An Interview With Northwestern’s Forward-Thinking Dean

by Maya Itah on

dean rodriguezBetween its accelerated JD program and its insistence on interviewing every single one of its applicants, Northwestern University School of Law is known for doing things differently. Nevertheless, Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez wants to make it absolutely clear that innovating isn’t a matter of survival for the school, which, at No. 12 in the U.S. News ranking, has long been a member of the hallowed T-14. “We don’t have to do anything differently,” he asserts. “We’re greatly, greatly blessed by having an extraordinarily strong reputation, and have had that reputation for a century and a half and counting, so I just want to quibble with the description of having to do things differently.” Point taken.

Rodriguez officially started serving as Dean of Northwestern Law in January 2012. This isn’t his first time leading a law school; he’s been dean at the warmer (if less prestigious) University of San Diego School of Law. He’s also the current president for the Association of American Law Schools.

That’s a lot of responsibility, but Rodriguez shows few—if any—signs of burnout. “I might not have expected to say this given that this is my second tour of duty as a dean, and I’m in my tenth year of being a law dean at two different law schools, but I enjoy it every single day,” he says. “I’m very privileged to play a small role in moving this very old, well-established law school forward.” In our conversation, Rodriguez touched on the nature of that role, as well as his predictions for the future of law schools in general. His view? Never let a good crisis go to waste.

There’s been a national decline in law school applicants. How has the decline affected Northwestern in particular?

We did see a slight decline in applications to Northwestern last year, but our decline’s been a lot lower than the national average. You never know what the future brings, but like many law schools in our cohort, the decline hasn’t been as steep; in some cases, schools have even seen a slight uptick. This current year—and we’re obviously still admitting our class for next year—applications are roughly flat, which is not a bad place to be right now.

Do you think the decline in applicants has leveled off, or do you think it’s going to keep going?

Boy, if I had a crystal ball on that, I’d be a real genius. Last year, there was such a substantial national decline, and a lot of law school deans said, “It’s got to be the bottom of the market, right?” People assume there has to be an uptick, because there’ll be a recovery and students will see an opportunity to get into better schools. But then a year goes by and there’s an additional decline. So, I’m very wary of making any predictions about whether we have seen the bottoming out of the national applicant pool.

I will say this: The preliminary data I’ve seen on the students who have taken the LSAT this year suggests that we’re not seeing a big recovery—let’s put it that way. But it’s a little too soon to tell, and obviously there are a couple more administrations of the LSAT coming out for students who’ll be applying next year for the following year for law school.

Do you think the best and the brightest students are still attracted to law school, or do you think they’re being lost to other fields?

I think there are difficulties in the legal profession, real challenges concerning the way law firms and lawyers configure careers for young graduates. That, along with a fair amount of negative publicity about law schools, has made a lot of students—let’s call them the best and the brightest—take long, hard looks at whether law school is for them, and whether lawyering is a career that maximizes their talents. And some of them are going away from law school. I think there’s no question about that.

Now, where they’re going is a fascinating question. The data I’ve seen suggests that business school applications are down—not as much as law school, but they’re down—and it’s not clear that the so-called best and the brightest are moving there instead, or moving into other graduate programs, frankly. We simply don’t know where they’re going. It’s hard to tell at the graduate school level whether students are taking some time out and living at home longer, going into the workforce, or going into other academic programs. But I do think law schools are losing out on some of the most accomplished, talented students, students who might’ve otherwise simply ended up going to law school because that’s what very bright, very talented, very accomplished students did in the past. I’ll let others question whether that’s a good or a bad thing for society.

How do you feel about law school rankings (especially the U.S. News ranking)?

Like most deans, I believe it was a generally good idea that’s gone horribly wrong. The idea that people should be given more information about law schools isn’t bad. Even though I went to law school before U.S. News rankings existed, we had conversations about which law schools were better. The notion that there are comparisons—that’s just life. What’s gone horribly wrong, I think, are two things that are specific to the U.S. News ranking.

First, the factors that go into the rankings can be very poor proxies for quality. U.S. News makes it very difficult to compare law schools on the dimensions that are most important to lawyers and law students. The second horribly wrong aspect I see in U.S. News’ ranking—and all running rankings, but U.S. News is the most powerful—is the false sense of precision that it gives students with regard to very small differences in the rankings of law schools. The problem arises when students make choices between the 7th ranked law school and the 11th ranked law school, or the 35th and the 45th. The notion that there’s a powerful, profound difference in the academic reputation and quality of a school based on five or six ranking points is absolutely absurd. And it’s distorted choices that law schools have made.

In what way has the U.S. News ranking distorted law schools’ choices?

It’s not the only reason, but one of the reasons for the exorbitant cost of legal education has been the efforts and energies most law schools put into improving their chances of moving up in the rankings. Now, I don’t want to go so far as to say that U.S. News should be blamed for that—they haven’t held a gun to the heads of law school deans—but they’ve contributed to a toxic environment. So have folks in the journalistic world who report the day the ranking comes out, “Oh my god, so-and-so school’s gone up three spots, such-and-such school’s dropped ten spots”—everybody does it. It’s contributed to a climate in which doing things to game the U.S. News rankings are more important than doing things to significantly enhance academic quality and to deal with the high cost of legal education. I think it’s a terrible thing, even though our school does very well, thank you very much, in the U.S. News and World Report.

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