Again With the Law School Rankings

In the National Law Journal, dated December 22, 2008, Peter Kalis, chair and global managing partner of K&L Gates offers a response by BigLaw to the USNews rankings of law schools:

The ranking sells magazines. It generates heat, not light. In the legal industry, we’re used to this art form — a magazine develops a ranking using a questionable approach, lets loose with this year’s version and then starts reporting on its own pseudo-news as if it’s something to which we should pay attention. For the most part, it’s not.

I have two major gripes with the U.S. News phenomenon.

First, I’d like to take up the cause of “nondesigner” law schools. I’ll focus on the University of Pittsburgh School of Law but there are many “Pitt Laws” in our markets — law schools with dedicated teachers and researchers, fine student bodies and solid market reputations that, alas, do not rank them with Yale or Harvard. . . .

Consider the impact of the real Pitt Law on my firm. We have 29 partners and 60 lawyers overall who are graduates of Pitt Law. It has supplied us with a global development partner, a global general counsel, a global head of litigation and the managing partner of one of our largest offices. It trains great leaders as well as great lawyers not only because ideas matter there, but also because emotional intelligence and analytical intelligence go hand in hand. It doesn’t sit well with me when Pitt Law is unfairly maligned.

I understand that the presidency of the Harvard Law Review is the legal equivalent to the Heisman Trophy. But there aren’t many of them, and not all of them really perform at the next level. Consider the storied National Football League career of Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta, who played at the Harvard of college football — the University of Miami. Such ruminations won’t take you long; his lackluster career was over in a flash. Compare the still blooming career of that fabulous quarterback from the “other” Miami, Ben Roethlisberger. It’s what you do between the lines that counts, and from that perspective I see little discernible difference among the top graduates of scores of law schools.

Read the whole thing.

While it’s always nice to have Pittsburghers look after their own (I sometimes liken regional culture here to an Oreo cookie — chewy and insecure on the inside, but fierce and firm when we take on the outside world), Kalis’s piece suggests to me that the real disservice done by the USNews rankings is that schools such as Pitt (and, for that matter, the vast majority of law schools in the US) are part of the same ordinal ranking as schools such as Yale and Harvard and Stanford and, to a lesser degree, Chicago, Columbia, NYU, Georgetown, Virginia, and a few others.  The schools at the very top of the table and the schools in the middle of the table have very different missions.  Yale and Harvard, for example, are unapologetic about the fact that they exist to produce people who will enlighten (Yale – lux) and lead (Harvard – veritas) the world.

Those schools accept and produce brilliant people, but those same graduates often have little taste for the grueling drudgery that passes for the early years of law practice in many private law firms these days.  Kalis is repeating something that I’ve heard privately many times before, and for many years, from hiring partners at firms with higher billing rates than K&L Gates. Between costs of training and problems with retention, hiring new lawyers is usually a gamble, but if a firm wants to hire a smart junior lawyer who is willing to put his or her head down and bill XYZ hours per year, make partner, and bill XYZ hours per year thereafter, then the odds are better (for the law firm) if the firm hires a top student from a middle-tier school.  They often do have a taste for the time required by the nuts and bolts of modern law practice.

There is a series of normative “oughts” that might follow this diagnosis, whether that’s from the standpoint of students and new lawyers, law schools, or law firms and other law practice environments.  I’ll leave those mostly unspoken for now.  But it doesn’t take a Harvard lawyer, or even a Pitt lawyer, to figure out what they are.

Besides, a lot of people in Pittsburgh aren’t sold on Ben Roethlisberger, and for all that I know, Gino Torretta has lived a productive life since his short NFL career came to an end.

3 thoughts on “Again With the Law School Rankings

  1. I agree with much of what Michael has said. But it may not be (or may not be only) that graduates of top law schools lack the personality type that makes them willing to do the quotidian drudgery that is necessary to bill the hours necessary to succeed at law firms. It’s also that graduates of top tier law schools often don’t want law firm practice to be the endgame of their careers. When I was a summer associate, the difference between the summers from top-tier schools and those from lower-ranked local schools couldn’t have been clearer. The former group tended to take their summer job for granted, often using it as a means to free booze and fancy dinners. The latter group took their summer job incredibly seriously, arriving early, doing extra projects, etc. Maybe this has something to do with the faculty at top-tier law schools, many of whom express ambivalence about or even contempt for law practice (my contracts prof certainly did). Or maybe it’s just that people don’t tend to value that which comes easily. The old saying goes “What do you call the person who’s last in his class at Yale? A lawyer.” Graduates from non-top-tier law schools may make better law associates and partners because they really value the opportunity to have that status, while grads of top-tier schools tend to take it for granted.

  2. I realize that these rankings do not reflect the real quality or value of the education provided at the ranked institutions. However, as a ’93 Pitt graduate who is now competing for jobs, I was appalled to see how far my alma mater has fallen. When I last checked, back in the mid ’90’s, Pitt was ranked far higher than my local competition–U of Houston. They have kept going up and we have fallen. Fairly or not, this directly affects my job prospects. Why is Pitt sinking?

  3. While I generally think the rankings are silly, its a little disconcerting as a Pitt Law grad that the school has sunk nearly 25 places in five years! When I graduated five years ago it was 5oth. I can’t imagine how us news moves a school nearly thirty places in five years, especially given the amount of money spent on renovation of the Law School’s facilities. Do they do this just so they can move the school up in a couple of years and have a news story?

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