U.S. News & World Report began ranking law schools in 1990. Every year since — a period of more than three decades — Yale Law School secured the No. 1 spot on the U.S. News list.
Yale’s reign at the top of the U.S. News rankings may be over, however. On November 16, Yale Law School announced that it would henceforth opt out of U.S. News & World Report’s list of top law schools.
Other highly ranked law schools quickly jumped on the bandwagon. As I write this, nine of the T-14 law schools (the most highly ranked schools on the U.S. News list) have pledged to stop submitting the internal data the publication needs to compile its list.
There are a lot of good reasons to detest the U.S. News law school rankings. Even so, it’s not exactly clear what gave rise to the big pullout now, after so many years of U.S. News dominance.
A number of the law schools have issued suspiciously similar statements touting their support for students’ public interest work and the dampening effect the U.S. News rankings have on this career path. If you take the proffered reason behind the exodus at face value, then apparently these schools did not care all that much for the past 30 years, while they all participated exuberantly in the rankings, about how the U.S. News list affected public service aspirants.
Whatever the reasons for the change in attitude amongst the T-14 schools, all of America’s top law schools are going to be just fine with or without an impressive spot on the U.S. News list. These schools do not have trouble attracting students. Harvard Law alone has a 10-figure endowment. Perhaps after 30 years of hovering near the top of the most influential law school ranking system in the United States, these schools have maxed out the public relations benefits achievable from such a feat.
For its part, U.S. News has promised to continue to rank laws schools even without the voluntary participation of the nine schools that have thus far opted out. It remains to be seen how many more law schools will join the rebellion; the schools that rank lower on the list really have far more to lose.
The U.S. News law school rankings aren’t going anywhere in the immediate future. A pending decision from the American Bar Association to no longer require schools to use the LSAT, or any entrance exam at all, to obtain accreditation could arguably have a much greater effect on potential law students compared to the current drama surrounding the U.S. News list. Yet, just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither did it crumble in one. This certainly could mark the beginning of the end for the U.S. News law school rankings empire.
As we all stuff ourselves this Thanksgiving, one of the things I’ll be thankful for is this big crack in the façade of the U.S. News law school rankings. I wrote a book about how to attend law school without incurring student loan debt. A big part of it is based on the leverage you can get by understanding how heavily LSAT scores and freshman GPAs factor into law schools’ scholarship decisions. The only reason this works is because the U.S. News list relies so much on incoming law students’ LSAT scores and freshman GPAs. Although I certainly hope other material is of use in the book, my sales will probably take a hit if the U.S. News rankings crumble into dust.
But, for law students, there is really nothing that great about LSAT scores and undergrad grades being such a big ranking factor for the schools. Factors like whether a given law school tends to place graduates in the types of jobs they want, whether all the graduates are coming out of law school with huge debts, and whether aspiring lawyers actually learn enough practical information to pass the bar exam are far more important for students than what kind of testing record people came into law school with. If we must rank law schools, there are better ways to do it.
An end to the U.S. News rankings would be good for law students. Helping law students is why I starting writing about law school debt in the first place. So, even though they might not be doing it for the right reasons, even though it’s only the first tiny step of a very long journey, join me for a moment in giving thanks to the handful of law schools responsible for reminding all of us how fragile empires can be.
Jonathan Wolf is a civil litigator and author of Your Debt-Free JD (affiliate link). He has taught legal writing, written for a wide variety of publications, and made it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at [email protected].