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February 26, 2010


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Could someone please explain to me, in language that doesn't reek of puffery, what specifically Northwestern is doing that is so different from its competitors (or a lot of other law schools)? Having looked around the Northwestern Law website, I can't figure out what they are doing that is so distinctive. Any thoughts? Or are they just better at self-promotion?


And another question. Northwestern is known for almost exclusively hiring faculty with Ph.Ds. Not a lot of these folks have a lot of practice experience. So who, exactly, is teaching all of these skills? Having a few skills classes taught by writing or other faculty isn't really impressive.

Bob Lawless

The NLJ rankings are a new level of silliness. Methodology? It appears to be the following -- take number of students placed in top 250 law firms and divide by total number of JDs awarded. Students who obtain judicial clerkships, government agencies, or public-interest organizations count against the ranking. Also, NLJ's definition of a "top" firm is a "large" firm. It really should be the "largest 250 firms." Calling the ranking a placement at "top" firms implies some level of quality or prestige, which is not necessarily true.

Let's take this ranking for what it is -- just another attempt to sell magazines. It's wishful thinking, I know, but can we just ignore this one?


Yeah, I'm confused here too. Under Dean VZ's leadership, NW has essentially required a Ph.D. of its faculty. Interdiscinplinary is the word, as I understand it. That means not only that the faculty probably couldn't provide skills training if it wanted to, but also that they're not even fully committed to a lawyer-like disciplinary method. Which is fine and great, of course, but it should lead to a different style of advertising than the one the good Dean is providing, no?

Here's what I think is going on. Dean VZ seems to be in love with the B-school model: students with work experience, faculty with training in other disciplines, who teach business to pay the rent. And because business schools emphasize (advertise?) skills training, so too a law school set up on that model should advertise and brand itself similarly. (Business school model, remember -- branding and advertising are what it's all about!) Of course, there is no reason to think that model would lead to better training for law students, nor is there really any evidence that it's successful. It's interesting to recall that, to put it bluntly, B-school education is something of a joke, little more than a credential for students, and a boondoggle to support research in other disciplines for faculty, with low teaching loads and higher salaries to boot.

By golly, I think I've just explained Northwestern! It's admittedly speculative, but I'd bet that, deep down, I've captured Dean VZ's motivations.


Recent tenure track doctrinal hires at Northwestern have pretty much been Ph.D.s. Their job, in case you didn't get the memo, is basically to write and to add luster to the academic rep of the school.

But are tenure track doctrinal hires the whole story? Not hardly.

Northwestern has a huge commitment to clinical programs, and also has some well endowed centers (such as the Bartlit center for trial strategy) that offer skills based education. Some of the education is offered by clinical faculty; some is offered by adjuncts. My sense, from the outside, is that they are taking advantage of their position in Chicago to offer some really great skills based programs that leverages off their academic reputation (adjuncts like being associated with Northwestern more than, say, Depaul or Chicago Kent) but delivers a different kind of value to the students. I think a lot of practicing lawyers would love to be able to take the kind of course the Bartlit center makes possible, for example.

I don't know Van Zandt, and from a distance I can't tell whether his blowhard moments are lapses or the main story. What I can tell is that he has thought hard about the role of the school, and how it could deliver value to students and hiring firms. In focusing on providing value to students and employers (who are, after all, the customers) as opposed to looking solely at making life sweet for the faculty, he's come up with some major insights that others ignore at their long term peril.


Steve Lubet is an intelligent man, he can't possibly believe this explanation for the result in the NLJ survey. The giveaway, of course, is that Chicago trails Northwestern, and Harvard and Yale trail even more. That's because NLJ is looking just at first-yera associates, and schools whose graduates clerk, go on for PhDs, go into high-end government or public interest work, or go into teaching in large numbers *of course* have fewer going into large firms. End of the entire story. Whatever the limitations of this study,
it is clearly closer to the mark vis-a-vis Northwestern, because it isn't confined to just first-year associates.

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