Law schools face 'biggest jolt' in decades with LSAT rule change, U.S. News exodus

The Harvard College arms sits atop a gate into Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
  • Officials say the past week has been unprecedented for law school admissions
  • Changes in the works include school rankings, admissions tests and affirmative action

(Reuters) - More than half of the 14 top-ranked law schools in the United States have said over the past six days that they will no longer participate in U.S. News & World Report’s influential rankings, including those at Yale, Harvard and Stanford universities.

But that is just one of several changes set to reshape law school admissions in the coming years, in what legal educators are calling an unprecedented moment.

On Friday, the American Bar Association moved ahead with a plan to stop requiring law schools to use the Law School Admission Test or other standardized test when admitting students.

And the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to strike down affirmative action at colleges and universities across the country after hearing several challenges to race-conscious admissions policies last month.

“This is the biggest jolt I’ve had in the 40 years I’ve been at this,” Georgetown University Law Center admissions dean Andrew Cornblatt said of the combined changes.

The elimination of the ABA's test requirement would open the door for law schools to go test optional — a growing movement among colleges and universities seeking to diversify their student bodies.

Meanwhile, U.S. higher education institutions are awaiting the Supreme Court's upcoming affirmative action ruling, which court watchers expect to constrain or eliminate schools' ability to consider an applicant's race in admissions decisions.

Legal educators have said such a ruling would narrow the pipeline of minority law school applicants and make it more difficult for them to admit students from underrepresented groups.

And while the U.S. News rankings do not play a direct role in law school admissions, the heavy weight they place on the LSAT scores and undergraduate grades incentivizes schools to give financial aid to applicants with top marks. That comes at the expense of students who most need financial help, law deans have long argued. But until now, law schools have participated because a high ranking can open career doors for graduates.

Nine of the so-called T-14 elite law schools have pledged to stop submitting internal data for the U.S. News rankings since No. 1-ranked Yale Law School kicked off the exodus on Wednesday last week. The list of those shunning the rankings now includes the law schools at Berkeley, Columbia, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Michigan, Northwestern, and Stanford universities. Meanwhile, U.S. News said it will continue to rank law schools even without their participation.

The impact will be felt immediately, said Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean at No. 10-ranked University of Michigan Law School. Michigan said on Sunday that it would no longer participate.

After Georgetown broke with U.S. News last week, Cornblatt said he feels slightly less pressure to maintain certain LSAT and GPA benchmarks when making decisions.

Other changes will take longer. A ruling on the affirmative action challenge before the Supreme Court is not expected until June. And the ABA's standardized testing requirement will remain until 2025, assuming its House of Delegates signs off on the change in February.

“There is so much uncertainty right now,” Zearfoss said. “It’s hard to know how to move forward in a coherent way, frankly.”

Read more:

ABA votes to end law schools' LSAT requirement, but not until 2025

US News will still rank law schools as Georgetown and Columbia join boycott

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com