.  One model relies primarily on part-time instructors (generally adjunct teachers or graduate student fellows) supervised by a director of the program who is sometimes, but not always, a full-time specialist in legal writing.  A second model uses a director (sometimes, but not always, a full-time specialist) who works with faculty teaching doctrinal courses like torts or contracts to integrate writing exercises into those doctrinal courses.  A third model uses full-time faculty who specialize in teaching legal writing.  Each has its pros and cons.

Model 1 is inexpensive for a school to operate.  Adjunct faculty don’t get paid very much, so this saves faculty positions for people who will teach other subjects.  Devoting slots this way arguably benefits students in a couple of different ways.  It might mean lower student-faculty ratios in upper level classes or a wider variety of courses from which to choose.  And, it could mean more faculty publishing and advancing the school’s scholarly reputation.  (Note:  This second point may be hotly contested depending on one’s perspective.  Conventional wisdom holds that tenure-track faculty who teach outside of legal writing publish more than legal writing faculty.  This is partly because many legal writing faculty hold non-tenure track positions for which publication is not a requirement.  This may be changing as legal writing faculty have begun to hold tenure-track positions and publishing more.) All of this comes at a cost, however.  Full-time faculty who specialize in legal writing develop considerable teaching expertise.  Perhaps more than any other type of law school faculty, full-time legal writing teachers think and write about how to train lawyers.  With all due respect to those who teach legal writing as adjuncts or fellows, I think that full-time legal writing faculty will, on the whole, teach better classes than part-time faculty.  An adjunct has another job that is his primary income.  He understandably pays more attention to that than his students.  And, adjuncts frequently teach for only a few years.  Just when they’re starting to figure things out, they move on.

Model 2 has intriguing possibilities for excellence that may not always be realized.  When full-time faculty teach writing as part of a doctrinally focused course, the integration could lead to a deeper understanding of legal problems and how to write about them.  Class discussion can explicitly tie big substantive questions to challenges in writing memos or briefs.  If this works, it probably creates an excellent legal writing class.  Unfortunately, the faculty I know who have taught in these programs report that the promise is not always realized because faculty who teach doctrinal classes do not, as a whole, make legal writing a priority.  They prefer to concentrate on their substantive law specialties and their scholarship.  Only an unusually dedicated non-legal writing specialist professor will spend the time necessary to become a top-flight legal writing teacher.  Some undoubtedly do it, but others I’ve spoken to find the obligation to teach writing a burdensome distraction from teaching and writing about subjects they prefer.

Model 3 uses only full-time faculty who dedicate themselves to teaching legal writing.  The obvious benefit is the development of expertise I mentioned earlier.  Not every law professor will agree with this, but I think that top-flight legal writing teachers bring great value to their students.  Those who don’t agree may say that any of us (meaning non-legal writing law professors) could step right in and do just as good of a job, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.  A good legal writing course combines the reading and analysis of cases with instruction on how to write about the law.  It isn’t obvious that “just any” professor would immediately do a good job of it.  If experience matters in teaching torts, it probably matters in teaching legal writing too.  So why don’t all law schools employ a full-time staff of legal writing teachers?  Well, it’s expensive.  Full-time legal writing teachers occupy faculty slots that could be used for teachers in other areas.  A school may not think that legal writing is sufficiently important to warrant the expenditure.

From the standpoint of a prospective law student, it’s worth deciding how important legal writing will be to you.  You will have to candidly assess your writing ability, how easily you will adapt to legal conventions, and your willingness to experience stress if you’re behind fellow summer associates/new lawyers who have had more training.  To be clear, I’m not saying that legal writing should be your primary method for choosing a law school.  But, if schools are fairly close in other ways, the legal writing program is one important and frequently overlooked way to identify the right school for you.


Thoughts about choosing a law school, part 2

Let me use this post to suggest one way in which prospective students can begin comparing academic programs.  All law schools require their first year students to take a heavily prescribed curriculum.  Few, if any electives exist, and indeed the required courses are practically the same at most schools.  By contrast, second and third year students usually have great freedom to choose their courses.

The similarity between law school curriculums may give students the impression that there is little to distinguish the program of a particular school.  However, there is one area – legal writing – where schools differ a great deal.

