My Law School Is Really Rank

If you believe the 2008 U.S. News and World Report Law School Rankings, attending my alma mater The University of Pittsburgh School of Law is becoming a “rank” proposition. “Pitt” dropped and astounding 17 spots from a very respectable ranking of 57 to an almost out of the first tier we are a strictly regional law school” ranking of 73. Now I understand that when you attend Harvard, Yale or Stanford law among some others, anything below you is “second tier” but living in Dallas it really pissed me off and bruised my ego that I can no longer say we are even as good as Southern Methodist University School of Law which which is well respected in Texas but like Pitt, very regionalized in terms of its national appeal.

Having digested this drop of egotistic proportion and being of pissed mind and body I immediately fired off the following email to Dean Mary Crossley:

Dean Crossley:

I am a 1986 Pitt Law Grad. It is my understanding that the new U.S. News rankings have us dropping approximately 30 spots? Is this accurate? What is the reason for this? It is very disturbing.

Sincerely

Brian Cuban
Dallas Mavericks

Here was Dean Crossley’s response:

Dear Mr. Cuban,

Thank you for your email expressing your concern regarding the Law School’s recent drop in the rankings. I’m glad to have an opportunity to explain my understanding of why the School dropped from #57 to #73 in the rankings recently released by US News. This drop is deeply troubling for the Law School, primarily because it fails to reflect the sustained progress the School has made over the past decade and instead threatens to impede the School’s continued progress. I apologize in advance for the length of this email, but there is no short answer to your question.

Unfortunately, a drop of 17 places in the rankings will suggest to some readers that something changed for the worse at Pitt Law over the course of a year. That is simply not the case. There have been no significant negative changes; if anything, the School continues to improve in terms of the strength of its faculty, the opportunities its graduates enjoy, and its visibility in the legal profession. A number of recent accomplishments provide strong, objective evidence supporting this assertion. In a September 2007 national ranking of law school faculties’ scholarly impact, Pitt Law ranked #21 – ahead of many schools in the US News top tier – providing objective evidence of the high quality of our faculty. Employment figures from the past two years have shown an increase in the percentage of our graduates accepting jobs outside of Pennsylvania: for the class of 2006 the rate was 37.2%, and for the class of 2007 preliminary data indicate a rate of 37%, with students taking jobs in 24 different states. These figures represent increases in out-of-state employment since 2004 (28.5%) and 2005 (26.6%), and show broadening employment opportunities for our graduates. The JURIST legal website – powered and edited by Pitt Law students – was named a top legal blog by the ABA Journal and in a ranking released earlier this year was the most cited of any blog sponsored by a law faculty member in terms of citations in law reviews. This recognition of JURIST attests to the School’s increasing, positive visibility within the legal profession nationally. In addition, in the past several years we have sustained or increased our progress in the areas of selectivity in admissions, bar passage rates, and recruitment of strong faculty members.

Your email justifiably asks what accounts for the decline in the School’s ranking. The answer has more to do with how US News computes the rankings than it does with the underlying quality of the education the Law School provides. (If this email piques your interest in the flaws in the US News methodology, I encourage you to read a posting by University of Texas Law Professor Brian Leiter at http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2008/03/an-open-lette-1.html.) Without boring you with too many details, permit me to explain briefly the reasons for the decline. (This analysis remains somewhat preliminary because I am still waiting for US News to respond to my request for unpublished data they use in the ranking.)

Nearly half of a school’s ranking is based on the results of two surveys regarding the quality of a school’s education program: the first (which counts 25% of a school’s total score) is a survey of legal academics; the second (which counts 15% of a school’s total score) is a survey of selected hiring partners at major firms, state attorneys general, and federal and state judges (the “lawyers and judges ranking”). While the Law School’s results on the academic peers survey have remained remarkably stable over the past seven years (at 2.8 each year on a scale of 1 to 5), its lawyers and judges score has fluctuated much more over those years, ranging from a high of 3.3 to a low of 2.8. Two years ago its lawyers and judges score was 2.8; last year it was 3.3.; this year it is 2.9. If I were convinced that the decrease this year reflected an actual drop in our reputation among this group, I’d be quite concerned. That said, this year as in past years only a very low percentage (26%) of judges and lawyers surveyed responded. So while we will keep working hard to improve Pitt Law’s reputation, I’m not convinced this year’s drop in that reputational score is cause for alarm.

