Let’s End the US News Law School Madness

A proposal for a sensible alternative

You are considering spending $150,000 for law school tuition. Actually, you have to borrow most of that money and probably another $20,000 a year for living expenses because you will not be able to earn very much while in school. Where should you go? Or, a couple of years after graduation, you have done very well at law school, had a prestigious clerkship or two, and spent three years at a major firm, and now you are deciding which teaching offer to accept. Or, further down the road, you are a hiring partner at your firm, and you need to decide to which law schools you want to send your recruiters. What should you do in all three cases?

If you believe the common wisdom, you should pull out the latest US News rankings for law schools, and look for the highest-rated school on your list, and, in less than 30 seconds, you’ll have your answer. Perhaps nobody actually does exactly that, or will admit to it, but for those in legal education, the out-sized influence of US News cannot be overstated. Indeed, in decisions affecting whom a school admits, how to allocate its spending among its many options, or what it should do to help its graduates get jobs – the impact on US News rankings is always a major part of the discussion. Its ratings are a major topic at American Association of Law Schools meetings, and in the view of most legal educators, most schools would rarely make many of the same decisions that they do if not for US News. Law schools might try boycotting US News, but to do so alone would be suicide and to agree to do so would invite an antitrust indictment from the Justice Department.

This influence might be warranted if the ratings were based on solid methodology, but they are not. To create its rankings, US News assigns values to many disparate factors and then combines them into a single number that is the focus of everyone’s attention. To determine that number, it has to decide the very value-laden question of how much weight should be given to the points awarded for each factor. Then, using the resulting algorithm, the school with the most points is rated first, and the rest are ranked based on where they fall in order. It is fair to say that, if US News rated the best one hundred breeds of dogs, would-be dog owners would not acquire a pet based on that rating unless they knew what criteria US News employed and they agreed with those criteria and their relative importance.

Beyond the questionable combination, there are serious objections in a number of the categories that US News uses. One is GPA, which takes the number on the applicant’s transcript and treats a 3.4 in electrical engineering from MIT as much worse than a 3.8 in the history of cinema from Podunk State. Moreover, US News treats all undergraduate institutions as if they have equally able students and they all use the same curve for grading, neither of which is true.

US News’ law school rankings are popular because prospective students need objective information, whether in the form of numerical rankings or otherwise, and someone needs to fill that vacuum. Many applicants do not, and perhaps should not, trust individual law schools to be completely above board with their customers. This is especially true in these leaner times with applications down and almost every school offering so-called “merit scholarships” to fill their seats and keep up their US News rankings by bringing in a class with high average LSAT and GPA scores. The old saying – you can’t beat something with nothing – continues to apply. The blog Above The Law has rankings, but it too ends up with a single number – and its focus is almost entirely on the important (but not the only important law school attribute) of jobs after graduation. However as Albert Einstein sagely reminded us, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count and everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” While there are many possible alternatives, here’s one that starts from a very different premise than US News.

The “Best” School May Not Be Best for Everyone

In my mind, the most pernicious aspect of the US News system is that it sends the wrong message to prospective students in several respects. First, it assumes that there is a uniformly agreed upon definition of law school quality and that US News uses it in creating its rankings. Objective people can agree on some measures of excellence – winning the 100-meter dash in the Olympics or scoring the highest on a college math exam – come to mind. But it is simply not the case that everyone, with proper information, would agree on a ranking of even the top 100 law schools. That is because different schools have different strengths and weaknesses, some more important to some applicants than others, but surely not something on which there is consensus. There is probably little disagreement that a few schools – such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford – are at the top, and most lawyers would generally agree on various other broad bands of quality, but within any of those bands and at the margins, there is certain to be disagreement, despite what US News says.

Second, even if there were agreement on the proper measurements of the components that went into quality, the weight assigned to each is very much a personal choice. For some, size is vital, for others irrelevant. Some know what area of law they wish to pursue (and which schools feature it), while most students are not anywhere near that focused. Location may be important to some, while others are indifferent. A single number cannot hope to capture all those nuances, yet the US News rankings purport to do just that.

