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Local law deans on the U.S. News & World Report rankings (Video)

While they are not very popular in academia, the fact that U.S. News & World Report rankings have real world impact for law schools that cannot be denied. The magazine’s ranking system includes a “Top 100” list (with extra prestige to those law schools in the Top 50, Top 20, Top 10 and, at the pinnacle, Top 5). If a law school does not get a Top 100 ranking from the magazine’s editors, it is designated either a Tier 3 or Tier 4 school.

Minnesota has one nationally ranked law school — the University of Minnesota Law School — which U.S. News & World Report currently places at #20in the nation. (The U of M briefly flirted with being #22 last year before regaining a spot on the Top 20 list.) Two of the state’s law schools — William Mitchell College of Law and the University of St. Thomas School of Law — have been designated as Tier 3 by the magazine. Hamline University School of Law has a Tier 4 ranking.

Minnesota Lawyer recently spoke with the deans of the state’s four law schools about their views on the much reviled, but much watched U.S. News & World Report rankings of law schools.

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6 comments

  1. I thought the responses to this question were very interesting, especially when paired with subtitles providing context for the deans’ statements.

    Dean Wippman can afford to be contemplative and magnanimous about the U.S. News rankings because Minnesota has been in the Top 20-25 since always. On the other hand, I doubt the U will ever be much higher than that, if at all, and other schools ranked lower have considerably better national placement statistics.

    Dean Mengler probably shouldn’t decry the rankings when it’s no secret that St. Thomas desperately wants to be in the Top 100. Trying to bite the hand that feeds you is impolitic.

    Dean Lewis may have unwittingly hit upon a fine distinction in his remarks, saying that Hamline provides a quality legal education–he didn’t say anything about the quality of the students receiving the education. I’ve heard plenty of lawyers rip on Hamline’s students.

    Dean Janus is right that U.S. News skews its rankings toward a national perspective. Why then would he want his school to stay regional/local? That seems like a recipe for disaster, especially when William Mitchell is a private school with private school tuition. Who’s going to pay $35,000 a year for a school that likes where it’s at?

  2. William Mitchell Alumnus

    I think Dean Janus is an exceptional person and a fine lawyer. He’s someone that really cares about his students. That being said, I couldn’t disagree more with his approach to the U.S. News rankings and William Mitchell’s “place” in them.

    Education isn’t just about teaching. Education is also a business. (That’s especially true if the school in question is private.) The first rule of business is that if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. For William Mitchell to dig their heels in the ground and say that they’re going to celebrate their niche, remain a local powerhouse and ignore national rankings is harmful to the school and its students. The rankings aren’t perfect or even good, but they’re the most powerful indicator of “quality” out there today. As mentioned earlier, ignore them at your own risk.

    Law school costs too much to say, “We don’t mind being a third-tier school.” It costs too much in actual monetary investment and it costs too much in terms of physical and emotional investment. A law school’s goal should be do whatever it possibly can to ensure that its graduates have the best possible opportunities. That goal isn’t fixed; it should always be based on improvement and expansion. For Mitchell, maybe that means making a goal to be in the Top 100. Maybe that means making entrance requirements stricter. Maybe that means expanding the school’s reach outside Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Maybe that means increasing the number of firms participating in OCI. It could mean a lot of things, but it has to mean something. It can’t just be the status quo or you’ll get left behind.

    And pooh pooh-ing the rankings won’t work either because third-tier law schools have little credibility on that front. To change the rules of the game, you’ve got to be on top. If Harvard, Yale and Stanford Law Schools released a joint press release tomorrow saying they would no longer recognize the U.S. News rankings, then those rankings would cease to exist. No one would listen to them anymore. It’s not the same when someone closer to the bottom of the totem pole cries foul.

    And not to make this post a lengthier screed than it already is, but why would Mitchell accept their position in the third tier? It has highly-qualified professors with excellent credentials and the school has turned out scores of impressive lawyers for over 100 years. Dean Wippman crows about Vice President Mondale, and rightly so, but don’t forget that Mitchell has Warren Burger. Being Chief Justice of SCOTUS isn’t anything to shake a stick at. Why isn’t Mitchell making a bigger push to address reputational misconceptions?

    Honestly, I hope Dean Janus reads this post. It’s not meant to be insulting or offensive. It’s meant to be constructive criticism. Don’t fight the system when the system can crush you. Go with the flow until you’re in a position to change things for the better.

  3. William Mitchell Alum:

    Keep in mind that this is snippet of a longer conversation. Dean Janus was not saying that he does not take these rankings seriously — only identifying what he perceives to be one of their shortcommings. In the longer conversation, he mentions that he has met with the U.S. News folks and expressed his concerns to them on what he believes to be an over emphasis on national research/ reputation and underemphasis on regional reputation.

    I would add — though it did not come up in the conversation — one thing that has hurt Mitchell in the past has been the way night school reputation was factored into the rankings by U.S. News. U.S. News changed that this year, which may be one reason Mitchell moved up from Tier 4 to Tier 3 in the rankings this year.

    That said, I certainly do agree with your point that law schools — indeed all institutions — should constantly strive to better themselves.

  4. William Mitchell Alumnus

    Good point Mark–it wasn’t the entire conversation. Again, Dean Janus has my confidence, I was just surprised by what he said in the clip.

    I’d agree with you about the part-time rankings playing a role in Mitchell’s return to the third tier, except that Mitchell was in the third tier in 2007 and back, before the change was made by U.S. News. There’s some other factor at play.

  5. Agreed something may have been amiss with the rankings.

    A little background for those of you who don’t know what we are talking about:

    U.S. News & World Report inexplicably dropped Mitchell from the 3rd Tier to the 4th Tier last year and then returned it to the 3rd Tier this year. During that same period, the magazine raised Hamline from the 4th Tier to the 3rd Tier and then dropped it back to the 4th this year. Perhaps the U.S. News can’t tell Minnesota law schools apart?

    And then there was Nebraska. … Here’s a snippet from an ABA news report about what happened at the state law school there this year:

    “One law school, the University of Nebraska, seemed to be a big loser. It fell from No. 73 on last year’s list into the third tier on this year’s list. … But after the school got an advance peek at the rankings, officials notified U.S. News that there had been a mistake in data it submitted on 2007 nine-month-after-graduation employment. U.S. News is recalculating the rankings and will let Nebraska know the outcome.”

    Hmmm. I wonder what would tempt a law school to massage its placement statistics? …

  6. Hamline and mitchell sit on the border of the 3rd and 4th tier, which is why they keep swapping places. USNews made a mistake a year ago and released the ranking of the third and fourth tier, which showed where the respective schools sit within those tiers. They corrected the mistake and went back to the alphabetical rankings. I don’t know why they don’t rank them numerically, but it was eye opening to see where the schools sit.

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