July 31, 2005

Structuring the facts -- isn't that the lawyerly approach?

Here's an article by law school memoirist Alex Wellen about gaming the U.S. News & World Report ranking system:
As part of its methodology, U.S. News factors in how much a law school spends per student. But just how those costs are calculated has become a matter of considerable discussion, both in legal education circles and at the American Bar Association.

Consider library costs at the University of Illinois College of Law in Urbana-Champaign. Like all law schools, Illinois pays a flat rate for unlimited access to LexisNexis and Westlaw's comprehensive online legal databases. Law students troll them for hours, downloading and printing reams of case law. To build user loyalty, the two suppliers charge institutions a total of $75,000 to $100,000 a year, far below per-use rates.

But in what it calls a longstanding practice, Illinois has calculated a fair market value for these online legal resources and submitted that number to U.S. News. For this year's rankings, the school put that figure at $8.78 million, more than 80 times what LexisNexis and Westlaw actually charge. This inflated expense accounted for 28 percent of the law school's total expenditures on students, according to confidential data filed with U.S. News and the bar association and provided to The New York Times by legal educators who are critical of rankings and concerned about the accurate reporting of data.

These student expenditures affect only 1.5 percent of a school's U.S. News ranking, but this is a competition where fractions of a point matter. In this year's survey, the magazine ranked Illinois No. 26 of 179 accredited law schools.
Oh, but surely it ought to count for something that these law schools know how to structure the facts to present a strong case to U.S. News.

How about this strategy:
At New York University, Columbia and the University of California, Berkeley, for example, the law schools accept a large number of second-year transfer students, some with LSAT scores and undergraduate G.P.A.'s below those accepted in their first year. "Transfer is almost solely on first-year performance," says Edward Tom, director of law admissions at Berkeley.

Professor Stake of Indiana observes: "It works to schools' U.S. News advantage to do this - to close their doors to first-year students, in turn raising the school's LSAT's and grades, and then open their doors to the second-year program to raise revenue."
And then there's the way some law schools hire their own graduates for short-term legal research positions to make a nice showing on the percentage of graduates with employment upon graduation -- not to mention the way the schools justify this behavior:
"The general attempt by the law schools to make sure that their students get jobs is a good thing," [Professor Stake of Indiana] says.

Northwestern University has also hired graduates for short internships. "I don't think it's unethical if you're giving some value to your students," says David Van Zandt, its law dean.
There, now, I hope I didn't make you hate lawyers any more than you already do.


Brendan said...
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Brendan said...

My oldest brother is a partner at a firm here in DC. When I asked him about hiring, he remarked that if you're not in the top 10% of your class, don't even bother applying (that goes for the Ivies too). Granted, that's only one firm, but I wonder how the middle to back-of-the-pack students fare upon graduation. The "rants and raves" section of DC Craigslist is peppered with posts from frustrated grads who simply cannot find a job. Maybe that's to be expected early on, but unlike them, I don't have $120,000 in student loans hanging over my head. Hello, anxiety. Then again, the law is almost recession proof. When's the last time you heard of a firm "laying off" attorneys? Once you're in, you're in.

Menlo Bob said...

And, of course, "nothing we're doing is evil".

John Jenkins said...

Brendan, funny you should ask that:

Here is one such story.

In addition, a large firm nearby here layed off a number of people last year. I know a few associates who have gotten culled as well.

It's not the sinecure that you seem to believe. The top 10% thing is an industry-wide disease, at least for large firms. Most lawyers don't end up working for large firms though.

Brendan said...

"Brendan, funny you should ask that:

Here is one such story."

Well I'll be damned. Still, they seem immune to the mass layoff phenomenon that you see at HP or Morgan Stanley.

John Jenkins said...

That's because there are a LOT more employees at a place like HP or Morgan Stanley than even the largest multi-jurisdiction law firms.

I don't know how old the data are, but this table shows the largest American firms and the largest one has just over 3000 lawyers, only 600 of whom practice in North America. One factory or office of a large multi-national might have that many employees. It's just a question of scale.

Sloanasaurus said...

Obviously the top 10 law schools will always be the top 10 because most of the faculty at most of the law schools come from the top law schools and people naturally rate the school they attended higher than the school where they are employed. Thus, you will have an endless cycle.

peter hoh said...

Ann, in response to your last sentence, no, this doesn't make me hate lawyers. It just helps reinforce the idea that rankings are flawed.

