Thursday, July 09, 2009

UI Law School On Course Full Speed Ahead

July 9, 2009, 9:30 a.m.

University of Iowa College of Law Doing Fine
(brought to you by*)

UI President Sally Mason did a good job the other day of trying to put in perspective some folks' concerns about the University's College of Law.

It's a subject I addressed a year ago in what has become one of my most popular blog entries in terms of hits from throughout the country and around the world -- a subject to which I return this morning.

As the newspaper industry searches for innovative business plans and practices to compete in this age of digital journalism, the Des Moines Register has an innovative operation it calls "Live Chats."

It's not totally clear to me how it works, but it appears to be an online exchange between a newsmaker and reporters and members of the public -- sort of IM, text messaging, or tweets, only in full sentences.

The Register makes the full set of exchanges available on its Web site, and also assigns a reporter to write a story about the "Live Chat" for the hard copy and online version of the paper.

Anyhow, our UI President Mason underwent the process a couple of days ago. The full transcript is available as, "Live Chat with University of Iowa President Sally Mason," "Des Moines Register Live Chats," July 6, 2009 (scroll down, click on "Completed Events"). And this is the story Erin Jordan wrote about the event: Erin Jordan, "Mason Praises Athletics Leaders," Des Moines Register, July 7, 2009.

Here is the excerpt from the "Live Chat" having to do with the law school:

[Comment From JeffH] President Mason. I am an Iowa Law alum, and I am concerned about the path the school has taken the past few years, dropping out of the top 25 rankings, losing key members of the faculty, and looking at losing more of the aging faculty soon. Not only that, but the faculty numbers have been falling, as some members aren't being replaced, and young faculty are leaving because they feel the ship is sinking. There is a golden opportunity to hire a new dean, but more has to be done. Can you share your views on the future of the law school?

Sally Mason: The latest rankings, I believe, have us placed at no. 26 overall and 9th among public universities. But I believe we can, must and will do better. Hiring the new dean will provide a great start to a process that will include rebuilding a strong faculty and setting priorities that will build on and expand the existing and traditional strengths of our law school. With losses also come great opportunities, especially for a new dean, to reinvigorate the entire school. We look forward to a search that will yield strong candidates and we are prepared to maintain strong investments in our law school.
A little over a year ago I provided my own analysis of law school rankings in general, and those of the University of Iowa College of Law in particular, in a blog entry entitled "Random Thoughts On Law School Rankings," April 29, 2008.

Its analysis is as relevant now as it was then. There's no need to repeat it all here; just use the link to read last year's blog entry. But here are the sub-headings and conclusion from that piece:

How to Pick Your Law School:
Random Thoughts on U.S. News' Law School Rankings

Altogether too much is made of these U.S. News' rankings.

U.S. News' monopoly (of law school ranking systems) contributes to its disproportionate weight.

Iowa was a good law school, is a good law school and will continue to be a good law school.

The weight accorded various factors makes a dramatic difference in ranking.

The rankings have distorted law schools' decisions, and led to "gaming" the system -- and therefore unreliable and misleading results.

So what's a student to do when choosing a law school?

Distinguish between the "superficial" and the "substantive."

Substance: You have to "teach yourself the law" -- and you can.

Superficiality: How to pick the best law school for you.

Bottom line: chill. Law school rankings don't tell you much, and can be and are manipulated. Rankings are of very little significance in terms of the substantive quality of the legal education you'll get, especially because you're going to have to teach yourself the law anyway. Superficially, rankings in the top half-dozen may make some difference -- if you're set on getting into the places where they can help open doors -- but even by that standard you may be better off with a higher class rank from a lower ranked school than a much lower class rank from a higher ranked school. And between schools ranked, say, 15th to 30th, there really isn't much basis for choosing one school over another.

Good luck -- and don't forget to apply at Iowa!
If you're really concerned about the future of the University of Iowa College of Law I urge you to read that entire blog entry, "Random Thoughts On Law School Rankings," April 29, 2008.

I believe it deals, more than adequately, with the concern of "JeffH" that we are "dropping out of the top 25 rankings." ("Rankings" are unreliable, misleading and manipulated; all schools go up and down from year to year; Iowa has been pretty consistently over the years in the top 10 of public law schools; and it has ranked in the top 1, 2 or 3 by some measures from time to time.)

Meanwhile, here are some additional thoughts.

