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Drake Law School dip more of a blip


Drake University officials don’t expect serious recruitment problems as a result, but a U.S. News & World Report analysis that put the university’s law school in the bottom tier of its rankings is causing reactions on campus that range from uncertainty among students to embarrassment among the law school faculty.

Law School Dean David Walker said the slip from the third to the fourth tier of the magazine’s rankings is an “aberration” stemming mainly from a one-time dip in graduates’ bar exam passage rate and a faulty career-placement reporting system that had been corrected before the list, based on data from the class of 2003, was published two weeks ago. Student satisfaction surveys and other measures rank Drake competitively with top-tier law schools, but are not as widely disseminated as U.S. News, which has a weekly circulation of 2 million. “Unfortunately,” he said, “there isn’t anything else out there that sells that many millions of copies.”

Universities, including Drake, typically tout favorable rankings in their marketing efforts, but they are of little substantive value to prospective law students, Drake President David Maxwell said. “They don’t play a role in enrollment,” he said. “For better or worse, they resonate in the popular imagination, but the reality is it’s never had anything to do with the real quality of the institution.”

The U.S. News analysis, which uses numerical rankings to compare 180 American Bar Association-accredited law schools, is widely discredited by those in legal education, Walker said. The Law School Admissions Council, for example, criticizes “all by the numbers” methodologiesy such as that used by U.S. News as “inherently flawed” because they do not reflect many of the factors students weigh before choosing a law school.

For example, the rankings don’t show that Drake’s moot court teams have won or placed in national competitions each of the past five years, besting prestigious law schools such as Harvard University’s; that it has a one-of-a-kind first-year trial practicum that exposes students to a one-week trial; or that the Drake Law Review is among the 25 such journals that are most cited by judges, according to a Washington and Lee Law School study that looked at citations in 1,000 law journals in decisions rendered between 1997 and 2004. Also not reflected in the rankings is the National Jurist analysis that ratedd the law school 16th in the country on its Technology Honor Roll, up from 40th in the previous year’s rankings.

Though important for the school’s reputation among professionals, the rankings offer “no judgment as to how good the lawyers are coming out of the program,” said Maura Strassberg, a professor who led the law school’s self-study in preparation for American Bar Association re-accreditation earlier this year.

“You’re starting with a pool of institutions that all have been accredited under the ABA and that all are more than competent, more than adequate in providing a level of education appropriate for professional degrees,” she said. “It’s like being a fifth-tier medical school. Does that mean it produces lousy doctors? No, we’re talking about a pecking order in the academic world, in research and esoteric things that may not have a lot of relevance in the practical world of legal practice.”

Law School Associate Dean Russell Lovell said a more accurate representation of Drake’s strengths is found in the 2004 Law School Survey of Student Engagement, which compared Drake with 42 other schools, 15 of which are in U.S. News’ Top 100. Lovell, who authored the study, said Drake made “an incredible showing” on questions related to education and personal growth. In fact, the only negative rating in that section of the analysis came from first-year law students, who wanted help in developing clearer career goals – something the school had already addressed through enhancements to the career placement office.

On questions measuring student satisfaction, Drake scored exceptionally high in two areas, library assistance and computing technology, but scored poorly in areas related to financial advisement, career counseling, and academic advising and planning.

Though they expect the fallout from the rankings to be short-lived, Drake officials aren’t taking the law school’s rating dip casually. Through the university’s strategic planning process, they already knew they needed to enhance the law school’s placement office, “but getting a more robust career services operation is an urgent need that we have to address now,” Maxwell said.

In response to the needs identified in the strategic planning process, Drake has allocated more than $1 million to the law school’s faculty and staff budget in the past five years, and an additional $225,000 for that purpose in the budget year that begins June 1. Also, more than $1 million was added to the law school scholarship budget in the last several years.

Maxwell emphasized, however, that the low ranking wasn’t a money issue. “Whether the law school had more money would not have affected the rankings,” he said.

He said university officials are confident that the law school will be ranked higher next year. For one thing, fail-safe measures have been put in place to ensure that data Drake submits to outside groups, such as U.S. News, are accurate and up-to-date. For another, the school’s bar passage rate already has improved and the first-time pass rate in the summer of 2004 was 9 percentage points higher than the 80.5 percent summer 2003 rate reflected in the U.S. News rankings.

Reaction among the 460 Drake Law School students is one of uncertainty, said Brooke Burrage-Timmer, president of the Student Bar Association. “It might make their job search a little harder,” she said. “Regardless, you sell yourself. Students realize [the ranking] won’t help, and it’s still on their shoulders to actively seek jobs.”

Law professor Jerry Anderson doesn’t expect the ranking to have much effect on students’ job searches. “Almost all lawyers don’t pay attention to the survey when they are doing their hiring,” he said. “Iowa lawyers know that our students know what they are doing and we have a good reputation in the region that would far outweigh this ranking.”

Lovell said “a certain amount of embarrassment” accompanies the release of the U.S. News rankings. “We already know it’s a quality law school,” he said.

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