Eric said...

Brendan, most grads get jobs. Pretty much all of them do if you are from a top tier school. Maybe some have to wait until they pass the bar, but 6 months out, they get jobs. Also, most people don't get jobs at big firms nor do they attain jobs through OCI. Most get them by networking, looking at job postings, through other job fairs, through friends, or what have you. While working at a big firm pays 110-125k in big markets, not everyone wants to practice corporate law, and many do not want the big firm life style.

lobhudeln said...

As a rising 3L at UW I've been troubled by the ranking system. When I applied to Wisconsin, the Law School was ranked 25th in the country. However, during the past two years, it has dropped to the mid 30's. The importance of rankings seem to be important to law firms and unimportant to those in academia. Last year during on-campus interviewing, I was asked by an interviewer (from a medium-large firm) why UW's ranking had slipped. It appeared very important to him that UW was no longer ranked in the 20's. Susequently he had to narrow his applicant pool to the top 20% of students, instead of the previous top 30%. A few months later, still without a summer job, I had the opportunity to have dinner with Chancellor Wiley. I asked him if he was concerned with the slip in rankings. He quickly repeated what must have been a canned response about US News rankings. "Blah blah blah... rankings don't matter, rankings don't take into account this and that and blah blah blah." He didn't give me time to inform him that in the job market, the rankings do matter.

ziemer said...

when i was applying to law school, i and a fairly large group of others were accepted to our school for the sole reason that we had sky high LSATs. our undergrad grades were poor, but that was irrelevant in terms of the MEDIAN GPA. it looked good to have students with LSATs in the top 1%.

and the law school succeeded in its goal. had we (the high LSAT, low GPA undergrads) applied two years later, they would have told us to pound sand; they would not have accepted us even at gunpoint.

everybody got what they wanted. we got into a great law school; and the law school used us to crank up their ratings.

it's a racket; this is news?

Ann Althouse said...

Stuart: I hope that article gave you some new insight into why the rankings change the way they do. Schools figure out strategies to build their rank. All the schools care about their ranking. It's just a question of HOW attentive to the ranking they are and HOW MUCH they are willing to make various decisions for the sake of the rankings. For example, one could concentrate on high GPAs and high LSATs in admissions and sacrifice attention to a multitude of soft variables that U.S. News doesn't count. It's not that the school doesn't care about the effect of the rankings or doesn't understand it, but that there are other values as well and other schools willing to pursue more U.S. News-focused values.

There is a stock way of saying the rankings don't matter. But don't assume that someone saying that do you doesn't completely understand the problems. The question is how to solve them.

Bruce Hayden said...

Ann asks a very good question, what do you do about it? And I, for one, don't have a clue.

The problem seems to me that the corruption for ratings is growing larger, year after year, as each school has to game the system more every year to stay in the same place.

Bruce Hayden said...

Maybe the law field is over all recession proof. But I was downsized three years ago in the .com bust. The patent firm I was working for lost a big chunk of billings in a very short time, primarily where I worked, in electronics and software - after all, it was the .com bust.

The problem is that at least some firms are dependant upon large companies, like HP, and many of them find that they can more easily cut discretionary legal costs easier than internal headcount. After all, there is no unemployment to pay. Indeed, one of the benefits of outsourcing.

And that is one of the problems with patent work, as most of it is discretionary. Most of it doesn't have a short term payoff, but rather pays off over the next 20 years.

So, I have seen a number of high tech companies make drastic short term cuts in their IP budgets when things get tight. And this invariably means a lot of (patent) attorneys out on the street, until things pick up again.

Bruce Hayden said...

I am not sure why ranking really matter all that much. Yes, I saw the post about where one firm seemed to be looking at 30% in a top 20 something school, but 20% in a top 30 something school.

But if you look at it from a profit making point of view, there should be a place where you can maximize profits, and that is almost assuredly not at the top, and that is because in order to maximize profits, I would think that a school would:
- hire next tier faculty.
- hire a lot of adjuncts (even cheaper)
- larger class sizes
- cut some other expenses, such as maybe some of those unused publications in the library.

In short, minimize expenses until enrollment starts to drop off. Find the place that you can fill your seats at a minimum cost.

Obviously, most law schools don't think that way. But, then, most law schools are really not being run for the benefit of the university as a whole (since a law school can be a huge cash cow), but rather for the law school faculty.