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Law School Rankings to Students: Don't Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want

Let's just say that when it comes to addressing what law students want out of a legal education, those who rank law schools aren't singing the Spice Girls' popular lyrics, tell [us] what you want, what you really, really want.  At least, that's the conclusion of a recent survey by the National Jurist, which found a wide disparity between those factors that are considered influential in the US News & World Report law school rankings and those factors that matter to students. 

In a discussion of the National Jurist study , Debra Cassens Weiss at ABA Journal News describes:

The top factors named by law students were quality of teaching, bar passage rate, placement rate at nine months, practical skills training and faculty-student relations. But U.S. News doesn’t consider quality of teaching, practical skills training or faculty-student relations, while bar passage rate and placement have low importance in the U.S. News rankings.  In U.S. News, reputation among law professors and deans accounts for 25 percent of a law school’s rank, while reputation by judges and lawyers accounts for 15 percent. That is followed by placement rate at nine months after graduation (14 percent), median LSAT scores (12.5 percent) and undergrad GPA (10 percent).

Bloggers have had plenty to say about the mismatch between student demands on the one hand, and law school rankings on the other.   At How to Build A Solo Practice, Susan Cartier Liebel isn't surprised that law school rankings don't reflect student desires.  In Cartier Liebel's view, the omission explains why law schools don't offer more practical training or management classes:  because these courses won't elevate a law school's rating, whereas the GPA of an entering class or the school's reputation among other judges and lawyers matter significantly.  Cartier Liebel recommends that law schools pay attention to paying customers, the students:

Create an educational experience comprised of doctrinal and practical skills classes in proper balance and at a fair price.  This school would have so many high caliber students they wouldn't have to artificially decrease the admitting class size to raise entering students' G.P.A.'s.  Or produce fewer graduates to have what appears then to be a higher placement statistic. The employers at their job fairs would actually want them and not dread another graduating class who know very little. Whether looking to be employed by another or to strike out on their own, these students would be well prepared and a credit to the profession.

Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice agrees that law school education needs to change, and focus on what ought to be its mission:  preparing students to become lawyers.  Greenfield envisions "Scott's Law School," where law professors are forbidden to publish in law reviews since according to Greenfield, no one except other law professors read them (actually, perusing recent law reviews is one of my guilty pleasures while I'm at the law library).  And students would learn practical skills such as dealing with clients, judges and adversaries.  Chuck Newton, the Third Wave Lawyer also endorses a move towards more practical education here and describes a program at Detroit Mercy that is doing just that.

I haven't found much discussion of this issue at law professor blogs (give a holler in the comments if I missed you!).  However, one commenter at Tax Prof Blog wonders whether law student are sufficiently qualified to evaluate the quality of a law school, or to know what aspects of legal education are important.  I'm in agreement here, as well.  Though I believe that students should have access to practical courses, in my view, the most important skills that law school teaches are (1) writing ability and (2) analytical thinking.  These skills, particularly good writing, are virtually impossible to develop on the job simply because they take time and practice to perfect.  Yet "legal writing" isn't a very sexy skill; I can't see law students ever demanding more legal writing courses -- though many, myself included, appreciate the value of writing ability once in practice.

Finally, as much as our legal education system needs reform, believe it or not, there are some who look to our legal education system as a model.  Consider this opinion piece from the Korea Times (11/20/07) commenting on the dismal legal education system in Korea:

Generally speaking, U.S. law practice is significantly more developed and sophisticated ... U.S. lawyers are expected and trained to think three, four steps ahead and be proactive ... The chances are average local Korean practitioners or even the relatively good ones will not be able to meet the high expectations of a U.S. client.'' [from Chun Y. Yang, a Korean practitioner]  President Roh Moo-hyun and the National Assembly know there is a problem. The Law School Bill states, "Under the current system to nurture legal professionals, a gap exists between legal education and legal practices. Also the current system does not sufficiently nurture legal professionals who have expertise in preventing and addressing legal disputes. Therefore, the purpose of this amendment is to provide legal services which meet citizens' various needs by introducing a U.S.-style law school system.''

The article recommends that law professors "stop lecturing and focus on nurturing critical thinking and logical reasoning skills by engaging students" through methods like the Socratic method.

Bottom line:  while legal education in the U.S. may have its problems, it could be much worse. Is that why it hasn't yet changed?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 20, 2007 at 06:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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