Law School Rankings – Exploring Ethics

Should ethics be part of the U.S. News law school rankings? That was the question posed recently at a conference of the magazine’s editors, and the subject of a recent blog post by Bob Morse, of Morse Code.

Ethics has obviously become a hot topic in recent months, given the financial crisis causes by the negligent, if not clearly unethical, behavior of many of America’s most trusted institutions. This topic certainly surfaced during the scandals of Enron and WorldCom, but it seems to have new life, as the subject of ethical training was featured recently in a New York Times article pondering the need for reform in MBA programs.

However, the fact that U.S. News is considering adding an ethical component to its ranking system is probably the most radical thing I’ve heard yet regarding a sea change in how our professional education systems handle the subject of ethical behavior in both academia and in the workforce. Most, if not all, law schools already require a course on professional responsibility, which doubles as preparation for the MPRE (multi-state professional responsibility) exam, which is part of the bar admissions process in all states. Adding an additional layer of measurement (no doubt both objective and subjective, which is indicative of the rankings system as a whole), puts the notion of ethics in a whole new light. Morse grapples with many of the issues (or at least relays what they dealt with at the conference) in the blog post, but this approach gives rise to many questions: will schools begin to promote workshops and speaking series on ethics to game the rankings rather than for the good of the students (or are the two mutually inclusive?). Will ethics courses start to replace elective options? Will they become mandatory courses? Which schools will rise or fall based on this new element … or will it make a dent at all?

It is hard to say what kind of impact this change in approach would have, but it would certainly make things interesting. And as “ethics” becomes more and more of a buzzword in politics, the media, and in academia, we can only expect the attempts to measure it in quantifiable ways to increase. On balance, that would seem to be a good thing. Time will tell.

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