This essay was adapted from David Lat’s Substack, Original Jurisdiction. Subscribe here.
Wednesday brought huge news to the world of legal education: Yale Law School withdrew from the highly influential U.S. News & World Report law school rankings, and Harvard Law School followed shortly thereafter. The schools announced the decisions on their websites, posting statements from YLS Dean Heather Gerken and HLS Dean John Manning. Gerken also gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the news on Wednesday morning. Other top schools quickly followed suit, including Berkeley on Thursday and Georgetown, Columbia, and Stanford on Friday.
Harvard and Yale have dominated the rankings over the years. Yale has been No. 1 in the U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings since their inception in 1990, and Harvard has been in the top three for every year except two (including last year, when it dropped to No. 4). Stanford, the current #2 school, is the third member of the trinity known colloquially in law-school circles as “HYS.” Columbia (currently tied with Harvard for #4), Berkeley (#9), and Georgetown (#14) have also fared well, as members of the so-called “T14”—the 14 law schools that have been the top 14 schools in U.S. News for almost every year since the start of the rankings, simply changing places amongst themselves. But their deans concluded that any reputational benefits to their own institutions of continuing participation were far outweighed by the negative consequences of the rankings for legal education as a whole.
“I have a big agenda as dean, and this is a part of it,” Gerken told me in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “I want Yale Law School to drive the conversation about the future of legal education—and U.S. News stands in the way of reform.”
Problems with the U.S. News rankings
As Gerken explained in her statement, “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. We have reached a point where the rankings process is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession.”
For example, take how the rankings penalize schools that support postgraduate public-interest work. U.S. News considers law school employment outcomes in its rankings, and it heavily discounts school-funded positions. Because of its strong commitment to public service and its deep coffers, Yale Law funds numerous public-interest fellowships for its graduates—and this hurts YLS in the rankings. As noted in Gerken’s statement, “Even though our fellowships are highly selective and pay comparable salaries to outside fellowships, U.S. News appears to discount these invaluable opportunities to such an extent that these graduates are effectively classified as unemployed.”
Why does U.S. News discount these positions? As I wrote back in 2018, such school-funded positions historically were abused by lower-ranked schools to make their awful job numbers look better. But a policy of discounting school-funded jobs, which makes sense when applied to many, if not most, of the 192 ranked law schools, doesn’t make sense when applied to Yale—whose graduates could easily find Biglaw or other gainful employment, but voluntarily choose to take advantage of YLS’s largesse to pursue public-interest work.
This might seem like a discrete and minor issue, but it actually goes to a more fundamental problem with the rankings: what Gerken’s statement criticizes as U.S. News’ attempt to rank almost 200 law schools “with a small set of one-size-fits-all metrics that cannot provide an accurate picture of such varied institutions.” See also this 2019 Los Angeles Times op-ed by Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Law, who criticized the totalizing approach of the rankings and argued that despite YLS’ many strengths, it’s not the “best” school for every applicant.
The damage from flaws in the U.S. News methodology extends beyond the abstract realm of reputation into the real world. Because the U.S. News rankings are so influential in shaping where students (and their tuition dollars) end up, schools “manage to the rankings,” adopting policies designed to help them move up in rank. But some of these policies, as critics of the rankings’ effects on undergrad institutions have long noted, can be harmful to schools, students, or both.
For example, because the U.S. News rankings place so much weight on LSAT/GRE scores and GPAs—about 20 percent of a law school’s overall ranking—schools fixate on these numbers. They overlook students who don’t have great stats but show promise in other ways, including students from modest means who can’t afford expensive test-prep classes, and they throw financial aid dollars at students with the best numbers, not the greatest need.
Gerken didn’t call out any school by name in her message. But I immediately thought of the Rubenstein Scholars Program at the University of Chicago Law School, the most well-known merit scholarship program, which provides full-tuition scholarships plus living stipends to outstanding law students—generally students with super-high GPAs and LSATs. Every year the program draws to Chicago some number of top students who would otherwise have gone to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. In the latest U.S. News rankings, Chicago leapfrogged Harvard to take the No. 3 spot—and I wonder whether the Rubenstein Scholars Program helped.
These are just some examples of problems with the U.S. News law school rankings specifically and educational rankings more generally. For more—and there’s a lot more out there—I refer you to excellent critiques by Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber in the Washington Post (2021), YLS professor Akhil Reed Amar in the Los Angeles Times (2019), former K&L Gates chairman Peter Kalis in the National Law Journal (2008), and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (2011). Like me, Amar and Kalis have criticized the current YLS administration on several fronts, including free speech and intellectual diversity—but they agree with Gerken that the rankings as currently constituted do more harm than good.
Reactions to Yale Law School’s move
Perhaps not surprisingly, in light of these criticisms, response to YLS’ withdrawal from the rankings has been overwhelmingly positive, Gerken told me. When we spoke on Wednesday, she said she has been deluged with calls and emails from supporters of the pullout, from both within and beyond the Yale Law community.
