CHAMPAIGN — Like other law students, James McCaughan was dismayed when the College of Law announced last year that an assistant dean had fudged several years' worth of admissions data — a key factor in law school rankings.
And like other students, his immediate concern was whether it might hurt his job prospects after graduation.
"It was definitely pretty aggravating, especially considering the job market is really tough," said McCaughan, now a third-year law student.
McCaughan believes the law school handled the scandal appropriately and the value of his degree will hold up. Employers, he said, should understand it had nothing to do with the students.
But if he were applying to law schools this year, McCaughan said, the scandal and the resulting 12-point dive in the law school's U.S. News & World Report rankings would have factored into his decision.
"That's a pretty good drop," he said. "In terms of integrity, I think that would have had a bit of an impact on my decision."
As roughly 200 first-year students gathered at the UI College of Law for orientation last week — reciting a Pledge of Professionalism that includes a commitment to integrity — legal observers said it's difficult to gauge the effect of last year's events on the law school's reputation.
The UI experienced a drop in applications this fall, college officials said, but so did other law schools across the country, part of a longer-term downward trend.
Some say the U.S. News rankings slide is temporary, blaming it on a drop in the UI's reputational score by competing law schools peeved at the university for fixing the numbers. Others say the rankings don't reflect true quality but could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The short-term impact won't be clear for another few months, when the official numbers on 2012 applicants and job-placement data are released by the American Bar Association. Even then it will be hard to tease out the effect of the UI's recent troubles, experts say.
"The employment market for every law school in the country has gotten worse over last few years," said James Leipold, executive director of NALP, formerly the National Association of Legal Professionals.
UI law school officials remain confident the scandal won't hurt the school's recruiting or standing in the profession.
Dean Bruce Smith said the law school continued to see a strong contingent of firms interviewing second-year law students on campus this August, despite the tough job market.
No faculty left as a result of the events of the last year, and the school recently hired Jason Mazzone, a "rising star" in copyright and constitutional law, Smith said.
"We have a terrific entering class," added Professor John Colombo, who oversaw admissions for the past year. "In terms of the underlying strengths of the college — its faculty, its staff, its students — nothing's changed. There was a problem, there was misreporting of the data, and that person is no longer with us. We are fundamentally as strong as we ever were, if not stronger."
The American Bar Association last month levied an unprecedented $250,000 fine and public censure against the UI law school for intentionally falsifying academic data for the entering classes of 2005 and 2007-2011 (graduating in 2008 and 2010-2014).
A $1 million investigation by the university last fall, prompted by a whistle-blower, found that the law school had published inflated median grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores for six entering law school classes over the last decade, in order to appear more competitive. Investigators blamed an assistant dean for admissions, Paul Pless, for manipulating test scores and other data to preserve the college's top 25 national ranking. But it also chided college administrators for placing too much authority in Pless' hands and for lacking adequate oversight to "prevent, deter and detect" the problems. Pless resigned in November, and the college made structural changes to bring more oversight to admissions.
Smith said the UI's applicant numbers dropped this year along with other law schools, but he declined to release numbers. The ABA has asked all accredited law schools to provide an official count as of Oct. 5, and the numbers won't be certified until then, he said. The "transparency plan" the UI law school developed last December also pledges to publish only independently certified admissions data.
The incoming class is approximately 200 students, up from last year's 184, Smith said. Since 2005, the first-year class has fluctuated between 172 and 239. The number of applicants has also varied, from 2,418 to 4,680.
The UI fell from 23rd to 35th in the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings this past spring, a precipitous drop on a list where annual changes are usually incremental. Villanova's law school, which also admitted to reporting inaccurate data, dropped from 84th to 101st.
Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago law professor who blogs about law schools, attributes it to payback. Most striking was the academic reputation score, which fell from 3.5 to 3.1 — an "unheard of" four-tenths of a point, Leiter said.
"The reputation scores at most drop a tenth of a point in one direction or another, often for no discernible reason. I've never seen this before," Leiter said. "That is clearly the professoriate at large, deans of other law schools, punishing Illinois for cheating on the U.S. News submissions."
It's a warning to other schools that might have been tweaking their numbers, Leiter said.
But he also thinks the score is unfair, as professors who rate schools for U.S. News are asked to evaluate the faculty, the alumni and the academic quality of the school.
"The fact that there was an admissions dean, with or without encouragement from the higher-ups ... fudging the numbers didn't really change the core features of the school," said Leiter, who called the UI a top-20 law school.
Other legal professionals agree the scandal, while serious, didn't reflect on the quality of the faculty or the education at the law school. They argue that law firms are more likely to look at the track record of UI alumni they've hired in the past.
Attorney Lynn Murray, principal at Grippo and Elden in Chicago and a 1985 UI law graduate, said her firm hires two or three new associates a year. She has four partners who are UI alumni and finds UI law graduates to be hard-working, with good character, and "grounded."
