Yale and Harvard law schools to shun influential U.S. News rankings

Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut November 12, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
  • The moves could prompt other law schools to follow suit
  • U.S. News' law school rankings loom large in the legal industry

(Reuters) - Yale Law School and Harvard Law School both said Wednesday they will no longer participate in U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of law schools, marking the biggest shakeup to the closely watched list in years.

Yale, which has captured the No. 1 spot every year since U.S. News began ranking law schools in 1990, was first to announce the decision. Hours later, Harvard Law Dean John Manning informed students that it would do the same. The school is ranked No. 4.

Both schools said the rankings are in conflict with their commitments to student diversity and affordability.

Yale law dean Heather Gerken said in a message on her school's website that the “profoundly flawed” rankings disincentivize schools from bringing in working-class students, issuing financial aid based on need and helping students pursue public interest careers.

"U.S. News continues to adopt metrics that undermine the legal profession and legal education," Gerken told Reuters in an interview. "It seems like time to take a step back and decide whether this makes any sense."

CEO Eric Gertler of U.S. News said in a statement that Yale Law's decision does not change the rankings' mission to ensure "students can rely on the best and most accurate information" when deciding where to attend.

U.S. News’ law school rankings loom large in the legal industry, which highly values prestige. Many would-be lawyers weigh the rankings when choosing a law school, and graduating from a highly ranked school opens doors to highly paid associate jobs at large law firms, judicial clerkships and other sought-after positions.

Many legal academics have long criticized the U.S. News rankings. The system pushes law schools to funnel financial aid to applicants with high scores on the Law School Admission Test and strong undergraduate grades, which account for 20% of a school’s ranking, rather than to applicants who most need it, they argue. And they say schools are rewarded in the rankings for high expenditures-per-student instead of for keeping tuition low.

Gerken said the rankings are misleading in part because they do not consider graduates in public interest fellowships funded by the schools be fully employed. And the way the rankings measure student debt does not take into account loan repayment assistance for those in public interest jobs, she said.

It remains to be seen whether other U.S. law schools will follow the lead of Yale and Harvard, which appear to be the first to opt out of the U.S. News rankings. Representatives from No. 3-ranked Chicago and No. 4 ranked Columbia declined to comment.

A Stanford Law spokewoman said the school, ranked No. 2, will be giving the matter "careful thought."

Law school admissions consultant Mike Spivey said other schools will now have cover to stop providing data to U.S. News—a move he said many law deans at top-ranked schools have wanted to take for years.

"The gun has been loaded and the trigger has been pulled," Spivey said.

Yale and Harvard will not disappear from the law school rankings, however. U.S. News says that it uses publicly available data when schools do not supply their own.

Columbia University — previously ranked No. 2 in U.S. News’ ranking of colleges and universities — dropped to No. 18 this year after the submission of incorrect data spurred it to stop participating in the ranking. Columbia's law school declined to comment on its plans Wednesday.

Spivey said defaulting to third-party data would be a positive change because schools can't manipulate those numbers.

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