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Introduction | Letter | Appendix
The following letter, signed by 164 of the 180 deans of the US law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, has been sent to 93,000 potential law school applicants by the Law School Admissions Council.
"Law School Rankings May Be Hazardous To Your Health!"

         It is easy to feel overwhelmed about the mass of material available to help you decide which law schools would best suit your needs, interests, and aspirations. You may be tempted to trim your research by resorting to some commercial ranking that purports to reduce to one easily digestible number -- from #1 to #180 -- how each ABA-accredited law school stacks up against the others. As deans of schools that range across the full spectrum of several such rating systems, we strongly urge you to minimize the influence of rankings on your own judgment. These rankings leave many important variables out of account, arbitrarily weight others, and are generally unreliable as a guide to those qualities of different schools that a candidate should consider when applying to law school. In the recent words of Newsweek editor Kenneth Auchincloss, "Rankings generate huge hype, which is far more likely to serve the publisher's purpose than the readers'. . . .Applicants need help in widening their knowledge of schools that may be right for them, not narrowing their choices according to a ranking system."

         Appended to this letter is a more detailed analysis of why you should be wary of ranking systems. The key problem with all law school rating systems is that the final rankings are not based primarily on any hard underlying data. The range of performance among law schools based on most hard variables is actually fairly narrow. Rankings result chiefly from the value judgments that transform a limited range of data into an evaluative scheme. After the ranking "authority" decides which variables are relevant to the ranking, each variable must be given a weight. But the choices of variables and, even more dramatically, the choice of weights to be given those variables can be conspicuously arbitrary.

         It would be better to proceed as follows: First, you should make a personal list of the things you care about in a potential law school. As you do further research, this list may grow or shrink, but you should start your search by asking yourself the fundamental questions, "Why do I want to go to law school? Which law schools will equip me to achieve my objectives?" That analysis may lead you to select as many as several dozen law schools in which you might be interested. Your second step, therefore, should be to gather detailed information about those schools.1 Third, after you have narrowed your list, you should take the time to visit the schools in which you are most interested or, at least, to talk to some faculty, staff, students, alumni, and legal employers who can give you current information about the school and what you can expect. This process is time-consuming and can be costly, but it will not be as costly as deciding to invest several years of your life and thousands of dollars of tuition in a school that is not well suited to you.

         You are about to make a substantial investment of time, money, energy -- and soul -- in pursuit of a legal education that meets your needs and will help you to fulfill your dreams. In the face of so important a decision, you owe it to yourself to avoid the temptation of relying on rankings and to undertake the kind of search we have outlined. We hope you make the right choice for you.

                                                               [Signed by 164 US law deans]

