US News & World Report is overhauling parts of its controversial law school rankings after deans at more than a dozen top law schools slammed the value of the powerful and closely followed list.
On Monday, US News sent a letter to the deans of the 188 law schools it ranks, saying it would make changes to its criteria, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Specifically, US News said it would put less weight on reputational surveys completed by deans, faculty, lawyers and judges, and it won’t take into account per-student expenditures that favor the wealthiest schools.
As part of the changes, the new rankings, which will released next year, will count graduates with school-funded public-interest legal fellowships or those who go on to additional graduate programs the same as they would other employed graduates, the Journal said.
The change comes weeks after US News’ rankings team held meetings with more than 100 deans and other law school administrators. The publication was pressured to re-evaluate its rankings system after the perennially No. 1-ranked Yale Law School said in November that it would no longer provide information to help US News compile its list.
“The U.S. News rankings are profoundly flawed,” Yale Law Dean Heather Gerken said at the time. “Its approach not only fails to advance the legal profession, but stands squarely in the way of progress.”
After Yale’s declaration, Harvard Law School followed suit the same day, and by the end of the week, top law schools Georgetown, Columbia, the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford also moved to skip engaging in the powerful list.
When the dust settled, 12 of the 14 top-rated schools said they wouldn’t provide the publication with any additional information for the rankings. Some law schools that said they would continue to share the requested information also criticized the existing system, the Journal said.
According to the letter, Robert Morse, US News’ chief data strategist, and Stephanie Salmon, senior vice president for data and information strategy, spent most of last month in Zoom meetings with deans, coming to a compromise.
“Based on those discussions, our own research and our iterative rankings review process, we are making a series of modifications in this year’s rankings that reflect those inputs and allow us to publish the best available data,” they wrote in Monday’s letter.
The change in methodology could be due to necessity. The Journal said that while US News gleans much of its data from the American Bar Association and said it would rank schools whether or not they cooperated, the publication relies on schools to provide the spending figures and to complete peer-review surveys.
“If the top 15 schools suddenly drop down to No. 50, the rankings don’t have much credibility,” Russell Korobkin, interim dean of the law school at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Journal.
The old ranking system used a survey completed by academics, which counted for 25% of its total score, the Journal said. A survey for judges, law firm hiring partners and other attorneys made up another 15% of a school’s score.
US News did not break down what weight those surveys would carry under the new system. A rep from US News did not return requests for comment.
Other issues that were of concern included how US News considers diversity and loan forgiveness and potentially encourages awarding scholarships based on LSAT scores rather than on financial need. In Monday’s letter, the publication said those issues “will require additional time and collaboration to address” so they won’t be overhauled now.
US News also said it plans on offering more detailed profiles of schools moving forward.
Criticism of US News’ rankings system is not new. In 2017, 17 deans signed a letter to Morse suggesting that US News follow the lead of the American Bar Association, which broke out two categories for graduates with school-funded fellowships “to better differentiate between those with public-interest jobs versus those whose schools were trying to goose employment numbers,” the Journal said.
Some of the deans said it was disheartening that US News did not employ that solution. They also told the Journal that they were “troubled by how thinly staffed the law-school rankings operation seemed, and they were told nobody on it had a background in legal education.”
“Having a window into the operations and decision-making process at US News in recent weeks has only cemented our decision to stop participating in the rankings,” Yale’s Gerken said.
A US News spokeswoman told the Journal that the publication has analyzed law schools for 30 years, and “to say that journalists need to be lawyers is an argument for a closed profession — which is something we wholeheartedly refute.”
US News told the deans of the changes a day ahead of an annual gathering for the Association of American Law Schools in San Diego — a conference Morse and Salmon are slated to attend.