May 03, 2005
Fixing Law School Admissions
Posted by Christine Hurt

As I have talked about before (here, here, and here), I have been on our school's admissions committee this year.  I entered with excitement and energy.  I pored over files to get a holistic sense of each candidate.  I wanted to extend Marquette's commitment to cura personalis to even the admissions process.  However, each time I was inspired to diverge from the beaten path of merely looking at a candidate's numbers, I met up with the same brick wall:  USNWR rankings.

The USNWR requires law schools to report statistics about its incoming class each year.  The USNWR is not committed to cura personalis.  So, each time a committee member argues to admit a candidate with an interesting job background, volunteer background, life experience, or personal life goal, the ultimate question becomes "How bad will this hurt us in USNWR?"  For a school with a small entering class, each admittee can move the medians that USNWR reports and weights in its rankings system.  This is obviously the ultimate tail wagging the dog.

So, here are my modest proposals to fix the USNWR system so that the numbers that are reported more accurately reflect what they are supposed to reflect:  the "quality" of the incoming class.

1.  Require law schools to report only a student's gpa for the last two years of college.  When we are discussing a candidate with less than stellar grades, someone inevitably asks what the student's grade trajectory is.  Did the student start out pre-med, get bad grades, then switch to English and have all As the rest of the time?  Did the student start college, drop out, then start again with a new outlook?  I think it is a shame that a candidate who takes a less-than-linear approach to completing a bachelor's degree is unnecessarily judged by a stale gpa or a gpa that reflects a mistaken path.  We certainly don't want all law school students to take a low-risk undergraduate path designed to prevent gpa pitfalls.

2.  Don't require law schools to report gpa's for students if the gpa is over eight years old.  Not only do individuals change, but so do grading trends.  Most colleges give higher grades than they did ten years ago.  Therefore, judging a 30-year-old by the grades he or she was given ten years ago is not an accurate assessment of studiousness.  Applicants who have been in the professional world for a number of years should be judged based on their work experience, not on stale grades alone.

3.  Create other categories of reporting that reflects quality besides gpa and lsat.  Be creative.  Number of years work experience of incoming students?  Number of masters' degrees of incoming students?  Number of Ph.D.'s of incoming students?  Geographic diversity?  Undergraduate diversity?  These are items that we look at to get a picture of the quality of an applicant.  Perhaps in determining the quality of an incoming class for USNWR, these are the questions that the publication should ask as well.

4.  Rethink "selectivity" and "acceptance rate" categories.  These categories are very easy to manipulate.  In particular, the "selectivity" category incentivizes law schools to make low-risk acceptance decisions that do not benefit anyone.

5.  I can't think of a number 5 right now, but four suggestions doesn't seem to be enough.

I have more wrap-out thoughts about the admissions process for other posts.

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Comments (20)

1. Posted by Eric Goldman on May 3, 2005 @ 14:32 | Permalink

Great suggestions...but will they sell magazines? Eric.

2. Posted by foxes on May 3, 2005 @ 21:04 | Permalink

hah. the dog, being wagged by the tail, anxious behind the bars of its own golden cage.

3. Posted by Scott Moss on May 4, 2005 @ 1:57 | Permalink

1 and 2 seem quite feasible. As to (1): I know that Stanford Univ's undergrad admissions office (at least as of 15 years ago) would recalculate your high school GPA by excluding your 9th grade grades. I think that at the least, we could drop the freshman year of college -- I think that's the year that students are all over the place based on course/major experimentation, stupid 18-year-old behavior, and other factors not at all relevant to predicting what kind of law student/lawyer the person will be.

4. Posted by John on May 4, 2005 @ 4:23 | Permalink

I understand that rankings may affect admissions somewhat, but weren't top schools already heavily focused on LSAT before USNews began ranking schools? I believe that in "One L", Scott Turow notes that most students at Harvard and Chicago had LSAT's above the 98th percentile.

Personally, I think publications like the American Lawyer should simply focus on doing a better survey of what hiring partners and judges across the country really think of various law schools. They could do national as well as regional surveys, so students could get better insight into the actual placement quality of various schools. After all, students aren't primarily concerned about grades and LSAT scores, or even necessarily faculty quality. First and foremost, they generally want to know what the school will do for them professionally.

(USNews already does a professional survey as part of their rankings, but it seems pretty inadequate and unfocused, and it isn't weighted as heavily as a better survey probably should be.)

5. Posted by Christine on May 4, 2005 @ 9:09 | Permalink

The tail may wag the dog more at law schools that aren't Harvard and Chicago. Those schools are holistically choosing applicants out of pile of candidates with high gpa's and high LSAT scores. Those candidates probably marched through undergraduate and possibly graduate school in a linear fashion. At Marquette, we are choosing from a much more heterogenous pool of applicants with varying gpas and varying LSATs. The temptation is to let everyone in strictly on numbers to boost your rankings, or at least not slip. I think this is a horrible temptation, especially when I know that a candidate with a cumulative gpa of 3.1 is better than the candidate with a 3.7 because of work experience, maturity, or certain obstacles that were overcome.

6. Posted by Michel Ward on May 4, 2005 @ 9:44 | Permalink

Your comments are excellent.

