The Best Law Schools for Teaching Excellence

Atticus Finch
Brigham Young University could be considered a disappointment. Despite jumping 8 spots to #36 overall in the 2015 rankings, they rank #67 in bar passage rate at 86.1%. And in-state rival Utah isn’t much higher at 83.0% (after dropping 8 spots overall). What’s worse, both schools sunk below the state’s average bar passage (89.15%) according to Anderson’s schematic.  And their placement rates are nothing to crow about. Still, BYU’s low $56,053 average graduate debt makes it a bargain. And Utah’s average starting salary of $82,000 would appeal to many new graduates.
It was rough enough that the University of Indiana, University of Maryland, and George Mason each tumbled four to five spots overall. But their bar passage rates placed them near the bottom third, with Maryland actually ranking #85 with an 81.3% passage rate. Aside from California schools, Tulane University had the largest discrepancy between its overall (#46) and bar passage (#93) rankings.
The University of North Carolina’s bar passage ranking is equivalent to its placement rank (#55). However, its rankings by academic peers and legal professionals are also nearly equivalent (#19 and #18 respectively). Question is, which metric truly measures the school’s teaching quality?
Looking for an enigmatic program? Check out the University of California-Hastings. Ranked #54 overall, the school lazes near the bottom in terms of bar passage rates and graduate placement. Still, the legal community ranks them as the #19 program in the nation, with graduates earning $83,900 to start. Talk about mixed messages!
Washington & Lee capped off a terrible start to 2014 with a 71.7% bar passage rate, worst among the top 50 schools.
The Challenges with this Methodology
Alas, comparing overall and bar passage rankings to measure teaching excellence opens a Pandora’s Box. For starters, U.S. News relies on reported numbers, which may be (or may not) be up-to-date and accurate. Fact is, not every student takes the bar after graduation. State bars, as noted earlier, are imbued with varying levels of difficulty. What’s more, this ranking epitomizes a pass-fail mindset, as average bar scores (a true differentiator) aren’t available by school.
Of course, high bar passage rates could also indicate schools that ‘teach to the test,’ particularly in smaller states where a higher percentage of graduates work near their alma mater. And passage rates could also reflect the participation rate in (and quality of) third party bar reviews (along with schools’ push to get students to start studying early).
Imperfect as this methodology is, this teaching ranking can help students in two areas. At worst, it identifies which schools best prepare them to pass the bar. At best, it indicates where students may receive the best education. Pair this data with tuition and debt loads and students can pare down their options to determine the best return on their investment.
In the end, networks and opportunities matter. But those come after students develop their analytical, writing, and presentation skills. Learning the law is learning a new language, with its unique history, suppositions, and contexts. To understand and apply the law, students need rigor and guidance. And that comes from teaching.
Eventually, students will graduate and be evaluated on a new set of criteria. Over time, their alma mater or class rank will matter less. They’ll learn far more law from applying it to real cases than they ever did from studying. For some, the law will become a means to an end, to a salary, an enviable won-loss record, or a partnership. But for others, the law will be a profound expression of their personal values. It will serve as an outlet to do good, to exhibit their honor and commitment. In doing so, they will become examples. In the end, it is the example they set, as much as the knowledge they consume, that reflects the true teaching excellence of their alma mater.
Note: This article was modified to reflect that the 100% bar passage rate at the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University stemmed from diploma privilege.