Rotation is an Iowa strength, not weakness. So far as I know, I am the only member of the law school faculty who was actually born and raised in Iowa City. (There is one other native Iowan, from Cedar Rapids.) Top law schools -- of which Iowa is one -- draw on what amounts to a national pool of top faculty. In addition to looking for the most promising potential faculty among Supreme Court and U.S. Court of Appeals judges' law clerks (we have a number, including myself), they raid each others' faculties, including ours. During the 28 years I've been teaching at Iowa the number of our faculty who have become law school deans and internationally well-regarded faculty elsewhere has been a matter of pride -- although admittedly accompanied by sadness at the loss of a friend as well as a colleague.

But as one or more move on, others -- equally bright, creative, hard working and collegial scholars -- are soon occupying their offices. That will be the case again, as it has been over the last three decades.

Think about it for a moment. Why would you want a faculty made up of professors who are never invited to visit, or move, elsewhere? Why would you want a faculty that is never reinvigorated with new hires?

I've spent substantial time in many cities in this country and beyond. Iowa City is my favorite place to live (for a long list of reasons I won't now take time to explain). I have family in northwest Iowa and in Des Moines. I'm living once again in the house I grew up in from 1941 to 1952. It's a three or four block walk, or bike ride, from the law school. I enjoy the atmosphere and community that is the law school, and being intellectually challenged by my colleagues. It's unlikely that any amount of money, or professional opportunity, could attract me elsewhere.

But I'm somewhat unique in that way. For the most part, the loyalties of this "national pool of top faculty" are, by definition, to the legal profession in general, and the legal academy in particular -- not to any given institution or geographical location. They don't come to Iowa, or anywhere else in America's heartland, for the beaches, mountains, or the "ho, hum, another perfect day" weather of a southern California. They don't come for the corndogs at the Iowa State Fair, or the "little green salads" of lime jello in our church basements. (Nor do they leave for those reasons.) They have come, do come, and will come, because of the academic opportunities our law school offers.

In fact, it's amazing that pay is not more of an issue than it is. Bear in mind, top-of-the-class law graduates, from top law schools like Iowa, in a good economy, are offered starting salaries at the top law firms in the range of $120,000 to $160,000. That's with no experience. With a Court of Appeals or Supreme Court clerkship there may be an additional bonus. Those who move up the partnership ladder at such firms (again, in a good economy) are looking at $500,000 to $1,000,000 a year or more, possibly plus bonuses. (A fellow who followed my path as a law clerk first to Judge Brown and then Justice Black, is now billing out his time at over $1000 an hour.)

No one goes into law school teaching for the money. But I would acknowledge that the Iowa law school may suffer a bit in the national competition when it is not only precluded from competing on the basis of weather, beaches and mountains, but on the basis of salary as well.

It's tough in a university setting, where undergraduate liberal arts professors already earn a fraction of the salaries of professional school faculty members (e.g., doctors, engineers, dentists, lawyers, etc.) to appropriate even more money for professional school faculty recruitment.

But in view of the disparity between what we can pay law school faculty and what they can get at some other schools -- not to mention law firms -- it is an extraordinary credit to the law school that we are able to attract, and hold, those we do.

I know fairly well each of my colleagues who is going to be visiting elsewhere, or has accepted a "permanent" position elsewhere. I am not about to reveal confidences, but I am about as confident as anyone can be of another that it is simply not true that our "young faculty are leaving because they feel the ship is sinking." Each has his or her own unique set of factors they've weighed in making their decisions. This is to be expected when you think about it, as it's true for almost anyone leaving one job for another, whether academic, corporate, public interest or government.

When I was in the building yesterday I couldn't help but reflect on the quality of those colleagues who were working there that day, and the many more who will be this coming semester; colleagues whom any law school would be delighted to have; colleagues who choose to be at Iowa.

We will be needing a new "captain" for our ship, given the resignation of our dean, and a couple extra crew. But they are in the process of being recruited, and aside from them we have about as good a crew as any ship ever had.

As the former U.S. Maritime Administrator, I've walked the deck, I've checked the hull, the bridge, the paint job, the propeller, the engine room. I see no signs of a "sinking ship" and I don't think my former colleagues did either.

As I wrote a year ago, "Iowa was a good law school, is a good law school and will continue to be a good law school."

And thank you, President Mason, for recognizing and saying as much to "JeffH" and the Des Moines Register.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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1 comment:

Nick said...

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