Bricks on the Brain

UM Law

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.


  • At 11:31 PM, Anonymous Michael Froomkin said…

    Faculty "prestige" is indeed hard to measure. But one good-faith attempt to do just that is Brian Leiter's rankings of law school faculties, (top 40), and especially (top 15). There's one UM faculty member among the top ten of Leiter's list of the most-cited new faculty:

    Thus, in Leiter's various rankings, UM does pretty well -- much, much better than in US News, which measures overall reputation (a function primarily of LSATs).

    Many of the UM faculty publish regularly in the top law reviews, including Harvard, Yale and Stanford. They are invited to speak at conferences at the top law schools in the US and Europe. They testify before Congress. They are heavily represented in the best professional associations and in legal reform groups such as the ALI.

    So on what basis do you conclude that the faculty's scholarship isn't 'prestige-generating' enough? While there are many reasons to question the school, this seems by far the least credible.

    Leiter explains his scoring method. What's yours?

    - Michael Froomkin
    Professor of Law
    University of Miami

  • At 2:48 AM, Blogger Bricklayer said…

    I hope the professor didn't take my comments to imply the faculty members, as individuals, aren't up to snuff. My gripe, as I will address next time, is that the whole doesn't seem to be greater than the sum of its parts. When a scholar publishes something, his goal is to contribute to the advancement of the law in the way he feels is most appropriate. He doesn't do it to market the school. Like I said, he might be the shizznit in his area of the law. It doesn't necessarily follow that the school's prestige will ride his coattails.

    Before I address the Professor's points, let me first educate the lay audience this series of postings is intended for. A "citiation" is a reference within one scholarly work to another. If an author has been "cited", it means that someone else has borrowed an idea from the author's work to include in his own. Usually an idea is cited in approval in an effort to strengthen the author's own argument, but sometimes a work is cited negatively in critique. Sometimes a work is cited merely for convenience, as it summarizes (and cites) several other ideas.

    For the most part, as I understand Leiter's methodology, he counts citations within publications called "Law Reviews". These are student-run journals that receive hundreds of submissions, selecting a few for publication, usually quarterly.

    So far so good.

    First, Professor Froomkin is right to point out that there are alternative rankings out there. Leiter's rankings have been around for a few years now, and awareness of their existence is growing. It is certainly possible that someday they might play a major role in how the legal community judges law schools. If more and more people become aware of the rankings, and Miami keeps up, then that might help the school's prestige. Even if the rankings are wrong or erroneous, if they're believed to be of value it helps.

    However, I have some doubts that Leiter's rankings will ever be as influential as USNWR in shaping the way people perceive law schools.

    The utility of Law Reviews and the vast majority of published articles has come under question quite a bit of late. A summary of the skepticism can be found here:
    Despite what Posner writes, you should try to be an editor of your school's Law Review. I think that many in the legal community share Posner's views, that many journals are churning out work of questionable impact and value.

    In my view, and probably that of others, what matters is citations within "opinions", not Law Reviews.
    "Opinions" are actual cases that judges have taken the time to explain the reasoning that led to the disposition of the case. Those are truly "high profile" citations because there can be no dispute that the author's work was relevant to the development of law.

    I'm sure Professor Froomkin couldn't disagree with me more on this point. The greatest weakness of my view is that it overlooks the fact that author that gets cited in an opinion probably relied on many Law Review articles to produce his work. But hey, he who laughs last laughs best. Only an author cited in an opinion can go around saying that he is right. All others are just arguing.

    The key is, you need to ask around. Find out if lawyers you know have heard of Leiter's rankings. If not, explain it to them and see what their thoughts on Miami's ranking are. It really doesn't matter how these rankings "should" shape public opinion about a school. What matters is if they do.

    Of course, I don't think Professor Froomkin was arguing that the story ends with Leiter. He, I think, means to say that the rankings are indicia of a faculty that has some weight to throw around. He goes on to talk about the conferences, the congressional hearings, and professional associations.

    The problem though, is that many law schools have faculty that do the exact same things. They publish, they speak, they associate. Somehow, other schools have more prestige despite their faculty's doing "less." How can this be?

    In my next installment, I'll try to express my views on what type of faculty reputation really attracts students. There will be no "scoring" method. Just my opinions. I don't "score" a comedian to determine if his jokes are funny. Likewise, I believe I have a feel for what type of things make the general legal community take notice, and what types of things slip under the radar.

    In closing, its important to keep in mind that this discussion was meant to address one simple question: "Will Miami's prestige rise?" It isn't meant to address all the factors you should consider when selecting a law school.

    It also isn't meant to imply that faculty should change their focus based on my opinions. (I'm 100% sure they don't give a rat's ass what I think anyway. Afterall, I'm nothing but a future alumnus that the school will someday hit up for money. So why should they care about my thoughts on improving the school's prestige?) And my views shouldn't be taken as a critique of any particular faculty member's work. I'm sure it's all good stuff (wink, wink). But the question is whether or not the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Why are other schools getting more from less? If I were the Dean, and I alone could assemble a faculty, and assuming academics are who they are and aren't going to change, who should I hire if I wanted to maximize the school's prestige?

    The problem with Professor Froomkin's way of looking at things is that it seems to assume that one school's faculty can be "better" than another in a substantive way. I think that's a silly pissing contest he'll get himself into with other schools' faculties. I think its far more correct that certain combinations of faculty members is going to produce better "prestige" results than others. One group might, as a whole, produce more and better work. But what is it that makes one group more noticible than another? Why does one faculty attract better students than another? I think it has to do with something other than quantity of citations.

    But what do I know? I'm just a law student and he's a professor.
    2. Some of the best 1L's in my class transfered out to more prestigious schools. They had a full year to sample what UM Law had to offer, and didn't take the bait. I don't know anybody that transfered in.

    But that said, if you believe that an oft-cited faculty is something that could drive Miami's prestige down the road, then UM Law is indeed perhaps an undervalued gem.


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