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Law School Boycott of U.S. News Ranking Is a Big Nothing Burger (Correct)

Dec. 7, 2022, 6:52 PM

What’s getting more shade than Donald Trump in the aftermath of the midterm elections? The U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the nation’s law schools.

Since Yale Law School first announced its boycott of that publication’s ranking of law schools a few weeks ago, it seems that any law school with a claim to being a “top” school has noisily withdrawn from cooperating with the yearly lineup.

Question is, does all this hoopla and protest really matter to schools, prospective students, or the legal market?

The latest T14 law school to bolt is New York University School of Law, which now joins Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, University of California, Berkeley, Columbia, Stanford, Georgetown, University of Michigan, Northwestern, and Duke.

The two T14 law schools not joining the boycott are University of Chicago and Cornell (more on that later). University of Virginia, meanwhile, is still sitting on the fence.

Watershed Moment?

The rebelling schools essentially gave the same reason for withdrawing as Yale did when it announced it was opting out. “The U.S. News rankings are profoundly flawed—they disincentivize programs that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession,” Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken said in a Nov. 16 statement.

“It had to start with Yale because they’ve been so entrenched in the number-one spot,” Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean at University of Michigan Law School, told me. “Symbolically it was important.”

“My hope is that if a number of schools withdraw, that will force U.S. News to change its metrics,” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley Law, told me. “Its current metrics, in many areas, give the wrong incentives to law schools.”

Hopes are riding high that this will be a watershed moment for legal education and the profession. So what significant changes can we expect from this high-profile boycott?

In my opinion, a big fat nothing. It won’t end the sport of law school rankings or, for that matter, any other rankings of academic institutions. (U.S. News also ranks colleges, professional schools, high schools—everything except preschools.) And if you think this shift will make the profession more meritorious and less credential-obsessed, you’ve been out of town too long.

I know, some people think this shakeup will lead to a fairer, more diverse profession. Without the shackles of ranking considerations and their emphasis on LSAT scores, law schools can exercise more freedom in how they admit students, creating more diverse classes.

Class Divide

And if there’s less focus on rankings, employers will be more open-minded about the academic backgrounds of recruits and prioritize skills and emotional intelligence in hiring.

But who are we kidding?

Elite law schools opting out of the U.S. News ranking won’t change a damn thing. If anything, it highlights the big class divide among law schools. Tony schools can afford to turn their noses up at the game because they know their position in the hierarchy is secured.

Fact is there’s very little movement in the T14, especially among those schools in the top seven or so. Further down the food chain, the situation is much more volatile. Last year, for instance, the University of Wisconsin dropped from 29th to 43rd place, while George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School climbed to 30th place from 41st.

So let the pedestrian schools duke it out for their place in their various divisions—those vying for the top 15 to 25 spots, followed by those in the 26 to 50 group, and the next two quadrants, up to the 100th rank.

As for schools beyond the 100th place (U.S. News ranks up to 192 law schools)? Well, that’s an entirely different neighborhood, far removed from the vista of the T14 or Big Law.

Rat Race Continues

What all this means is that the vast majority of law schools have little choice but to participate in the rankings rat race—and that will keep the machine humming.

But what’s intriguing are the two top law schools—Cornell and the University of Chicago—that have decided to stay in the U.S. News rankings. Cornell Law School Dean Jens David Ohlin expressed similar misgivings about the rankings as the boycotting schools (he said they “distort” decision-making).

But Ohlin cautioned that the boycott “will not have the desired impact that many assume that it will have.” Chicago’s Dean Thomas Miles, in contrast, barely voiced any concerns about the U.S. News parameters.

“Fundamentally, a ranking of schools is an opinion,” Miles waxed philosophically in his announcement. “As our University is dedicated to the free expression of ideas and to questioning viewpoints, our aim is not to suppress opinions. Rather, we should encourage prospective students to apply critical thinking and reach their own conclusions about what value the rankings add.”

It’s all very lofty, but how does cooperating with U.S. News promote free speech? It’s not as if schools boycotting the ranking can silence the publication. Besides, U.S. News issued a statement that it will continue to rate schools whether they’re cooperating or not—which, of course, is what annoying journalists are supposed to do.

There’s another reason Chicago may want to play in the U.S. News sandbox—for the first time in three decades, it climbed to third place, beating out Harvard for that extremely coveted spot.

And perhaps Chicago is now gunning for the number-one spot, fashioning itself as the un-Yale, now that some conservative judges have vowed not to hire Yale law students because of the school’s liberal tilt.

Love them or hate them, rankings carry weight. According to a 2021 Bloomberg Law survey, 50% of respondents stated that ranking was a factor in deciding which law school to attend.

“When I was thinking of applying I initially did rely on the rankings because I didn’t know any better,” Brandon von Kriegelstein, a law student at Vanderbilt, said. “But I quickly learned that the rankings took metrics into account that I didn’t care about.”

“So I ended up making my own spreadsheet with schools that had the highest combined large firm, plus federal clerk rates, because this was the best proxy for attaining my goals: Big Law.”

All this is to say that as much as people are skeptical of the fairness and reliability of the U.S. News rankings, they are often the first point of reference—and that carries a lot of clout.

University of Michigan’s Zearfoss, however, thinks that clout is about to dissipate. “I’m not anti-ranking, but the way we were held hostage by U.S. News & World Report was unhealthy,” she said.

“Because of the boycott, I think it will look less scientific than people think they were.” Besides, she added, “I don’t know if students know what U.S. News is anymore—maybe they cared about it 15 years ago.”

(In the 23rd paragraph, University of Chicago’s historic spot in the U.S. News law school rankings has been corrected.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com
Twitter:@viviachen
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Alison Lake at alake@bloombergindustry.com