One such supporter is professor Ian Ayres, who wrote to me, “This is a proud day for the school. The faculty is overwhelmingly supportive of this move because we care deeply about issues of public service and need-based aid. The U.S. News ranking system makes it harder for law schools to take action on these issues without paying an undeserved price.”
And I don’t believe this is just spin. I interviewed current and former faculty, administrators, and students for this story, and most responses were positive. I’ve also been following conversations among YLS alumni on LinkedIn and Facebook, where supporters outweigh critics, and in a Twitter poll I posted yesterday, approximately two-thirds of respondents expressed support for Yale’s pullout.
What does U.S. News have to say for itself? Eric Gertler, executive chairman and CEO of U.S. News, issued this statement:
The U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings are for students seeking the best decision for their law education. We will continue to fulfill our journalistic mission of ensuring that students can rely on the best and most accurate information in making that decision. As part of our mission, we must continue to ensure that law schools are held accountable for the education they will provide to these students and that mission does not change with this recent announcement.
Reading between the lines, Gertler’s message confirms what former Northwestern Law dean Daniel Rodriguez told me over Twitter: “Unless @usnews abandons current policy, they will impute rankings from generally available data. There is precious little reason to expect that @YaleLawSch wouldn’t retain its top spot.”
But might YLS and the other schools that made announcements this week be more vulnerable to a rankings drop than Rodriguez suggests? As noted by Dean David Yellen of the University of Miami School of Law and Justin Kane of Spivey Consulting (which advises law schools on U.S. News rankings), when schools withdraw, i.e., stop providing U.S. News with their non-public information, U.S. News comes up with “placeholder values” for it (as explained in this Spivey Consulting blog post). And when schools don’t play ball with U.S. News, forcing the magazine to use “placeholder values,” they tend to drop. When Columbia withdrew from the most recent U.S. News rankings of national universities, it dropped from No. 2 to No. 18. A similar thing happened to Reed College years ago; it stopped participating and went from the top to the bottom quartile of national liberal arts colleges.
In the first year of the U.S. News rankings, Harvard Law didn’t cooperate; it wound up as No. 5. The following year, HLS coughed up its data and broke into the top three, where it remained until last year. So I wouldn’t be shocked to see non-participating schools drop in the rankings after Bob Morse, the U.S. News rankings guru-cum-enforcer, breaks their kneecaps with “placeholder values” (especially for “expenditures per student,” a non-public data point that has been crucial to YLS’ high ranking over the years).
Critiques of YLS’ move
As discussed above, overall response to the Yale and Harvard Law decisions has been positive. But Gerken’s decision also has critics—in terms of substance, process, and motives.
First, let’s talk substance. In the world beyond YLS and HLS, some have criticized the schools’ withdrawal as threatening the rankings system, which these critics argue has utility for schools beyond the super-elite. The top 14, top 6, and top 3 schools barely change, so one could argue that the U.S. News rankings offered little informational value as to those schools. The entire so-called “T14” could secede, and not much would change; the old advice of “If you get into a T14 law school, just go” would still apply.
But beyond the T14, some schools have made dramatic jumps over the years, as reflected in their U.S. News rank—e.g., George Mason/Scalia Law or Pepperdine Law, former fourth-tier schools that are now No. 30 and No. 52, respectively. If YLS and HLS, by withdrawing, end up killing the law school rankings, with U.S. News either leaving the space or making the ranks much more imprecise, how can these other schools demonstrate their progress? And how can law school applicants make informed decisions when choosing between non-T14 schools?
Other observers have criticized the rankings pullout as part of a larger assault on standardized test scores and other traditional barometers of merit. If U.S. News changes its rankings to de-emphasize or eliminate LSAT/GRE and GPA factors, which YLS and HLS have criticized U.S. News for fetishizing, how can applicants from less privileged backgrounds—applicants who didn’t go to Ivy League undergraduate institutions, who don’t have well-connected parents, or who don’t have well-paid law school admissions counselors—distinguish themselves?
Within the YLS community, I have heard from some YLS students and alumni who worry about what it might mean for the value of a YLS degree as a credential. This concern generated mockery on Twitter—cue the small violins—but let’s hear them out. Here’s an alum opposed to the change:
I don’t think a lot of supporters [of the move on the YLS alumni Facebook group] fully understand the ramifications of the loss of our #1 rank or that our professional and peer assessments have been dropping steadily over the last few years. This is supposed to be an institution of excellence, and as much as people hate that, rank matters. It hurts YLS more than any other school to pull out of the rankings. The rankings legitimized our quirkiness. No matter what criticism people threw at our unique learning model, we could always say we are #1, and the hecklers would shut up.
And here’s a current student:
Count me among the students disappointed in this move. While the USNWR are of course flawed, they were a useful entry point for applicants like me who don’t have any lawyer relatives and didn’t know anything about the law/legal market when applying to law school. Public rankings are useful to get a sense of, roughly, what the state of play is for students/applicants who lack that background knowledge.
