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You're interested in going to law school. You've suffered through the LSAT, put together a polished admissions package and buffed up your resume. You've contacted old professors for references and recommendations. You're all set to begin the application process.

One day, while doing some research, you come across a pdf titled Judging the Law Schools. It contains a list of law school rankings with some explanatory text. The report is written by two guys called "Brennan & LeDuc." They sound legit. Hey, one of them's even a retired state Supreme Court justice! Hell, this must have some weight to it. It's not like US News & World Report has a monopoly on the truth about law schools, right?

You go straight to the list. Harvard Law School is number one. Okay, nothing strange about that. But number two... what's this? Thomas M. Cooley Law School? I've never heard of that school. Is this mysterious Lansing, Michigan-based institution really better than Yale?

According to Judge Thomas E. Brennan, founder and former president of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, and Don LeDuc, current president of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, yes, it is.

Rank and reputation

Almost every college and law school hopeful in the United States follows US News & World Report. This rag annually compiles ranked lists of universities and grad programs, among them law schools. While the lists are a little arbitrary and are certainly not the be-all and end-all of a school's reputation, they tend to give students a good idea of an institution's professional and academic regard. Many students aim for a spot in the traditional "Top 14", which contains such notables as Harvard, Yale, the Universities of Michigan/Virginia/Chicago, Northwestern and Georgetown. Further down the list are the other first tier schools which, as a whole, comprise the "top 50" and contain a mix of expensive, but fairly prestigious, private schools (Emory, George Washington, Tulane) and relatively affordable, regionally strong public schools (Alabama, Texas-Austin, Georgia.) Below these are the rest of America's ~150 law schools. These are traditionally grouped into second, third and fourth tiers by groups of fifty.

USN&WR puts together its list by taking a number of factors into account. The median LSAT and GPA scores of entering 1L classes are given a lot of weight, but other factors enter into the equation as well. Job placement after graduation, the schools' general reputation in the professional and academic communities and the quality of educational and support services are all important parts of a school's final rank. Lesser factors include student/faculty ratio and bar passage rate.

The USN&WR rankings are far from perfect. In fact, every year they incite a firestorm of debate about their usefulness and objectivity. And, of course, it's not always the best idea to pick the highest-ranked school on your list of acceptances. If you plan on staying in-state, the slightly lower-ranked and much less expensive public law school is almost certainly a better option than the private, 50K per year school (unless that school happens to be Harvard or one of its elite sisters and you're dead-set on a Big Law job.)

The fact is, though, that law schools live and die by their performance in the report. A significant climb in the rankings can result in higher-quality applicants and an increase in national prestige. A drop can result in angry phone calls and emails from students and alumni, a drop in applications and, in some cases, an unemployed law school dean. For better or worse, USN&WR has the law school industry by the balls.

A truly objective ranking system

With all the passion and heat surrounding the USN&WR law school rankings, it shouldn't be a surprise that they've been challenged. Students, administrative officials, academics and hiring staff at firms have all expressed doubt about the veracity of the yearly list.

That same doubt made it possible for Judge Thomas E. Brennan and Don LeDuc to publish an alternative law school ranking list. Judging the Law Schools is published on a semi-regular basis and is now in its 12th edition. And it is widely regarded as fucking ridiculous.

In his preface to the 12th edition, Judge Brennan asserts that reputation is a subjective factor when it comes to law school rankings. In his words:

The English nobility and the Indian caste system represent outdated notions of entitlement and reflect the evils of cultural discrimination. Indeed, Americans overthrew their former government largely because of the abuses of the self-perpetuating nobility that reserved for itself the privileges of participation in the English political and social systems. Americans inherently reject elitism and discrimination in favor of opportunity and have replaced the caste system with equal protection under law.

Except in education, where elitism still dominates.

In place of the old, largely merit-based "elitist" ranking methods based on peer review and the GPA and LSAT scores of incoming students, Brennan and LeDuc present a new ranking system that completely disregards reputation (meaning industry peers, judges, partners at law firms etc. aren't polled) and substitutes 40 factors, each of which is weighted equally at 2.5% of the total score.

