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Include diversity in law school ratings,
bar board says

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

The State Bar Board of Governors has endorsed a letter asking U.S. News & World Report to add a diversity category to its rankings of U.S. law schools.

“The rankings encourage law school policies and actions that . . . result in less diverse student populations and provide no support for other diversity initiatives,” said the draft letter approved by the board. The letter was from Council on Access & Fairness Chair Craig Holden to U.S. News Editor Robert Morse. “We acknowledge that the U.S. News rankings are unlikely to cease or to diminish in impact so we are determined to work closely with you to effect changes that provide an objective system of metrics and evaluation, which will more accurately reflect a meaningful and effective law school education.”

State Bar board members, except for Michael Tenenbaum and Clark Gehlbach, who voted against the proposal, and Jeannine English, who abstained, agreed to endorse the letter, and some spoke passionately about the harmful effects on the legal profession of ignoring diversity in law school recruitment.

Board member Wells Lyman referred to the lack of diversity in terms of socioeconomic status, saying most law students come from fairly well-off families. “If that’s the world of lawyers you want, you can have it,” said Lyman, who has been working for a decade with San Diego law schools on increasing diversity.

Board member Luis Rodriguez, a Los Angeles public defender, says he is all too aware of the lack of diversity and the perception that that’s just the way the system works. As a Latino, he is frequently assumed to be either the defendant or the interpreter when people see him in the courtroom, he said. If that’s how he is stereotyped, he added later, other Latinos are going to stereotyped in the same negative way. The goal is to have everyone looked at as an individual, not a stereotype, Rodriguez said.

The U.S. News rankings of law schools have been a source of consternation at law schools around the country. While many administrators complain about the rankings, they still take steps, however stealthily, designed to move up in the magazine’s ratings chart.

In a “Fall 2010 Update for Alumni,” UC Hastings College of the Law Chancellor and Dean Frank Wu talked about the rankings: “Some will opine that these rankings are nonsense: they are about perceptions and not reality; the methodology is flawed; the conclusions are not valid; the whole enterprise should be ignored; and, besides, this game is ruining higher education. Yet I cannot emphasize enough how much the rankings affect us and all that we do: students consult them in deciding where to matriculate, as their parents and spouses do in determining whether to support the decision and assist in paying tuition; employers choose where to recruit by relying on rankings; alumni especially take pride in their alma mater, or not — and contribute, or not — in response to the trends up or down. Rankings matter to you; rankings matter to UC Hastings.”

The rankings use 12 criteria: peer assessment; assessment by lawyers and judges; median LSAT scores; media undergrad GPA; acceptance rate; placement success; employment rate for graduates, bar passage rate; faculty resources; expenditures per student; student/faculty ratio; and library resources.

Hastings’ Wu is one of the few law school administrators to openly admit to making changes with the specific goal of boosting the school’s ranking, which is currently 42nd best. A report commissioned by Wu and released in December included such recommendations as beefing up career services that provide short-term work for graduates, placing more emphasis on undergraduate GPA and less on LSAT scores and improving the faculty/student ratio by raising tuition.

The 25-page report goes into great detail and complicated mathematical calculations to argue why some things should be done and others ignored. For example, the report notes, although LSAT scores are weighted more than GPA in determining rankings, increasing the median undergraduate GPA of law students has a more substantial effect on ranking because “converting the LSAT score into a percentile [which U.S. News does] minimizes the impact that an increase in the school’s median LSAT scores has on improving the school’s standing in the U.S. News rankings.”

For similar, more-bang-for-your-buck reasons, the report recommends forgetting for the moment about trying to reduce class size or increasing the bar passage rate. Instead, the school should consider waiving application fees to improve selectivity and taking “whatever steps are possible” to increase visibility among academics, lawyers and judges who take the U.S. News survey.

Michael Trevino, Hastings’ assistant dean for communications and public affairs, emphasized strongly that changes won’t be made simply to improve the rankings. “Whatever we do comes back to, ‘What will improve the educational experience of our students?’ That’s really why we do things.” He also emphasized that other schools are actively seeking ways to improve their U.S. News ranking too. “It’s not unusual what we’re doing. What perhaps may be unusual is we have a chancellor who’s talking about it.”

The State Bar board and others who support the Council on Access & Fairness letter want diversity added to the criteria as well as less weight given to subjective assessments of law schools by lawyers and judges.

The letter asks that diversity be a new category that accounts for 15 percent of the overall ranking. A school’s diversity ranking could be based on a number of factors, including participation in job fairs and high school and college diversity programs, recruitment, expanded admissions criteria, positive environment, faculty diversity and support for programs that enable students from underrepresented groups to attend law school.

Diversity should be measured by the support and resources provided by the institution to “foster an inclusive culture and climate in which students from diverse backgrounds can excel,” the letter said.