Legal Education

ABA Group: US News Law School Rankings 'Not Entirely Benign,' But We're Stuck with Them

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Updated: In a report (PDF) circulated to members of the ABA Council of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, a special committee describes the controversial U.S. News & World Report annual law school rankings as “not entirely benign,” pointing to a number of negative effects.

However, “we believe that, for better or worse, U.S. News rankings will continue for the foreseeable future to dominate public perceptions of how law schools compare, and that there is relatively little that leaders in legal education can do to change that in the short term,” concludes the report by the section’s Special Committee on the U.S. News & World Report Rankings.

Specifically, the July 15 report cites three adverse effects of the annual U.S. News law school survey on law students:

First, law schools that provide a quality legal education at a relatively low cost tend to be punished in the rankings, which has the effect of driving up the cost of law school.

Second, the rankings’ emphasis on high Law School Admission Test scores encourages schools to provide financial aid based on test scores rather than need.

Third, because the rankings don’t include information (which is collected in a separate U.S. News survey) about the racial diversity of law schools’ student bodies, and U.S. News collects no information at all about other diversity measures (economic and religious, for example), the survey has encouraged law schools to downplay the importance of diversity.

But in an interview with the ABA Journal, data research director Bob Morse of U.S. News & World Report criticized the ABA group’s report as “one-sided.”

His magazine, he said, “was not contacted at all and consulted to even give our take on the conclusions or the validity of the inclusions, so we were left out of this process.” Yet U.S. News has repeatedly offered to sit down with critics, he said, and talk about how the law school rankings system might be improved.

Moreover, the controversial U.S. News rankings present an easy target for criticism that might be be more effectively directed at—and addressed by—other entities. Concerning law school tuition costs, for example, “there’s a supply and demand factor is one key reason why they can keep raising their tuition,” Morse says of law schools, noting that many are receiving large numbers of applications despite—or perhaps because of—the difficult economy.

Meanwhile, he continues, law schools are viewed as a “cash cow on campus” by a number of institutions of higher learning, which has nothing to do with the U.S. News rankings. “They’re not even mentioning the impact of what role [law schools] are playing on the broader campus” financially, he says of the ABA report.

Morse also addressed some of these criticisms in March on his blog Morse Code. As far as LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point averages, the rankings use a school’s median rather than average score, and this gives “schools considerable flexibility to accept students with very low LSAT and undergraduate grades without lowering the school’s actual median LSAT and grade-point average—and in turn, without negatively affecting their U.S. News rankings.” And while the magazine has an index on racial diversity in law schools, it is not incorporated into the rankings because it’s unfair to compare schools in ethnically diverse states such as California and Florida against those in less diverse states such as Maine and Kansas, Morse said.

While it may be too late to do much to change the widespread reliance on U.S. News rankings as a perceived measure of law school quality, law firms should perhaps be pondering whether they face a similar peril, according to the committee’s report.

“Once a single rankings system comes to dominate a particular field, it is very difficult to displace, difficult to change and dangerous to underestimate the importance of its methodology to any school or firm that operates in the field,” the committee writes. “This, we believe, is the most important lesson from the law school experience for those law firms who may be ranked by U.S. News in the future.”

The members of the committee are Judge Martha Daughtrey of the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Tracy Giles of Giles & Lambert in Roanoke, Va.; Dean Phoebe Haddon of the University of Maryland School of Law; Pauline Schneider of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe; and Dean Kent Syverud of the Washington University School of Law. Syverud served as the committee’s chair.

Updated on July 29 to include comments made by Bob Morse in ABA telephone interview on July 29.

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