(TippingTheScales) — Between its accelerated JD program and its insistence on interviewing every single one of its applicants, Northwestern University School of Law is known for doing things differently. Nevertheless, Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez wants to make it absolutely clear that innovating isn’t a matter of survival for the school, which, at No. 12 in the U.S. News ranking, has long been a member of the hallowed Top 14.

“We don’t have to do anything differently,” he asserts. “We’re greatly, greatly blessed by having an extraordinarily strong reputation, and have had that reputation for a century-and-a-half and counting, so I just want to quibble with the description of having to do things differently.” Point taken.

Rodriguez officially started as dean of Northwestern Law in January 2012. This isn’t his first time leading a law school; he’s been dean at the warmer (if less prestigious) University of San Diego School of Law. He’s also the current president of the Association of American Law Schools.

That’s a lot of responsibility, but Rodriguez shows few—if any—signs of burnout. In our conversation, Rodriguez discussed his role at Northwestern and the future of law schools in general. His view? Never let a good crisis go to waste.

There’s been a national decline in law school applicants. How has the decline affected Northwestern in particular?

We did see a slight decline in applications to Northwestern last year, but our decline’s been a lot lower than the national average. You never know what the future brings, but like many law schools in our cohort, the decline hasn’t been as steep; in some cases, schools have even seen a slight uptick. This current year—and we’re obviously still admitting our class for next year—applications are roughly flat, which is not a bad place to be right now.

Do you think the decline in applicants has leveled off, or do you think it’s going to keep going?

Boy, if I had a crystal ball on that, I’d be a real genius. Last year, there was such a substantial national decline, and a lot of law school deans said, “It’s got to be the bottom of the market, right?” People assume there has to be an uptick, because there’ll be a recovery and students will see an opportunity to get into better schools. But then a year goes by and there’s an additional decline. I will say this: The preliminary data I’ve seen on the students who have taken the LSAT this year suggests that we’re not seeing a big recovery—let’s put it that way.

Do you think the best and the brightest students are still attracted to law school, or do you think they’re being lost to other fields?

I think there are difficulties in the legal profession, real challenges concerning the way law firms and lawyers configure careers for young graduates. That, along with a fair amount of negative publicity about law schools, has made a lot of students—let’s call them the best and the brightest—take long, hard looks at whether law school is for them….

Now, where they’re going is a fascinating question. The data I’ve seen suggests that business school applications are down—not as much as law school, but they’re down—and it’s not clear that the so-called best and brightest are moving there instead, or moving into other graduate programs, frankly. We simply don’t know where they’re going.

How do you feel about law school rankings (especially the U.S. News ranking)?

Like most deans, I believe it was a generally good idea that’s gone horribly wrong. The idea that people should be given more information about law schools isn’t bad. Even though I went to law school before U.S. News rankings existed, we had conversations about which law schools were better. The notion that there are comparisons—that’s just life. What’s gone horribly wrong, I think, are two things that are specific to the U.S. News ranking.

First, the factors that go into the rankings can be very poor proxies for quality. U.S. News makes it very difficult to compare law schools on the dimensions that are most important to lawyers and law students. The second horribly wrong aspect I see in U.S. News’ ranking—and all running rankings, but U.S. News is the most powerful—is the false sense of precision that it gives students with regard to very small differences in the rankings of law schools. The problem arises when students make choices between the 7th ranked law school and the 11th ranked law school, or the 35th and the 45th. The notion that there’s a powerful, profound difference in the academic reputation and quality of a school based on five or six ranking points is absolutely absurd. And it’s distorted choices that law schools have made.

In what way has the U.S. News ranking distorted law schools’ choices?

It’s not the only reason, but one of the reasons for the exorbitant cost of legal education has been the efforts and energies most law schools put into improving their chances of moving up in the rankings. Now, I don’t want to go so far as to say that U.S. News should be blamed for that—they haven’t held a gun to the heads of law school deans—but they’ve contributed to a toxic environment.