Richard L. Aynes, University of Akron; Thomas H. Sponsler, Albany Law School; Claudio Grossman, American University, Washington College of Law; Joel Seligman, University of Arizona; Alan Matheson, Arizona State University; Leonard Strickman, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Rodney K. Smith, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, John A. Sebert, University of Baltimore; Bradley J. B. Toben, Baylor University; Aviam Soifer, Boston College; Ronald A. Cass, Boston University H. Reese Hansen, Brigham Young University; Joan G. Wexler, Brooklyn Law School; Herma Hill Kay, University of California at Berkeley, Boalt Hall; Bruce Wolk, University of California at Davis; Mary Kay Kane, University of California, Hastings College of the Law; Susan Westerberg Prager, University of California at Los Angeles; Steven R. Smith, California Western School of Law; Stephen C. Bahls, Capital University; Gerald Korngold, Case Western Reserve University; Bernard Dobranski, Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law Joseph Tomain, University of Cincinnati; Steven H. Steinglass, Cleveland State University, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law; David W. Leebron, Columbia University; Harold H. Bruff, University of Colorado; Hugh Macgill, University of Connecticut; Russell Osgood, Cornell Law School; Lawrence Raful, Creighton University; Francis J. Conte, University of Dayton; Robert Yegge, University of Denver; Teree E. Foster, DePaul University; Stephen A. Mazurak, University of Detroit Mercy; William L. Robinson, District of Columbia School of Law; Peter Goplerud, Drake University; Pamela B. Gann, Duke University; Nicholas P. Cafardi, Duquesne University; Howard O. Hunter, Emory University; Richard Matasar, University of Florida; Paul A. LeBel, Florida State University; James E. Duggan, Franklin Pierce Law Center; Jack Friedenthal, George Washington University; Judith C. Areen, Georgetown University; Edward D. Spurgeon, University of Georgia; Janice C. Griffith, Georgia State University; Anthony Pagano, Golden Gate University; John E. Clute, Gonzaga University; Raymond R. Krause, Hamline University School of Law; Lawrence C. Foster, University of Hawaii; Stuart Rabinowitz, Hofstra University; Stephen Zamora, University of Houston; Alice Gresham Bullock, Howard University; John A. Miller, University of Idaho; Thomas M. Mengler, University of Illinois; Alfred C. Aman, Jr., Indiana University School of Law - Bloomington; Norman Lefstein, Indiana University--Indianapolis; Henry H. Perritt, Jr., Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago-Kent Law School; Carlos E. Ramos-Gonz疝ez, Interamerican University of Puerto Rico; N. William Hines, University of Iowa; Robert Gilbert Johnston, The John Marshall Law School; Michael H. Hoeflich, University of Kansas; David E. Shipley, University of Kentucky; Jim Huffman, Lewis and Clark Northwestern School of Law; Donald L. Burnett, University of Louisville, Louis D. Brandeis School of Law; Gerald T. McLaughlin, Loyola Law School -- Los Angeles; John Makdisi, Loyola University -- New Orleans; Donald Zillman, University of Maine; Howard B. Eisenberg, Marquette University; Donald G. Gifford, University of Maryland; Donald J. Polden, University of Memphis, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law; R. Lawrence Dessem, Mercer University; Samuel C. Thompson, University of Miami; Jeffrey S. Lehman, University of Michigan; Jeremy Harrison, Michigan State University-Detroit College of Law; E. Thomas Sullivan, University of Minnesota; J. Richard Hurt, Mississippi College; Samuel M. Davis, University of Mississippi, Timothy J. Heinz, University of Missouri-Columbia; Burnele V. Powell, University of Missouri-Kansas City; E. Edwin Eck, University of Montana; Harvey Perlman, University of Nebraska; John O'Brien, New England School of Law; Robert J. Desiderio, University of New Mexico; Kristin Booth Glen, City University of New York; Barry B. Boyer, State University of New York at Buffalo; Harry Wellington, New York Law School; John Sexton, New York University; Judith W. Wegner, University of North Carolina; Percy R. Luney, Jr., North Carolina Central University; W. Jeremy Davis, University of North Dakota; David Hall, Northeastern University; LeRoy Pernell, Northern Illinois University; David C. Short, Northern Kentucky University, Salmon P. Chase College of Law; David T. Link, Notre Dame University; Joseph Harbaugh, Nova Southeastern University; Vic Streib, Ohio Northern University; Gregory H. Williams, Ohio State University; Andrew M. Coats, University of Oklahoma; Jay Conison, Oklahoma City University; Rennard Strickland, University of Oregon; Richard L. Ottinger, Pace University; Gerald Kaplan, University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law; Colin Diver, University of Pennsylvania; Peter Glenn, Pennsylvania State University-Dickinson School of Law; Richardson R. Lynn, Pepperdine University; Peter M. Shane, University of Pittsburgh; Antonio G. Padilla, University of Puerto Rico; Neil Cogan, Quinnipiac College; J. Nelson Happy, Regent University; John E. Ryan, Roger Williams University; Jay Feinman, Rutgers University - Camden; Roger I. Abrams, Rutgers University - Newark; Rudolph C. Hasl, St. John's University; John B. Attanasio, St. Louis University; Barbara Bader Aldave, St. Mary's University; Daniel J. Morrissey, St. Thomas University; Barry A. Currier, Samford University, Cumberland School of Law; Grant H. Morris, University of San Diego; Jay Folberg, University of San Francisco; Mack A. Player, Santa Clara University; Jim Boyd, Seattle University; John E. Montgomery, University of South Carolina; Barry R. Vickrey, University of South Dakota; Frank T. Read, South Texas College of Law; Scott Bice, University of Southern California; Thomas F. Guernsey, Southern Illinois University; Harvey Wingo, Southern Methodist University; Leigh H. Taylor, Southwestern University; Paul Brest, Stanford University; Liz Moody, Stetson University; John E. Fenton, Jr., Suffolk University; Daan Braveman, Syracuse University; Robert Reinstein, Temple University; Richard T. Wirtz, University of Tennessee: M. Michael Sharlot, University of Texas; McKen V. Varrington, Texas Southern University; W. Frank Newton, Texas Tech University; Frank W. Walwer, Texas Wesleyan University; Don LeDuc, Thomas M. Cooley Law School; Kenneth J. Vandevelde, Thomas Jefferson School of Law; Albert Quick, University of Toledo; Howard A. Glickstein, Touro University; Edward F. Sherman, Tulane University; Martin H. Belsky, University of Tulsa; Lee E. Teitelbaum, University of Utah; Ivan E. Bodensteiner, Valparaiso University; Kent Syverud, Vanderbilt University; L. Kinvin Wroth, Vermont Law School; Mark Sargent, Villanova University; Robert E. Scott, University of Virginia; Dorsey D. Ellis, Washington University of St. Louis; James K. Robinson, Wayne State University; John W. Fisher, II, West Virginia University; Donald J. Dunn, Western New England College of Law; John A. FitzRandolph, Whittier Law School Arthur N. Frakt, Widener University -- Delaware and at Harrisburg; Robert K. Walsh, Wake Forest University; James M. Concannon, Washburn University; Roland Hjorth, University of Washington; Barry Sullivan, Washington & Lee University; Robert M. Ackerman, Willamette University; Paul Marcus, College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law; Henry Haynsworth, William Mitchell College of Law; John M. Burman, University of Wyoming; Anthony Kronman, Yale University

1 Helpful publications include the LSAC Official Guide to Law Schools, and ABA Approved Law Schools: Statistical Information on American Bar Association Approved Law Schools, published by the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. They can show you, through readily comparable data tables, much of the basic information for each law school in which you may be interested. You can get much additional information through the Internet - most law schools have Web sites, or can write to the schools for their latest recruitment publications.