Let me give you a real example from this year’s US News rankings to show how meaningless the numbers should be to incoming students. George Washington, where I am, had the same numerical ranking as Alabama, Notre Dame, & Iowa. According to US News, the benefits of going to any one of them would be the same as any other, but does anyone think that there are no differences among them? Or suppose that, instead of being tied, GW was one or two slots ahead of Alabama, followed by Notre Dame & Iowa? Should an applicant look only at the numbers? Of course not, but that is what so many students are conditioned to do, although perhaps not with exactly these choices. There are good reasons to choose any one of those four schools over other similar law schools, but their US News ranking is not one of them.

Third, going to the highest ranked-school may not be the best decision for everyone (even if cost were not a factor, which it is very likely to be). Whether a law school has formal class rankings or not, every school provides information from which a prospective employer can get a pretty good idea of where a job applicant stands in the class. And guess what: even at schools like Harvard and Stanford where I have taught, and where every student has been at or close to the top of their classes in college, 50% of the students will be in the bottom half of the class. That is because there are grading guidelines at most schools such that preclude everyone from getting an A and require a significant percentage of the class to receive a B- or below. While the dividing lines among students may not always be clear, employers can tell which are near the top and which are at the other end. Being at the lower end, even at the best schools, can be a problem for job seekers. Conversely, in a prior job when I was looking at law student applicants, someone at the top of the class at a well-regarded, if not top law school, always got my attention, because those individuals often turned out to be superior candidates who blossomed only in law school. Again, the US News message is that everyone should go to the “best” law school they can, but that is probably a mistake for at least a significant number of students.

There is at least one more harmful way that US News rankings influences law schools, but ultimately harms many of the students they admit. Rankings are based in significant part of the school’s mean GPA and LSAT scores, and so schools try to get an entering class with high numbers, not to the exclusion of everything else, but pretty close to that. Since almost everyone is vying for the same students, the result is a bidding war in which a student will call the dean of admissions (or sometimes the actual Dean), and start bargaining over what is referred to as “merit aid,” but I would call a financial incentive to attend one school instead of another. In the past ten years, financial aid at most schools has substantially increased, with the vast majority now going to merit, as opposed to need-based, aid. The problem is the same for everyone: the money has to come from somewhere which, depending on the law school’s budget model, probably means either less on program, less for need-based financial aid, or higher tuition, or all of the above.

The Reputation and Other Problems with US News Rankings

A major component of the US News ranking is a school’s reputation, but as done by US News, it too is flawed. First, it has a major self-reinforcing nature because those who comment cannot help but be influenced by a school’s prior rankings. That largely explains why the same 14 schools have been in the top group, albeit with some movement among them, since US News began rating law schools. Second, those who do the rating are not required to prove that they have even the most minimal familiarity with the schools they’re evaluating. Rather, each person gets to decide for him or herself whether they know enough about another school to assign it a score between 1 and 5. I have taught for more than five years at three different law schools and for more than a semester at two others, with occasional lectures at perhaps a dozen more. Yet, I would be hesitant to offer carefully-calibrated opinions about more than my current school because my other experiences were either too limited or may be out of date. I know that if my knowledge as a law professor is this limited, then the practicing lawyers and judges who also supply reputation ratings can’t be well-informed about more than a few schools. And I also know that if I were a US News rater (which I am not), and I gave a rival school a low score, that would help my school in the overall standings.

It should be possible, however, to get a more meaningful measure of reputation. For example, hiring partners in a large New York firms could certainly offer informed opinions about the overall quality of students from the NY schools below Columbia and NYU, such as Fordham, Cardozo, St Johns, Brooklyn, New York, and CUNY – perhaps some others from outside the city. They see a sufficient number of students from those schools to form an opinion as to their relative quality among their associates. With a big enough sample, perhaps including local federal judges, a reasonable sense of those schools would emerge.

