Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

National Review on George Mason Law School

Interesting article in the March 13, 2006 National Review: A Law School with a Twist - At George Mason University, the Left Doesn't Reign, Believe It or Not, by John J. Miller:

This is a nerve-wracking time of year for law-school deans, as they await the results of what amounts to the Bowl Championship Series for their profession: On March 31, U.S. News & World Report will release its rankings of the top 100 law schools in the country. Most of the deans insist that these assessments are "inherently flawed" and "unreliable" -- and virtually all of them will sign an open letter to law-school applicants that says so.

But Daniel Polsby, the dean of the George Mason University School of Law, is different. His name will not appear on the forthcoming annual missive, and he's actually looking forward to the U.S. News survey. "We hope to move up a few places this year," he says. That would certainly be in keeping with a decade-long trend: Mason vaulted from 71st place in 1995 to 41st in 2005 -- an impressive achievement given that these rankings tend to remain static from year to year. Even more remarkable is that this fast-rising star in the law-school firmament possesses a faculty of professors who lean decidedly to the right....

To use a baseball metaphor, Manne was a scout who specialized in the minor leagues. Whereas his competitors were obsessed with signing big-name free agents in hot fields such as feminist legal theory, Manne quietly assembled a team of undervalued unknowns. "If the market discriminates against conservatives, then there should be good opportunities for hiring conservatives," says Polsby. This is exactly the sort of observation one would expect a market-savvy law-and-economics scholar to make. Manne and his successors were able to act on this theory, and though Mason has in recent years expanded its recruitment of non-economics specialists, it has stuck by the core observation that law schools routinely overlook raw talent. Associate professor Craig Lerner, for instance, studied under the political theorist Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago and worked for Kenneth Starr on the Whitewater investigation. Listing either of these experiences on a résumé might easily turn off a hiring committee dominated by liberals, which is to say a hiring committee at just about every other law school. And so Lerner turns out to be exactly the type of candidate that attracts GMU. "Have you read Moneyball?" asks Todd Zywicki, another one of Mason's bright young profs, in reference to the best-selling book by Michael Lewis on how the Oakland Athletics franchise assembled playoff-caliber teams on a limited budget. "We're the Oakland A's of the law-school world."  [See Paul L. Caron & Rafael Gely, What Law Schools Can Learn from Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, 82 Tex. L. Rev. 1483 (2004).]

At the same time, the GMU law school has climbed the U.S. News rankings. Some years have been better than others: In 1999, as a result of poor data collection, there was a temporary but eye-popping dip to 113th. Slowly but surely, however, Mason has shed its status as a "safety" school for students who couldn't gain admission elsewhere. In 2001, it broke into the top 50 -- a group that U.S. News describes as "first tier" -- and it hasn't looked back. Since 2003, Mason has floated between 38th and 41st. It probably would do even better but for the particular ways U.S. News calculates worth: Forty percent of a school's ranking is based on reputation, as determined by judges and lawyers (15 percent) and law professors (25 percent). "If we had Dartmouth or Princeton's name," says Polsby, picking two well-regarded schools that don't have law programs, "we'd be a top-20 school overnight." And by weighing the opinions of law professors so heavily, U.S. News gives liberals a lot of influence; Mason almost certainly pays a price for the perception that conservatives aren't exactly an endangered species in its faculty lounge.

It doesn't take an advanced degree to nitpick the U.S. News survey -- or to imagine an alternative methodology that would benefit Mason. Brian Leiter, a professor at the University of Texas, has created several ranking systems that rely entirely on objective criteria. It might be said, for instance, that a school is only as good as its students. The 75th-percentile LSAT score of Mason's entering class in the fall of 2005 was 166 -- enough to tie it for 22nd best (with seven other schools). It might also be said that a school is only as good as its professors. To measure this, Leiter has created a "scholarly impact" rating based on faculty per capita citations in scholarly journals and books. On this scale, Mason ties for 23rd (with four other schools). Then there's the Social Science Research Network, which counts the number of times faculty papers are downloaded from the Internet; over the last twelve months, Mason professors rank eleventh....

Those who want to celebrate diversity ought to cheer for Mason, because it provides a much-needed dose of true diversity -- the intellectual type -- to the world of legal education. "I've always maintained that it's more important to have this diversity between law schools rather than within them," says Manne, who has watched the progress of GMU with pride from his semi-retirement in Florida. Todd Zywicki looks at it another way. "We have lots of intellectual diversity here," he says. "There are conservatives and there are libertarians." And things are looking up for all of them.

Unfortunately, the article is not available on the National Review's website, but it is available on LexisNexis.  For more, see:

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For the cost-of-living data, the average of the COL indices available was used for all cities in the state where the law school is located, with seven exceptions. For Yale, University of Connecticut, Harvard, and Rutgers-Newark, the New York cost-of-living average was used. For Duke, University of Virginia, and Vanderbilt, the Washington, D. C. cost-of-living average was used.

Obviously, the table below is only a rough approximation, but it reflects the reality that most schools in the top 50 have a primarily regional reach. This view is borne out by the employment location data for each school, as supplied in the directory portion of the 1996 USN&WR Best Graduate Schools Special Edition, the source for most of the data. The majority of the cost-of-living indices are pulled from the ACCRA homepage and reflect the cost-of-living in each state's larger MSAs, which is where the NALP firms are almost always located. For those few states without even one representative MSA on the current ACCRA homepage (Q4 1995), the ACCRA data (Q1 1994) was substituted from Table 766 in the 1995 edition of the Statistical Abstract of the U.S. As all figures are normalized to 100, the national average COL for that period, merging the two data sets probably has a negligible impact on the results.I’ve done a lot of researches for my dissertation ,but this article give me some ideas for my next project. Thank you

Posted by: Diana | May 24, 2006 7:01:42 AM

Given Oakland's inability to achieve any sort of sustained success in the playoffs, I'm not sure the association is ultimately good news for GMU.

Posted by: DJ Ninja | Feb 28, 2006 11:10:39 AM