The “Nursery for Judges” standard for ranking law schools

Remember when Litchfield Law School was considered “the best” law school to attend and Harvard Law School was floundering, almost to the point of closing before Story was hired?

In 1827, the struggling young law school was down to only one faculty member and one student. In this year, an enterprising alumnus stepped in to save the school by establishing the Dane Professorship of Law, and insisting that the chair be given to Joseph Story, the nation’s youngest Supreme Court justice. Story believed in the concept of an elite American law school, based on merit and dedicated to public service: a tradition that continues today.

Quoting from Harvard Law School’s Our History.

One can make the case that the turning point in the creation of the today’s hierarchical structure of the legal academy was the hiring of Story to teach at HLS. Of course it took the Story-Langdell-Ames trifecta to establish the “Harvard Model” as the standard by which all law schools were evaluated.  By the 1920s, the norm was becoming “schools with a ‘scholarly law school dean’ who would make them into a ‘nursery for judges’ that will make American law what American law ought to be through law reform and legal research activities.”

The progeny of the “Harvard Model” is the enduring pecking order of law school status inside and outside the legal academy. In Enduring Hierarchies in American Legal Education [SSRN](Indiana Law Journal, Forthcoming), Arewa, Morriss & Henderson make the case for the importance of understanding today’s law school hierarchies.

Understanding enduring law school hierarchies is important for four key reasons.

1. Defining of Educational Goals. The legal academy places considerable––and, we believe, overly great––weight on institutional prestige in everything from article placement decisions (by both editors and authors) to hiring, promotion, and tenure Yet, as Russell Korobkin argues, prestige competition can channel behavior in productive directions. A clearer understanding of the hierarchy’s nature can play a role in shifting competition toward more productive avenues.

2. Effective Reform Efforts. Understanding the enduring nature of the positional competition among law schools is essential to the ongoing law school reform efforts. Current debates over the role of U.S. News’s rankings largely ignore the pre-existing competition and divisions among law schools. As a result, measures such as calls for schools to decline to participate in U.S. News’s annual surveys are based on the false premise that doing away with or changing a particular ranking will end the “arms race” of competition among schools for status. For better or worse, the quest for status is endemic to lawyers and law professors.

3. Labor Market Outcomes. The law school hierarchy maps onto a parallel hierarchy on employment opportunities for law school graduates. As the U.S. legal academy wrestles with changes in the legal job market in the aftermath of the credit crisis and as the legal job market goes through structural changes, understanding this hierarchy provides an essential realism on the job prospects of law school graduates.

4. Better Understanding of Long-Term Trends. If an enduring hierarchy is shaping the careers of lawyers and law professors, an accurate system of categorization is essential for tracking long-term trends in legal academia and the legal profession. Our analysis provides the basis for variables that capture law school status across time, facilitating future research.

(Citations omitted.)

This article is highly recommended. Law librarians will be very familiar with some of the categories the authors identify as relevant for defining the hierarchical structure of the legal academy (e.g., size of library collections, citation metrics for scholarly and judicial impact). Here’s the abstract for Arewa, Morriss & Henderson’s Enduring Hierarchies in American Legal Education:

Although much attention has been paid to U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of U.S. law schools, the hierarchy it describes is a long-standing one rather than a recent innovation. In this Article, we show the presence of a consistent hierarchy of U.S. law schools from the 1930s to the present, provide a categorization of law schools for use in research on trends in legal education, and examine the impact of U.S. News’s introduction of a national, ordinal ranking on this established hierarchy. The Article examines the impact of such hierarchies for a range of decision-making in law school contexts, including the role of hierarchies in promotion, tenure, publication, and admissions, for employers in hiring, and for prospective law students in choosing a law school. This Article concludes with suggestions for ways the legal academy can move beyond existing hierarchies and at the same time address issues of pressing concern in the legal education sector. Finally, the Article provides a categorization of law schools across time that can serve as a basis for future empirical work on trends in legal education and scholarship.

Joe

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