US News published its annual rankings of American law schools today. It contained good news for UC Hastings. Our overall ranking improved from 59 to 50 this year. This is indeed a welcome result. Moreover, when one begins to parse the data underlying our ranking, there are strengths well worth trumpeting. In particular, our rating among lawyers and judges was 3.7, which puts us among the top 23 schools in the country. Lawyers and judges are the folks that aspiring law students and alumni should care particularly about, since they are the people they practice with and practice before. Of all of the numbers used to calculate our overall ranking, this is one we can be very proud of. In addition, clinical training @ UC Hastings was ranked 17th in the nation. This is a great accomplishment and, though it should hardly surprise anyone that knows the quality of our excellent clinical faculty, we should be particularly proud of this recognition. We also placed extremely well in two additional areas. Our Health Law ranking improved from 20th in the country to 14th this year. Just six years ago we had virtually no health law program at all, and now we have moved into the top ranks in this important area. And our dispute resolution program, always nationally recognized, was 12th in the nation.
However encouraged I might be about this uptick in our overall ranking, I remain highly skeptical about the entire enterprise of law school rankings. What does this number say about UC Hastings as a law school? Does it capture the extraordinary quality and commitment of our students, well-illustrated not just by their work in the classroom but by their pro bono work, moot court and trial team championships, and editorial work on one of our nine law journals? Does it capture our faculty members’ commitment to teaching and mentoring, and their exceptional scholarship, published by many of the top law journals and university presses in the country? Does it capture the work of our dedicated staff members who do so much to ensure the safe and efficient running of our enterprise on a day-to-day basis? And does it even come close to recognizing our alumni who are leaders of the bench and bar? Can a single number mean so much?
No one number could capture all that UC Hastings is. Yet, is this number meaningless? Not entirely. Many, many people take this number very seriously indeed. For prospective students, life and career decisions are made, sometimes on the basis of one or two places in the rankings. For alumni, their pride and their commitment to their alma maters are sometimes affected by this number. Employers pay attention to this number as well, thus impacting our graduates’ job prospects. Whatever doubts I might harbor about the validity of the US News rankings, they have significance because they are deemed significant by so many.
Thus, our improvement this year is very welcome indeed. We have taken an important step, one that is exactly in the direction we need to be going. At the same time, in order to continue this upward trajectory, we must take sober stock of the ways we might improve. In particular, there are several factors counted in our rankings about which I am less sanguine. On the top of that list are bar passage and employment.
As I said when I first assumed my current position, there are two fundamental obligations UC Hastings has to its students. First and foremost, we should train our students to be outstanding lawyers. Based on the lawyer and judge rankings, we are doing an excellent job in this department. But necessary to fully accomplishing this first obligation, we must prepare our students to pass the bar exam. Although this is a factor in our rankings, our obligation to improve our graduates’ success on the bar exam is entirely independent of that. While we’ve initiated many reforms in this area, more – much more – needs to be done. This need for improvement is principally for our students’ sakes; but, without doubt, it will impact our rankings too!
The other U.S. News factor that is of particular concern to us is employment rates, both at graduation and at ten months post-graduation. Our percentages for the reporting year were 30.1% and 58%, respectively. These numbers, it should be pointed out, only refer to full-time long-term rates, and exclude short term government positions; with those placements included, our overall employment rate was 76%. Nonetheless, these numbers need to be better. To be sure, many of our graduates seek jobs in the most competitive market in the world, San Francisco. But this is no excuse; our graduates should be as competitive for these jobs as graduates from any school in the country. San Francisco is our town. This must be, and is, a top priority for us.
Although I am comforted that our rankings are going in the right direction, as I’ve noted, I am ultimately skeptical about the validity of the US News rankings, however seriously we must take them. The fact that we moved 9 places in one year illustrates in a nutshell the imprecision and instability of the methodology. We fell from 39 in 2010 to 59 last year. Measures as variable as this one belie their reliability. Did we really change that much in such a short period of time? Does any school? This year, the University of Cincinnati improved by 22 places and Tennessee dropped 13. Perhaps their basketball teams might move so dramatically from year to year, as star players graduate or go to the pros, but law schools do not.
Ultimately, the value of these rankings is that they should focus our attention on what matters to us as a great law school. In my New Year’s message, I said that I aspire to return us to the days when UC Hastings was regularly recognized as a top 20 school. I continue to believe that this is entirely possible and that it can be done by focusing on the values that we hold important. My intention is to keep my eye on the ball, and concentrate our energies on the factors that make a law school great. This includes providing a first-rate education to all of our students, both to make them great lawyers and to ensure that they are prepared for the bar exam; it includes working overtime to secure good employment opportunities for our graduates and supporting our alumni throughout their careers; and it includes championing faculty scholarship, for it is that work that is recognized by our peers as well as lawyers and judges as making UC Hastings a leader in legal education.
If we, as a community, concentrate our energies on all of these truly important factors, the rankings will follow. Of that, I have no doubt.