October 05, 2004

U.S. News & "Law Porn"

Over the past several weeks, I have been receiving an unusually high volume of brochures from other law schools. I "read" most of these publications like I read travel magazines: I look at the pictures and read their captions, but skip most of the text. It didn't occur to me until last week that I was receiving more brochures than my colleagues because I am chairing the appointments committee. Why would this matter? Because I am entitled to vote in the U.S. News survey.

Some of these brochures are real productions. Washington & Lee's brochure, for example, is beautifully desgined, with pencil drawings of each faculty member. (Why don't they put the drawing on their website?) As noted by Brian Leiter, the modern proliferation of brochures began with NYU, which successfully raised its U.S. News rankings through a blend of substantive improvement and self-promotion. Brian also picked up on the brochure that most made me wince: UCLA's bold proclamation that "UCLA School of Law is emerging as the strongest law faculty in the United States." UCLA has made some great hires in recent years, but strongest? Even qualified with the word "emerging," this is hard to swallow.

Which leads me to another point about rankings, also raised by Brian in a post yesterday, namely, that students are incredibly vulnerable to influence by the U.S. News. Brian's "A Guide for the Perplexed" is a useful introduction to the rankings, including ways in which law schools can manipulate their U.S. News numbers. For present purposes, however, I am most interested in the academic reputation portion of the survey, which Brian labels "not manipulable."

Brian is right, of course, in that the reputation surveys are beyond the direct control of the responding schools -- "Schools have little control over the results of the academic reputation survey: even improving the quality of your school (its faculty, its student body) does not necessarily result in any increase in the academic reputation score." On the other hand, law schools can shape perceptions through effective advertising. Most faculty respondents will be poorly equipped to evaluate even ten percent of the total schools in the survey. Therein lies the efficacy of law porn. Constrained by the lack of useful information, respondents often rank schools impressionistically, and law porn supplies an impression.

Following NYU's lead, Washington University in St. Louis has steadily improved its U.S. News ranking since hiring Joel Seligman as dean and embarking on a persistant campaign of substantive improvement accompanied by glossy marketing. Other schools that seem to have committed to this strategy include Fordham, Case Western, and Ohio State.

The best case for law porn is that it provides information. On the other hand, critics charge that law porn is undignified and misleading. Even worse, marketing needs can control strategic priorities, such as faculty hiring and program development. In the end, whatever misgivings we may have about the marketing of legal education, it seems to be a development with lots of traction. Some schools will continue to resist the pull of professional marketers, but resistance is probably futile.

UPDATE: Mother in Law (very clever blog title) notes the effective use of marketing in recruiting students.

Posted by Gordon at October 5, 2004 12:03 AM | TrackBack
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