Thursday, November 17, 2022
As reported by Anemona Hartocollis in The New York Times here, Yale Law School and Harvard Law School have announced that they are no longer going to cooperate in the US News and World Report law school rankings process. Dean Heather Gerken (right) of Yale explains Yale's reasons here. Dean John Manning (Left) of Harvard explains Harvard's reasons here. Their reasons are good, solid, and in my view commendable. If you have not already done so, you should read their brief explanations of their reasons. I have a few quick thoughts.
First, it is not clear that this decision will have any impact on the rankings. Yale is #1 and has been #1 since the 1990s. Harvard is currently #4, and that must suck, but Harvard is likely to retain its status as a top-ten law school even if US News should continue to resist the reforms to its algorithms that the Deans are demanding. The bulk of the information that US News uses to compile its rankings is publicly available. That's why low-ranked law schools that are unhappy with their rankings cannot simply pull out. US News will still rank them, just a little more sloppily and without giving the low-ranked law schools a chance to plead their case.
Moreover, according to US News, 40% of the its ranking score is based on reputational surveys. According to Sarah Lawsky, somewhere between 1/3 of 2/5 of entry-level hires at law schools got their J.D.'s from either Yale or Harvard. Surveys of law professors account for 25% of the US News ranking. Advantage: Yale and Harvard. No doubt, Yale and Harvard grads are overrepresented among the other legal professionals surveyed. If US News stands its ground and continues to include Harvard and Yale in its surveys, its graduates are still likely to rank their alma maters very highly. And they are not alone. I've never been to either Yale or Harvard law school. Still, knowing many academics who earned their law degrees at Yale and Harvard, and knowing the writings of current and past faculty at those institutions, I would also rank them at the top. I can't say the same for the University of Mississippi Law School (a school chosen more or less at random). I'm sure it's a fine law school, with fine faculty members and fine graduates, but off the top of my head, I can't name any. And I'm confident the good people at that law school would say the same about my law school.
Over on the Twitter, someone from The Legal Academy opined that, without USNews, law schools are unregulated, and "predatory" law schools would just take every applicant without any consequence, even if the admitted students are incapable of becoming lawyers. Once again, when really smart people say things about my work environment that are so obviously wrong, I conclude that they must be working in a completely different environment. Down here in the Other Legal Academy, we give little or no thought to USNews rankings. We are unranked and will remain so. Every once in a while an unranked school might jump up to number 130 or so, but the reasons for the change are mysterious, and often the boost is fleeting. Absent a deus ex machina, such as an eight-figure donor or a state university that wants to adopt a private, non-profit law school, not much changes near the bottom.
It may well be that folks in The Legal Academy can scoff at ABA regulators, but here in The Other Legal Academy, deans sweat, administrative assistants work overtime, and even faculty members toil over planning documents, inspections, and follow-ups, because ABA sanctions are an existential threat. My former law school was shut down in the aftermath of ABA discipline. The USNews rankings remained unchanged, and that institution had long since given up on trying to move that needle. I have been at my new institution for over two years, and I don't recall any conversations with colleagues, staff, administrators, or students about US News. Compliance with ABA regulations comes up all the time. If I even mention the ABA to my Associate Dean, she flies into a rage. In fact, last month, her face turned green and she took to carrying a broomstick (as illustrated at right, where she is pictured with our dapper Dean), and I can only assume it had something to do with the ABA.
So, no, the very institutions that people in the Legal Academy think ought to be regulated by USNews are largely indifferent to it. It ignores us, and we reciprocate. We are instead regulated by . . . our regulators, the ABA. US News matters to The Legal Academy. And it may well be that the law schools at the top of the heap have the market power to regulate their regulator. US News does not have a lot going for it other than its rankings. If Yale and Harvard can get their chief competitors to stop cooperating with US News, they may be able to force some changes in US News's approach. And that would be all to the good. Either way, Yale will remain #1, and Harvard will stay in the top five, if not the top three.