Reputation, Part 2  (December, 2000)

I've always said that one of the big problems with USNWR's reputation survey is that it is national.  I've learned that it's very misleading to judge an out-of-town school by its national reputation.  For instance, when I lived in Philly I'd never heard of Campbell; when I moved to Durham, I found out that Campbell had a pretty good rep.  How on earth can lawyers in New York and Florida rank Gonzaga, which no one had ever heard of until they made it big in the NCAA?

So I decided to circumvent this problem as much as possible by asking admissions officers to rank schools in their areas.  Several people said, quite correctly, that I should be asking employers, not admissions officers.  But employers and I don't know each other, and they don't hold forums, so they'd be much harder for me to reach.  Not all admissions officers were willing or able, and none were willing to be quoted, but for each major legal market I was able to get three to five knowledgeable people to give me their opinion of the local pecking order.

Does the age of this data make it unreliable? I don't think so — and you've seen that I'm quick to challenge my own outdated research. It will take more than a decade to make Chapman comparable to Loyola Marymount or Northeastern to Boston College.

New schools in a job market almost always start at the bottom. I'm willing to make a tentative exception for UC Irvine and Drexel, because the affiliated universities already have substantial reputations; I'll follow up in 2015 or so.

Here's what I learned: 

  • Beyond the top 25 to 35 law schools, there is no national ranking.  There is no meaningful way to compare Oregon to Arizona to Indiana.  Employers from St. Louis just don't recruit in Philly very often, so there's no sense trying to compare Villanova to St. Louis U.  
  • Local rep is almost always higher than national (USNWR) rep, since the local consensus is considering fewer schools.  UM, UT, UW (all of them) are the top of the heap in their respective job markets.
  • If you're planning to stay in the same region as the law school, local rep will control your job chances more than what USNWR has to say. If you're looking to practice far from the local area, USNWR may be helpful.  
  • In very large job markets or places with a lot of law schools (which tend to coincide), local rep is a function of job market as well as the reputation of the school's faculty and alumni.  In a market with plenty of jobs, schools may be ranked higher than they are in USNWR; in a weak job market, schools will be ranked lower.

So what variance is there between local and national rep in the larger job markets?  Here's what I learned:

Boston — The lower-ranked Boston schools (Suffolk and New England) ranked higher in the local esteem than they do in USNWR.The lowest rankings went to out-of-town schools, like Franklin Pierce and Roger Williams.  As I understand the game, this probably means there are plenty of jobs in Boston, and all the local kids have a fair chance of being employed.  The inside word is also that BC and BU are pretty equal in the out-of-town game, but locally BC is considered the better school.

New York — Hofstra, St. John's and Seton Hall seem to have a lower rep locally than USNWR reports.  It's not surprising that there would be more discriminating standards in the local market, with 14 schools to choose from; a market would have to be awfully big to absorb that many lawyers each year.

Other New England Schools (Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, Quinnipiac, etc.) tend to place better in the Boston market than the New York market, perhaps because New York can't absorb all the local kids.  

In Philly, the local scoop would place Rutgers Camden below Temple and Villanova.  The top grads from those schools have no problem placing well, since Penn grads don't usually stay in Philly.

In DC, there were two differences from the USNWR ranking: George Mason was ranked lower, and Howard was ranked higher.  George Mason seemed to be considered not really a DC school, placing its grads in suburban and rural Virginia.  Howard's national rep is reduced because it's a historically black institution (leading some to believe it must be inferior) while the local scoop is that it places very well in government.

In Florida, every school was placed higher in the local market than it was in USNWR.  (This supports my theory of job market influence on ranking, since Florida has a pretty healthy job market.)  There were no major differences in the rankings of individual schools.  

In North Carolina, NC Central's lower USNWR ranking is again ignored; the school has a good rep in the local market.  The distinction between Campbell and Central is seen as more of a rural/urban preference than a matter of quality.

In Georgia, there are plenty of jobs for everyone, with the same rural/urban distinction between Mercer and Georgia State as between Central and Campbell in NC.

Ohio law schools seem to have a better local rep than we outsiders know.  Akron, Capital and Cleveland (a/k/a Cleveland State or Cleveland-Marshall) are elevated to a tier in local eyes.  Toledo, on the other hand, is down a notch over national ranking.

Chicago — Almost everyone was willing to agree that all schools in the Chicago market do well; there was some disagreement about whether John Marshall is lower than the others, or whether its tendency to place grads in government positions leads to that impression.  There was also a consensus that U. of Illinois has no trouble placing in the Chicago area.

The Midwest/Great Lakes region is also favored with schools whose local rep exceeds the national.  William Mitchell, Hamline, and Marquette are well-respected by a number of admissions officers, as are Nebraska and Kansas.

Texas is another place where local rep gives a boost up to several schools.  Both St. Mary's and South Texas (sometimes known as Texas A & M) received more favorable reviews from local admissions folks than they do in USNWR.  

In California, one needs to start with an understanding that all ABA-approved law schools have a good local rep, since graduates of other schools (26 of which are listed in the Official Guide, Appendix B). So "ABA approved" already designates the top half of California law schools.

In Southern California (Los Angeles and San Diego) there are plenty of jobs but even more schools, so no one is raised higher than their USNWR ranking. It was a bit surprising that the approval of several schools in recent years (Thomas Jefferson, Western State, and Chapman) did not bump up the evaluations of schools like Cal. Western, Southwestern and Whittier.

Northern California, on the other hand, definitely suffers from too much of a good thing.  With Stanford and Berkeley dominating the job market, top national schools like Hastings and Davis are seen as also-rans.  

And here in the Pacific Northwest, we have plenty of jobs at the moment, so Seattle and U. of Oregon have higher reps.  Poor Gonzaga is off the I-5 job trail, and so remains at a lower ranking.


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