Over the last month, you might have seen that Harvard Law and Yale Law announced they would stop contributing data to U.S. News & World Report’s Best Law Schools rankings list. Soon after, several other top law schools announced they would do the same. These actions have created a lot of drama, but it is important to look beyond the announcements and understand their ramifications.
What are the U.S. News rankings?
U.S. News publishes rankings for all higher education categories, including law schools. These rankings have had a major impact on branding for law schools. You have probably seen the term “Top 14” or “T14” thrown around. This refers to the schools ranked as the top 14 by U.S. News. Generally, attending these schools is seen as the best opportunity to land big law jobs, clerkships, and acceptance into federal government honors programs. Beyond these, many people refer to “T20” or “T50” as tiers. Students who attend a school that U.S. News deems to have too low of a score to rank often face prejudice in terms of getting jobs, since some employers will believe they did not receive a sufficient legal education.
What is the methodology for the U.S. News rankings?
Clearly, fair or not, these rankings matter. So, how does U.S. News come up with its rankings? A variety of factors are involved. One consideration is how various members of the legal community—such as academics, attorneys, and judges—ranked the school on a scale of one to five. Another factor is the employment rate of recent graduates. This also includes the accrued debt and bar passage rate for this group. In addition, the rankings account for average test scores, undergraduate GPAs, and acceptance rates. The amount of money that a school spends on various resources is another factor.
Why are top law schools opting out of participating in the rankings?
Harvard Law and Yale Law announced that they were leaving the rankings because they felt that the criteria U.S. News uses reinforces inequality. Because debt is one factor in the rankings, law schools are arguably penalized in the rankings for accepting students who do not have money saved up to pay for law school without taking on loans. Additionally, many believe that the LSAT favors wealthy people who can hire tutors and take classes to prepare for it, so the criteria’s focus on that factor also hurts schools that try to look beyond these scores.
In addition, there seems to be a general frustration among schools that feel they must worry about every individual factor in the rankings to preserve their spot. Yale Law has consistently been ranked first, but if it ever lost that slot, it would reflect negatively on the school.
Which schools are opting out of the rankings?
The U.S. News rankings report carries a lot of weight with the T14 schools. There has been a divide within the T14 on whether to continue cooperating with the publication. In addition to Yale and Harvard, the law schools at Columbia, Georgetown, Stanford, and Berkeley have pulled out.
Columbia University quit cooperating with U.S. News for college rankings after the university admitted that it gave the publication inaccurate data, while Georgetown fell out of the T14 in the 2018 report. Berkeley prides itself on being the most progressive school in the nation, so it likes to take a stand for fighting inequality; therefore, standing with Harvard and Yale in this matter makes sense. Stanford has often been viewed as one of the top three law schools in the nation, along with Harvard and Yale, as ranked by U.S. News. Stanford cited the same reasons as Harvard and Yale for pulling out.
However, other law schools both inside and outside of the T14 have quit the U.S. News rankings, including Duke, the University of Michigan, Northwestern, the University of Washington, UCLA, and UC Irvine.
Some law schools have decided to continue cooperating for now. The University of Chicago Law School released a detailed statement pledging to cooperate. The school argued that it is not held captive to any ranking, and that the refusal to participate would be counterproductive because most of the data U.S. News uses is public anyway.
Even as UCLA withdrew, its dean cautioned that trying to resist the U.S. News rankings on the basis of LSAT scores could put more weight on undergraduate GPAs. This focus could punish students who choose a more challenging major, such as a STEM major. If a student chooses a major that has a lower average GPA than other majors, that student could be punished when applying to law school.
Will U.S. News still rank law schools that don’t share information?
U.S. News has noted that it will continue to rank these schools, and the publication will likely rely on public data to do so. Law schools must provide their stats on test scores, undergraduate GPAs, bar passage rates, and employment information to the American Bar Association, and this information is made public. But schools typically provide U.S. News with statistics on student debt, how much the schools spend per student, and the results of surveys completed by professors and lawyers at the school.
What does this mean for prospective students?
As we have noted before, rankings are not everything. It is too early to tell whether these changes will create drastic differences in the rankings. But even if they do, you should look beyond the rankings.
The U.S. News rankings are helpful because their criteria contain some information that is important to students. You should care about the debt, employment rate, and bar passage rate of whichever law school you might attend. But even in its current form, the U.S. News rankings list does not give you that information up front. Instead, it just provides a composite score, so you must search for this information. Even then, you should consider the factors that affect your own life. For example, if you can afford law school without taking out loans, then employment numbers might not be as important to you.
Some people fear that these changes mean that test scores will not matter. Although that may be the case down the line, for now, all schools still place a lot of weight on test scores, so you should plan accordingly.
As always, the best way to find the best law school for you is to gather all of the relevant information available about a school and see how it aligns with your situation.