In a provocative post entitled "Is the End Near for Yale's Dominance", Brian Leiter reports one insider's assessment that Yale may lose three or four additional faculty members. If that happens, surely Harvard, with its recent lateral hiring sprees, will be the best law school in the country--right? Brian thinks that predictions of Yale's decline are premature. I agee. But in the process Brian implicitly highlights an interesting problem: what exactly does it mean to be the "best" law school?
Here are the vexing facts: on a per capital basis, Yale places more people in academia and Supreme Court clerkships than any other law school; Yale's acceptance rate is 7.3% versus 11.8% for Harvard; yet, over the last decade, the average U.S. News academic reputation score for the two schools are exactly--yes, exactly--equal: 4.840 for Harvard, 4.840 for Yale.
Is it possible that Yale is #1 because, well, Yale is #1 -- and has been every year since USN began publication? Brian refers to U.S. News "small school bias". He is right. Because of Yale's massive endowment and small student size, it enjoys a per-pupil expenditure that is roughly 1/3 its total tuition price. According to a simulation model of the 2008 U.S. News rankings, which Andy Morriss and I recently constructed, Harvard would not overtake Yale even if:
- Harvard's median LSAT climbed to 180 and its median UGPA hit 4.0;
- Harvard's academic and lawyer-judge reputation scores were both a perfect 5.0;
- Harvard's acceptance rate plunged to less than 5%.
In fact, even with these changes, Yale would still have a nice leadership cushion. [Note: Similar anomalous math was noted by Ted Seto in his classic essay, Understanding the U.S. News Law School Rankings, SMU L Rev (2007).]
Yet, Yale's dominance keeps things simple. Applicants signal their elite status by enrolling at Yale. Judges, in turn, derive prestige by hiring Yale graduates, even though they mockingly complain that Yale clerks know very little law. And faculty favor Yale graduates because it validates our own sense of eliteness and institutional upward movement. We can rationalize Yale's dominance in terms of scholarship, but the real endgame is the allocation of positional goods. It is so easy to get too caught up on the hamster wheel of envy and prestige without realizing that the energy expended does not necessarily produce anything of lasting social value.
Of course, each of us is free to determine our own merit criteria. I think the "best" law school is the one where faculty are willing to make inordinate personal sacrifices for the benefit of the collective enterprise--and where aspiring lawyers leave the law school skilled, confident, ethical, and ensconced in a powerful professional network that opens doors and values public service. In turn, alumnus are sufficiently grateful for the transformative experience they received that they are willing to underwrite the law school's mission and subsidize this opportunity for future generations. This vision requires a greater focus on internal rather than external metrics. For us human beings, that is no easy trick.