With $100 Million Gift, Northwestern Law School Eyes Rankings

From left: Dean Daniel Rodriguez, M.K. and J.B. Pritzker; Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro; and Northwestern Univ. chairman of the Board of Trustees, William Osborn | Photo by Jim Prisching, Courtesy of Northwestern

Northwestern University School of Law has a new name, and a whole lot of new money.

After law school officials announced last week that J.B. Pritzker, an alumnus of the school, and wife M.K. Pritzker have donated $100 million to the school. After the gift, the school’s name was officially changed to the Pritzker School of Law, already reflected on the school’s website.

According to school officials, the Pritzkers’ donation is the largest ever to a U.S. law school.

In an interview with Big Law Business on Friday, Judith Areen, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools, said the donation will be a game-changer: “It’s transformative. It would be for any school, both because of the magnitude of the gift, and because, as I understand it, the law school has discretion in how they spend it.”

According to the law school’s dean, Daniel Rodriguez, there are four main areas where the money will likely be focused: financial aid, public interest initiatives, the school’s entrepreneurship center, and programs focused on the intersection of law, business, and technology.

The first of those areas, financial aid, could be most important to boosting the school’s profile, Areen said, adding that, as the applicant pool has shrunk 40 percent nationwide over the last five years, competition among elite law schools for top students has intensified.

Still, its hard to predict how large gifts will boost a school like Northwestern, already considered elite: the school sits at #12 in the latest U.S. News rankings.

“It’s sort of like grades in law school. A faculty member will say I can tell the difference between an A and a C paper, but telling the difference between B+ and A- is harder. I would say there’s a false precision at top of rankings,” Areen said.

Rodriguez passed on the opportunity to make any predictions: “No dean should say, ‘As a direct consequence of this gift, we’re going to move up in the rankings,’ and I’m not going to be the first,” he said.

But he also acknowledged that, if rankings are “sport” for journalists and commentators, they’re important to students and alumni, and important to deans. In the eternal struggle to climb the law school ladder, large cash infusions help: “Enormous donations are necessary but not sufficient conditions to move needle,” Rodriguez said.

Areen said the courtship of donors like Pritzker — who’s from a prominent Chicago family, and reportedly worth upwards of $3 billion — is typically years-long: “Major gifts don’t happen quickly,” she said. “It’s common that there will have been conversations over a period of years. It’s almost like a financial investment. The donor wants to invest in a successful enterprise.”

“Donors want to know the person in charge,” Areen added. “They want to know there’s a dean that’s running things well and can handle this kind of dramatic infusion of resources. In that way, it’s a real vote of confidence in Dean Rodriguez.”

Although the Pritzkers’ single gift dwarfs the total endowment of many other law schools, Rodriguez said Northwestern’s endowment, prior to the gift from the Pritzkers, was already in the neighborhood of $500 million.

Rodriguez said he “wouldn’t quarrel” with the statement that the school was already doing very well financially, and wouldn’t “cry ‘poverty,'” but also acknowledged what didn’t need to be said: even among already-wealthy schools, $100 million is big money.