A Rankings Tale (That Might Rankle)

This is a story about rankings. Not of philosophy departments but of law schools. It is only tangentially relevant to the current, ongoing debate in the discipline about the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Still, some might find it of interest. So, without further ado, here goes.

A half a dozen years ago, shortly after my book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software had been published, and after I had begun work on attempting to develop the outlines of a legal theory for artificial intelligence, I considered applying to law school. For these projects, I had taught myself a bit of copyright, patent and trade secret law; I had studied informational privacy, torts, contracts, knowledge attribution, agency law; but all of this was auto-didactic. Perhaps a formal education in law would help my further forays into legal theory (which continue to this day). Living in New York City meant I could have access to some top-class departments–NYU, Columbia, Yale–some of whose scholars would also make for good collaborators in my chosen field of study. I decided to go the whole hog: the LSAT and all of the rest. (Yes, I know it sounds ghastly, but somehow I overcame my instinctive revulsion at the prospect of taking that damn test.)

An application for law school requires recommendation letters. I anticipated no difficulty with this. I knew a few legal scholars–professors at law schools–who were familiar with my work, and I hoped they would write letters for me, perhaps describing the work I had produced till that point in time. The response was gratifying; my acquaintances all said they’d be happy to write me letters.  I went ahead with the rest of my application package, even as I had begun to feel that law school looked like an impractical proposition–thanks to its expenses. Taking out loans would have meant a second mortgage and that seemed a rather bizarre burden to take on.

In any case, I took the LSAT. I did not do particularly well. I used to be good in standardized tests back in my high school and undergraduate days but not any more. My score was a rather mediocre 163 (in the 90th percentile), clearly insufficient for admission to any of the departments I was interested in applying to. Still, I reasoned, perhaps the admissions committees would look past that score. Perhaps they’d consider my logical acumen as being adequately demonstrated by my publications in The Journal of Philosophical Logic; perhaps a doctorate in philosophy would show evidence of my ability to parse arguments and write; and I did have a contract for a book on legal theory. Perhaps that would outweigh this little lacuna.

One of my letter writers, a professor at Columbia Law School, invited me to have coffee with him to talk about my decision to go to law school. When we did so, he told me he had written me an excellent letter but he wondered whether law school was a good idea. He urged me to reconsider my decision, saying I would do better to stay on my auto-didactic path (and besides, the expenses were not inconsiderable). I said I had started to have second thoughts about the whole business and had not yet made up my mind. He then asked me my LSAT score. When I told him, he guffawed: I did not stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting into the departments I was interested in. But, surely, I said, with a letter and a good word from you, and my publication record, I stood a chance. He guffawed again. Let me tell you a story, he said.

A few years prior, he had met a bright young computer science student, a graduate from a top engineering school, with an excellent GPA, who had wanted to study law at Columbia. He was interested in patent law, and had–I think, if I remember correctly–even written a few essays on software patents, mounting a critique of existing regimes, and outlining alternatives to them. He had asked my current interlocutor to write him a recommendation letter for Columbia. There was just one problem: his LSAT score was in the low 160s. Just like mine, not good enough for Columbia. Time to talk to the Dean, to see if perhaps an exception could be made in his case. The Dean was flabbergasted: there was no way such an exception could be made. But, my letter writer protested, this student met the profile for an ideal Columbia Law student, especially given his interests: he had a stellar undergraduate record in a relevant field, he had shown an aptitude for law, he had overcome personal adversity to make it through college (his family was from a former Soviet republic and he had immigrated with them to the US a few years before after suffering considerable economic hardship). Couldn’t an exception be made in this case?

The Dean listened with some sympathy but said his hands were tied. Admitting a student with such a LSAT score would do damage to their ‘LSAT numbers’ – the ones the US News and World Report used for law school rankings. Admitting a student with with an LSAT score in the low 160s would mean finding someone with a score in the high 170s to make sure the ‘LSAT numbers’–their median value, for instance–remained unaffected. God forbid, if the ‘LSAT numbers’ were hit hard enough, NYU might overtake Columbia in the rankings next year. The fate of a Dean who had allowed NYU to slip past Columbia in the USNWR rankings did not bear thinking about. Sorry, there was little he could do. Ask your admittedly excellent student to apply elsewhere.

Nothing quite made up my mind not to go to law school like that story did. Still, my application was complete; test scores and letters were in. So I applied. And was rejected at every single school I applied to.

2 comments on “A Rankings Tale (That Might Rankle)

  1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg says:

    I’m convinced that the thing called meritocracy is just the rise to power of a mandarin class who focus on raising dullard mediocre children who are trained to excel at the inane Aptitude Tests. I’m sure Chelsea Clinton, our future Leader scored in the top quintile.

  2. Samir Chopra says:

    No doubt! Topping the charts, I’m sure.

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