Legal employment, especially for new lawyers, is grim turf. The Class of 2013 has 46,776 graduates, of which:
– 57% have a full-time, long-term job that requires a law degree
– 28% are working but do not meet these criteria
– 4% are in temp jobs paid for by their alma matter to prop up employment numbers
– 11% are unemployed (US unemployed as of today is 6.3%, though I've taken issue with this as being artificially low)
As for debt, even a public school like the University of Minnesota sends its average graduate packing with $98,410 in student loans.
Is law school still a "good deal"? How should a prospective student set on law school pick their school? Weighing the employment numbers and salary spread of a school against its average debt would be a good place to start.
And yet there is not a popular, oft-relied-on ranking system that does this. Most ranking systems employ a wide field of unnecessary criteria, the result of which is an unreliable, meaningless ranking which well-intentioned prospective law students then rely on as an authority on the topic.
The big boy is US News and World Report. You know their list: #1 Yale, #2 Harvard, #3 Stanford, right on down to the "Rank Not Published" Cooley and the Western State College of Law at Argosy University. It's safe to say that every year tens of thousands of people make their law school decision with this list somewhere in mind.
But what's under the hood at US News and World Report? Here are some of the criteria used in their rankings:
– Median LSAT scores of incoming students
– Median undergrad GPA of incoming students
– Acceptance rate
– "Faculty resources"
What? "Faculty resources," which is comprised of the student-faculty ratio, expenditure per student, and the embarrassingly irrelevant "library resources," receives nearly as much a weight as a school's job placement. Job placement in turn receives less weight than the "selectivity" category. How big the library is should not be a factor in whether to attend a school. How many students the school turns down should not be a factor in whether to attend a school. US News rankings in their current form are a huge disservice to the legal community. Says Justice Thomas: "I think the obsession [with rankings] is somewhat perverse. I never look at those rankings. I don’t even know where they are. I thought U.S. News and World Report was out of business." Justice Alito recently called it "an abomination."
Frustrated by this, Above the Law began producing its own rankings a few years ago. Their rankings favor schools with good "Employment Scores," "Quality Jobs Scores," and "Education Costs." They are not innocent of the frivolous criterion, however, as their ranking also factors in (at 15% of the total measurement of a school's worth):
– Percent of graduates clerking for the Supreme Court
– Percentage of graduates who are currently federal judges
Why does a federal magistrate count while a state supreme court justice does not? Why give a massive, outsized advantage to schools that send a graduate or two to DC to clerk for Ginsburg for a year? ATL responds: "they helped differentiate among the top schools . . . As for the elitism charge? Guilty. It's simply the nature of the profession. Our rankings aren't for everyone." In other words, it would be a 5-way tie for first if they didn't come up with a bogus differentiating factor or two, and any charge that such factors unnecessary favor the cultural/economic/social elites is absolutely correct. Next.
I hesitate to even mention this third ranking system, but it's important to see the level of depravity to which some schools will go to ensnare students. Case in point: the Thomas M. Cooley Law School Ranking. You will note that for most rankings, Cooley is not even worth giving a place. US News gives them a sort of "also-ran." And yet, on Cooley's own system, they are #2. #2, nationwide, the second-best law school in the country, only behind Harvard.
Let's look at some of the criteria used by Cooley's ranking system. In the following heavily-weighted categories, Cooley ranks in the top 10 nationally:
– Number of students
– Number of first-year students
– Number of minority students
– Number of first-year minority students
– Number of foreign nationals enrolled
– Percentage of students receiving grants or scholarships (Cooley gives scholarships to 100% of its students, which leads to the question: is it really a scholarship?)
– Number of full-time faculty
– Number of part-time faculty
– Total faculty
– Amount spent on library materials
– Number of librarians
– Library seating capacity
– Number of computers available
– Library square footage
– Law school square footage (excluding library)
– Law school square footage (including library)
– Number of states in which graduates are employed
This is a charade. Cooley is able to game the ranking system, without lying about the numbers, because it has 1) lots of students and 2) a physically large library. Might as well throw in "proximity to the largest river in North America" and give my own alma matter a bit of extra oomph. There are people out there, not many of them, who sees Cooley at #2 on their own ranking and say "I can't believe I haven't heard of this great school!" and then apply and attend the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which is so without value that national rankings do not even give them a rank. This is the dictionary definition of "huckster."
There are a lot of folks out there wondering if law school is a good choice for them. There are a lot of people wondering which law school to go to. These are by no means the only three ranking systems, but the rest are not much better, as far as my knowledge extends. Is this the best we've got?
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