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Thursday, February 12, 2009

What would it mean to be the #1 law school for ethics?

I'm at the ABA's mid-year meeting in Boston, and today I learned that some legal ethics types have been talking with Bob Morse of U.S. News about the possibility of adding an "ethics" component to the law school rankings.  It sounds like the conversation is at a very early stage, so specifics are lacking.  There was some suggestion that the component could be based on course offerings and whether there are required courses beyond PR, such as courses on professionalism or law office management. 

Count me, at least at this stage, among the skeptics.  I'm all in favor of serious institutional commitments to ethics and professional formation more broadly (a big reason why I came to St. Thomas), but I have no idea how such commitments could be quantified and compared in any meaningful way.  Course offerings will often reflect the interests of the faculty and student body, and whether a course is required may say as much about the deference the school gives to student choice as it does about a commitment to ethics.  If U.S. News was to look at the output side of the ledger, helpful benchmarks are also lacking.  For example, if the ranking was to incorporate the percentage of graduates subject to disciplinary proceedings, lower-ranked schools would be unduly penalized since clients of lawyers in small firms or solo practice utilize the disciplinary process much more frequently than clients of large firms.  Those numbers, I'm guessing, would also vary significantly by jurisdiction. 

Basing the rankings on reputation would be a little better, but not much.  If U.S. News surveyed the PR profs as to which schools are best in the field, there might be some meaningful divergence with the overall rankings,  (E.g, I'm guessing that Fordham and Georgetown would outperform their overall rankings, while Yale and Chicago would underperform.)  At the same time, PR folks will not necessarily know about (or care about) creative, non-traditional approaches to ethical formation that do not fit within the traditional PR framework, and I don't think the point of the rankings would be to measure which school is best in the academic field of professional responsibility.  

Am I missing something -- are there some criteria by which we could sensibly measure how seriously a school treats the "ethical" component of legal education?  (Let's put to the side, for the moment, the question of whether current criteria sensibly measure overall law school quality.)

[Cross-posted at Legal Ethics Forum.]

Posted by Rob Vischer on February 12, 2009 at 03:29 PM | Permalink


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How about evaluating the schools by their behavior with respect to what they are willing to do to improve US News rankings? For example, is it ethical to hire numerous short term research assistants around graduation to ensure the employment "at graduation" count is high? To ensure the 9 months after graduation count is high, is it ethical to (1) send out a registered letter to graduates' last known mailing addresses that says something to the effect that "if we do not hear back from you by [x date], we will assume that you are employed and count you as employed for our employment stats" and (2) use that as the basis to affirmatively count those graduates as having obtained employment on the NALP form? I'm sure you are well aware of other ranking-manipulation tactics. I believe all of the deans at these law schools (as well as many of the professionals engaged in these activities) are lawyers. Do some of these actions violate any ethical obligations? See, e.g., Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 8.4 ("It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to . . . (c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation"). I would argue that many of these tactics are utilized with the intent to deceive prospective students and employers -- enroll or recruit at our great law school for the following reasons:

(1) we are ranked # _ ;
(2) our students are super smart because their LSAT/GPA # are __ (nevermind that those numbers do get diluted by a large wave of transfer 2Ls); and
(3) 98% of our students are employed at graduation and 99% of our graduates are employed 9 months after graduation, so students are practically guaranteed a job to help with their massive debt (nevermind the fact that 30% of those students were temporarily employed by our school to do minor research after graduation and we have no clue what 10% of them are really doing).

Posted by: Anon | Feb 13, 2009 1:40:40 PM

Interesting post, Rob. For years, The American Lawyer and USNWR have stoked prestige chasing in ways that have caused problems. Now they are trying to use the same techniques to create more positive results. The American Lawyer has its A-List and USNWR might rank ethics.

I'm pretty skeptical about those projects. I think they're driven by the magazines' need for a rhetorical defense when their rankings are attacked. But if the projects cause some positive change then all the better.

I agree with your doubts about how we'd evaluate the law schools. By academic scholarship? By teaching? By student-related outputs?

Posted by: John Steele | Feb 13, 2009 10:45:08 AM

I'm not convinced that incorporating ethics into the US News rankings would necessarily be useful, but there are at least a few objective measures that might be employed towards that end:

1.) Ratio of adjunct to full-time ethics professors. My apologies to the many fine adjuncts out there, but full-time professors tend to be better teachers. A school with more full-time professors teaching ethics might be providing better-quality ethics instruction, and is probably showing a willingness to pay more for it.

2.) Ethics class size. No surprise here - all else being equal, smaller classes tend to work better than larger ones. (Trust me, once class size gets below twenty or so, it is *hard* to browse the web during lectures.)

3.) MPRE scores of students. I admit that this isn't all that great a measure, in part because most MPRE prep takes place outside the classroom, and many people don't even take the MPRE until after graduating. I'm also reluctant to propose a standard which could drive ethics profs to "teach to the test", instead of offering a more in-depth discussion of legal ethics issues. That said, the test is out there, and it's not crazy to think that schools with better PR programs might produce students who do better on the MPRE.

4.) Number of credits offered for a school's minimum required Professional Responsibility course. All else being equal, you'd expect more to be covered in a 4-credit than a 2-credit class. I imagine there's a slight risk that this could incentivize absurd behavior ("let's make the kids spend six credits on PR!"), but I can't imagine many institutions would do that.

Posted by: Ethan Maron | Feb 13, 2009 12:30:44 AM

Fordham and Georgetown devote considerable institutional resources and faculty slots to the study of legal ethics; Yale and Chicago seem to pay little attention to the field in any consistent or deliberate way. This is just my perception, so others can correct me. Chicago and Yale are by no means the only schools in that category; I just cited them as two high-profile examples.

Posted by: Rob Vischer | Feb 12, 2009 11:15:08 PM

"I'm guessing that Fordham and Georgetown would outperform their overall rankings, while Yale and Chicago would underperform."

Um... Why?

Posted by: I. M. Res | Feb 12, 2009 9:38:47 PM

It seems as though course offerings would be the best way to assess a school's "ethics" ranking. Course offerings and surveys.

Posted by: Julia Hays | Feb 12, 2009 5:37:58 PM

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