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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Amar: Why Law Students and Faculty Should Care About Citation Rankings

Vikram Amar (UC-Davis), What a Recently Released Study Ranking Law School Faculties by Scholarly Impact Reveals, and Why Both Would-Be Students and Current/Prospective Professors Should Care:

As one law-student-admissions and law-faculty-hiring cycle winds down and another one begins to crank up, yet another law-school ranking was released last month, this one focusing on the “scholarly impact of law faculties, ranking the top third of ABA-accredited law schools.”  Below, I discuss and analyze some of the seeming surprises in the ranking, and also explore why prospective law school students and law faculty members should care about this kind of ranking. ...

In some respects, the Leiter ranking results were not surprising.  Only about 70 of the close-to-200 ABA-approved schools made the rankings list, and those at the top were the usual suspects:  Yale, Harvard, Chicago and Stanford were the top four (in that order), and that conforms pretty closely with the consistent placement of these schools in U.S. News yearly rankings. ... Yet other schools fared much better in the recent Leiter survey than they do in U.S. News:  these included Brooklyn, Cardozo, Case Western, Chapman, UNLV, Seattle, and the University of St. Thomas.  And there were others.

Conversely, some schools did not do as well in this scholarly-impact survey as they tend to do in U.S. News.  Prominent among these are:  University of Washington and Pepperdine (neither of which made the top 70), Boston College, Georgia and Iowa.  Again, others could be added to this list too. ...

(Why) Should Prospective Law Students and Law Faculty Care About Any of This?

At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss the Leiter-style ratings as being of interest to only a small group of ego-driven law professors who need to be cited by other academics in order to feel useful.  ... [S]ome may wonder how much it matters, in the real world, if a faculty’s work product is being read and mentioned often by other professors. Let me offer three answers, one idealistic and two practical.

First, I like to think that while teaching and scholarship don’t always go together (insofar as some great scholars are lousy teachers and some non-scholars are great teachers, and insofar as some scholarship is too esoteric or technical for many students), quite often great teaching involves the incorporation of cutting-edge scholarly ideas into the classroom. ...

Second, as universities (public and private) confront resource constraints, the law schools that succeed in getting more of the pie at their home institutions are the ones that tend to be able to demonstrate scholarly influence.  So each law school has an incentive to focus more and more on faculty impact, and the ones that succeed will be rewarded financially, which will then enable them to do more for their faculties and for their students in myriad ways.

Third, for better or worse, the single biggest long-run reputational input for a law school bearing on the overall credibility and marketability of its degrees and programs is the perception of its quality by other law faculty across the country.  In turn, that perception tends to drive, over time, what lawyers and judges think (even if there is a lag time), because lawyers and judges (rightly?) assume that law professors (as a group) will tend to know more about other law schools than lawyers and judges have the chance to.  Moreover, the top law students who go on to lead the top legal institutions tend to come from the law schools whose faculty (mentors) care about scholarship and scholarly influence.   So unless and until law professors as a group can be convinced that scholarly impact shouldn’t matter much (and the trend is the opposite), scholarly impact will remain an increasingly important measure, one that everyone—existing faculty as well as prospective faculty and students—cannot ignore.

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I can't imagine anything I would care less about as a student than the volume of a faculty member's citations.

Posted by: michael livingston | Aug 5, 2012 2:56:27 AM

"Third, for better or worse, the single biggest long-run reputational input for a law school bearing on the overall credibility and marketability of its degrees and programs is the perception of its quality by other law faculty across the country."

I do not think this is the case. Law students and legal employers primarily judge the value of a law school not by faculty quality but by selectivity of that institution's admissions policy. This is something they can easily quantify and judge. Ask any current or perspective law student to tell you what LSAT score they'd need to get into a T10 and they could probably tell you with 5 pts. Ask them to name three scholars on Harvard's faculty and they probably couldn't. Legal employers hire Harvard grads because they are perceived to be the smartest, not because the faculty is the best. As Justice Scalia famously said "you can't make a sow's ear out of a silk purse." No matter what the faculty taught, since Harvard had the best inputs he was going to take his clerks from there.

Simply put, employers want to hire from Harvard because Harvard students are the smartest, and students want to go to Harvard because they will get the best jobs. The faculty reputation does not even enter into the decision making process.

It may be true to the extent that students rely on USNWR as a barometer for school quality (which is something that professors have bemoaned for decades now), because faculty reputation is such a large part of the USNWR score. But one thing that is starting to become abundantly clear to prospective students is admissions decisions should not be made strictly on the basis of USNWR. Outside of the big firms and government organizations populated by graduates of T14 schools, legal hiring is very regional. It does not make sense to go to a 200K school halfway across the country when you are hoping to get a job in your home market. It may not make sense to attend a school ranked 20 or 30 spots higher in New York when you are being offered a full scholarship at a lower ranked school if the job prospects for both schools are not particularly different. If we see the relative decrease in the importance of USNWR among students, then scholarly output will be even less of a factor.

Posted by: BoredJD | Aug 6, 2012 1:25:58 PM

There are some top students who attend schools for the opportunity to study under specific law professors--

Arthur Miller at NYU; John Coffee at Columbia; Elizabeth Warren, Larry Tribe, or Charles Fried at Harvard; Joe Bankman at Stanford; Ian Ayres at Yale.

As students became more savvy consumers, this trend will only increase.

But it isn't Leiter rankings that will matter. Leiter citations are skewed toward Constitutional Law, Crim law, and other areas of interest to elite law review editors.

The more difficult the job market gets, the more students are going to care about private law that can get them high-paying jobs.

They'll want to study under the top people in Tax, Patents, Bankruptcy, Commercial Law, Health law, Food and Drug Law, Energy Law, Financial Regulation, Securities Law, Anti-trust, Environmental law, etc.

And thanks to SSRN, they'll be able to find them. Except for the occasional "sexy" article (the end of the world is coming for legal education; law school rankings; something overtly political that lands on the WSJ editorial pages), SSRN rankings largely track economic relevance.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 8, 2012 9:05:18 AM