What the meaning of is is

I’m a fan of podcasts, and I’m kinda interested in law schools, so naturally a podcast called Law School Podcaster would appeal to me. Yes, it’s true; in my free time, I entertain myself by listening to other deans of admission give advice about law school.

I was intrigued by one recent episode on the topic of regional versus national law schools. Whether a regional or a national school makes more sense for a particular candidate is predictably a topic that might generate a range of opinions, but perhaps surprisingly, the initial bone of contention was definitional: what is regional? What is national? Only a bunch of lawyers could grapple at such great length with such a puny topic. Rest assured, I am not going to improve the situation—my legal training puts me in a position to wildly agree and disagree, often simultaneously, with the full range of opinions.

The first proffered definition was that “national” means “top 14 school.” (The podcast was recorded before US News rocked everyone’s world by putting 15 schools in the top 14.) My initial reaction? That’s d-u-m dumb. The fact that many or most or almost all of the top 14 schools are also “national schools” under various understandings of the term does not mean that the “top 14” and “national” are perfectly overlapping categories, and that one is the definition for the other. Are all chairs furniture? Yes. Does that mean that the definition of furniture is “chairs”? No.1 But then again … well, there is an element of this definition that has some utility. Hold that thought.

The second proposal was that the relevant consideration is the percentage of students from the law school’s home state. No cut-off was proposed, but the law school under consideration had only 15% from the home state, and was held out as, therefore, a national school. While this definition was at least geographically based, it doesn’t strike me as much better than the “top 14” definition. Certainly, it changes the atmosphere of an institution in an important and beneficial way if students hail from all over. Angelenos can benefit from hearing firsthand accounts of snow. East Coasters—and I speak with love here, as a former East Coaster—can benefit when they realize that whole big chunks of the country don’t view it as the center of the universe. People from rural areas benefit from talking to urbanites, and vice versa.

Still, the particulars of that definition strike me as fundamentally flawed for two reasons. First, the implicit definition of “region” as “within a single state” is both too narrow and too broad. If a school is in San Diego, isn’t its “region” southern California? Wouldn’t students from northern California be outside that region? By the opposite token, if a school is in New York and gets 15% of its students from New York, but another 85% from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachuestts, is that school “national” under this definition? By my lights, that’s six states, but one region.

More importantly, what most people are thinking about when they use the term “national school” is not where people come from, but where people go—outcomes, not inputs. To what degree do graduates of an institution leave the region? Are large numbers of graduates found in legal markets that aren’t in the school’s immediate vicinity? In other words, even if people come in equal percentages from all 50 states to go to a given school, if 95% of them get jobs within a 50-mile radius, isn’t that school “regional” in the most important way? So let’s take a look at the 15-top-14, using data from my ever-favorite ABA/LSAC Guide to Law Schools:

National and Regional Data

About half the schools on this list send their students to somewhere between 21 and 25 states; four send to between 26 and 30 states; and only four—Georgetown, Harvard, Michigan, and UVA—send to more than 30. (Although those four have relatively large graduating classes, I don’t think the size advantage undercuts the point that some schools have a larger national footprint. Too, a couple of the larger schools send to a quite small number of states; institutional size does not guarantee spread.)

Not surprisingly, the percent of students that stay in state tends to line up in almost the same way: six schools keep about 45% or more of graduates in their home state (sending the remaining grads to a relatively small number of other states); five schools keep 13% or fewer in the home state; and three states fall between 20 and 35%. (The one particularly interesting data point in this regard is Georgetown, which sends its grads to a lot of states (37) while nonetheless keeping a fairly large percentage in the District.) Berkeley, Columbia, NYU, and Texas pretty clearly line up as the schools most likely to keep grads in-state; Yale, Duke, Harvard, Michigan, and UVA pretty clearly line up at the other end of the spectrum, sending their grads out of state.

I threw in the international employment data for fun, too, mostly to illustrate the degree to which it is pretty much totally independent of the state data. The three biggest producers of grads working internationally are Harvard, Columbia, and Yale—one school that has the biggest national footprint (Harvard), alongside a school with one of the smallest (Columbia) and a school that falls somewhere in the middle (Yale—lots of grads leave Connecticut, but they don’t go to a huge number of other states). The difference between the largest and smallest producers of international employment is pretty minuscule, though, and plainly, no school can claim to be a major international feeder.

But now I’m going to circle back to that first definition of national, as coextensive with a top-14 ranking. The question whether a school is regional or national is aimed at learning whether a school offers employment prospects outside the immediate geographic vicinity. In general, a legal employer’s awareness of and willingness to hire from a geographically far-flung school is likely to correlate with a school’s ranking. People at Berkeley may not flock in large numbers to New York and people at Columbia may not flock in large numbers to San Francisco, but legal employers in either locale will have heard of both institutions and will take applications from both seriously. Calling those institutions “regional,” then, would be a misnomer. Still, the national spread of a given institution is worth thinking about in terms of an applicant’s individual goals. Whether you are entirely sure about where you want to end up, or whether you are determined to keep your options open, you want to make sure the schools you’re considering can take you where you want to go.

-Dean Z. Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions, Financial Aid, and Career Planning    

1I consulted philosopher-king Professor Scott Shapiro of Yale Law School about this form of logical fallacy. Why? Because he was the chair of the faculty admissions committee when he was a professor at Michigan Law School, and I therefore keep him on retainer; you just never know when you’re going to need a philosopher who is familiar with the admissions process. I quote him here in full, to do him justice: “The fallacy you are identifying is called the fallacy of false conversion. You are not allowed to infer from ‘All A’s are B’s’ to ‘All B’s are A’s.’ This is connected to the infamous fallacy of ‘affirming the consequent.’ Affirming the consequent says that from the premises ‘If A therefore B’ and ‘B’ you can’t infer ‘A.’ The reason that these two are connected is that universal quantification (namely, statements such as ‘All A’s are B’s’) are really conditional statements (namely, ‘For all x, if x is an A, then x is a B’) so false conversion is really just a form of affirming the consequent.” Philosophers crack me up.