Other data that US News uses, which appears to be quite objective, is actually subject to varying interpretations. Take the acceptance rate of applicants: the lower the percentage the more selective (and presumably better) the school. But suppose that an applicant, looking at the grades and LSAT scores of the median at a school, sees a risk of being denied and so applies to several “safety” schools. In response, some safety schools are now engaging in “yield protection”: they are deliberately not accepting students with high grades and GPAs because they strongly suspect that they will go elsewhere. They put those applicants on the waiting list, and then when those students accept other offers, the schools can treat them as not accepted, thereby boosting their US News rankings. Perhaps the next move will be for some schools to increase their denominators by eliminating application fees entirely, as a means of making themselves into more selective and therefore “better” law schools.

Finally, and not because there are no other examples, there is the factor of total expenditures. A high number might suggest that the school is providing maximum services, which is good, but it could also mean that the school is not frugal, which is not. Moreover, for all but the most well-endowed law schools, more expenses mean higher tuition, which most students would think is a negative, not a positive, yet that is not how the number is factored into US News’ rankings. Expenditures per students, when considered with tuition, is something a prospective student may weigh in her decision, but it is hard to justify including it as a significant positive factor for everyone.

An Alternative Approach

The goal of any information system about educational institutions should not be just to provide students with facts, hopefully objective and free from ambiguity, but also guidance to help them think through the decisional process, including what factors may be important to at least some applicants and why. The way that US News attempts this is to define “quality” via a single number. I have no idea whether that approach is right for other graduate programs (although I suspect it is not), but based on my more than 45 years of practice, including 35 teaching, part or full time, at major law schools, it is certainly not the case for law schools. Of course, a student who is admitted to one of the recognized elite law schools would have to think very hard before going elsewhere, but for most students other factors should weigh heavily in choosing one school over another.

For example, in my experience, entering law students rarely appreciate the importance of the location of their law school in their careers. Law students are more likely than undergraduates to remain in the city where they studied, which means that there is a stronger alumni base to assist them in getting jobs. It also enables them to retain post-graduation networks with their classmates for both social and business purposes.

Moreover, a student interested, for example, in working for the government or for organizations that regularly interact with it, would be wise to go to law school in Washington, where there are hundreds of opportunities to try out jobs for credit during the academic year, which is simply not possible for students in other places. Despite its importance, law school location is not part of the US News algorithm.

Prospective law students may like the single number rating system because it simplifies their choices, but, as I have tried to show, the US News single number system is seriously deficient in what it says and what it omits. Moreover, if students are going to spend close to $225,000 – most of it borrowed – something other than the ability to decide quickly should be their guidepost. And in today’s world, there is no reason for a rating system like this to be anything but online, where there is ample opportunity to provide the information and guidance that applicants need to make informed decisions.

Nonetheless, students, like most of the rest of us, like numbers and rankings, and there is nothing in an improved system that would preclude the use of numbers in a variety of categories (with appropriate explanations and caveats), as long as they are not combined into a single magic number. To be sure, there would still be incentives for law schools to fudge, for example, the number of employed students nine months after graduation, but even those tempted to be creative in their accounting would only advance a few places in one out of a dozen or more categories. Perhaps more important, each school would be realistically competing for particular applicants only against a few schools, not all 200 ABA accredited law schools, and the ranking among competitors in any single category is not likely to be determinative of an applicant’s choice.

For a glimpse at what a different and more sensible alternative might look like, click here:

There is a real opportunity to develop a much better and more helpful system for law school applicants than the one created by US News. I have no doubt that the law schools would fully support the effort to create such an alternative and would gladly provide the information needed to make it work. But to make that happen, someone needs to pick up the ball and run with it.

Alan B. Morrison

Alan B. Morrison is the Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service Law, George Washington University Law School.