When and why did Northwestern decide to start interviewing all of its candidates?

I think it started roughly a decade-and-a-half ago. In spite of how important grades, LSAT scores, and letters of recommendation are for all law schools—there’s no question that those are the central criteria that go into admissions—we felt that interviews gave us the ability to look at the whole candidate. It allowed us to understand how they articulated their goals and objectives….

Submitting a law school application is cold and informal, especially now, when with the flip of a switch, you can apply to 20 schools without much additional energy. We were trying to kind of leapfrog over that impersonality by developing this rapport.

Northwestern Law seems more concerned than other law schools in its cohort with admitting students who’ve had work experience. Why is that?

In the last couple of years, over 90% of our entering class—sometimes it’s been as high as 95%—has had work experience between college graduation and admission to Northwestern. This approach is very common among top business schools; most business schools have long required at least two years of work experience. So, when Northwestern began putting a strong emphasis on work experience about a dozen years ago, in some ways, we were taking a page from the playbook of leading business schools.

Quite simply, we find that this additional experience brings an interesting maturity to the student body. The diversity of experiences they’ve had in the workforce gives them a significant leg up in their study of law. Last but not least, I often hear from employers that they greatly value the emphasis we put on work experience, and that they would like to see all law schools develop that same emphasis.

In his speech at William & Mary, Justice Scalia lamented the fact that the law school curriculum is becoming more condensed and more customizable. Do you agree with his assessment?

Whenever a Supreme Court justice—certainly someone of Justice Scalia’s stature and experience—comments as thoughtfully as he did about law schools, we should listen. There was much of the speech I agreed with and much I disagreed with. A common criticism is that the third year’s a waste and we could lob it off without making any sacrifice. I think that’s hyperbole and a problematic strategy, and I think Justice Scalia was right to raise some concerns about it. (I’ll note that our accelerated program is three years of law school condensed into two.)

As for the point about the curriculum, let me just say this: If I could, I would ask the justice, “Well, do you think the law clerks that you have are less well-trained than they were 20 years ago? Do you think they have less information, less knowledge, less experience and expertise?” I doubt he would say that. And they’re the graduates of just the law schools he was making fun of.

What specialized areas of the law have Northwestern students been most interested in?

We’re seeing a very strong interest in experiential learning. That includes clinical legal education, simulation courses, courses where there’s a great amount of teamwork, and interdisciplinary work at the intersection of law and business. Students are demanding courses, seminars, externships and other curriculum that will give them substantial, practical legal skills, and the ability to demonstrate and deploy those skills while they’re still here in law school.

A second area that students are really pushing us to develop specialties in is what I call work at the intersection of law, business, and technology. We’re starting a brand-new program in the fall, and it’s called the Master of Science in Law program. The goal is not to train lawyers. It’s to teach STEM-trained individuals legal skills.

What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?

The biggest challenge is maintaining and improving our academic programs and professional programs while keeping costs in check. If I had a blank check, the kinds of programs I would build would truly boggle the mind, because there’s just so much we could do to improve legal education. But almost without exception, those programs are enormously resource-intensive, and I cannot justify simply increasing tuition year after year and adding to student debt.

On the flip side, if I engage in radical surgery and do what you read about in the blogs—“Why don’t law schools cut tuition in half? Why don’t they do all these things?”—that would cut our ability to engage in things like clinical education, financial aid…. So the single biggest challenge that I face as dean is to continue accelerating our momentum by improving our academic programs and being innovative without having students bear the brunt of those changes. That is why deans spend so much time raising money and diversifying our revenue picture.

What opportunities are you especially excited about?

There’s a famous phrase that’s often associated with either President Obama or Mayor Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” I really feel that that’s a bellwether for what law schools are trying to do. We’re clearly in a crisis, but let’s take this very challenging time and use it to make some real change. Then, we’ll see this period of time positively: We’ll see it as a time in which we were willing to experiment and innovate in extremely interesting ways.

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