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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Law schools marketing to law professors

I received tenure last year (hooray!), and we all know what that means: I'm now on 200 law school mailing lists. I'm one of the cohort of USNWR "peer" voters. And I get more law school marketing (or, in the crass lingo, "law school porn") than I ever thought imaginable.

It's not clear to me why law schools market in the first place. A merger & name change will raise your peer score; a big scandal will drop your peer score (perhaps indefinitely); a couple of other schools have figured out ways to elevate the quality of their institutions and materially change their peer scores; but otherwise, they've been very sticky for two decades. Indeed, there's not much evidence that peer score drives USNWR ranking; if anything, the opposite might be true.

But let's put all that aside and operate under the fiction that these marketing materials can materially affect what law professors think of law schools. What marketing works best?

I have no marketing background. And perhaps my reactions are idiosyncratic. But after receiving about 100 emails and 100 tangible marketing materials, I feel confident about a few things.

On physical mail:

  • School alumni magazine? Straight into the garbage.
  • Anything in an envelope? Straight into the garbage.
  • A photo of a Supreme Court justice who spoke at your school? A bemused smile... then straight into the garbage.

The physical mail I've enjoyed the most (to me)--and this one I've received for many years now, even as a non-voter!--is the University of Virginia's annual issue of a few articles from their faculty in the past year. I usually find at least one thing I'd want to read.

A couple of schools have sent along trinkets, which I find remain on colleagues' desks. Does it translate into a better peer score? Perhaps....

And I vastly prefer physical mail to email. Physical mail has a much higher cost to the sender; that, I think, tends to temper the kinds of materials that are sent. And it also has a much lower cost to the recipient: a couple of times a week, I glance through a stack and quickly discard as I walk, with little time or disruption.

But email. It's much lower cost to the sender to send to thousands with a single click, and higher cost to the recipient because it's not time-delayed. So it should be no surprise that email is far worse, in my view....

Then again, I loathe email. (My colleagues will attest to this.) And still worse is (1) email from a list I never signed up for and (2) that arrives outside of business hours (that's 11 am to 5 pm ET to account for us West Coasters). The ping of the phone is the worst. (Ed.: then turn off your phone!) I think an email from a stranger is akin to ringing the doorbell when I'm in the bathtub--extraordinarily obnoxious and assuredly counterproductive. (Particularly bad are emails that lack an "unsubscribe" feature.)

So, reactions on email:

  • Large stock photo at the top of the email? Into the trash.
  • Alumni newsletter? Into the trash.
  • A letter from a dean explaining how this school's not doing the typical marketing email? Into the trash.

Of the 100 emails, one jumped out as interesting (again, to me) was the University of Richmond. Simple, direct, relevant. (To be fair, several others followed this kind of template, too.)

And that's when I realized it. The only think that would really move me about an institution are things like new hires or recent publications. (That and, of course, clean design and simple presentation.) Those are the kinds of things that might make me think, "Huh, they've got great people!" And probably the only thing that might budge a peer score.

Perhaps others have different reactions. Perhaps I am idiosyncratic. And law schools are doing lots of things other than just hiring faculty and producing scholarship. But... that's what the other elements of rankings, or other rankings, are designed to capture, I think--job prospects (e.g., an element of USNWR), student satisfaction (e.g., Princeton Review's rankings), and the like. Peer scores are, I think, simply doing something different. (Again, maybe not to everyone.) And, I think the big disappointment with "law school porn" is that it's not often designed to highlight these things that schools are doing. But perhaps others enjoy scrolling through a stuffed inbox each morning in September and October....

Posted by Derek Muller on May 10, 2018 at 09:10 AM | Permalink


Larry Cunningham (St. John's) wrote a piece on this: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract-id=2133395

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | May 10, 2018 9:20:18 PM

I agree that mileage varies depending whether the people being marketed to are profs or lawyers and judges. Marketing is expensive, but ideally it would be targeted so that people received what would actually interest them. (And we might consider whether what actually interests us is what *should* actually interest us. Maybe I *ought* to be more interested in news about what a law school's alumni are accomplishing than in what its faculty are doing.)

Personally, I prefer faculty hire announcements, annual announcements of what faculty are publishing, and so on, which help me keep up, see who has moved where, and generally get a sense of who (on an individual and institutional level) is doing interesting things. Some fancy-pants law school alumni mags do a bunch of that, as well as including interesting features; others definitely don't, but I do read and enjoy the good ones. I also think UVa's annual publication spotlighting a few faculty members and excerpting their recent work is excellent. Things like "Here's the conference we're having in three days that you won't go to" go straight to the trash.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 10, 2018 11:17:16 AM

USNWR really should do away with peer reputation, or at least decrease its weight. It is much less important to employers and pre-law students than things like bar passage and employment stats.

Posted by: BA | May 10, 2018 11:00:28 AM

I was talking to a colleague yesterday about law school mailings, and we both wondered why there is no methodology to "opt out" and prevent them sending all this junk that we immediately recycle. I once kept one years worth of mailing, and it ended up being over 50 lbs of materials. Between the energy used to send this garbage across the country, and the waste of materials that end of being immediately recycled, it is crazy that you cannot opt out.

It seems to me that only US News could create such a system, and of course they are the only ones who benefit from wasting all of our time/creating garbage.

Posted by: Anon | May 10, 2018 10:48:01 AM

Judges are peer review voters, so they also get some of the law school porn. I've talked to a handful of recipients, and what often sticks out to them is how laughably opaque the law review articles are. So, YMMV.

Posted by: Anon | May 10, 2018 9:56:56 AM

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