Law School Admissions and the Wisdom of Crowds

With U.S. News rankings due out tomorrow, I thought I’d repeat part of a post from two years ago.

First, U.S. News has several methodological problems. E.g.:

Consider how U.S. News ranked part-time programs [for the first time in 2009]–it sent out a survey asking professors and deans to list fifteen schools with outstanding part-time programs. I am rather confident that no more than a tiny percentage of those who responded to this question are familiar with the particularities of different schools’ part-time programs. Unlike some of our worthy competitors, for example, at George Mason (ranked 5th in the part-time rankings) ALL tenured and tenure-track professors teach in the evening, and evening students are eligible for all students activities including law review. I can’t imagine why a professor at, say, Valparaiso Law School, would be aware of such details, but U.S. News didn’t bother to even attempt to take such factors into account. [As suggested below, the best way to rank the relative desirability of part-time programs is by the LSAT scores of matriculating students.]

Advice for prospective law students:

There are three groups of law schools: the handful of truly “national” law schools, which place almost everywhere; the somewhat larger group of “strong academic” law schools, which place many graduates regionally but also have the reputation to get you a job elsewhere with a little legwork; and the regional law schools, which don’t have placement pull nationally but place their grads locally, often with great success. If you have been admitted only to regional law schools, rankings and the such should be almost entirely irrelevant to you; you should be attending law school in the city in which you would like to live and practice.

The only ranking you should consider with any seriousness:

If you must rely on ranking and desire a superior alternative to U.S. News, look at matriculating students’ LSAT scores. The wisdom of crowds suggests that tens of thousands of law students making hundreds of thousands decisions about accepting and rejecting offers of admission, taking into account everything that prospective law students take into account–location, academic reputation, faculty quality, clinics, placement, specialties, cost, and so forth–provide far more useful information than the hamhanded U.S. News rankings. And unlike GPA, LSAT scores are both a reasonable proxy for student quality (at least when considered across an entire school’s student body) and are not really manipulable by the law schools. [Addendum: You should also consider bar passage rates; no sense spending three years and 100K only to find yourself unemployable as an attorney. And if you are admitted to a law school with LSATs significantly below the schools’ median, for whatever reason, you should ask very directly what percentage of students with LSATs within a couple of points of yours have successfully completed law school and passed the bar over the past decade. If the school won’t tell you, go somewhere else. LSAT scores don’t predict law school performance that well overall, but law school administrators know that that LSATs below a certain lever tend to be highly predictive of failure at their school–but admit students with such LSAT scores anyway.]

Of course, no student is the average student, and anyone about to devote three years and a lot of money to law school should consider how his individual interests and needs may vary from the median. But as a rough approximation as to the true desirability of a law school, I don’t think you can go very far wrong with LSAT scores.

UPDATE: Over the years, I’ve met quite a few prospective law students who express an interest in practicing “international law” [by which, to be clear, neither they nor I mean representing clients in U.S. courts in matters that happen to have an international component.] I always ask, “Do you speak any foreign languages?” “Have you ever lived abroad?” “Do you have the sort of LSAT score that will get you into one of the nation’s top law schools?” The answers are almost always “no,” “no,” and “no.” I then politely try to disabuse them of the notion that there is a significant chance that a monolingual graduate of a middling law school with no international experience will find a job in “international law,” public or private. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. If you fall into this category, consider yourself warned.