Failing Law Schools

Linear extrapolations are widely suspected of being unreliable, but maybe not widely enough. Stated differently, it’s a category error to engage in static, not dynamic, analysis. Stated yet differently, the interesting challenge is almost never to ask, “What can we do to solve this problem?” but instead, “What happens after we take this approach to solving the problem?”

Here’s an example. A long-running contributor to structural disequilibrium in the metropolitan New York traffic congestion pattern is that bridges across the East River are toll-free, whereas almost all other bridges and tunnels in the area carry tolls as high as $12 one-way. Not surprisingly, the East River bridges are chronically congested and “over capacity.” (The experts’ knowing diagnosis that they’re “over capacity” always amuses me; drivers are paying in time, not money: The “capacity” of the bridges is what it always has been.) So periodically proposals are floated to impose tolls on these bridges, with seemingly reliable projections of how much revenue would be collected based on today’s vehicle traffic multiplied by the average toll.

This is a linear extrapolation, a static analysis, and it’s wrong. It overlooks the question, “How will people alter their behavior in light of the tolls?” Obviously, the answer is that some will carpool, some will take mass transit, some will telecommute more often, some will use different combinations of bridges and tunnels. Whatever happens, toll revenue will fall short of {[today's traffic volume] x [proposed toll]}.

Now, in law school land, we have a stunning example of market dynamics at work….

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Bob Morse

The main audience of the U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings is not meant to be law schools or law school deans—and the rankings should not be a management tool that law school administrators use as the basis for proving that their school is improving or declining. The rankings are produced primarily for prospective students as one tool to help them determine the relative merits between schools they are considering.

Bob Morse, rankings czar of U.S. News and World Report, commenting on a critique of the rankings found in Professor Brian Tamanaha’s book, Failing Law Schools (affiliate link). Professor Tamanaha argues that the U.S. News rankings fuel unhealthy competition between schools.