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The Law School Rankings Debate: What's at Stake for Students

The Debate Over Law School Rankings: What's at Stake for Schools and Students
Nancy Bilyeau
Nancy BilyeauUpdated June 8, 2023
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For decades, U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of law school rankings has played a key role in how students pick which law school to pursue. Every spring, the publication of the magazine’s new rankings was released – and met with great fanfare.Until this year.Instead of releasing its famed law school list in mid-April, along with many of its other educational rankings, U.S. News & World Report released a preview to a private group of law schools followed by a public “Update.” In the website update, the magazine editors said they were working to “address inquiries” from those schools, and that the law school rankings would not be released until “this work has been completed.” U.S. News & World Report said, “We are dealing with an unprecedented number of inquiries during our embargo period for the 2023-2024 Best Graduate Schools, including requests from law and medical schools to update data submitted after the collection period….The level of interest in our rankings, including from those schools that declined to participate in our survey, has been beyond anything we have experienced in the past.”For observers, the response was: What does this mean? The New York Times said the list had been “indefinitely delayed,”  Reuters described it as “indefinitely postponed,” while the Washington Post said it had been just “delayed.” The reason for the postponement was actually not hard to guess for those following along. Almost one-third of the law schools on the national list had last year decided to boycott it by not sending in data about its students that U.S. News relies on to rank the schools.

Significant Moves in US News’ Law School Rankings for 2023-2024

It turns out that the delay was three weeks long. On May 11, U.S. News released its list after all. But there were significant shifts in the rankings. In its 2023-2024 list of best law schools, 62 schools showed an increase or decrease in ranks by double digits this year, compared with 27 in last year’s list. U.S. News released a new statement saying, “Over the last several months, dozens of law and medical schools announced plans not to submit data to U.S. News. This year's law rankings were based on American Bar Association data, which is publicly available data that schools annually disclose and publish.”All of the attention paid to U.S. News’ latest list drives home the value of its annual rankings of law schools. It’s not only students and law schools who are fixated over what one newspaper called a “tumult.” Lawyers and others in the legal profession are following it closely too.“Historically, rankings, and particularly the US News Law School Rankings, have played an important role in both applicants' decision-making and, to a lesser but still real extent, faculty hiring and alumni giving,” says law school consultant Mike Spivey.Recommended: Bar Exam & Study Loans: Refinancing Options

Why Law School Rankings Matter So Much

When it comes to the law school rankings, there is, literally, a lot at stake. A legal education is costly. The average total cost of law school is $206,180, according to, with the average total tuition increasing by $1,070 per year. This sort of expense makes some people wonder if law school is even worth it. also reported that 26.7% of new lawyers have decided to postpone marriage or remain unwed as a result of their debts, and 51.8% have put off purchasing property. Years after graduation, people are paying off their debts and exploring refinancing student loans as an option.While a three-week delay in law school rankings may not sound like a crisis, it comes at a sensitive time. The respected legal website and blog says, “Due to a double publication delay as U.S. News attempted to correct rankings errors thanks to its new-and-improved methodology, many prospective law students have already sent out seat deposits to what they hoped was the law school with the best rank, while current law students are waiting to see if the school they’ll soon graduate from will be considered more or less prestigious than when they first decided to debt-finance their futures based on their alma mater’s rank.”This period of law-school-list uncertainty follows what can only be called a revolt by the very law schools that U.S. News & World has ranked – and in fact, ranked the highest. Most of the rebels are coming from the top 20 law schools. These law schools announced a boycott of the list and a refusal to supply the data that the magazine requests every year to help form its rankings. 

The Reason the Best Law Schools Launched the Boycott

The official pushback began in November 2022, when the dean of Yale University’s law school – ranked No. 1 in America that same year – declared that the list was “profoundly flawed” and Yale would withdraw from consideration. Harvard and other elite law schools swiftly followed.“Georgetown Law decided last year not to provide data to U.S. News & World Report for its rankings due to concerns dating back a decade about their methodology and their lack of transparency and legal expertise in formulating the rankings,” says Merrie Leininger, Director of Media Relations for Georgetown Law. Georgetown Law moved from 14 to 15 on the 2024 list, which might sound like no big deal, except it’s the top 14 spots on the US News list that are considered the most valuable and the grouping has earned the nickname “T-14.”Nonetheless, says Leininger, “we have no plans to resume providing data.”  

