Bricks on the Brain

UM Law

Sunday, May 15, 2005

My Law School Selection Strategy

This is a follow up to my series addressing the question of whether or not I think Miami's stock is on the rise, immediately preceding this post.

I put a lot of stock in the notion that my LSAT and undergrad GPA would be good predictors of my performance in law school. I was accepted in the top 25 (by USNWR), wait-listed in the top 15. I guessed that at top schools I'd get average or below average grades. In the second tier I figured I'd do better than average, maybe top 10%. I didn't even want to consider third tier possibilities, although some would be very cheap tuition-wise. So I had to decide:

1) Option 1. Get into DEEP debt for a top 25 name, and most likely freeze my ass off in the process. The result would be some resume "prestige" regardless of whatever grades I get. Given the GPA's and LSAT's of the other kids, I wasn't sure how I'd fare there.

2) Option 2. Accept a lower ranked school, but still high enough where excellent grades from that school might achieve the same resume effect as mediocre grades from a school ranked 25-50. Many schools put a little scholarship money on the table, and thus I would only have to take on a MODERATE debt. Possibly be nice and warm all year round.

3) Option 3. Go to very low ranked school for almost nothing, get outstanding grades. I just never felt that top grades could make up for a school's lack of reputation, no I never really put much thought into this one.

Many students think long and hard about these very same choices. The biggest caveat given by those-in-the-know is that you make an ass of u and me when you assume you're going to get the grades. If the grades aren't there, then you only achieved half your plan.

In my case, my grades fell short of making Law Review (I was too lazy to try, but at UM you can write-on and I think somebody does every year), but I picked up an A here and there to make up for the real stink bombs (C's) I dropped. My rank isn't quite in the top 10% range, but good enough to be competive. My summer job offers were competitive with what my friends at other more prestigious schools were getting. My final job prospects remain to be seen, but I'm confident I'll be fine.

So in the end, I think I made out well, taking on a lot less debt than I would have had to in order to pay a prestige premium. But there are students who loose the gamble, and end up with poor grades. They would have been better off getting poor grades at a school where it wouldn't have mattered so much. There are also students who thought they'd get a free lunch by accepting free rides at third tier schools. I know a couple people who are in the top 10 of their class at those schools who wish they could go back and just do mediocre at a 2nd tier school. I got lucky, I figured I'd do just a little better than average grades-wise, and that's how it seems to have worked out. Combine the grades and the school's rank, and I'm right where I'd be at a higher ranked school with below average grades, just less debt.

But gambling on your grades isn't for everyone. If you're risk-averse, then follow the old addage and you'll never go "wrong": "Go to the highest ranked school you can afford." Do that and you'll never have terrible regrets. You won't be making the best decision, but you're certain to make a good one.

So what about faculty, student organizations, Moot Court performance, bar passage rates? Did I look at those things? Nope. I really didn't know much about those things in the first place, and it was all too much to keep track of. It was just much simpler to use USNWR as a guide, mindful of the ranking system's strengths and weaknesses. Even knowing what I know now, I'm not convinced its such a terrible way to do it. Its not perfect, but there aren't many other practical ways of doing it.

So I hope this helped by giving you my thoughts on Miami. Maybe others will post their comments as well. The purpose of this series was to save myself some time by not having to repeat myself over and over to the people that get sent my way. But I'm still happy to talk to anybody thinking about coming to UM Law or law school in general.

P.S. The last thing I'd advise you of is to be aware that most students are going to sound less than thrilled with law school and their law school in particular. Law school is very demanding, and it has a tendency to wear students down. Expect a little bit of an edge to everyone's answers. When I first started asking around, I got the impression that the first law schools I investigated were terrible because the students I talked to seemed pretty indifferent. But later I realized that all law students talk about their schools that way. But I could never shake my initial impressions of those first schools. Keep that in mind. Law school is fun! Really.

P.S.S. 70 degrees in the middle of December. For real.

Is UM Law Losing the Prestige Game? Part II

What is "it" that draws attention to a law school? As you're probably beginning to notice as you shop around for a school, rankings are usually one of the things that get a law school noticed. Some schools make active efforts to "play the rankings game" and change the way they do things to move up. They try to "beat the system" so to speak:

But aside from this form of "cheating", there are other things that law school faculties and administrations do, by intent or accident, that makes the world think well of them.

