Each year, people make predictions about which movies will win Oscars, which stars will collect a new Grammy and which team will take home the Stanley Cup. And every year, law enthusiasts from all over the United States tune in to the U.S. News Report to catch the new rankings for all 203 law schools across the country.
U.S. News releases its official rankings in mid to late March every year, and the numbers play a large role in the recruiting and admissions process during the application season that follows. Over the past four years, the College of William and Mary’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law has fallen from the 25th position in 2015 to position 41 in 2018, making only a small comeback to position 37 in the most recent 2019 rankings.
How important are they really?
Director of Research for Above the Law, a prominent law blog, Brian Dalton said the U.S. News rankings play a significant role in the recruiting and admissions process each year and that the rankings can even have an impact on operational decisions made by law school administrations.
“It’s hard to almost overstate how important they are,” Dalton said. “The influence of the U.S. News rankings is massive and has kind of a distorting effect on the way people perceive and look at law schools.”
“It’s hard to almost overstate how important they are,” Dalton said. “The influence of the U.S. News rankings is massive and has kind of a distorting effect on the way people perceive and look at law schools, and it also affects the behavior of institutions, which I can’t imagine that anyone thinks is a good thing.”
Law schools are ranked each year by the U.S. News Report according to four main categories: quality assessment, selectivity, placement success and faculty resources. The College’s law school consistently ranks among the top 50 law schools which includes institutions such as Yale University, Harvard University and the University of Virginia. The College’s law school averages rankings in the upper 20s to mid-30s.
Dean and Arthur B. Hanson Professor of Law Davison Douglas said that while he believes the U.S. News rankings are imperfect and lack competition, they are important to constituents of the College’s law school, and it is consequently important to do well in them.
“They’re important because there are certain constituencies that think they’re important: students, admitted students, some alumni,” Douglas said. “So, because those are important constituencies for us, it’s important to do well in U.S. News.”
However, in 2015, the College’s law school’s ranking started steadily decreasing, which could be attributed to a lower cost-per-student ratio or falling LSAT scores.
Why did the College fall?
Douglas said the drop in rankings was due mainly to the College’s low cost per student.
“We are a low-cost law school,” Douglas said. “We hold our cost down; we think that’s good. Our students have to borrow a lot less than most law students do.”
“I think one of the biggest things that hurts us is a category of dollars that you spend per student and the education that you provide to your students,” Douglas said. “We are a low-cost law school. We hold our cost down; we think that’s good. Our students have to borrow a lot less than most law students do. … But, there’s a downside to that. The down side is we’re spending less dollars per student.”
Expenditures per student fall under the faculty resources umbrella in U.S. News. Its total weight is 1.5 percent. The category includes instruction, library and othrt supporting services, as well as financial aid given to students.
The College’s law school does fall below many schools in average tuition. For a full-time residential student, the College’s law school’s tuition is on average $5,158 less than than the mean tuition of all other law schools in the United States.
Another factor that drove the ranking down was that the College’s law school maintained a consistent class size despite a large fall in applications after the 2008 recession. Douglas said other law schools compensated by decreasing their class sizes, which effectively increases costs spent per student.
“They were dramatically decreasing their classes because when you shrink your class, your dollars per student go up, and we weren’t doing that,” Douglas said. “Now we did do it this past year — we cut our class. Our class until the past year was averaging, you know, 215 probably this year 183, and that happened for a number of reasons, but it has the benefit [that] our dollars spent per student went up because we had fewer students.”
The College’s law school did decrease its most recent class size slightly to compensate for the fall in applications. This increases dollars spent per student, and according to Director of the William and Mary Financial Aid Office Joe Dobrota, it should increase the amount available in grants and scholarships for students.
“It may impact what the school would be able to give,” Dobrota said. “If their budget is based upon X number of students but only Y number of students show up, they may have over-projected how much they can give in aid and still maintain the level income they need to run the schools, so that could potentially have an impact down the line.”
A changing market for legal services
Following the recession of 2008, all law school across the United States experienced a sharp decline in the number of applications.
Dalton said this was mainly due to a drop in the demand for lawyers among larger law firms.
“There was of course the recession about 10 years ago that had an enormous impact on the legal employment market,” Dalton said. “There was a real contraction in demand for lawyers — particularly we’re talking about what we think of as big law, large law firms — and that those jobs, they’re just not going to come back to the levels that we saw like in 2006 – 07.”
The College’s law school experienced a drastic fall in its number of applications, particularly between the years of 2013 and 2014; however the fall did not impact the general admissions process.
“The schools that really got hurt in the drop of applicants were the schools that basically drew most of their students from the state in which they were located, and that wasn’t the case for us,” Douglas said.
Douglas said that the College’s law school’s national reputation and ability to attract students from a number of different states protected against the drop in applications.
“Well, it didn’t affect us at all,” Douglas said. “The schools that really got hurt in the drop of applicants were the schools that basically drew most of their students from the state in which they were located, and that wasn’t the case for us.”
What has changed over recent years is that the class size and the 25th percentile LSAT scores of admitted students have both decreased. The average class size has previously remained stable at about 205 to 210 students, but the newest class consists of 183 students.
“Part of what happens when applications begin to drop nationally, what correlates with that is the LSAT scores of students applying to law school also dropped,” Douglas said.
Application numbers have never recovered to their totals before the recession, and the College’s law school intends to maintain its smaller class size going forward. Keeping class sizes lower increases the chances of graduates being hired, which in turn improves the U.S. News ranking. It also increases the dollars spent by students, allowing the College’s law school to improve its rankings without increasing student tuition and fees.
Correction: The headline originally published with this article, “Marshall-Wythe School of Law drops in rankings,” was corrected to add clarifying language. While the U.S. News Ranking has seen a downward trend overall since 2015, from 2018 to 2019 it actually rose from position 41 to 37 in the ranking, as stated in the article.