I raised this point with Gerken, who said that she made the change with precisely these applicants in mind—applicants who might not have lawyer relatives or who might be first-generation professionals. She said that although YLS will no longer provide its data to U.S. News—a private, for-profit magazine—the school will continue to provide important consumer data to applicants and prospective students. This is a subject of great interest to Gerken—who has focused her work as a scholar on how better information and greater transparency can improve democratic decision-making—and she and other YLS administrators will be thinking about what additional information they can provide to help guide applicants, especially applicants who are new to the world of law.
Some sources questioned Dean Gerken’s motives. One faculty member who holds critical views of Gerken’s deanship but supports the rankings withdrawal told me, “Heather did the right thing here, even if she did it for the wrong reasons.”
And what might be some of those reasons? Some felt that Gerken wanted out of the rankings because of how they served as a kind of check on her administration—a concern about reduced accountability that could apply to all schools withdrawing from the U.S. News rankings. As one YLS student put it:
[Dean Gerken’s] decision to pull out at this time raises several red flags. It has the effect of removing the primary tool of accountability that offered some constraint on the Yale Law School administration’s bad behavior last year. USNWR factors in peer assessments into its rankings, and YLS did not have a good year last year. The events of last semester exposed Dean Gerken as slow to act in defense of free speech and showcased the problems of the lack of intellectual diversity at YLS. [This student is referring to a rowdy protest that disrupted a March 8 event at YLS featuring a conservative speaker, and to Dean Gerken’s response, which some observers—myself included—viewed as belated and insufficiently strong.] YLS’s reputation was slipping, and people were whispering that maybe YLS would finally drop to #2. Instead of working to repair her institution’s reputation, such as by hiring a conservative public-law professor, it seems Dean Gerken has decided to take her ball and go home.
Some students I heard from agreed with professor Dan Epps, who on Twitter hypothesized that Yale plans to make major changes to admissions in the wake of the expected Supreme Court affirmative action rulings, “and they are doing this proactively rather than dealing with any rankings implications later.” These students speculated—and again, in fairness to Gerken, it’s all speculation—that not having to worry about LSAT and GPA data dragging down its U.S. News rank will allow YLS to either (a) continue to use racial preferences in admissions or (b) water down its academic credentials. As one source pointed out to me, YLS uses race in a less mechanistic way than many other institutions—it doesn’t use a check box for applicants to indicate their race (except for Native Americans), instead using optional “diversity statements” and other aspects of the application to assess how an applicant’s background might contribute to YLS—but the forthcoming SCOTUS rulings could be of greater concern to the other schools opting out of the rankings.
Furthermore, some sources suggested that Gerken withdrew from the rankings because she feared that YLS was about to lose the No. 1 spot it has held for more than three decades—and she didn’t want that to happen on her watch, lest it tarnish her deanship (and her prospects of becoming a university president). See, e.g., this Reddit post, “YLS is working so hard to pre-empt its eventual fall out of #1 on USN.”
But other sources pushed back on such speculation. One professor told me that although Dean Gerken mentioned at a faculty retreat where the rankings were discussed that there was no guarantee that Yale would remain No. 1, there was no sense within the faculty that YLS’ No. 1 ranking was at imminent risk. Instead, this source told me, “This is clearly part of a larger and deeper commitment on her part toward leadership in the law school industry when it comes to fairness, welfare, and equity.” (As other examples, this faculty member cited Gerken’s involvement in rolling out a new clerkship hiring plan and launching the Hurst Horizon Scholarship Program, designed to “shame” other top schools into focusing more on need rather than “merit”—i.e., high LSATs and GPAs—in financial aid.)
I share some of the concerns about institutional accountability, process, and motive that critics of this move have aired. But my current view is that it’s probably a good thing that these six schools have stopped participating in the U.S. News rankings, and it would probably be a good thing if other top schools, including the rest of the T14, follow them. Because the schools in the T14 have been so stable as a group over the years, playing “musical chairs” amongst themselves but rarely dropping out of that band, the rankings weren’t telling applicants much about those schools, other than that they were consistently strong institutions. Having the T14 schools troop off to a kind of U.S. News Valhalla or Hall of Fame, while having the remaining institutions remain in the system, could be a good interim situation, allowing legal academia to assess the effect of this partial opt-out. The U.S. News rankings have been a fixture in the world of legal education for more than 30 years, so it might not be a bad idea to run a real-world experiment and see what happens when some but not all schools defect.
I lived much of my early life obsessed with rankings, prestige, respectability, and the opinions of others. I picked my college and law school based on the U.S. News rankings. I picked my law firm based on the Vault prestige rankings. I didn’t come out until I was almost 30. I know how much reputation can matter to people.
But I’m much happier today, ever since stepping off the legal-career treadmill, coming out of the closet, and caring less about the views of others. And maybe it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if, with apologies to Rousseau, someone had forced me to be free—and forced me to realize, at an earlier point in life, that self-worth doesn’t come from a ranking or depend on what people think of you.