What’s Wrong With Law School Ranking Systems: A Brief Analysis

There exists within legal education a consensus about the foundational requirements for a sound program. This consensus is embodied in the accreditation standards of the American Bar Association. But among the law schools that meet these standards, the variety is enormous. The aspects of that variety that a student will actually care about depend deeply on the circumstances of the individual student. Consider the following illustrative sampling of some of the variables that applicants find important in choosing a law school:

Breadth and support of alumni network Loan Repayment Assistance for low-income lawyers
Breadth of curriculum Location
Clinical programs Part-time enrollment option
Collaborative research opportunities with faculty Public interest programs
Commitment to innovative technology Quality of teaching
Cost Racial and gender diversity within the faculty and student body
Externship options
Faculty accessibility Religious orientation or commitment in curricular design
Intensity of writing instruction Size of first-year classes
Interdisciplinary programs Skills instruction
International programming Specialized areas of faculty expertise

Chances are that some, but not all of these, matter to you. And it is probable that, of the variables that matter, some matter more to you than others. But none of them — not a single one — is a separate factor in the most highly publicized of the current ranking systems, the list published by U.S. News & World Report. If the list above includes variables that you consider important, it does not make sense to defer to a system of ranking that ignores them.

One of these systems — the ranking published by U.S. News & World Report — well illustrates the weaknesses of all ratings schemes, including the Gourman Report rankings associated with Princeton Review. Like all such systems, U.S. News focuses predominantly on those aspects of law schools that can easily be counted, despite the far greater importance of those aspects that cannot easily be counted. Moreover, like all such systems, U.S. News attaches arbitrary weights to those few factors that it does include.

For example, according to U.S. News, the median undergraduate GPA of a law school’s most recent entering class is five times more important in assessing a school’s quality than a school’s bar exam success. But why five times, instead of six times, or four times more important, or more important at all? U.S. News similarly assumes, by implication, that the quality of your experience as a law student depends four times more on the LSAT scores of your classmates than on a school’s student-teacher ratio. Does that reflect your concerns? U.S. News weighs a school’s overhead budget twice as heavily as its library size. What do you think? In fact, the weights attached to all the variables are just U.S. News & World Report inventions. Even minor adjustments in this weighting would change some rankings significantly, and the assigned weights are dubious.

There is also no guarantee that any particular ranking source is accurate, logical, consistent, and honest in the way it gathers and reports data. For example, in 1997, U.S. News rated each school in part according to its comparative bar passage rate in the state in which most of its recent graduates took the bar exam. But U.S. News did not require each school to report its performance on the same exam. Hence, one school might be treated as more successful than another in the same state simply because it reported its results on a different bar exam on which its graduates were more successful. It is logically indefensible to rate two law schools’ bar exam performance rates based on different exams given at different times.

There are more reasons to be cautious. U.S. News says it bases 12 per cent of each school’s overall score on the percentage of its second-most-recent class employed by February 15 of the year following its graduation. (In other words, the placement rate relevant to the 1997 rankings was the percentage of each school’s 1995 graduates who were placed by February 15, 1996.) If you read the fine print, however, the actual placement rate is not the basis for many schools’ scores. That’s because the number of employed graduates attributed to each school is the total number of graduates actually reporting employment plus 25 per cent of the number of graduates who failed to report their employment status at all. This calculation is just a U.S. News invention. Moreover, for schools that failed entirely to report their placement data, U.S. News estimated a figure.

There is much else wrong with the details of the U.S. News and other rankings, but the major point is this: In deciding on your own education, you should not substitute someone else’s ranking system for your own best judgment. You are simply being misled if you treat some rankings, of which U.S. News is a prominent example, as even a competent and conscientious presentation of the limited information they purport to convey.

JURIST: The Law Professors' Network is directed by Professor Bernard J. Hibbitts, Associate Dean for Communications & Information Technology, University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, in consultation with an international Advisory Board. E-mail JURIST at JURIST@law.pitt.edu.

© Bernard J. Hibbitts, 1998. All rights reserved. These pages may not be copied, reposted, or republished, in whole or in part, electronically or in print, without express written permission.

JURIST regrets that it cannot provide legal advice. For assistance with specific legal problems, please consult a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

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