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May 3, 2013

On the perils of “one size fits all” metrics

by Dan Rodriguez

Yesterday, I posted on the employment measures issue and the Northwestern advantage.  The focus was, naturally, on our law school; however, there is general point embedded in my comment which I would like to make more explicit:  Efforts to rank schools on a narrow set of criteria have the unavoidable flaw of conflating a number of factors into a “one size fits all” rubric.  Obvious point, to be sure, but one that bears notice when we hop on — even if briefly — into one or another ranking fad.

Consider the Above the Law rankings of law schools by employment, now enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame in the blogosophere.  The measure here is a job for which a JD is required.  I have already spoken about how this undervalues Northwestern.  The difficulty which the rankings cuts deeper, however.  There are surely law schools which produce students who have a range of choices in non-legal settings — not necessarily because that is the focus of a specific element of the program (as it is with the JD/MBA program at Northwestern and some other schools), but because the market in the area where many of the students congregate has a particularly robust employment situation there.  For example, Loyola L.A. law school has a well-regarded sports & entertainment law focus.  Surely there are positions in the sports & entertainment world in So Cal, some positions non-legal, available for grads of Loyola.  On the other end of the country, NGO’s and other organizations in the nation’s capital might provide employment opportunities for so-called “non-elite” schools in Washington DC and the Northeast corrider.

Law students go to law school to practice law, the editors of ATL proclaim.  Surely there is much to that slogan.  But law students go to particular law schools for a myriad of reasons.  The central choices about law school versus not-law school involve not only considerations of whether lucrative legal employment beacons, but about what is the tradeoff between pursuing a legal education for the purpose of advancing one’s employment goals in a broader sense and saving this money, creating credentials of different sorts, and entering the non-legal job market in earnest.

To be sure, many (perhaps even most) of these pursuits will be a second best, and maybe a distant one, to legal employment.  And I make no pronouncements here at all about whether the investment is or is not worth it.  That’s an important conversation, but a different one.  Rather, the question here is whether efforts to craft a ranking that is centered on employment measures captures either the objectives of one or another law school on the one hand and the objectives of law students who will consider going to that law school on the other.

U.S. News rankings, for all their many, many flaws, looks at a wide variety of factors.  And, with respect to employment, captures a larger set of criteria (although it would be more useful if Bob Morse were more transparent about the exact criteria).  Efforts to shoehorn one key criterion — in the case of ATL, employment in legal jobs — conveys misinformation and foments, rather than alleviates, confusion.

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