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Friday, May 16, 2014

How US News Rankings Have Obscured the Highly Regional Nature of the Legal Market

Yesterday I probably gave more attention than I should to an article claiming that only 45 law schools were worth attending based on the ration of sticker price to employment statistics—because my intent is to use it as an example of the kind of data-free speculation that has fueled one of the most irrational market phenomenon since  the tulip mania of  1637.    Here’s a quick map of the false assumptions and data gaps I will be reviewing:

a)  All law students are always better off going to a higher ranked school than a lower one  (false)

b) Every region has identical job markets—with equal opportunities and challenges for all students; (false)

 c) Any law student without a job 9 months after graduation will never find one sufficient to pay her debts; (false)

d)  Every student has borrowed every penny of the tuition sticker price plus living expenses and therefore has equal criteria for a job that makes it worthwhile to have gone to law school; (false)

 e) That there was a golden past where most law students nailed down six figure jobs by the end of their second year summer—and never had to worry about employment or financial security again. (false)

 Lets start with (a) and (b)

The biggest inaccuracy in all the accounts of why law school is a bad idea for everyone is that they assume a national market for legal employment.  And that's not true.  This is a big country and law is a very, very localized profession.  

So-- if college graduates were working with accurate information, then every law school in Texas should have a five-fold increase in applications.   Because Texas is in the middle of an oil and gas fueled M & A boom.   Why don’t they?   In part, because the only information reaching them is that there are “no” jobs for law graduates and in part because it has never been as necessary as it is now to relocate in order to become a successful lawyer.

Part of what's broken here is that the US News rankings of law schools has led many students to choose law schools based on rank rather than based on either the economy of the region where the school is located or where they themselves want to practice.  And that’s a very bad idea.

 The US News rankings started as process of bringing information to the public that people within the fields the magazine ranked already knew.   A student interested in becoming a physics professor didn’t have to buy a magazine to find out the top physics programs.  And the model of going to the “best” school  wherever they happen to be located in order to have the “best” employment chances works pretty well for many graduate programs.   Because the market for physics professors isn’t regional.

  But that model doesn’t work for law.   Sure, there are nationally “known” law schools and law schools with reputations so powerful that they can get a resume out of a pile in a region that doesn’t see many graduates—or out of the pile with a slightly lower GPA than a firm with close ties to the school would accept from anywhere else.  But law school prestige really doesn’t carry very far beyond the regions where a sizable population of graduates live and work.

 Quick example.  Student from small town in South Carolina goes to University of  the Midwest ( top 10 ranked school  located where there actually is a vibrant job market), does wel (35%), comes home and gets great job in large South Carolina law firm.  O.K.  

 Student from small town in Texas goes to  University of the Midwest, does well,  falls in love with the polar vortex and gets a great job in a law firm where the school is located.  O.k.  

But student from a small town in Texas who goes to the  University of  the Midwest  isn’t going to do much better in South Carolina than a student with family ties to the area who did well at a lower ranked law school and certainly not better than a student who did pretty well  (top 25%) at a law school well represented among the partners of the firm.

 Ties to a region is  more than the hiring partner going to college with your father.   It’s the fact that a successful law practice depends on its lawyers maintaining a close connection to the community where it’s located.    Most law firms don’t work on the old Biglaw model of churning through relatively low cost labor.  The cycle of life catches up with all of us--a 24 year old may be excited about living in an area where she knows no one.  Young children and aging parents can make that prospect far less attractive.  There's a reason why big companies routinely rotate executives from city to city and law firms don't.  

 A magic wand solution?  I don't have one.  But the more everyone understands how damaging it can be to pick a law school based on rankings or reject one because of rankings, the more likely we can operate on facts rather than speculation.

 Comments are Off:

Note—before I was a law professor I was a whistleblower attorney and still believe strongly how important it is for people with unique access to information of public concern to have a way of anonymously bringing that information forward.  But having unique access to facts is not the same thing as wanting to express anonymous opinions without verifiable factual allegations.    I’d be happy to correspond with anyone who wants to contact me directly with their real name and situation—and to offer you the same help and advice I give every day to my own students who are looking for jobs.

Posted by Jennifer Bard on May 16, 2014 at 12:23 AM | Permalink

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