Why rankings-'obsessed' law students may stick with U.S. News

Illustrative image. Picture taken January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
  • Many aspiring attorneys place a heavy weight on the U.S. News rankings
  • The law school rankings have little competition

(Reuters) - U.S. News & World Report faced a steady stream of bad news this month, when at least a dozen U.S. law schools vowed to end their participation in the magazine's annual rankings process.

But admissions consultants and legal educators say the exodus is unlikely to loosen the rankings’ grip on aspiring lawyers.

“Applicants are obsessed with rankings, which makes it hard for law schools not to respond to that,” said admissions consultant Anna Ivey, a former admissions dean at the University of Chicago Law School.

Ivey compared trying to convince applicants to look beyond the U.S. News rankings to “pushing a boulder up a hill.” Applicants and their parents tend to focus on rank over individual career and location preferences, she said, and online discussion boards for law school applicants are similarly dominated by rankings talk.

U.S. News has been ranking law schools since 1990, and every year their prominence seems to grow, said law school admissions consultant Mike Spivey. That’s despite mounting criticism from deans and law professors about their methodology and the pressures they place on schools to make admissions and financial decisions that will bolster their ranking.

“People love rankings, and to be ranked,” Spivey said. “Particularly in the legal field.”

A U.S. News spokeswoman declined to comment on how some law schools’ refusal to participate could affect the credibility and influence of its rankings. U.S. News has previously said it will continue to rank all American Bar Association-accredited law schools even without their participation.

The rankings play an outsized role in legal education and the legal industry in part because they have very little competition. Business schools are the focus of a half dozen credible rankings, so no single ranking dominates and schools are not beholden to any single methodology.

But no other law school ranking has gained the traction of U.S. News, and a viable new competitor is the only development that could diminish their long term influence, Spivey said. In the prestige-obsessed legal industry, graduating from a highly ranked school opens doors to jobs at large law firms, federal clerkships, and other sought-after jobs.

Yale Law School on Nov. 16 was first to say it would no longer supply U.S. News with internal data for the rankings. Since then, nine of the so-called T-14 law schools have pulled out, as have three others. The University of California, Davis School of Law on Monday joined the list of boycotting schools.

University of Chicago law dean Thomas Miles said last week that it will continue to provide its data to U.S. News in an effort to make sure the numbers used are correct given that “the rankings of academic institutions clearly have a readership.”

But whatever the schools do, most applicants will be unaware that the next rankings round may be based on unevenly-supplied data, Ivey said.

“Applicants don’t look into how the sausage gets made,” she said.

Read more:

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

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

UCLA law school joins exodus from U.S. News rankings as movement expands

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