I'm set to start law school in the Fall at Pittsburgh and I'm saddened that perhaps my class will not be as diverse as it could be.

I find it curious that I (a recent grad from the Univ. of Michigan with an English major) should be considered the same way as, for instance, an older established professional. It almost borders on the absurd.

BTW, another idea for reforming USN's rankings might be to make their reputation scores more consistent, year after year -- especially since they matter so much. Better collection of the data is crucial. And perhaps they might consider the idea of counting weighing new data against previous data, to give data that might be in error (there is, no doubt, some margin of error) some moderation. My suggestion would be to, for instance, weigh a current year's reputation data twice as much as the last year's. And then weigh a third year's data half as much as the data for last year. Alas, when rankings change it sells magazines. So perhaps USN would have little patience for anything that might maintain a higher level of consistency and quality in their rankings.

In any case, it does bother me that schools are virtually under siege b/c of the USN rankings. The consequences can be dire if the admissions officials keep their schools rising -- or at least not falling -- in the rankings.

Rankings aren't going to just magically disappear. That's becoming apparent. But I believe law schools, future & current law students, and legal academics must either pressure USN to refine their methodology (to make it tolerable, at the very least) or come up with some ranking that can compete.

7. Posted by Anon on May 4, 2005 @ 12:04 | Permalink

I'm still hoping that law schools will universally decide to no longer endorse the rankings. Despite all the letters from deans telling us that we should look at factors other than US News ranking, the schools themselves, as you suggest, still use US News ranking effects to determine who will be their incoming students.

This would have to be a top-down process - everyone knows that the Harvards of the law school game are great, and always will be. How about they refuse to divulge their incoming student class information to US News? It wouldn't work if it was your average tier 2 school that was the first to refuse to cooperate, since they don't have anything but their US News ranking to show students why they are better than most schools. But Harvard and the other great, famous law schools have nothing to lose by refusing to play ball with US News - they will still have their pick of the best applicants in the nation.

An alternative would be for the ABA to produce a decent set of rankings that do exactly what you've just suggested - play down LSAT, tailor GPA to the last two years of college (or only for certain 'core' pre-law classes that it wouldn't be a bad idea to make undergrads take - e.g. a government course, basic economics, writing courses, public speaking, and a course on the constitution, and perhaps a few credit hours of public service too), add categories for years of 'real world experience', higher degrees, geographic diversity, etc. Ditch the average salary category, since I think it's the most damaging one of all, and provide the rankings for free. In addition, don't do a straight numerical ranking, but rate schools in groups - national, regional, local - to prevent people from thinking that the school ranked 35 is better than the school ranked 37, when in reality, the differences are non-existant.

There's so much that can be done to fix the rankings. The real problem lies with the schools - they bray constantly about how applicants should ignore the rankings, yet they play to the rankings at every step of the way.

8. Posted by Michel on May 4, 2005 @ 13:09 | Permalink

Wouldn't it be bordering on some sort of antitrust violation for law schools to take collective action to disrupt USN?

Perhaps I'm wrong -- perhaps they're protected by free speech laws just like individuals. Of course, I may have a better idea once I've actually become an attorney...

I just don't think one law school refusing to participate in the rankings would make a huge difference. On the other hand, if, for instance, Stanford, said they were going to refuse to take part in the rankings -- perhaps some of the other top fifteen or twenty schools would follow. Then it could virtually shut down USN until they decided to do a bit of a better job rankings schools.

I'm with you on the fact that it really has to be a top down solution. It wouldn't make much of a splash if twenty schools in the "third tier" suddenly refused to furnish data -- it'd only upset their students and alumni.

I do somewhat disagree that the "real problem lies with the schools." I think the schools are only doing what they're pressured to do by their students and alumni.

It's a bad spiral with limited ways to stop it. For instance, I'm not sure I'd want Pittsburgh (where I'll be a 1L next year) to stop all attempts to play to USN rankings. Because it's so darned self-fufilling, like it or not. The rankings are self-fufilling in attracting perspective students and employers.

9. Posted by BW on May 7, 2005 @ 14:39 | Permalink

I understand the frustration felt by the law schools that are stuck way down the US News list. Fact is, though, that however you slice it, the top schools are going to be the top schools.

I went to law school at the age of 40 and was fortunate enough to get into Yale. You want diversity? Racial, social, geographi, political, economic.... Rhodes Scholars, published (like in real books) authors, MDs, former university professors, home schooled, prep-schooled, founders of businesses, former Congressional staffers, Peace Corps folk, and on and on. Age? Well, I was 40 and there were 20-year olds in my small group. As for cura personalis, I'll lay you dollars to donuts there are more Renaissance people at Harvard, Chicago, and Yale than at Marquette-- and their LSAT scores are higher, too.

10. Posted by BW on May 7, 2005 @ 15:31 | Permalink

A clarification.... I don't mean to suggest that there are no Renaissance people at Marquette; there no doubt are. Nor do I mean to suggest that Marquette doesn't produce some damn good lawyers; it does. My point is simply that the top schools have more or less "always" been the top schools. As an undergraduate back in the early 70s I asked my advisor which law schools I should apply to--this was long before the US News rankings. Answer: Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Berkeley, Columbia, Stanford, Michigan. Plus ca change....

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