Understanding "Freedom of Choice"

The reason there's a saying about lies and statistics is that data is frequently misleading, often deliberately so.  Unless you know how to interpret data, you can be led astray easily.  For instance, Fordham has 5400 elective seats, while Syracuse has only 3300.  But Fordham has more than twice as many students as Syracuse, so when the seats per student are calculated, Syracuse comes out ahead.  Baylor has a healthy 1154 simulation seats, while Brooklyn has a not-quite-as-fabulous 1002.  But every single one of Baylor's 1154 spots is filled, while only 766 of Brooklyn's seats are taken.  So you might have a better chance of getting what you want at Brooklyn.  

Because I know just how misleading statistics can be, I try to be scrupulous in explaining my assumptions and calculations.  I don't want to be accused of hiding the ball, like certain news magazines that list rankings without revealing the underlying data.  But when it comes to data, scrupulous and overwhelming are synonyms.  What's a data-monger to do?  My answer is to place the results on one page and the assumptions and formulas on another.  

So to start with, where did this data come from?  All of it is published in the ABA/LSAC Official Guide to Law Schools, 2007 edition.  The data is from the ABA pages, in the section labeled "Curriculum."  

Next, I made some assumptions -- first, that all large classes (more than 50 students) are Core, or Bar Exam, courses.  I excluded these from my calculations. This left me with two categories of elective classes:  those with up to 25 seats, and those with up to 50  seats.  I assumed that these were 80% full, i.e., that a class with a maximum enrollment of 25 typically has 20 students, and a class with a maximum enrollment of 50 typically has 40 students.  So (20 x A) + (40 x B) = elective seats, where A and B are the number of courses offered.   Getting lost?  Here:  suppose a school has 8 classes of 25 or fewer, and 18 classes of 50 or fewer.  I calculated (20 x 8) + (40 x 18) = 160 + 720 = 880 seats.  That's for the small elective classes.  

For the seminar and simulation classes, the book lists the exact number of seats, so I didn't have to make any assumptions about that. But it shows seats available and seats filled; which one is meaningful? I decided that both are, but for different reasons.  Seats available is your chance of getting something; seats full compared to seats available shows your chance of getting what you want.  E.g., Penn has 700 seminar seats, but 690 were filled; at some point, people took what was available, whether they wanted it or not.  They had 303 simulation seats, and 262 were filled, so there was a slightly higher chance of getting what you want.   

My last assumption was about the number of classes each student wants to take.  I assumed that out of 5 classes per semester, a student would want to take 3 of these non-Bar Exam courses.  Now that assumption is wishful thinking on my part.  Most students feel compelled to take the Bar Exam courses, and have room in their schedules for only 2 non-Bar Exam courses.  But this assumption doesn't matter.  Since I used the same formula for all schools, the order will remain the same regardless.  If S =  number of seats and W = number the student wants, S/W will have the same ratio when W is a constant. For example, take a series of numbers: 18, 15, 12, 9, 6, 3.  Divide them all by 3.  You get 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.   Now divide them all by 6.  You get 3, 2.5, 2, 1.5, 1, .5.  The order and relative values are the same.  So long as you use the same number for every school the number itself makes little difference.  

  • If this is true, why worry at all about using 2 or 3?  Because at some point you care not only about the order, but about how few classes there are.  For example, elsewhere on this page, I used an example of 8 tiny classes and 20 small ones.  That's only 28 electives!  At 3 a semester, you'll be taking 12 before you graduate; you'd better like half the courses offered.  At 2 a semester, you'll take 8; that leaves you a little more room for preferences.   

After all these assumptions, the rest was number crunching.  

For the number of students, I took the total enrollment and subtracted the 1L class, since 1Ls don't usually take electives.  

For the number of seminar and simulation seats, I generally didn't have to make any assumptions.  The exact number was published in the ABA book.  In a few instances, I thought the published data seemed to be impossible, so I checked out the school's web page.  If the number was zero, I generally didn't check, while if the number was impossible (e.g., 30 seats available, 40 filled) I did.  

For the results for all law schools, click here.  


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