Some of these factors include:

  • total size of J.D. enrollment
  • size of the school's campus by square foot
  • total number of applications
  • number of full-time and part-time faculty and total teaching faculty (counted as three separate criteria for a total of 7.5% weight)
  • total volumes in library, total titles in library, total serial subscriptions, number of professional librarians, library hours per week with professional staff, total library hours per week, library seating capacity and library total square footage. In fact, ten of the 40 criteria used in Judging the Law Schools have to do with library-related qualities for a total of 25% weight.
  • By contrast, median GPA and LSAT scores are given a grand total of 5% weight.

You might be thinking that any list pumped out by these illogical criteria will be completely worthless. But you'd be wrong! The list, in fact, serves to bump Cooley Law School (once again, of which Judging the Law Schools authors and publishers Judge Brennan and LeDuc are founder and president, respectively) to the top of the list. Cooley is the largest law school in the nation. It has five campuses - one in Florida and four in Michigan. In 2012, Cooley offered admission to 4,570 students and took in around 3,000, both full- and part-time. It has the largest faculty of any American law school. And, big surprise, it has the most libraries.

The 25%-75% LSAT scores for the incoming full-time Cooley JD class of 2015 were 146 and 152 and their 25%-75% undergraduate GPAs ranged from 2.58 to 3.34 (Note: in our current age of college grade inflation, in most US undergrad programs you barely need a pulse to get a 3.0.) Not that it matters that much - after all, LSAT and GPA were together weighted at 5%. Clearly, the quality of a school's libraries is five times more important than the academic quality of its student body - and infinitely more important than its standing among its professional and academic peers.

So the reason for Cooley's great performance on its own ranking system is obvious. Judging the Law Schools was tailored purely for marketing purposes. Well, okay. Cooley is a private, ABA-accredited law school. As long as the American Bar Association doesn't mind, it can do whatever it wants. Right?

Law schools and social responsibility

By all accounts, there are too many lawyers in the United States. The projected number of 2013's legal job openings is about a third less than the total number of newly minted 2013 JDs. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that top law schools were cutting seats - at risk of losing a considerable amount of tuition - in order to reduce the lawyer glut.

However, as long as law schools like Cooley keep on admitting floods of students, that glut won't be reduced. And Judging the Law Schools contributes to this problem. It pretends to be an objective law school ranking system, and it just might fool some impressionable college grads into believe that Cooley is a good bet when it's probably not.

No, Harvard Law isn't for everyone. Yes, there are perfectly fine law schools out there that aren't in US News' top 20 or top 50. Yes, it sucks that the profession of law is obsessed with rankings and prestige. But that's the reality. When you take your resume to Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, they're going to care about the name of your alma mater. The same goes for most other sectors of the legal field. If you're not graduating from a top 50 school (and, in many cases, even if you are) you will probably face an uphill battle in the current legal job market.

If you happen to be a hiring manager at a non-law company (or at a restaurant, or a coffee shop, or a taxi company, or a strip club) you've probably already seen some JDs on submitted resumes. If you were wondering why so many lawyers are choosing to leave the "lucrative" practice of law to wait tables and drive cabs, know that it's not by choice. An army of dishonest legal educators - who all too often push the idea of noble public service on their graduates - aren't helping. They're merely leading students into a lifetime of massive non-dischargeable student loan debt and underemployment. And there's nothing noble about that.

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Related sites

http://www.cooley.edu/rankings/methods.html
Straight from the horse's mouth: A link to Cooley's law school ranking list and related foolishness.

http://www.top-law-schools.com/dissecting-the-rankings-news-world-report.html
A breakdown of the US News ranking system.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303444204577458411514818378.html
A Wall Street Journal article about the oversupply of lawyers and what law schools are - and aren't - doing about it.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/100657078/Macdonald-v-Cooley
In 2011, several former Cooley Law School grads used their new lawyering skills to sue their alma mater for misleading them about their job prospects. This link is the decision dismissing the case. It gives a pretty full rundown of the whole mess, though, and mostly in plain English.

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