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This is How a Top Law School Plummets 17 Spots in the Rankings

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

Seventeen spots.

Just last year, we were speculating on how Washington and Lee was managing to thrive in an otherwise dismal market for law schools. Though most schools were plagued with plummeting enrollment and demand, my dear W&L accidently enrolled its largest class ever, thanks, it seemed, to a higher than expected yield rate (the percentage of students who accept the school's offer). Many were suggesting that the school's practice-based third-year curriculum was the reason for the spike in demand.

Plus, the school was riding high in the rankings, recovering from a dip that began with the recession (and purely coincidentally, my enrollment) to return to its perennial status as a mid-20s school.

Now, after a seventeen-spot decline, it's tied at 43. How?

About That Class Size

Professional poker players often talk about being able to handle the swings -- from hand to hand, one's luck can vary wildly, but over time, statistically, it'll even out.

W&L had a surge in enrollment last year. The following fall, the school had the most dramatic drop in class size in the country. Was it a reflection of demand? Possibly. Or was it, as Dean Nora V. Demleitner asserts in a letter sent to alumni yesterday morning, simply the school's choice to enroll a smaller class to average out to historical norms? (The school averages about 130 students per year, and the previous high was 147 in 1990.)

Either way, the smaller the student body, the more likely the statistics are to take an odd turn.

It's Not the Practice-Based Third Year Program

Last year, everyone was pointing to the 3YP is the reason for the over-enrollment. Now, after the ranking collapse, the knee-jerk reaction, especially over at Above the Law, was "Washington & Lee's Experiential Learning Seems To Be A Flop."

It's not the 3YP. You know how many employers have asked me about that fabulous, innovative program? Zero. Nobody cares. It was enjoyable, it has helped me (a wee bit) in the "real world," and spending a year learning in a courtroom and simulated practicums beat the heck out of another year of casebooks.

So, did employers' uneasiness about a few-years-old reform suddenly lead to a collapse in the rankings? Hardly. It's an irrelevant footnote to a resume in a market where every employer has a thousand applicants for a below-living-wage position. A better question might be whether the 3YP had the desired effect of making W&L grads more marketable. That's a tougher question, but the admittedly early returns are not too favorable.

It Is The Employment Numbers

Dean Demleitner's letter provides some information on the reasons for the precipitous decline. Much to recent alums' lack of surprise, employment numbers seems to be the biggest culprit.

There was a slight decline in academic ranking, due to a change in methodology and response rate, but the shift seems minimal. Instead, as many have pointed out over the last year, nine-month employment numbers for the Class of 2012 were abysmal, at a mere 56.9 percent. A Law School Café study, using a different methodology than U.S. News, had this to say:

"In 2012, the numbers were even worse. Only 49.2% of Washington & Lee's 2012 graduates obtained full-time, long-term jobs that required a law license, ranking the school 119th compared to other accredited schools. Including JD Advantage jobs raised the percentage to 57.7%, but lowered Washington & Lee's comparative rank to 127th."

That, right there, is the crux of the problem. For the former #26 school, those numbers are utterly inexcusable. (The Dean's letter notes that a new hire just took over the career planning office. For the sake of the now-panicking student body, we hope the former legal recruiter knows a thing or two. )

And the Bar Passage Rate (or U.S. News's Version of It)

This might be the most understandable excuse for the rankings drop. The U.S. News only takes into account the state in which the highest number of the school's graduates took the bar. For W&L, that's typically the 40 to 45 students that take the exam in Virginia, one of the hardest exams in the country, it should be noted.

Grads from 2011 nailed the exam, with a 95.7 percent passage rate, but the 2012 class dropped to 71.7 percent. The dean's letter noted that out of the same class, 88 percent passed the New York bar.

It does seem idiotic to only use results from a single state, especially if a school places a large percentage of its grads out-of-state. (My motto was, "It's better to be unemployed and homeless on a beach, rather than the east --  California or bust.")

Really, It's That Class Size

When you enroll only 130-ish students per year, a few failed bar exams in Virginia can tank your rates. A few unreported jobs, or unemployable graduates, can tank your rates. A couple of tanked rates, in a list of rankings that are full of ties, can produce wild swings. This, essentially, was the message of the dean's letter.

Do you buy it? We're not completely sure, but we do know three things: the U.S. News rankings are far from infallible, W&L didn't turn into a dump overnight, and most importantly, Assistant Dean of Career Planning Cliff Jarrett better be a freaking miracle worker.

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