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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Rankings Twist Law School Financial Aid Choices

Margot Adler at Public Radio’s Justice Talking takes a look at the ugly side of the economics of higher education in College Admissions: A Game of Privilege?

This part of the discussion with education researcher and policymaker Ross Weiner and public universities representative Peter McPherson highlights a particularly pertinent issue in law school settings.

Anyone paying attention to the law school rankings game can recognize the not so invisible hand of the rankings behind this statement from Ross Davies:

One of the things that we can look at is how colleges and universities use their own financial resources either to broaden access or to serve other purposes. And what we’ve seen is a huge shift away from providing institutional financial aid to the financially neediest students and more towards giving larger financial rewards to students who could afford to go to college whether they got a financial award or not. But these public universities, in order to move up in the ratings and the rankings systems, are actually buying up students who have done better previously. And it’s a real problem because we’ve got to figure out how to reward and incentivize these public institutions to serve these students who are going to struggle academically and financially. The country needs for these students to be more successful. And right now all the signals and all the status are towards universities and colleges becoming more elite, and not serving struggling students.

There is a clear incentive to “buy” high performing students in order to increase the illusion of selectivity. This incentive in turn puts pressure on admissions offices to make choices based on numbers that it might otherwise make on less quantifiable grounds and also applies pressure to increase tuition to fund the arms race. In this context, the recent moves by wealthier universities to reach into their endowments looks less like philanthropy and more like the erection of barriers to entry.

When the rankings start to reflect not the value the institution can impart on a student by virtue of its education but rather the status the school can achieve by leveraging its endowment to pad its LSAT stats, then it’s time for a MoneyLaw revolution.

USNWR Rankings Leaked? Houston up 5 to 55 (unconfirmed)

From First Movers: Anthony Ciolli, U.S. News Rankings Leaked Early?, see this PDF.

‘Tis the Season: Law School Rankings Looming

For better or worse, my very own University of Houston Law Center, apparently still the poster child for rankings schadenfreude, features prominently in the ABA Journal’s article The Rankings Czar. Read the backstory here, here and here. The cover story begins and ends with Houston.

Tropical Storm Allison blasted through Houston killing 22 people, flattening homes and drenching the University of Houston Law Center in mud and floods. That was 2001, closing out Nancy Rapo­port’s first year as law school dean.

“Our computers survived only because our IT director risked his life to move classroom PCs to higher floors through the night of the storm,” Rapoport says.

The faculty and staff—some of whom lost their own homes—removed debris from buildings, scrounged supplies and aided students displaced by the storm. Despite the stress, Rapoport was exhilarated by the camaraderie. She never shed one tear of frustration.

Maybe that’s why her tears at a meet­ing with students and faculty six years later became a law school legend. The school had learned, just a week earlier, that it had fallen five spots (to 70th) in U.S. News & World Report’s annual law school rankings.

Distraught faculty and students wrote scathing critiques of her performance on blogs and computer bulletin boards, noting the school had plummeted nearly 20 spots during her six-year tenure.

Rapoport resigned.

Now a law professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Rapoport is still amazed to see that her tears that day seem always near the top of any story that mentions her. The Rice University and Stanford Law alum is a nationally respected bankruptcy expert. She co-edited a book about corporate fiascoes and was interviewed onscreen in the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. There are many facets to Rapoport’s career beyond those tears. Still …

“Am I the poster child for why the U.S. News & World Report rankings are bad?” Rapoport wondered last year in her blog.

It’s perhaps more accurate to say Rapoport’s Houston ordeal scares the bejesus out of deans. Her tears are emblematic of the nerve-shredding power U.S. News rankings hold over deans, faculty and students.

The story then concludes…

Nancy Rapoport says she is much happier with her job and life in Las Vegas. She and her husband love the city’s blend of lavish color and pioneer spirit, and the beauty of the desert landscape. She confides she already had a job offer from the University of Nevada when she resigned as dean in Houston.

“Truthfully, the Houston job just wasn’t the right fit for my personality, and office politics had made my relationship with the faculty strained,” she says. “The rankings exacerbated tension that already existed.”

Her successor, acting dean Raymond Nimmer, is now using technology to reach prospective students and publicize his law school’s accomplishments. The school is developing an online social network similar to MySpace or Facebook for alumni. The site will be a window into the school’s culture for potential applicants.

Nimmer also hopes to find ways to use text messaging and satellite radio to raise the school’s profile.

In the past year, Nimmer says, the school has “reduced faculty-student ratio with some outstanding new hires.” The school’s Center for Children, Law & Policy; Criminal Justice Institute; Institute for Intellectual Property & Information Law and other centers are hosting topical conference events.

And when asked what the school’s U.S. News ranking was last year, he can’t remember and asks his assistant. The University of Houston had jumped 10 slots to 60th place.

