What do clinics have to do with US News & World Report? The unfortunate answer is “not much”

If it’s fall, then the US News & World Report law school rankings ballots are arriving in law professor mailboxes everywhere. More specifically, clinic directors are receiving the separate clinical specialty ballots (as are teachers of the other separate specialty rankings), and four members of every law school faculty will get the annual “peer assessment” survey, the results of which constitute a whooping 25% of each school’s score for the OVERALL and most influential ranking.

Who are these four voters? They are the dean, dean of academic affairs, the chair of faculty appointments and the most recently tenured faculty member at each law school. Given the enfranchised population and the likelihood that only a minority are faculty who teach clinics, we should wonder how many voters consider the strength of schools’ clinical and other experiential learning programs when they mark each school on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished), or “don’t know”.

As the CLEA Statement on Law School Clinical Program Rankings below invites, I hope there’s a robust discussion of what, if anything, the clinical community can do to ensure that the definition of quality in legal education is understood by all — including those four US News voters — to include the quality of a school’s clinics.

There are many possibilities. Do we ask US News law school rankings czar Bob Morse to explore adding a fifth clinical voter? Is there a quantifiable data point regarding clinics to add to the overall ranking formula? Should the various skills-related specialty rankings (Clinics, Legal Writing, Trial Advocacy, Dispute Resolution) be combined and added to the overall ranking? Urge the existing four voters to consider Best Practices, including “Best Practices for Experiential Courses” in Chapter 5 of the Best Practices Book? Do we opt for the status quo and do nothing? Other ideas?

There’s a “res ipsa” sense to the CLEA statement’s recognition that the rankings are here to stay. Any boycott would simply result in US News changing its methodology and finding publicly available data points in other sources like the ABA Official Guide to Law Schools. The only real question is whether we work to ensure the availability and quality of clinical offerings as called for in just about every critique to date of the legal academy, are commonly understood to be part of the undefined overall assessment when voters complete their ballots.

I commend CLEA for taking the initial brave and proactive step of issuing the below statement.

Karen Lash
(writing on my own behalf, this ranting is not on behalf of the CLEA Rankings Committee or Equal Justice Works)

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CLEA’S STATEMENT ON LAW SCHOOL CLINICAL PROGRAM RANKINGS

The Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA) issues this statement
because the US News & World Report rankings are upon us. Many of those
who receive ballots in their capacity as clinical directors or faculty
members find this ranking process very uncomfortable. There are a number
of problems with the ranking of clinical programs, not the least of
which is that it pits us in competition with each other, when we as a
group see ourselves on the same team in a shared struggle for social
justice, equity, and improved legal education. Second, there are no
articulated factors for ranking clinical programs, so to a degree the
voting is a bit of a popularity contest. Third, some schools unfairly
suffer because they do not have the budget or the support of their
administration to produce and mail clinic brochures, or to send their
clinic faculty to annual conferences.

While we might wish the rankings would disappear or hope for collective
action, the USN&WR rankings are likely here to stay and this year’s
clinical program ballots will soon be sent out. So, what can we as
faculty who teach clinics do? CLEA, acting on the recommendation of its
Rankings Committee (Michael Pinard, Bob Kuehn, Karen Lash, Carolyn
Grose, Margaret Johnson, and Karen Tokarz), urges those ranking clinical
programs to focus on key factors such as the range and quality of
clinical curricular offerings available to students; the law school’s
security of position, academic freedom, governance rights for faculty
who teach clinics; and the extent to which the school has fulfilled the
goal of diversity in hiring for clinical positions.

