Washington & Lee Law School dropped 17 spots. That’s doesn’t make them the biggest loser, but going from the relatively strong position of #26 all the way down to #43 has caused a lot of people to take notice.
To its credit, W&L hasn’t yet called a school-wide emergency meeting where administrators are purified by stone and fire. But they have reached out to admitted students to try to convince them that going to the #43 law school is just as good as going to the #26 law school.
It’s a tough sell….
For the students currently at W&L Law, I don’t know what to tell you. Hopefully, you already have jobs. If you don’t, you probably already agree with these new rankings.
But for people who haven’t yet started at W&L, is there time to abandon ship? Washington & Lee hopes not. Here’s a letter they sent to admitted students:
Since the U.S. News & World Report rankings of law schools were first released in 1987 until last year, W&L Law has had an average ranking of 23rd nationally, ranging from a high of 18 to a low of 34. The most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings have placed W&L Law far below our historic national average ranking. Although the rankings cannot capture the full measure of our or any other law school, we recognize that they are an important market force…
Finally, many different pieces of data make up a school’s ranking. Some of these data points are based on our performance in years past, as there is a lag time before such data appears in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. This is particularly true for employment and bar passage data. Some of the data points may, therefore, not fully reflect the current situation. Over the last year and a half, we have taken steps to offer new initiatives and programs not available to prior graduating classes. These efforts include stronger bar preparation support, externship and interview programs in Washington, D.C., a more robust post-graduate fellowship program, changes in our approach to the employment market, and new leadership in our career planning office.
You can read the full letter on the next page.
Man, those are two conflicting messages right there. Let’s highlight them:
- “Since the U.S. News & World Report rankings of law schools were first released in 1987 until last year, W&L Law has had an average ranking of 23rd nationally, ranging from a high of 18 to a low of 34.”
- “Some of these data points are based on our performance in years past, as there is a lag time before such data appears in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.”
On the one hand, Washington & Lee is saying, “Take the long view — W&L is highly ranked.” On the other hand, the school is saying, “PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE PAST! Look towards our future!”
Look, the fundamental weakness of the “lag time” argument is that it makes the low ranking spot-on at some point. If the rank today doesn’t reflect the school’s position today, then it reflects the school’s position yesterday, in which case all the current students were sold a ridiculous bill of goods. How do you think W&L students (or recent graduates!) are going to like hearing: “Over the last year and a half, we have taken steps to offer new initiatives and programs not available to prior graduating classes.” Is W&L going to go back and give those prior classes a refund?
No? Okay. Well, then why should prospective students believe anything W&L is saying about their programs now? Does the school have any proof that these new initiatives will lead to better employment opportunities, or better prestige, or better anything? W&L is asking prospective students to take a flyer on something that hasn’t yet shown its utility in the market.
And let’s not forget that this ranking drop is something that the market has placed a price on. Down around #43, W&L Law is down with George Mason and the University of Maryland Law. Up in the mid-20s are schools like GW Law and William and Mary. Let me tell you, in this market NOBODY is going to George Mason Law over George Washington Law unless George Mason is putting money in your pocket. That’s no offense to George Mason. That’s just how the U.S. News cookie crumbles: if you get into two schools spaced 20-odd spots apart, the lower-ranked school needs to give you a fat scholarship to sweeten the deal.
But in this letter to admitted students, you didn’t hear anything about W&L offering a $20K tuition discount for those who still matriculate. How many people did in fact get into George Mason at a discount, but chose Washington & Lee at full price exclusively because of W&L’s higher U.S. News ranking? It’s got to be like signing up to play football for Pete Carroll then finding out Lane Kiffin is there.
All that said… f**k it, dude, it’s U.S. News. It’s a magazine. W&L did not magically become worse overnight. Either it’s been this bad for a while or it’s not as bad as U.S. News says. You shouldn’t be making your law school decisions based on one commercial ranking.
You know, at the very least, you should wait until April, when the Above the Law rankings come out :).
(Flip to the next page for W&L’s full response to the U.S. News rankings.)