The Flagship
One of the more powerful things that draws attention to a school, in my opinion, is the fact that the school has a "Flagship" area of law that it tries to "corner the market on." The idea is that if the right area is focused on, it can act not just as a flagship, but a rising tide that raises all the ships. This strategy is often employed in the business world, where a company makes certain that they have at least one product that the public perceives as best in its class, and that goodwill will hopefully spread to the rest of the products in the line.

A number of products come to mind to illustrate this concept. Ford for example puts a bulk of its energy into marketing its F-Series trucks. They make dozens of cars, but they put most of their marketing muscle into the F's. When people think Ford, they think tough, rugged trucks. When people are looking for other classes of cars, such as a sedan or SUV, they tend to use the flagship F as a way to judge Ford. People tend to employ the mental shortcut of using the characteristics of Ford's trucks as a proxy for all of its cars. It isn't entirely rational, but that's how people think. Another example is Nike. Nowadays the Nike brand sells not just shoes, but baseball bats, apparel, hockey sticks, you name it. But their flagship is shoes, specifically the Jordans. AirJordans have always had some sort of mystique, so much so that people get shot over them. So intentionally or not, when people buy a Nike brand sweatshirt, in their mind they're buying a quality pair of shoes.

The Style
Another way that a school distinguishes itself is to be know for a certain "style." That is to say, the school is known for subscribing to a particular "school of thought." For example, the school might be known for many of its scholars who focus on the economic implications of law. Another school might be known to focus on how the law affects minorities. This way at looking at the law permeates everything they do. These types of distinctions are less common than "flagship" distinctions.

Cars come to mind again, this time BMW. BMW doesn't really have a flagship model (but arguably the M3). What they are known for is great handling cars. If you've driven one BMW you've driven them all, because they all have the same tight, firm, super-glued-to-the-pavement handling that their loyal purchasers have come to expect. Even their SUV the X5 has that sporty feel, and some say it handles better than other manufacturer's standard sedans. So BMW doesn't so much rely on a flagship car, but rather it sells a certain way of driving.

Why this Happens
I don't know. I guess because there are only so many hours in a day, and there is a limit to how much information and analysis we can all handle. So we look for mental shortcuts, I guess psychologists call them "hueristics". If Ford makes tough, rugged trucks then we tend to think they make tough rugged economy cars (not true at all). If Michael Jordan swore by his Nike shoes, then maybe a tennis racket with their logo on it will help my game too. Marketing firms make millions by studying and helping their clients to exploit the sometimes-irrational way that human beings shop around and form opinions about the product lines available to them.

Law Schools
So if you're like I was, with all the schools you're looking at you can at best remember three things about each one. For me it was rank, location, and then one X factor. The X factor was typically something like, "they're strong in Civil Rights", "they're strong on Constitutional Law", "they're big on Technology Law", "they're ultra-liberal", "they're ultra-conservative", etc. I'd rather not reinforce this way of thinking by giving you specific X factor examples, as I'm sure you're already "discovering" many on your own. If you're like me, you didn't know much about the rest of the curriculum at the schools you gave a special X factor to. You figure, well if they're reknowned in one area then they're probably not shabby in the rest. Is that true? Who knows. The point is that this is basically how many candidates, law students, and practicing professionals think. Call it what you will, "X factor" or "Flagship" or "niche", one strength makes up for a lot of sins and goes a long way towards creating prestige. Rational? Maybe not. But to me its how the game works. It isn't something that can be put into a formula or measured in a mathematical sense. Its like a nice bright smile that makes you think the person is an overall good person because they have shiny teeth. You don't wonder about their cholesterol levels or schizophrenia.

