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New law school rankings ‘incomplete’

|Written By Helen Burnett

A new set of Canadian law school rankings have some members of the legal community questioning why the focus is on the number of graduates who choose “elite firms” - and that public interest law has been left out of the criteria for measuring a faculty’s success.

Firms in Ottawa and Edmonton are not included in the survey, says Daniel Gervais, University of Ottawa dean of common law.

Maclean’s magazine’s recently released first-annual ranking of Canadian law schools is based on the methodology created by professor Brian Leiter of the University of Texas at Austin Law School.

Canadian law schools were ranked based on four elements, including faculty journal citations, weighted at 50 per cent; elite firm hiring at 25 per cent; national reach at 15 per cent; and Supreme Court clerkship at 10. Elite firms were selected based on the Lexpert list of leading Canadian law firms.

However, Daniel Gervais, University of Ottawa dean of common law, says that one of the main problems with the survey is that it’s incomplete. In the category of “elite firm hiring” for example, many of the law school’s graduates have also gone on to work in various non-governmental organizations, such as the Red Cross.

“How do you say that these jobs are less valuable than a job in a large law firm? I don’t know how you can make that value judgement fairly,” he says.

Additionally, out of the school’s top 10 students every year, Gervais notes that as many as five or six choose not to work in one of the Canadian “elite firms,” opting instead for the Department of Justice, or positions in New York City or London, England.

“We encourage them, actually from the very first day they walk into the law school at orientation, to consider careers outside of traditional career paths,” he says.

He also notes that firms located in Ottawa and Edmonton are not included in the rankings, and many graduates from the University of Ottawa’s law school end up working in Ottawa-based firms.

The rankings, he says, are “very incomplete in terms of capturing the experience of students in law school.”

University of Windsor faculty of law Dean Bruce Elman told Law Times that, “Today, law students want interesting and challenging careers.

They may be able to find those careers in large law firms in big cities but, increasingly, the very best law students realize that meaningful careers may be found in boutique firms, in legal aid clinics, in government departments in large cities, or elsewhere. At Windsor Law, we like to say that it is not where you practice that counts; it is how you practice.”

In terms of whether these types of rankings have an impact on where students choose to go to law school, Elman says, “In the United States, where there are almost 200 law schools of wildly varying quality, it may make some sense to have rankings.

But in Canada, where there are only 16 common law schools, where differences in the quality of the schools is inconsequential, where the vast majority of students choose schools in their region, the only possible purpose behind rankings is to sell magazines.”

Gervais adds that these types of surveys are “extremely incomplete,” as they measure faculty quality by the number of citations in Canadian journals, not taking into account faculty who publish internationally.

Tony Keller, managing editor of special projects at Maclean’s, says that the magazine is trying to look at two key things in the rankings: the quality of the faculty and how successful graduates are once they enter the profession, and how the profession of law at its most senior level views those graduates.

Keller says that they are very open to receiving ideas, feedback, and criticism from academics, the law schools, and the profession.

“One of the things that we’ve been thinking about and that has been part of the feedback that we’ve received, which is that we would like to try to find a way to include highly competitive public sector positions or non-firm positions in that list,” says Keller.

“I think those are the areas to explore for the future . . . looking at what other very competitive elite type of hiring is there,” he adds.

Keller notes, however, that the rankings do already include the important public sector position of Supreme Court clerkships.

In terms of firm hiring, he says, this area is very transparent, while looking at NGO or governmental hiring could prove be more challenging and may not be possible.

He adds that they also want to maintain the fact that the survey consists of public data.

Third-year Osgoode student Michelle Simard tells Law Times that she thinks the “elite firm hiring” aspect was also problematic.

“A large proportion of it is based on elite firm ranking, meanwhile, does that really characterize how a school should be judged?” she says.

“They hear a ranking, they keep pushing more and more elite firm hiring; how is that helping legal aid?” she adds.

“It’s almost like we’re pushing a certain type of mentality on these students where it’s like, ‘This is where you should go,’ and a school might push it because they want to do better on a ranking, and it keeps filtering down . . . I don’t think that’s the type of image that should be promoted,” she says.

She notes that Osgoode has incorporated its public interest law requirement this year, because of the importance of giving back, as well as the fact that more students were interested in pursuing careers in this area.

According to Osgoode, LLB students must complete a mandatory public interest service requirement as a condition of their graduation. It’s the first Canadian law school to adopt this type of requirement.

Simard says that public interest aspects, alumni perspectives, course selection, and other law school amenities and resources should be taken into account in these types of rankings. Elman also adds that prospective students want to know about the “student experience” at the various Canadian Law schools.

“I’m not saying elite firm hiring’s bad, I’m just saying that it’s not the be all and end all,” says Simard.

The basic thrust of what the survey is trying to measure, which is the quality of the professors and of the graduates as judged by the marketplace, “are not going to change,” says Keller.

“How you measure that, that’s always an interesting question and that’s an area where absolutely I’m hopeful that criticism and feedback will give us some ideas on how to refine this a bit further,” he adds. “I would never claim that it absolutely, positively answers every possible question you should have about law school quality, but it answers a lot.”

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