When I went to law school, I mistakenly thought that legal writing was the least important course I would take.  And indeed, that is exactly how my alma mater, Harvard, treated it.  The course was taught by second and third year students, giving it the feel of an afterthought to the “real” courses taught by full-time faculty.  We didn’t pay much attention to it, and my education suffered for it.  After my first year of law school, I arrived as a summer associate thinking I’d be well-prepared, only to find that I knew very little about how to conduct effective legal research or write memos.  If not for the advice of a kind fellow summer associate educated at a supposedly “lesser” school, I might have failed in my first legal job.

Legal writing is important well beyond the summer associate experience.  People may think of lawyers as oralists, but cases are really won and lost on briefs.  When I practiced in California, judges issued tentative rulings based on briefs, and wouldn’t even hear argument from the “winning” side unless the “losing” side could convince the judge otherwise in a very few minutes.  And of course, transactional lawyers must document deals clearly.

Despite the importance of legal writing, most law schools do not promote the details of their legal writing programs as heavily as other things.  I can think of a few reasons.  First, legal writing was not traditionally important to elite law schools, and one could argue that it still isn’t.  Second, legal writing is not generally considered an academic discipline like torts or civil procedure.  Third, legal writing comes across as un-sexy.  Accomplished students of the sort who get into law school don’t feel good being told that their writing skills need improvement.  It’s far more exciting to tell them that a school will make them experts in international human rights.

All of these things conspire to hide the importance of legal writing to students.  Nevertheless, I’d suggest that it’s very much worthwhile for prospective students to compare legal writing programs at various schools and think about what kind of program best suits them.  In my next post, I will describe 3 general types of legal writing programs, their pros and cons, and some of the reasons that schools adopt them.


A double whammy for diversity

Law firms aren’t just laying off lawyers, they’re laying off racial minority lawyers. A recent story sets out the detail:

Large U.S. law firms became less diverse last year. That’s the key finding to emerge from the latest version of our annual Diversity Scorecard, which counts attorneys of color in the U.S. offices of some 200 big firms. In each of the previous nine years that we’ve compiled the Scorecard, the percentage of minority attorneys at all participating firms increased, rising from less than 10 percent in 2000 to 13.9 percent in 2008. In 2009, for the first time, that proportion dipped, to 13.4 percent. The drop in law firm diversity may be small, but it’s important. Overall, big firms shed 6 percent of their attorneys between 2008 and 2009 — and, amid the bloodletting, lost 9 percent of their minority lawyers. . . .

The data shows that, while minority lawyers as a whole lost ground, not all groups were affected equally. In proportional terms, African-Americans lost the most: the percentage of all black lawyers fell by 13 percent (462 lawyers), with the number of black nonpartners sliding by a startling 16 percent. Translation: Almost one in six African-American nonpartners left the surveyed firms in the space of a year without being replaced. In raw numbers, Asian-Americans dropped the most, by 9 percent (556 lawyers). The number of Asian-American nonpartners dropped by 11 percent, while the number of partners rose by 6 percent. As for Hispanic lawyers, their numbers dropped by 9 percent overall (282 lawyers). Hispanic nonpartners fell by 13 percent; partners rose by 3 percent.

Meanwhile, another recent article focuses on diversity declines in law school admissions:

Research by two social scientists suggests that the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings aren’t helping legal educators build a more diverse student body. Deans and admissions officers told the researchers that the pressure to maintain or improve their U.S. News rankings can mean fewer slots for diverse students, who tend to score lower on the LSAT and have lower grade point averages. “Selectivity” — LSAT scores, undergraduate grades and schools’ degree of exclusivity in accepting applicants — accounts for one quarter of each school’s ranking. . . .

“By creating strong incentives for law schools to focus more narrowly on test scores, rankings make it seem more risky to admit diverse students when those students tend to have lower test scores,” the report says. “Moreover, rankings ratchet up the competition for poorer students and students of color with high scores….Administrators say they often feel forced to choose between a higher median LSAT score and a more diverse student body.”

To synthesize: There are no jobs for Black lawyers; but hey, there are no Black law students anyway. Double whammy.


Hello (again)

I want to thank Larry Cunningham for his generous and kind introduction.  I greatly enjoyed my guest appearance here a couple of years ago, and I look forward to contributing my thoughts again.

The opportunity to blog here fortuitously coincides with a topic that has been in the back of my mind lately.  It’s spring, and thousands of applicants are now getting the news that they’ve been admitted to a range of schools.  How should they choose?  Over the last decade or so, rankings like U.S. News and World Report’s have become increasingly important in making those decisions.  How heavily should a would-be lawyer rely on these rankings in making her choice of where to attend?  And are there other things she should examine if rankings don’t tell the whole story?