So what about Miami?
Having shopped around for schools, and now having spent a few years here, in my mind Miami has one niche that the world has noticed. Tax. Excited yet? Well take a look at this, and you'll see what I mean:
What do you notice? A lot of tax professors. Miami's Tax LLM (go look up LLM) program is considered one of the country's best. Even better, you can do a joint JD/LLM in tax in just four years, a process that usually takes 5 elsewhere. That's an awesome deal if you want to get into tax. Most of the students here know we have a great tax program. You hear students toss around the word "genious" when describing some of the tax professors.
The problem is that a strong tax law program isn't a rising tide that raises all the ships. Be honest, at this stage in the game, do you want to end up doing tax law (my advice is to have an open mind, as tax law may not be what you think it is)? Of course not, no candidate does. You want to be Perry Mason, Alan Derschowitz, Holmes. But aside from what candidates think, there are reasons why a tax program doesn't serve as a proxy in the minds of the legal community. Tax law doesn't tend to contribute to other areas of law, but rather it relies heavily on other areas of law to help resolve its thornier issues. The practice of tax law is generally seen as a way to make money, not so much to help cure injustices or keep the fabric of society held together. Who can afford tax lawyers? Usually people and corporations that already have enough money to just pay the taxes. Of course this is true about many areas of law, but for whatever reason, tax isn't "sexy" in the way that Constitutional Law, Technology Law, Civil Rights Law, Medical Law or others are. For whatever reason, tax just doesn't get people excited. Make no mistake, the tax program at UM is a great asset, but something more is needed to really get the school noticed.

There are also a lot of professors specializing in International Law. There are definitely a lot of foreign students on campus. International Law is one of the "sexy" flagships that help build the brand. It is quite possible that if UM becomes more and more visible in this area then this focus bould be the school's ticket to the big time. Every semester, there certainly are many International Law related courses to choose from. But there are a few i's to dot ant t's to cross first.

The school's focus on international law was something they talked a lot about in their marketing materials and at orientation. They said in effect, "you'll notice that international law will be integrated in many of your 'standard' classes, helping you gain a broad perspective. This is truly a unique feature of UM Law that distinguishes it from other schools. UM is truly an international law school" Well that turned out to be a load of BS. An international "perspective" has never been discussed in any, and I mean any class that I've taken. So I think the school needs to make up its mind. Is International Law going to be a Flagship, or a Style?

The Rest
Notice that Dean Lynch (a nice guy) uses the term "breadth" to describe the faculty's work. Breadth indeed. In my opinion, breadth doesn't foster prestige. All law schools have breadth. One example that comes to mind is UM's Technology Law program. As far as I can tell, there isn't one. At orientation, we were told about Professor Froomkin and his being a leader in his field. That's well and good, but unless I'm mistaken, he's the only one that teaches technology law related classes. Which means at best, you'll get one or two tech-law classes before you graduate. Given the realities of scheduling, you'll be lucky to get one. There are plenty of other examples of UM Law Professors who are big dogs in their field, but there isn't the depth of faculty in that area to really foster an "atmosphere" that draws students and other faculty to them. If you look at Professor Froomkin's comments to my last post, you'll see that this explains the apparent paradox that Leiter's rankings expose about Miami. Breadth but no depth. Everybody is off doing their own thing. One professor can only hire so many student assistants. He can only take on so many student independent study papers. Its hard to create a buzz in a field with just one or two faculty specializing in it.

From the outside looking in, one standout in a field doesn't necessarily help a school's prestige. Every school has its standouts. Miami has the disadvantage that the legal community might just assume that the superstar is at Miami for the weather. But when a school develops a reputation for being strong in a field, when several strong professors are there representing a particular field, then its got to be more than the weather. People notice strong teams, not necessarily strong individuals.

So that said, if you think I might have a point about how a school's faculty can create prestige for the school, you need to ask yourself these questions:

1. What are UM's "Flagships"?
2. Do those fields have the potential to give the school more prestige?
3. Are they "sexy" fields? Are they being managed well?

To summarize my answers, I identify Tax and International. I don't think Tax will help much with overall prestige even though its a great school for tax, maybe the best. International Law could have great potential. I should probably let you know that maybe my skepticism about the International Law program is jaded because I don't care the slightest about other countries or their laws. My feeling is one day we'll rule them all, but that's another post. The point is you may want to ask around. I feel that maybe it would be better to have another strong "domestic" field. In any case, smoke and mirrors aside, the International niche is emerging as a flagship, not a style. It doesn't permeate everything the law school does.

So right now, I don't see our prestige taking any leaps or bounds forward in the short or medium term. That said, I don't see it slipping much either. Maybe stagnation has a negative connotation, but nowadays I suppose keeping prestige is as important as gaining it. I guess I didn't choose the best title for this series, unless you think that not moving forward is "losing".

If I were a gambling man, and was going to place bets on faculty prestige gains, I'd put my money on schools that are carving out niches in areas like Medical Law, Technology Law, and Military Law. I have a feeling that some of those schools are flying below the radar right now, but will soon have big prestige gains due to increased relevancy of those fields.

