Saturday, December 23, 2006

Law School Rankings as if the Public Mattered

Suppose that we wanted to rank law schools in terms of their public benefits. What would we measure? First and foremost, we would care about how well each school trains its graduates to practice the law competently and ethically. To best measure that, we would need data about where attorneys who have lost legal malpractice lawsuits or who have suffered Bar discipline got their JDs. So far as I've been able to discern, however, nobody has yet collected that data.

The American Bar Association has collected some data about legal malpractice claims and lawyer disciplinary sanctions. The ABA does not apparently try to link the lawyers' failings with their training, however. Tracing those correlations would take a good deal more work.

The ABA also collects data about how well law schools train their graduates to pass Bar exams. Members of the public might have a passing interest in whether the graduates of tax-funded law schools can pass the Bar, granted. But the more direct and intense interest of law students themselves suffices to keep law schools honest on that front. Who, though, cares about whether those same students will, supposing they pass the Bar, serve their clients competently and ethically? Nobody who ranks law schools, it seems.

Perhaps you find that lack of interest troubling. If so, you might consider joining me in contributing to HALT, a tax-exempt organization dedicated to making the U.S. legal system more simple, affordable, and fair. HALT pursues that goal, in part, by trying to prevent the Bar from exercising monopoly power at the public's expense. We should work harder to figure out how well law schools train students to become competent and ethical attorneys. In the meantime, however, we law professors can help to protect the public from our failings by supporting organizations like HALT.

[Crossposted to Moneylaw.]


Chris Fulmer said...

Good luck with that. How do you compare law schools where a majority of their alumni are solo practitioners with schools where a majority work in large firms? I browse through the disciplinary stuff from my state's bar association, and a majority of it appears to come from mismanaging client funds. Larger firms tend to have internal controls to prevent such mismanagement.

That's not to say that big law doesn't have its ethical problems. It's just that they rarely get reported to the state bar.

Tom W. Bell said...

Chris: That's a problem--one of many--with using Bar discipline actions as a proxy for ethical lawyering, I grant. Of course, to the extent that mismanaging client's funds harms them (I'm not convinced that it always does), the public *should* care that big firms manage the problem more effectively. But, like you, I suspect that big firms sometimes simply manage better not being caught. Successful legal malpractice suits would better measure poor lawyering, but those such suits happen only relatively rarely. There is no perfect way to measure competent and ethical lawyering. But I don't think that should stand in the way of trying to get a rough estimate.