"So when we're looking at the U of I students, we're saying, 'Has anything that has happened in the last year really changed the character of the students we're seeing?' My answer, at least, is no," said Murray, who is also president of the Dean's Advisory Board for the College of Law.
Law school reputations are built over decades and don't shift much, experts say. Leiter noted in a post earlier this year that law school reputational ratings have changed little since the 1970s, with Harvard or Yale at the top, and Columbia, Chicago, Berkeley, Stanford, Virginia, Michigan and New York University rounding out the top 10.
The UI tends to compete with top-25 public law schools and Midwestern privates, such as Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Washington University in St. Louis, faculty said.
"The University of Illinois is a very strong brand. It's going to be hard to erode that," the NALP's Leipold said. "There's so many graduates from the school working in the marketplace who are never going to believe their school is any less valuable as a result of this."
The danger, Leiter said, is that rankings can become self-fulfilling. If a school ranks low one year, that feeds into its reputational score the next year, which makes up 25 percent of its overall score, he said.
State-funded schools are already at a disadvantage compared with private schools, as one measure in the rankings is the amount spent per student, Leiter and others said. Both the University of Wisconsin and the University of California-Hastings, which were considered "top 20-ish" schools a generation ago, have slipped in the U.S. News rankings, Leiter said.
"It starts to affect what students do. Faculty start to think twice about places," he said.
"Employers, contrary to what students think, don't really spend their days waiting for the U.S. News rankings. Employers go on past experience. The firms that have recruited at the University of Illinois and have a good experience will continue to recruit from the University of Illinois," Leiter said.
On the other hand, "If the quality of the student body goes down noticeably, and it stays down for a couple of years, employers may decide to rethink," he said.
Many legal educators are uncomfortable with the reliance on the U.S. News rankings. UI law Professor Matthew Finkin said that what happened at the UI exposed the "nonsense" of the ratings system.
The first time the UI data were altered, he noted, it was a matter of changing one student's LSAT score by one point, and that was enough to affect the UI's ranking, he said.
"That doesn't make any earthly sense," said Finkin, who still has a coffee mug, handed out by a previous dean, commemorating the UI's 20th-place ranking a few years ago. "Something is wrong with the whole ranking system. "
There are 200 ABA-approved law schools, and "unless you actually visit the school it's impossible to get a handle on what's going on there," said John O'Brien, dean of the New England School of Law in Boston, who chaired the ABA section on legal education that sanctioned the UI. "The groups that attempt to rank schools are involved in a lot of hogwash."
O'Brien wouldn't speculate about the impact on the UI but said he has no "lingering concerns" about the law school. The infractions were serious, he said, but UI administrators handled the matter in good faith once it was discovered and have tried to correct the lack of checks and balances in admissions.
Rankings can also be affected by "completely unrelated" factors, such as the bump in applications that Boston College enjoyed when quarterback Doug Flutie was a national phenomenon, Leipold said.
"They don't correlate to the things that students ought to be thinking about," said Colombo, who said students should focus on whether the school is a good fit and where its graduates find jobs. The UI, for instance, has a much better "entree" in the Chicago legal market than some of its higher-ranked competitors, he said.
It may take time for the UI to overcome its ratings decline, but perhaps less than people think if students pay more attention to more pertinent factors like job-placement, Colombo said. The ABA is requiring more detail from schools in an effort to improve transparency.
Smith said he will focus on continuing to build the "core fundamentals" of the law school.
"My interactions with peers, including deans, suggest they know Illinois for what it is: a place of great, productive faculty, outstanding students, limitless opportunity for its graduates. I'm confident that is what we'll be known for now and going forward," Smith said.
Nick Battey, a second-year law student from Vermont, said jobs were on the minds of most of his classmates when the scandal broke last year. He chose Illinois over University of Minnesota, Washington University and other competitors because he was "won over" by current students and faculty.
"I'm still glad to be here at Illinois. I still love the schools, love my classmates, love my teachers. I came for a reason, and I'm still glad to be here. Hopefully it won't make it that much harder to pursue things I want to in the legal field and still get jobs," Battey said.
Job placement for University of Illinois law graduates
Class of 2010Class of 2011Graduates195190Employed170152At jobs requiring law degree142119At law firms9278At UI-funded jobs1111
Source: University of Illinois College of Law. Numbers are as of Feb. 15 of following year, when data are released by American Bar Association.
Law school applicants nationwide, 2002-2012
Year NumberPercent change Fall 200290,90017.60% Fall 200399,5009.50% Fall 2004100,6001.10% Fall 200595,800-4.80% Fall 200688,700-7.40% Fall 200784,000-5.20% Fall 200883,400-0.80% Fall 200986,6003.80% Fall 201087,9001.50% Fall 201178,500-10.70% Fall 2012*67,957-13.70%
* Preliminary figures. Applicants in the Midwest have dropped 18.7 percent this year.
Source: Law School Admission Council