North Carolina’s universities may have had a good March on the basketball court, but its law schools had a less-than-stellar showing in an arguably more important competition — the 2016 U.S. News & World Report’s Best Law School Rankings. Of the state’s seven law schools, three saw their rankings drop and three others continue to remain unranked. Those showings are likely at least in part an effect of the precipitous drop in passage rates on the state’s 2013 bar exam.
Nonetheless, leaders of several North Carolina schools agree that the annual rankings are more vexing than informative when it comes to shedding light on a school’s educational value.
“It’s a little exasperating as a new dean, because I think we’ve had as successful of a year as the law school has ever had,” said Rich Leonard, dean of Campbell Law School.
In a surprising drop, Campbell, which had climbed in the rankings the last two years up to a tie for 121st, fell back among the unranked schools.
Wake Forest University School of Law was also down, plummeting from a tie for 31st to a tie for 47th. The University of North Carolina School of Law saw a gentler decline from a tie for 31st to a tie for 34th.
Charlotte School of Law, Elon University School of Law and North Carolina Central University School of Law all remain unranked. Duke was the only school to rise in the rankings, from a tie for 10th to a tie for eighth.
A large portion of U.S. News’ scoring system is based on subjective factors, so schools have no way of knowing exactly why they received the ranking that they did, but one objective factor that is included is the employment outcomes for graduates nine months after graduation, which accounts for twenty percent of a school’s score.
For this year’s rankings, U.S. News compared schools’ 2013 graduating classes and calculated the number of graduates who were employed nine months after graduation, giving the fullest weight only to those jobs that lasted at least a year and for which bar passage was required or a J.D. degree was an advantage.
“Many experts in legal education consider these the real law jobs,” according to the magazine’s web site.
Going down together
Unfortunately for schools in North Carolina, 2013 was a dreadful year across the board for bar passage rates in the state. The total passage rate was just 63.4 percent, down more than nine points from the previous year. The pass rate for in-state schools was down by 10 points.
Comparing the numbers, it’s easy to spot a correlation between how far a school’s bar passage rate dropped in 2013 and how far the school dropped in this year’s U.S. News rankings. UNC’s pass rate dropped only seven points, while Wake Forest’s pass rate dropped 14 points and Campbell’s dropped 15 points. Meanwhile Duke, which had the fewest graduates sitting for the exam, saw its pass rate jump 19 points. Charlotte, Elon and NC Central all continued to have pass rates under 60 percent.
Bar passage rates themselves account for two percent of a school’s score.
Leonard, Campbell’s dean, said that he expected some drop in the rankings because of the bar passage rates, but was surprised at its magnitude. He pointed to several other rankings that have come out in the last year that have rated Campbell highly (including for bar exam prep) and said that the school was on track to admit the same number of students, with the same qualifications, as last year.
Leonard has been critical of the rankings in the past, particularly to the portion of U.S. News’ scoring system based on subjective factors such as a school’s reputation among its peers and among judges and other attorneys. He disputed the accuracy of those anonymous surveys.
“We were asked two years ago to give the names of 10 prominent lawyers and judges to be included in the pool of evaluators, and I asked last week, not a single one of them was given a questionnaire. They just don’t ask the people who know us,” Leonard said. “I think that it is, and I’m not alone in feeling his way, very hard for good schools with a predominantly regional reach to impact these national numbers.”
This year’s rankings reverse the trend from last year, when Duke, Wake Forest and Campbell all posted increases while UNC remained steady. Charlotte, Elon and NC Central have never been ranked. (Of 198 ABA-accredited U.S. law schools, U.S. News provided numerical rankings for 153 schools this year.)
Big swings prompt skepticism
UNC’s associate dean for student affairs, Paul Rollins, said that the school’s small move from 31 to 34 was not particularly significant for either prospective students or for the faculty-hiring market. Schools that moved one notch above UNC this year include places like Wisconsin and Boston College. Rollins said that while UNC does draw students from across the country, there would be very few instances where UNC would be competing directly for students against schools in those locations.
Rollins acknowledged that the bar passage rates could be a factor, but that given the minor drop and the opacity of the subjective rankings, it would be impossible to pinpoint a single factor. Rollins, like Leonard, argued that the rankings failed to account for a number of factors that are important in assessing a law school’s quality.
“I think it’s pretty commonly felt by most people that are close to law schools that too much weight is put upon them. There’s very little difference from year to year in law schools, frankly, and when you see tremendous changes from one year to the next, it can cause you to question the validity of the rankings to some extent,” Rollins said.
The rankings come out at a time when both UNC and Wake Forest are searching for new law school deans. On March 27, UNC announced a list of five candidates to replace current dean Jack Boger, who is retiring in July. Wake Forest was interviewing dean candidates last week.
Wake Forest’s director of communications and public relations, Lisa Snedeker, said that because of those interviews and other ongoing events, no one could be made available to accommodate Lawyers Weekly’s requests for an interview about this year’s rankings. Snedeker emailed a prepared statement from interim dean Suzanne Reynolds.
“While we are disappointed that the publication came to this conclusion, a student of USNWR rankings knows that they are a reflection of the current topsy-turvy world of legal education,” Reynolds’ statement read in full.
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