The downward fluctuation in the lawyers and judges score is one of two factors most responsible for the School’s fall in the rankings. The second, expenditures per student, is one where we rank lower than most of our competitors. Two years ago, the ABA changed its instructions regarding how law schools must report expenditures, and as a result, Pitt Law’s reported expenditures declined significantly. This change in expenditures reporting methodology does not reflect any change in the actual level of support we receive from the University or the resources we invest in our programs, and it fails to reflect the numerous benefits our students receive from attending a law school situated in a world class university like Pitt. Thus, with respect to this factor, a portion of the change in our rankings is attributable to a change in external reporting requirements, not any change in what we’re doing at the Law School. Although expenditures count nearly 10% of a school’s total ranking score, they are not published by US News, which makes it highly unlikely that reader of the rankings will understand the role that expenditures play.

These two factors played the largest role in producing the decline in the School’s ranking. Because so many schools are tightly clustered together in the range from the mid 30s to approximately #90, small changes in the information reported or the results of reputational surveys can produce wide upward or downward swings in the rankings.

Thanks for your patience in reading this far. I hope I have demonstrated that the drop in our rankings has more to do with the rankings’ methodology than with changes at the School; nonetheless, I, along with the faculty and staff at the Law School, are concerned about the drop in the rankings and will be taking steps to try to improve those rankings because we realize that external audiences pay attention to them. We are committed to continuing to raise the quality of the Law School and to making sure that others in the legal world know about the good things going on here so that the School’s rankings will improve.

Accordingly, while we will continue to focus primarily on our educational mission, the Law School will also keep taking steps to pursue more effective methods of getting the word out more broadly to external audiences about the high quality of the education here and of the attorneys who come out of Pitt Law. These steps will include working with University administrators and communications professionals, as well as looking at what other law schools are doing to publicize their accomplishments. We will also encourage our alumni to act as “ambassadors” for the School within the legal profession. We will continue to work hard to attract financial support from alumni and friends; these investments will permit the School to pursue high quality programming for its students, which will be reflected in higher expenditure levels and higher rankings.

I hope this email clarifies the reasons behind the Law School’s drop in the US News rankings. Despite this very real disappointment, I remain quite bullish on the Law School and there is a sense of excitement at the School about how we in the Pitt Law community are working to move the School forward. Again, thanks for your expression of concern. I hope that you, as Pitt Law alum, will join us in our efforts to make Pitt Law the best that it can be and to raise its national profile.

Sincerely,

Mary Crossley

Here was my response to Dean Crossley:

Dean Crossley:

Thank you for your prompt and detailed response. I will read the article you suggested.

You have stated some numbers with regards to the acceptance of jobs outside of Pennsylvania. This is an area where I believe the drop in rankings will hurt Pitt the most. For better or worse rankings tend to be much more important for out of state jobs then for grads who stay in the area.

I feel this drop will pigeon hole Pitt as a “regional school” and we will unfortunately see a decline in the numbers you quoted.

While I cannot quantify it, rankings due in fact equate to a “degree value”. A percentage drop is going to correlate to some degree with a loss in overall income opportunity to Pitt Law grads as well as revenue generating opportunities for the school.

I certainly understand that rankings have little correlation to the actual education our students are receiving but that is little consolation if they cannot get jobs nationwide… Let’s hope we can turn it around…

Sincerely

Brian Cuban

So is the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law now a “rank” choice for attending law school? If you believe the U.S. News and World Report study it is certainly “ranker” than it was last year.

What do I think? I absolutely agree with Dean Crossley that there is very little correlation between the report and the quality of education Pitt Law students received. I however believe she pays way to short shrift to the fact that these ranking for better or worse are the standard relied upon by law firms in their hiring decisions. This is especially true in national hiring. Everything being equal in terms of grades is the drop in rankings going to hurt Pitt Grad interviewing at a Pittsburgh based firm, probably not. Is the drop in rankings going to hurt a Pitt grad interviewing at a firm in Dallas, Texas? Unless by some chance the hiring partner went to Pitt, it will hurt… There are now 16 more schools better than yours. Pitt is further pigeon holed into the term every law school dreads… “A regional school”

My advice to Dean Crossley……. Let’s not spend that much time trying to explain why we are an exception and the report is not accurate as it applies to us. We certainly thought it was accurate when we were top 50. Law School Rankings for better or worse are a big game with big stakes. Let’s figure out how to play it……