Andrew Perlman on Law School Promotional Material

Over at Legal Ethics Forum, Andrew Perlman has challenged the prevailing standards for law school promotional materials. He calls on law schools to set an example for future lawyers by adhering to rigorous marketing standards akin to MR 7.1.

I had some difficulties with this argument. First, I think the argument relies on US News rankings as a useful proxy even though we all know better than that. For example, Andrew comments that “I know of one school that is not in the top 50 that promotes itself as one of America’s most respected law schools.” I assume that this refers to top 50 of US News, but is the US News ranking a useful proxy for measuring “respect”? I think that line of thinking has been destroyed by Brian Leiter and others. Andrew also comments that a “school promotes itself as having among the very best job prospects in the country, although data supplied by U.S. News & World Report is clearly to the contrary.” Again, I think the data contained in US News has been thoroughly discredited.

Perhaps more importantly, the argument appears to assume that “one size fits all,” while law schools—and law students—are heterogeneous. For example, a lowly ranked school may indeed offer the “very best job prospects” for particular types of careers or particular geographic settings—it depends on what students want. It would be a mistake to measure the merits of job placement on a standard that, as an example, elevates a Cravath offer over a state DA job. For some students, the latter would be the best possible job they could imagine.

Finally, I think the most important flaw in the argument (also somewhat present in the comments by David Giacalone) is that it assumes more/better/more accurate data would change student decision-making. I am extremely skeptical on that front. Simply put, law school applicants do a fairly poor job obtaining credible information and making informed decisions. We know that students rely too heavily on US News despite its poor/misleading information and defective algorithms, but I think the problem is more pervasive than that. In my experience, students (consistent with bounded rationality) rely on a variety of heuristics, rumors and ill-formed impressions in their decision-making. As a result, many students simply would not consider more (or more accurate) information in their decision-making process; and if they did, they would not be influenced by that information.

I’m not saying that schools should be free to spew out bogus information; we still need behavior-conformance tools like the FTC Act and other consumer protection laws. Otherwise, given applicant heterogeneity and the complexity of selecting schools, I think law school puffery is no better—and no worse—than puffery in other equally-complex sales.