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Interview with Professor Brian Leiter at the University of Chicago Law School
Published July 2009
TLS: The recently released US News law school rankings once again caused a big stir in the legal community and with law school applicants. While almost uniformly disparaged by law school deans, the rankings are heavily watched and impact admissions decisions. You provide several rankings that offer an analytic analysis of evaluating law schools on different criteria such as the scholarly impact of a faculty, ranking student quality by numerical quality, Supreme Court clerkship placement, amongst other metrics. What was your inspiration in creating these rankings and what role do you see your rankings playing in the overall picture of how various law schools are regarded? Do you ever intend to do an overall ranking of how law schools compare to each other?
When I first started teaching law in 1993, all the faculty and Deans were, even then, complaining about the US News rankings. Complaining doesn’t accomplish much, even when the complaints are legitimate. Students correctly want some comparative measures of academic quality and professional outcomes as between law schools. The problem with US News isn’t that it produces rankings, but that it produces rankings that don’t track these considerations very well, for reasons I’ve written about at length (unreliable data, irrelevant data, too easily manipulable by the schools, carelessly conducted reputational surveys and so on). Anyway, I decided that rather than complain, it would be more constructive to produce an alternative. Not quite a dozen years ago, I did that, using various measures of academic quality—an “overall” ranking as it were. This attracted a fair bit of attention, including a front page story in The National Law Journal. So I kept collecting data and publishing it on the internet, though I abandoned the idea of an overall ranking, since there is no principled explanation for any weighting of discrete factors. Intelligent students can review the measures that are important to them, and form an opinion about the schools they should be thinking seriously about. My goal is to use public data to create a variety of different measures of academic quality and professional outcomes, and to explain the methodology and the limitations of the measures as transparently as possible.
TLS: Ideally, how do you see law school applicants most effectively utilizing your rankings?
Students have to decide what matters to them: scholarly caliber of the faculty? Numerical credentials of their fellow students? Clerkships? Corporate law jobs? They can then use the data I’ve collected to both identify schools to which to apply and, if they are lucky, to narrow down the list of schools to which they’ve been accepted to those they ought to visit and investigate for themselves to see if they’re a “good fit.”
TLS: Some notice that you tend to rank the University of Chicago—a top-notch institution by any measurement—a bit higher than USNews and do not ascribe this to coincidence. Would you like to explain the rationale for any disparity between your ranking of Chicago and USNews’?
I’m glad you raised this. The overall US News rank of Chicago (not higher than #6 since 1999, when they changed the formula by which they calculated per capita expenditures) consistently ranks Chicago lower than the other measures US News itself uses: reputation among academics and practitioners, LSAT scores, and so on. In almost all the US News measures, Chicago is among the top five, except for per capita expenditures, which is the only reason Chicago has not ranked higher than 6th overall in the last decade. (It turns out that Chicago has been underreporting expenditures for years, because of university accounting practices, which are now being fixed. Only the 1999 change in methodology by US News made this an issue.) So one might just as well say that my rankings, which focus on academic excellence and professional outcomes for students, are actually more in line with most of the data US News collects!
But seriously, anyone who has followed my rankings for awhile knows that Chicago generally ranked better 10 years ago in my studies than it has in recent years. Ten years ago (many, maybe all, of these studies are on-line at www.leiterrankings.com), Chicago and Yale dominated everyone else, and Chicago often led Yale in some measures. Harvard and Stanford and, to a lesser extent, NYU, have all improved their competitive position since then. I think the data I’ve collected reflects this pretty well. Yale now dominates in just about all measures, while Harvard, Stanford and Chicago (and sometimes NYU, sometimes Columbia) “battle” it out for 2nd, 3rd and 4th spots in most categories. Some of this is also due to a generational change at Chicago: the retirements of folks like Fischel, Alschuler, Currie, and Landes, among others, means that Chicago has a faculty with an unusually young median age (median age at Chicago is around 40, at Yale around 60, for example). This is good in a lot of ways for students (younger faculty are, ceteris paribus, more energetic), but it means that on many faculty measures, Chicago is no longer #1, but #2 or #3. Anyway, the bottom line is that Chicago’s rank, while still very good, is generally not as good as it was 5-10 years ago, before I had any connection at all to Chicago. Obviously, superficial observers suspect bias in these matters, but the facts are the opposite of the expectations (as they were regarding Texas too, as was clear to anyone who actually looked carefully at the US News data and the data I compiled, but that issue is now moot).
