Law School Deans, Law Schools

The Difficulty With Data

Ed. note: Frank H. Wu is the Chancellor and Dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. He’s currently sharing some of his thoughts about legal education and other topics here on Above the Law.

I was recently befuddled about some information I had been given. That happens. I was inspired by my own momentary confusion to write this blog post. It made me realize how much raw data has to be sorted through to achieve transparency.

Perhaps the most important aspect of training in argumentation, which constitutes the bulk of the first year of law school, is learning how to frame issues. A skilled advocate comes to understand early on that the party who is able to define the question to be asked has already determined the answer that will be given. It is more than mere semantics.

Laypeople tend to regard lawyers as sophists, because they — the lawyers — are so concerned about accuracy and precision. Lawyers may even distinguish between “accuracy” and “precision.” Lawyers do not assume that everyone has exactly the same concepts in mind even if they are participating in a single conversation together, because the essential “meeting of the minds” is elusive. They also appreciate the consequences of sloppiness.

Allow me to offer an example…

Consider the question: How many students in the entering class at your school this year? This seems simple. It’s also relatively non-controversial. People are less exercised about these bits and bytes than they are about other quantities and proportions.

So let’s use this as a case study. It is wonderfully mundane and serves the purpose.

There actually are at least a half-dozen legitimate answers. A thoughtful reply would be “It depends on why you ask.”

Here are a series of answers, each of them appropriate for a particular purpose. They are listed in order from largest to smallest.

First, you could count the number of human beings who show up for the orientation programs to all of the degrees being offered. That includes the J.D. as well as other options. A generation ago, the J.D. may have been the only law degree, but nowadays it is not uncommon to have enormous numbers of non-J.D. students, from around the globe.

Second, you could count only the J.D. students. Probably for most purposes, that is the relevant group. But it is not an appropriate number for the Chief Financial Officer to use for budget purposes, nor the Registrar in allocating non-J.D. students to sections that must fit within particular classrooms.

Third, you could decrease the number of students, whether J.D. or non-J.D., to their full-time equivalents. These are not people, but their fiscal shadows. For any school that has a formal part-time program, or even a school that has accommodated a handful of compelling cases, there will be a discrepancy between these figures.

Fourth, you could look at paying full-time equivalents. For any budgeting exercise, this is the most important number. Even without taking into account grants, scholarships, and other discounts, there are students who pay nothing. In many cases, military veterans and law enforcement officers and some categories of disabled individuals might not even have their fees reimbursed by the government but instead hold the right to having them waived altogether.

Fifth, you might be interested in only people who are starting as 1L students for the first time. That eliminates the several “restarts,” who took a leave of absence or were admitted again after academic problems. With respect to the overall enrollment, similar issues arise with students visiting away, students from elsewhere who are visiting here, students on leave, non-degree special students and on and on and on. At the undergraduate level, there is an acronym, “FTIAC,” which refers to “First Time in Any College.” President Barack Obama, like many others, confounds the system, because he transferred from one college to another college.

Sixth, you should factor in time. Over the course of a normal school year, students will leave for various personal reasons. Even during orientation, it is typical to lose a few individuals who decide that Socratic dialogue is not for them before it has begun in earnest; it’s astonishing how many people forfeit a seat deposit and fail to appear at all. Thus the number at the beginning of the year and the number at the end of the year are not the same, and there is an average in between them.

The consequences of these choices are not trivial. For calculations that are at all sensitive, such as comparisons among institutions, a few percent will matter. If you ask how many students are in the entering class this year or any year at UC Hastings or at most schools, the delta between the large number and the small number will be well over five percent.

For members of the legal profession, the careful treatment of the facts is a pre-requisite to any argument about the situation. There are objective answers — plural, if and only if one asks the right question.

Frank H. Wu is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law. He also is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (affiliate link).

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