Aug 28, 2008
While I’ve been following the recent rumblings about changes in the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of part-time or evening law school programs, Amir Efrati’s recent Wall Street Journal article Law School Rankings Reviewed to Deter ‘Gaming’, struck a nerve. It begins:
The most widely watched ranking of U.S. law schools may move to stop an increasingly popular practice: schools gaming the system by channeling lower-scoring applicants into part-time programs that don’t count in the rankings.
Note the implicit assumption, now apparently so firmly ingrained in our perception of law school culture as to be beyond questioning, is that the “score” – in this case the LSAT score, combined with undergrad GPA – is the only thing that should matter in law school admissions. There’s certain logic to this in many settings; standardization of testing is democratizing, allowing those outside the traditional sources of law students to prove their abilities on an arguably equal playing field. But of course neither life nor law practice is a standardized test, so its predictive power is limited. There will always be exceptions, those who under or over achieve their LSAT scores in law school; if it were otherwise, grading would be gratuitous and law firms could hire based on LSAT scores alone.
The corollary assumption is that if you’re a part-time student, perhaps you’re ‘getting away with something’ and that you’re not qualified to be there. Among the evening students I’ve come across in the couple of years I’ve been a the University of Houston Law Center – some are the part-time law program poster children – the FBI agents, police officers, doctors, professors, veterinarians, bankers, patent agents, Ph.D’s in things you hardly knew existed; others like myself are individuals without any particularly special background to distinguish ourselves, but who aren’t afraid to work late and hard and saw it as a way to create our own financial aid package, working to pay our way. I don’t intend to make this appear noble, it’s just necessity and if I didn’t have to do it I probably wouldn’t. I merely point out that there are, in fact, legitimate reasons for taking the part-time route through law school other than “gaming” the system. Unfortunately, they appear to have no place in Efrati’s calculus.
In Efrati’s world, law schools would never admit a student with a slightly lower LSAT or GPA than the institutional mean because that student has significant work experience or advanced education, or because their undergraduate GPA from 15 years ago has less indicative value than other indicators of their present abilities. No, the ONLY reason a law school might admit such a person is to “help their revenue by increasing their rosters of part-time students with lower entrance-exam scores and grade-point averages, without having to pay a price in the rankings.” This is of course an ‘open secret’ that needs to be ‘cracked down’ on.
Why not rank the evening programs on their own?
I’m not arguing that part-time legal education should get a pass or that the rankings are without any merit. The rankings are a crude and misleading indicator, but they are probably better than anything else I’ve seen in the vacuum of useful, reliable information provided by LSAC or the law schools themselves. The U.S. News and World Report rankings fail to account at all for many of the attributes in which part-time programs exceed their full-time counterparts – there’s no attempt to quantify the technical and industry expertise possessed by many part-time law students, nor do they tabulate the number of masters and Ph.D. degrees possessed. They also fail to account for the myriad ways in which various programs differ from each other. Georgetown Law was founded as an evening program in 1870. I doubt a recently-founded evening program such as SMU’s is as yet comparable. I arrived at the University of Houston with the promise but little verifiable information on whether or not I would really receive the same kind of rigorous instruction (I believe have), the same kind of access (yes) and opportunities (surprisingly, yes) as my full-time counterparts. Such an opportunity for comparison is important from both ends of the spectrum. To the extent that part-time programs are efforts to game the rankings, let them be subjected to that scrutiny, but allow legitimate programs to be analyzed on their own. If evening law programs must be subjected to the distorting light of the rankings, can it at the very least be done in a manner that might be useful for the prospective part-time students trying to make up their mind?
In 1896 and for over 20 years, United States Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan (the elder) would arrive at Columbian University in Washington, D.C. at 7pm to teach Constitutional Law to the assembled group of law students, most of whom worked as government clerks during the day. He also taught domestic relations, commercial law, evidence, torts, and property. (See Nowak, Justice Harlan’s Lecture’s at George Washington Law School) Justice Harlan was the lone dissent that year in the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson. I would imagine whatever he might have said about the case, just decided, would be somewhat restrained, but no less fascinating – could he have taught even the same day as he had written “in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens”? Is such an arrangement even conceivable today? Harlan considered his role as part-time law professor ‘the most interesting part’ of his life-work. (See Chapter 2 of Przybyszewski’s bio). In 1902, George Washington University joined the AALS and night classes were ended. The academicization of legal education has been historically hostile to part-time legal education, often for reasons that have nothing to do with learning. A hamfisted approach that treats part-time education as merely a flawed derivative is bound to repeat that history.
- U.S. News, Robert Morse: Changing the Law School Ranking Formula
- Empirical Legal Studies, Bill Henderson: How has the Part-Time “Loophole” Affected Part- and Full-Time Enrollment? The Data
- The Conglomerate, Christine Hurt: Proposed Change in USNWR Ranking Methodology
- Concurring Opinions, Daniel Solove: Should the US News Ranking Include Part-Time and Evening Law Students?
- Brian Leiter: Proposed Changes to US News Ranking Methodology…or Fiddling While Rome Burns
- Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Law School Rankings
- Law.com: Change Ahead for Law School Rankings?
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