The Parade of Rankings Continues (Not US News This Time but “Best Value” Law Schools): Learn to Use Excel Instead

Last week, I talked about the usefulness and limits of the US News law school rankings to prospective law students.  Later in the week, National Jurist (through preLaw Magazine) previewed its rankings for “best value” law schools.

What were the criteria that made for a “best value” law school?  There were four: (1) a bar pass rate higher than average for the state in which the school is located; (2) average student indebtedness of under $100,000; (3) graduate employment rate at or above 85% nine months after graduation; and (4) in-state tuition under $35,000.

My view on rankings generally is that prospective law students should use any and all available market data (including rankings) and be mindful of what the data demonstrate and what they don’t.  The US News rankings wouldn’t mean as much as they do if they weren’t the go-to public referent for law school quality and, more particularly, if they weren’t a prime referent for employers.  They are, so they provide valuable information largely because they’re market-makers.

Above the Law’s Elie Mystal gives an excellent critique of the new “best value” rankings, which I won’t repeat.  In general, Mystal thinks these rankings are partly a product of sloppy criteria and, especially in the reported employment rate, highly unreliable data.

I have an additional issue with these new rankings:  if you’re trying to decide which law schools to apply to, or which to attend, the “best value” rankings don’t tell you anything new and useful.  Then they apply a veneer of objective rankings to already-available information.  The result is a mish-mash of little value.

I’ll take this is two parts:  first, the best value rankings don’t tell you anything new and useful.  Almost all of this data is public, and available from just a few sources.  Adding a ranking to that doesn’t make conceptual sense, as Mystal correctly notes.  Any competent and marginally dedicated advisor of law school applicants already has a database of all of this public information.  If your advisor doesn’t have it, you’re probably not getting very good advice.

More important, the rankings don’t tell you anything useful.  It just doesn’t matter what average debt is for a given school.  Rather, it matters what yours will be, and that only becomes clear, initially, from your profile, and later, when your financial aid and loan opportunities start to take shape.  Similarly, who cares what in-state tuition is?  What matters is your tuition number.  Nor are employment data especially relevant.  Being employed doesn’t tell you where the average student is employed, what her or his salary is, whether the job is stable or not, whether she or he can make required debt payments comfortably, and so on.  Fundamentally, there is no average student.  The only student whose employment status will matter to you (other than out of friendship or concern for your colleagues) is yours.

If you don’t have a professional or high-quality law school admission advisor (and even if you do), the best thing you can do is learn how to use Excel or similar spreadsheets and run numbers yourself (stay with me here, don’t run away just because they’re numbers—I’ll talk about the fear of numbers below).  Running analyses of your specific profile is the only way to develop sets of data that account for your likely outcomes.

You should develop, as Advise-In does for each client, probable, reasonable best- and worst-case, and best- and worst-case analyses of outcomes for your attendance at a range of law schools.  Building that data involves being realistic about your likely class rank, allowing for some extra expenditure beyond what law schools report you’ll be likely to need, and obtaining high-quality information about recent graduate employment (I’ve talked about the general uselessness of law school employment data and how incoming law students and their advisors can glean better and more useful data despite the poverty of law schools’ public data).  Then, as your admission and financial aid picture becomes clearer, those calculations should be updated and revised.  Those are just some of the inputs you’ll need.

I know that a lot of people who want to attend law school are afraid of numbers and think they can’t do this kind of analysis.  That’s one reason people hire Advise-In.  But there’s more to say than that.  First, if you’re going to practice law at a sophisticated level, you will need to get comfortable with working through these kinds of analyses.  When I do this work for and with clients, I make sure they know what I’m doing and why, so that when the time comes (and it probably will) that they need to do similar things for themselves or their clients, they know how.  Second, it doesn’t take sophisticated mathematical equations to construct or run these analyses.  It does take technical work and thinking through a lot of contingencies and their relative probabilities but, again, all that is work you’ll have to do as a lawyer.  (If I were in charge of legal education, I’d put a high priority on making sure law students know how to build spreadsheets.  It would help their legal practice immensely.)

I’m ordinarily a little more sympathetic to rankings.  But unlike the US News rankings, which do tell you something you can’t find out elsewhere, the best value rankings don’t.  In my view, they’re more deceptive than not because they give an illusion that they’re providing data that’s useful to you.  The value proposition at any law school and at a range of law schools is simply too different for each student for these rankings, as constructed, to be helpful.  To find and effect your best law school options (and to decide whether law school is a good option), you and your advisor have to do this work yourselves.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on August 23, 2010.

4 Responses to “The Parade of Rankings Continues (Not US News This Time but “Best Value” Law Schools): Learn to Use Excel Instead”

  1. […] said before that the most valuable skill a prospective law student can develop is learning how to use an Excel spreadsheet to get a clearer idea of what her or his future financial life is likely to hold.  That’s work […]

  2. […] to have a reasonable living—after debt servicing and other expenses—after law school.  Running amortization spreadsheets isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity, and you and your law school admissions and application […]

  3. […] The loss of the “grace period” is also difficult, since many students will need to pay for their bar review course (often taking out even more debt in the process) and will likely have significant wardrobe and other expenditures related to getting (or looking for) a professional job.  The grace period was one way to help bridge that period.  But it’s gone, R.I.P.  That should also be thrown into the spreadsheet scenario cauldron. […]

  4. Could not have said it much better myself – and I am a law student!

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