Over the next few weeks, I intend to post some thoughts about these questions.  Like most law professors, I’m curious to see how my schools (I teach at Boston College and went to Harvard) get ranked.  But beyond that idle curiosity, I’ve thought a bit (and just a bit) about evaluating the quality of a school because I’ve had the privilege of serving on American Bar Association teams that visit schools and prepare reports for purposes of accreditation.  These visits typically last 3 days and offer team members a real “look under the hood” of what is happening at a particular school.  I’ve also had the opportunity to get to know a couple of other schools through visiting or other methods that offered more than a casual glance at their programs.  In some cases, I’ve come away convinced that schools deserve their rankings (whether high or low).  But in others, I’ve come away with the impression that a school is actually a lot better or worse than its U.S. News ranking suggests.  I am not going to discuss the specifics of those impressions, but I will try to share the general things I’ve learned in hopes that it will help those choosing law schools.


Signing Off (Plus Some Advice for Law School Admissions Committees)

In the coming weeks and months, law school admissions committees will be making decisions on the Class of 2013. And they’ll be watching the numbers carefully, trying to make sure their inputs look good in the next U.S. News rankings. If your school needs help with GPA numbers but has some cushion on the LSAT, this star of MTV’s Jersey Shore could be just the ticket. As covered here, here, and here, Vinny Guadagnino boasts a 3.9 undergraduate GPA, although he calls his LSAT score “mediocre.” He says that law school’s “on the back burner,” but maybe now that his stint on the show is over he’ll be willing to entertain offers.

Speaking of stints being over, I wanted to thank Dan, Jaya, and the rest of the Concurring Opinions crew for the opportunity to guest blog here these last few weeks. I’ve really enjoyed it.


Law School Diversity and U.S. News

Some of you may have seen the recent study finding that the percentage of African-American and Mexican-American students in law school has decreased in the last fifteen years.  The study found that although there are 3,000 more first-year seats available today than in 1993 (the number of law schools has increased from 176 to 200), few of those seats are being filled by African-American or Mexican-American students.  As a result, African-American and Mexican-American students comprise a smaller percentage of the entering law school class than they did in 1993.  According to the ABA, the same trend is true of Puerto Rican law students, but that is not the case with all minority law students.  In fact, both the number and percentage of law students who self-identify as “Other Hispanic,” Asian, or Pacific Islander increased significantly from 1993 to 2008.

Read More


Overheard at AALS

Here are a few thoughts inspired by conversations I participated in or listened to at AALS (it’s not my fault that people persist in having very loud & irritating conversations over coffee, despite my dirty looks):

(1) A hiring committee chair talked about doing Google background checks on candidates for inconvenient facts. The rationale was that students would like come across pictures/stories themselves, and it was better to know than not. This struck me as an inevitable development, though sad.

(2) Many people complained about how the nametag culture at AALS encourages attendees to feel bad about themselves.  One solution offered was color-coded nametags that were keyed to the kind of social interaction you might expect.

Red: Individuals who, if spoken to, will inform you in great detail about a recent political fight on their faculty. Possible crazy. Avoid.  If you are engaged in a conversation with them, nod vigorously and say nothing.

Blue: Individuals who want a job at your school. Will laugh at your jokes and won’t look over your shoulder for at least two minutes. Engage as needed for a boost.  But don’t commit to anything.

Green: Individuals at schools you want to visit or move to. Will try to avoid you. Elevators are their weakness.

Black: Friends. Meet them later.

Orange: People who won’t deign to make eye contact with you.  There is no point in trying to hunt them down, except after they speak at a session, when they may treat you like a particularly dimwitted student.  Flattery will get you everywhere at that moment.

Purple: Members of your blog. Shouldn’t you know who they are?

Silver: Deans. Also known because they wear suits, and because they are looking at your pockets. Be careful. Their social skills are so much better than yours, that simply being near them makes you look more than ordinarily goofy.

Brown: AALS organizers, looking harried.  If you are outraged, consider engaging them at prepaid lunch over terrible food, when they are at a moral disadvantage.

(3)  I heard one professor telling another than she believed we were working “nine month” jobs since that is how the typical professor contract is worded (and since summer writing is rewarded through “grants” or “bonuses”).  I couldn’t disagree more.  Discuss.