But hey, if Miami is on your menu then don't rely on just my views. Call the deans, I'm sure they'll make time for you, they're all real nice. Ask them what their plans are. What kind of faculty do they see developing in the next few years? Is there a strategy to develop some areas more than others? Does the Dean disagree with me, i.e. that its better to cherry-pick top people and build breadth rather than depth? Such a view isn't irrational, so find out why some schools take that approach.

In the end, keep in mind that I'm here. I've concluded that there are things more important than potential gains in a school's prestige...or atleast that was what I believed a few years ago. And like I say, I'm pretty sure that our ranking won't slip much in any case. In my particular case I decided that prestige wasn't worth paying a premium for. My strategy was to compensate for prestige by getting the grades. I will discuss this in a separate post.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Is UM Law Losing the Prestige Game? Part I

My friends and acquaintances often pass my email along to law-students-to-be, and this is the time of year when I get the most inquiries. For generic questions, I usually pawn people off on the plethora of blogs and law school discussion boards that answer "what its like to be a law student."

But now and again a more sophisticated shopper wants to know about UM Law and why someone who could go somewhere more prestigious wouldn't. These are usually students with LSAT scores well above UM Law's average, who have already been offered significant scholarship money or anticipate it. UM is their fallback school, or maybe it would be cheaper than their first choices because of scholarships. What they really want to know is this: will UM Law's prestige rankings rise? Will I make out like a bandit if I sign on now, and four years from now UM's prestige is on par with first tier schools?

Unfortunately, I usually tell them not to bet on it. To save myself some time, I'll put my reasoning up on this blog, which will also give shoppers a chance to see any comments that the 2 or 3 people that read this thing might leave. I'll try to confine the rest of Part I to defining some terms, and maybe a few basic assumptions that will carry forward into later installments.

What is Prestige?
I'm a commonsense type of person, so I know what prestige is. If you don't, then you lack common sense. But seriously, prestige is something that everyone knows but only poets can describe. It sometimes goes by the name of "goodwill", or the value that a brand name alone adds to an otherwise fungible commodity. Law students consider it to be the difference in the way that the marketplace would treat them, all else equal, just because they graduated from law school A versus law school B. Its something that is impossible to quantify, varies from region to region, changes with the times, and about which no two people will have the same opinions. At the same time, everyone knows which law schools are prestigious and which ones are not. Reputations are truths unto themselves, even if the reputation hasn't been justly earned. That's life, welcome to it.

Although the subject of much debate, US News & World Report compiles a "ranking" of law schools which more or less reflects the legal community's sentiments with regards to the prestige of each school. The biggest criticism of the USNWR ranking is that it doesn't measure "quality", but is grossly skewed by prestige. That's bad for purists, but good for our analysis here, because we're talking about smoke, not fire.

What influences a school's prestige?
Two simple factors:

1. The prestige earned by the graduates, which is usually correlated with praiseworthy accomplishments. If a lot of successful people come from a particular place, eventually that gets noticed. Rationally or not, people assume that the school must have played some role.

2. The prestige earned by the faculty, which is usually correlated with praiseworthy scholarship. If a lot of influential and intelligent professors are known to roam the halls of particular schools, then rationally or not, people assume that some of those smarts will rub off on the students.

What about history?
Of course. Prestige is perception, and old ways of thinking about things die hard. But law schools can and do experience changes in prestige. It doesn't happen overnight, and its easier to gain prestige than it is to loose it. Particularly for "second tier" and "third tier" schools, large swings in USNWR rankings are common.

So where does UM go wrong?
My feeling is that UM Law has created an atmostphere that tends to appeal to certain types of faculty members (factor #2). Those faculty members, even if respected in their specialties, are not producing the kind of academic work that lends itself to universal "prestige-generation". This atmosphere in turn gives bright potential students no particularly compelling reason to join us. Without bright incoming students, it makes it harder to pump substance into factor #1.

So, in a nutshell, its my opinion that UM Law is pretty stagnant. The administration has expressed much joy about the qualifications of the incoming classes of late, but this is a phenomenon shared by all lawschools of late, and well documented in all the admissions related blogs.

In the next installment (if I get around to it), I'll talk about the atmosphere at UM Law and what is or is not being done to improve it.