TLS: For TLS members, one of the largest sources of concern is that the legal market is already saturated, especially with respect to the current economic downturn. First of all, do you think that this viewpoint is credited, and, if so, what can someone interested in a legal career do about it?
It seems pretty clear that the world of mega-firms, which could absorb 50-100 rookie associates every year, is changing, and probably will be gone for good within the next couple of years. But that doesn’t mean Skadden and Sidley and O’Melveny are going anywhere! Those firms will remain leading providers of legal services, but they simply won’t absorb as many new law school graduates each year as they did for much of the last two decades. So competition will be stiffer for the “big firm” jobs than before, and salaries will be lower. This may have one salutary consequence: more new law school graduates will consider government and other public sector jobs, where high quality legal talent is certainly needed. The main advice I would give students is to investigate job opportunities and placement carefully before enrolling at any school. I’d pay particular attention to how many, and what kind of, legal employers actually interview on campus at each school. This is far more informative about a school’s reputation in the legal community than the largely fake employment statistics that US News publishes.
TLS: As a professor, what habits have you observed are common amongst the most successful law students?
Successful law students treat law school like a job: they spend at least 40 hours per week going to classes, reading, studying, and talking about their subjects with their peers. Successful 1Ls figure out quickly that the point of the classroom hour isn’t to write down as much ‘information’ as possible, but to argue: with the professor, with the opinions you’ve read, with your fellow students. The very best students engage the faculty intellectually both inside and outside the classroom.
TLS: What are some “up and coming” law schools outside of the traditional Top-14?
Anyone who thinks that “top 14” demarcates a relevant category of law schools has already made a mistake! Texas and UCLA, for example, are better than Georgetown and Cornell and Duke along a variety of dimensions, and Vanderbilt and Southern California are competitive with these schools in various ways as well. There are schools that have done a good job of gaming the US News rankings, but very few of them are actually “up and coming.” (Alabama might now be an exception—their Dean has parlayed improved US News rankings into more money from the university and a better faculty.) Duke, which had the weakest faculty of any putatively top law school ten years ago, has really turned things around over the last decade. I don’t know that they’ll improve further, but they now have a genuine claim on the ‘top ten,’ and are clearly better than the 17th--place showing in the reputational survey I conducted some seven years ago. UC Irvine, under Erwin Chemerinsky, is clearly off to a very strong start. Notre Dame has long had a good market niche, but a relatively weak faculty; that’s changed in the last dozen years. University of Illinois is much stronger now than even 10 or 15 years ago. Florida State is clearly one of the very top ‘regional’ law schools these days—graduates practice regionally, but the faculty is of national distinction. Law schools change at a glacial pace is the bottom line. The top 15-18 law schools now are mostly the same as in 1970. NYU edged up a few notches (from the 10-15 range to the 5-7 range), Michigan slipped down a few notches (from the 3-5 range to the 7-10 range), but that’s about it. Perhaps worth emphasizing is that there are a number of law schools whose job placement is more regional, but whose faculties, like Florida State’s, are part of a national and international scholarly discourse: examples would include Chicago-Kent, Fordham, San Diego, George Mason, BU (though their placement is more national than some of these), maybe Cardozo, maybe Brooklyn, among others.
TLS: Several TLS members are interested in potentially becoming law school professors. Can you describe the process of becoming a professor, both in regards to the path that is generally taken (from clerkship, to big firm, to law school) and also discuss your own path to becoming a professor at the University of Chicago.
