How do you measure an education?
That question has vexed educators since Socrates was quizzing students in the town square. For some, learning is measured by test scores, grade points, and class rankings. But those benchmarks are only snapshots taken in a controlled environment. They don’t evaluate how knowledge will ultimately be applied. For others, true teaching involves fostering growth, independence, and spirit. But such noble sentiments fall flat when you need something intricate like surgery.
In law school, your grades and alma mater ultimately dictate your fate, fortune, and future. Fair or not, the best schools generally attract the top scholars and students. And employers, viewing law schools as screeners, pluck the top performers from the most highly selective schools. It’s a continuous cycle where graduates from the same schools land the same opportunities.
In the end, academics and employers alike are left asking the same question:
Do their students really learn anything?
How the Bar Exam Reveals Teaching Excellence
Ironically, the bar exam – a standardized test – may actually serve as the great equalizer, reflecting teaching ability at various law schools. Here’s why: Students flock to the top schools, knowing the brand opens doors with decision-makers and alumni alike. As a result, these schools can enroll those students with the highest LSATs and GPAs. With this level of talent, the top schools should produce the highest bar passage rates, right?
Think again. Take #1 Yale Law, which has sat atop the U.S. News law school rankings since the Reagan administration. Logically, their graduates’ bar passage rates should exceed everyone else. But that’s just not the case. Although Yale delivers an enviable 94.4% passage rate, there are actually 18 schools that perform better, including #93 Marquette University (and worse…Harvard Law).
Should You Pick Georgia State Over Yale?
Does this mean Yale Law is overrated? Surely not. But using Yale as a yardstick illustrates the teaching abilities of other law schools. For example, Georgia State’s students averaged LSAT scores between 157-160 and average GPAs between 3.15-3.55. Compare that with Yale, which lists 170-176 LSATs and 3.82-3.97 GPAs, respectively (and a 9.4% acceptance rate against Georgia State’s 28.2%). Clearly, Yale Law recruits a higher caliber student.
Now, compare Yale’s bar passage rate (94.4%) against Georgia State’s rate (96.8%). While Georgia State ranks 63 spots below Yale overall, GSU’s bar passage rate indicates that their faculty squeezes more out of the collective student body than Yale does. They may accept weaker students initially, but they develop them to the point where they outperform Yale Law grads on the bar as a whole. The distance from point A to point B may be greater for Georgia State students, but they bootstrap their way to a photo finish with Yale (despite Yalies receiving the proverbial head start).
Surely, Georgia State students didn’t rise academically by osmosis. There must be some difference that ultimately sows these results. While test prep, student resources, and personal attention could play a part, there is really only one explanation for such growth over three years: Teaching excellence.
How to Measure Teaching Excellence
Sure, great teaching is easy to spot and hard to measure. Some might argue that superior teaching is manifested by the brightest students. Others will claim that it is exhibited by a jump in the group’s performance as a whole. For this exercise, we’ll apply the latter scale.
To identify the best schools for taking untrained students and molding them into practicing lawyers, we’ll use a simple tool: Compiling a school’s bar passage ranking and subtracting its overall ranking from U.S. News and World Report to see the difference. A positive number indicates schools where overall ranking is far higher than the student bar passage ranking. A negative number means the opposite: Graduates are passing the bar at far higher rates than their overall ranking would indicate.
Mind you, this method assumes that overall rankings correlate with the LSAT and GPA ranges of enrolling students (i.e. the higher the ranking, the higher the scores). While this principle generally applies, there are exceptions. For example, USC and the University of Houston require higher LSAT scores than some schools above them. Conversely, Tulane accepts lower grade points than many schools below them.
The Top 20: Stanford and Berkeley Disappoint
Ranked #19 in first-time bar passage, Yale has already been singled out as an underperformer. But how do their peers fare? Are there Ivy schools that lag behind lower-ranked big ten institutions? Check out this table to see where the top schools land:
(See following pages for full analysis and tables)