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Law School drops in national rankings

Ken Fowler | Monday, April 2, 2007

Notre Dame fell six places and out of the top 25 in the annual law school rankings published Friday by U.S. News and World Report.

After placing in a tie for both No. 24 in 2005 and No. 22 in 2006, Notre Dame tied with Boston College and the University of Washington for No. 28 in the most recent standings, which were based on data from the graduating Class of 2005 and incoming Class of 2006.

The placement was the lowest for Notre Dame in the past six years. The Law School tied for No. 26 in 2000 and No. 27 in 2001. It was No. 24 in 2002, tied for No. 22 in 2003 and peaked in a tie for No. 20 in 2004.

In an e-mail sent to Law School students Friday, Dean Patricia O’Hara said officials in the Law School would study the data used in the rankings “in an effort to better understand our position relative to our peers.”

According to the rankings, 5.2 percent of 2005 Notre Dame Law School graduates failed to earn legal employment within nine months of graduating. Of schools ranked in the top 30, only Washington and Lee University had a worse employment rate than Notre Dame, and only four schools in the top 50 were lower than Notre Dame in the category.

U.S. News and World Report’s Web site said the employment category was worth 18 percent of the overall ranking.

“The U.S. News formula for determining rankings is subject to a certain amount of vagueness and weights only those variables that the magazine deems important in assessing schools,” O’Hara said in her e-mail to students. “Many legal educators find this approach and the criteria that the magazine uses to be reductionist. At the same time, we live in the real world with market forces. For good or ill, the rankings are a reality with which we live, and of which we are cognizant.”

Student reaction varied, with some students attributing the drop to O’Hara’s leadership and others saying the change should be viewed as a slight fluctuation with limited insight into the future of the Law School.

“Initially I guess I was disappointed but not that surprised, and now I guess it’s just caused me to think about why it happened,” said Melissa Nunez, a third-year law student. “There’s a lot of reasons the school … isn’t doing its best to be a university law school.”

Nunez cited what she called a limited number of academically rigorous courses and a high number of cancelled courses as problems that have hurt students’ training and, indirectly, the rankings.

Third-year law student Derek Muller, however, said the Law School’s problems are noteworthy but not germane to the rankings.

He noted a turnover in the Law School’s admissions office for the relevant incoming class and the unusually high number of admitted students that year. Notre Dame accepted 24.4 percent of applicants in 2006.

“The numbers, I think, they reflected the class,” Muller said.

Muller said the University should address the discrepancy between evaluations by other schools and the judgments by those on the bar and on the bench. While Notre Dame received a score of 3.8 out of 5.0 from judges and lawyers, law school deans and long-tenured faculty from peer institutions gave the school a 3.3.

“Notre Dame’s reputation in the legal community, at least among law schools, has not improved, despite a lot of these excellent, outstanding young faculty [at Notre Dame Law School],” Muller said.

While Notre Dame’s ranking slipped, its cost remained relatively moderate in comparison to other top law schools.

According to statistics released by U.S. News and World Report, Notre Dame’s yearly cost of $48,220 – which included tuition, room and board, books and “other expenses” – was 33rd among private law schools. At least nine public law schools – including Connecticut, Wayne State, Maryland, all four California state law schools, Virginia and Michigan – were more expensive for out-of-state students than Notre Dame, according to the available data.

Notre Dame tied for ninth with Harvard Law School in the sub-field of trial advocacy but was unranked in all other specialties – tax law, legal writing, international law, intellectual property law, healthcare law, environmental law, dispute resolution and clinical training.

The specialty rankings did not factor into the overall score.