I am revising and updating the widely used document on “Information and Advice for Persons Interested in Teaching Law” that used to be on my Texas homepage, and this will be available from my Chicago homepage by early fall—so that will provide more detailed information in answer to this question. But let me emphasize one point here that many students, I think, still under-appreciate: the teaching market in law schools is now driven almost entirely by scholarly writing and faculty recommendations. Everything else—clerkships, practice experience, law review, etc.—is much less important than it was even fifteen years ago. Just about all law schools are looking to hire faculty with scholarly ability and potential, and the best proof of that is actual scholarly writing in hand, together with the recommendations of trusted faculty colleagues. So the two most important things a student in law school needs to do these days are (1) find opportunities for substantial writing, writing that could then be turned into law review articles down the line, and (2) develop intellectual/professional relationships with faculty. The two can go hand-in-hand: taking a seminar or doing an independent study with a professor is an opportunity to produce scholarly writing and an opportunity for a professor to get to know you and your abilities well.
TLS: Should someone interested in academia even bother going to a school that is not a top 14 law school? Looking at your rankings would suggest that they should not.
Again, looking at the data I’ve collected, the first correct conclusion to draw is that “top 14” is not a relevant category. If you want to go into legal academia, you should go to Texas over Cornell, to take an obvious example. The law teaching market is, indeed, very pedigree-sensitive, but ‘top 14’ isn’t the relevant marker. The market is dominated by Yale (though faculty retention troubles at Yale may well change that over the next decade), and then Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford each have a big chunk of the market. After those four, Columbia, Michigan, and increasingly NYU are major players, also Berkeley. Virginia also does well. Then there’s another drop-off before you get to the Georgetown, Duke, Northwestern, Texas, Penn et al. cluster. I’d choose among these based on your interests, since finding faculty mentors, as noted, is really key to success on the academic job market. Texas and Penn, for example, have strong criminal law groups, and also a strong commitment to law & philosophy; Northwestern is an excellent place to be for someone with an empirical social science background interested in studying the legal system—so too Cornell. Finding a good intellectual match can also be relevant with respect to the top four schools for law teaching. All of them are quite strong in law & economics, but only Harvard and Stanford would make sense for a student interested in critical race theory, while only Yale and Chicago would really work for a student interested in law & philosophy. By the same token, a philosophy student thinking about law school and interested in teaching would be crazy not to consider NYU too, and a student interested in critical race theory or feminist jurisprudence ought to be thinking about UCLA. There are lots of specialty niches where particular schools excel.
TLS: As legal research becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, do you anticipate a continued increase in law school professors having a J.D. /PhD?
TLS: Do you have any comment on innovations in the legal profession such as the 2 year JD program at Northwestern Law School?
Not really. It’s less of an innovation than it appears (one could do something pretty close at Michigan for many years), but I certainly think it’s a good option to make available to students.
TLS: The U.S. News law school rankings do not cover Canadian law schools. You helped Maclean Magazine create a ranking system for Canadian law schools. Overall, how would you compare Canadian law schools to their American counterparts? For example, would the U. of Toronto Faculty of Law be comparable to a Top 14 or Top 20 law school in America.
The Toronto faculty is the strongest in Canada, comparable to the Georgetown/Northwestern/Texas cluster in the US, so stronger than some of those I assume you mean by “top 14,” and weaker than others. They have a particularly good law & economics group, which is unusual in Canada. Osgoode has the second best faculty overall in Canada, comparable to the US top 20-25 (I’m referring to my measures, obviously, not US News). McGill has at least as good a reputation in Canada, though its faculty underperforms at the international level. British Columbia is also quite solid.
TLS: Finally, the million-dollar question: Which is the more miserable season: Summer in Texas, or winter in Chicago?
Winter in Chicago. As an Austin taxi driver, who had moved from Chicago, once said to me many years ago: “Cold hurts.” Extreme heat is merely tiring! Chicago is a great city, the University is a splendid institution, but the weather leaves much to be desired.
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