“I guess I’ve been so busy with work,” Nimmer says, “the number just slipped my mind.”

I’ve found the rankings to have very little value in my own selection on where to go to school – not because I didn’t look at them, but because the rational-seeming basis on which I made my decision turned out to have very little to do with what I value about my law school. Caveat emptor rankings buyers.

Houston tops U.S. News Rankings Law v. Undergrad Comparison

Paul Caron at TaxProf, compiled a list of law schools whose rankings outperform that of their parent institutions in U.S. News Rankings: Law v. Undergrad (see the graphic there for the full list). The University of Houston topped the list with a wopping differential of 136 places. This isn’t really news to me since I did both my undergrad and law studies at Houston, but it’s interesting to see the phenomena quantified and note the other institutions in similar situations.

Daniel Solove picked up the thread at Concurring Opinions to pose the question of what effect the standing of the main university has on a law school. I’ve heard more than a few people at the law center speculate on the negative impact of its association with the University as a whole. I tend to think there’s probably more upside than down, but that’s predicated on whether one percieves the unique position and opportunities of the University of Houston as a whole, and the law center as a part of that.

I left my comment speculating on the reasons for this disparity at TaxProf, but I’ll reprint it here for the sake of convenience

Since I attended Houston for both undergrad and law, I suppose I moved up in the world just by staying put. From my observation here I would boil it down to three factors (1) prospective legal market (2) cost and (3) market for students.

Market for students v. cost is the main factor – for undergrads, Houston competes in essentially the same market for students as higher-ranked state institutions University of Texas and Texas A&M which therefore have similar price-points and with Rice as a more expensive, higher-ranked private option. For law schools only the University of Texas is in the same market among state institutions and South Texas and Thurgood Marshall are much more expensive, lower-ranked private institutions. From a cost-benefit perspective, Houston is up against more competitive schools at a equal price point for undergrads but less competitive higher price point schools for law school. The differential is probably exacerbated by the fact that the University of Houston is located in the deeply impoverished third ward neighborhood, which is generally seen as undesirable by prospective undergrads but is probably less of a factor for law students.

Then the legal market in Houston seems pretty healthy. Anecdotally at least, students who have done reasonably well (30% and up, approximately) generally seem to be able to land summer associate gigs without too much trouble. The school also benefits from a generally robust economy that lures unsuspecting future law students to the city for jobs, many of whom then choose to stay for law school. This also accounts for our fairly active evening program.

From that perspective, I would predict most of these high-differential schools are similar in that they are (1) located in a good legal market (Houston, Atlanta, D.C.) or the only market within geographic proximity (Las Vegas, Utah) and (2) are relatively low cost compared with institutions in the same market (3) those markets are much more competitive for undergrads than for law students. I would also predict that these schools would have robust evening law programs for the same reasons.

How to Choose a Law School

Anastasia is slinging law school choosin’ advice on think like a woman. act like a man.Tips on Choosing a Law School #1: Location and Tips on Choosing a Law School #2: School.

I concur. I’m amazed at how little people know when they make their decision or what they choose to focus on. Rankings, well, they are numerical, I’ll give them that. They’re not bad as a starting point, particularly when you’re trying to figure out what your options might be with your LSAT and GPA. The differences between similarly ranked schools can be significant, however.

Consider, my dear prospective law student, School A an School B. (This is a hypothetical or “hypo” – get used to it) School A is ranked 20 spots above school B in the USNWR rankings. That might seem to be a big deal to you right now. Keep in mind that schools have jumped more than 20 spots in a single year. Taking a closer look you notice that School B is in a major metropolitan city while School A is in a much smaller city. School B’s city has several large and well-regarded firms and untold mid-sized firms as well as state trial and appellate courts and federal trial courts. School A’s city has a few state courts, for a federal gig you would have to go a few hours away to another big city with three other law schools. School B has 400 students in an entering class. School A has 100 students in an entering class. It doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that there are 30 more students in School’s B’s top 10% than are in the top 10% at School A. That might be somewhat important if you’re dead set on a career in BigLaw and you’re the the eleventh smartest person at either school. Of course, there are numerous other factors to consider as well, and many of them pertain specifically to you and your situation. Certain schools are nice to go to if you’re interested in certain types of practice. Others are geographically pertinent. Texas isn’t a bad state to go to school in if you have a burning desire to do Oil & Gas. If you’re interested in maritime law for some god-awful reason, might I suggest a coast.

Console yourself with this – it probably doesn’t matter which you choose. That’s a little heretical to say, I know, but don’t confuse where you go to law school with who you are or how good a lawyer you’ll be. Lots of good lawyers went to schools you’ve never even thought about. The best advice I can give you – get out there and talk to as many people as you can – law students and especially lawyers. Find the people who do what you want to do and find out what it took to get there.

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