The five principles identified in the AALS Task Force on Clinicians in
the Academy provide helpful guideposts for ranking. That Taskforce
Report sets forth five fundamental principles that are essential for
every law school to recognize and apply: (1) to end the marginalization
of clinical legal education within the academy; (2) to recognize that
clinical legal education is vital to the academy’s goal of ensuring that
law students develop as effective thinkers and practitioners and are
instilled with the ethical and social dimensions of the profession; (3)
to provide for security in position and academic freedom for faculty who
teach clinics; (4) to provide compensation and resources for faculty who
teach clinics equal to those received by non-clinical faculty so that
those who teach clinics may fulfill the multi-faceted requirements of
their unique positions and so that schools may recruit and retain
excellent educators and develop outstanding clinical programs; and (5)
to provide equal governance rights for faculty who teach clinics to
ensure that the legal academy meets its societal obligation to educate
for the professional development of the whole student, develops
curricula that is comprehensive, integrated, innovative and relevant,
and secures clinical legal education’s indispensable role within the
academy.

Beyond the issue of how to handle this year’s ballots, CLEA believes
that ranking clinical programs and infusing clinical education more into
the equation (and balloting) for overall school rankings are topics
worthy of continued conversation and strategizing, and welcomes your
ideas and input on these issues.

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5 Responses

  1. I’m fortunate to direct a clinic at a school where our clinical faculty are well-integrated into the culture of the law school. Whether we’re in tenured, tenure-in-position or long-term contract positions, we vote and serve on committees. So I appreciate the importance of the factors that CLEA emphasizes.

    And I’m all for challenging our tendency to give high rankings to “elite” schools, just because a) the person doing the ranking went to one and knows about the clinical program there or b) richer schools can afford to send out more fancy brochures.

    But as we engage in ranking, I do think that we need also to give more thought to the program outcomes that we think security of position will produce. Why? Well, for one thing we’re building a significant number of schools with strong clinical programs where all/most/many faculty have tenure/clinical tenure/long term contracts. How do we distinguish among those programs?

    And, I’ve come around to the view that allowing different statuses has advantages. Our founding director, Alan Kirtley, worked successfully to move our initial clinical hires from short-term to long-term contracts, and then to tenure.

    But one of our colleagues has chosen not to move to tenure (sure makes it easier to travel!). And most of our newer hires are on “tenure in position” type lines, a choice necessitated by a different mix of funding sources. We’ve managed to rely mostly on (reasonably) stable funding sources. But this mix of statuses allows us to have a program in which 60% of our students graduate having taken a traditional clinic. (The others take an externship.) I think that’s a good thing. And my hope is that for schools like us, large, strong clinics will lead to clinic endowments and more security.)

  2. Oops: “sure makes it easier to travel” should have been “sure makes it easier to take a chunk of the summer off and travel.”

  3. Interesting post. On the question of how to incorporate clinical/best practices into the regular peer assesment survey (and lawyers/judges assesment) , I just wanted to point out that I’m trying to do a bit of that with the Race to the Top project, which sent out that “Best Practices” Survey several weeks ago, due this Friday from all law schools. http://www.racetothetoplaw.com/

    We could certainly use the help of clincians and other skills faculty, including legal writing, to encourage “sympathizers” you know who are among the four voters at each school to vote according to the kinds of metrics you suggest above, and that we will be suggesting in our “Voters’ Guide” out next week.

  4. Your post raises interesting questions. The absence of articulated ranking factors for clinics causes confusion for the voters. Chapter 5 of Best Practices is the most comprehensive resource in existence that could serve as a roadmap for identifying factors to include when evaluating clinics. It certainly is useful as an informal roadmap to creating a clinic or reexamining a clinic that has been operational for some time.

    The ideas you propose are not mutually exclusive, so my reaction is to say “yes” to all of them. For example, “yes” to exploring the option of adding a 5th clinical voter, and “yes” to urging the existing voters to consider Best Practices. The only option that should probably be rejected is the “do nothing” option. I too commend CLEA’s action as an important step in the process of educating the voters and stimulating conversation about clinical rankings.

  5. Jason, I admire your efforts to infuse some actual data into the voting process. Knowing how challenging it is to collect and present survey results (a la Equal Justice Works’ The E-Guide to Public Service at America’s Law Schools), you get even more kudos. How will you be publicizing the availability of the Race to the Top website?

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