US News’ Law School Rankings: Their Side of the Story

U.S. News & World Report vigorously defends the integrity of its rankings.“Administrators don’t like to be held accountable,” said Executive Chairman and CEO of U.S. News & World Report Eric Gertler in an essay published in the Wall Street Journal. “We’re incredulous that our critics blame our rankings for just about every issue academia confronts. Debates on campuses — whether on free speech, equity or the cost of degrees — have nothing to do with our rankings. We simply provide students with a destination for comprehensive information.”Stuck in the middle of this battle are those aspiring law school students, wondering what’s happening with the U.S. News & World Report list, whether the list is flawed, and how to possibly move forward without it.Employment of lawyers is expected to grow 10% over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But according to U.S. News, “Law students often struggle to find a job after graduation that truly validates the significant time and expense they invested into their education.”Clearly, U.S. News & World Report executives believe they are helping students select the best law school for their needs. Why do some people disagree?Recommended: Guide to Scholarships for Law School

Who Decides Which Are the Best Law Schools in the US?

For some of the critics of the rankings, the problem goes back to the beginning. Why is U.S. News & World Report – described as a “for profit magazine” by Yale Law School Dean Heather K. Gerken – serving this function at all?In the early 1980s, there were three news magazines in America: Time, Newsweek, and, in third place circulation-wise, U.S. News & World Report. In 1983, evaluating and ranking colleges for readers with a secret algorithm was created as a way for the magazine to stand out. Since then, it has grown into an empire of educational and professional rankings.People love lists and rankings. Analyzing law school rankings is a popular pursuit. Or, as Spivey put it, “Rankings afford the ability to drown out noise and make decision-making simpler.” According to U.S. News CEO Gertler, “Absent U.S. News’s academic rankings, it’s difficult to find accurate, comprehensive information that empowers students to compare institutions and identify the factors that matter most to them. We are one of the few places that do.”

What Went Into the New Law School List by U.S. News

So how did U.S. News come up with its new list? In an article accompanying the May 11 release of the law school rankings, U.S. News says, “Nearly 60% of the rankings methodology evaluated institutions on their successful placement of graduates. The remainder is a combination of academic metrics about faculty resources, the achievements of entering students, and opinions by law schools, lawyers and judges on overall program quality.”There were no drastic shifts among the Top 14 law schools. Last year, Yale Law School was No. 1. This year, Yale is tied for No. 1 with Stanford Law School.

US News’ “T-14,” the Top 14 Law Schools in 2023-2024

1. Stanford University (tie)1. Yale University (tie)3. University of Chicago4. University of Pennsylvania (Carey)5. Duke University (tie)5. Harvard University (tie)5. New York University (tie)8. Columbia University9. University of Virginia10. Northwestern University (Pritzker)11. University of California Berkeley12. University of Michigan Ann Arbor13. Cornell University14. University of California Los AngelesNonetheless, critics still have big problems with the U.S. News list. What they object to are: the alleged lack of transparency on the algorithm, the qualifications of the U.S. News & World Report’s staff to assess legal education, and, most important of all, the consequences of the list’s preeminence.

What’s Wrong With the US News’ Law School Rankings?

U.S. News' Best Law Schools rankings “evaluate institutions on their successful placement of graduates, faculty resources, academic achievements of entering students, and opinions by law schools, lawyers and judges on overall program quality,” according to the magazine’s website.  “The rankings measured 192 law schools that were fully accredited by the American Bar Association, or ABA.”While some critics say that how the list is created is a mystery, the magazine details the factors that feed into the assessment, along with how much weight is given, on its website.Nonetheless, the magazine’s higher-education rankings have raised concerns for quite a few years.

Earlier Criticism of US News’ Law School Rankings 

In 2011, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker, “There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution — how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students. So the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality — and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.”National Public Radio in 2014 reported that one of the factors that goes into the law school rankings is the percentage of students employed nine months after graduation. “But the U.S. News rankings don't consider who employs the graduates, so long as they're employed in a professional position,” said NPR. “Some schools have been hiring their own students, and rising in the rankings.”Spivey explains, “A sizable amount of the data submitted before the boycott went directly from schools to U.S. News, and that data was not third-party audited. That produced a twofold deleterious risk: first, that data could be falsified or innocently mistaken, and there have been examples of this at the undergraduate and law school level; and second, stakeholders, particularly applicants, did not know what data went into the rankings.” He continues, “Thus, a school could report something like expenditures per student inconsistently with the way that other schools were reporting that same metric, that school could move up in the rankings as a result, and applicants would never know.”  

Who Gets Law School Scholarships?

Aside from influencing students’ law school choice, faculty hiring, and alumni giving, Spivey says that the U.S. News rankings influence decisions on scholarships and financial aid. “A secondary by-product of the strong applicant focus on rankings has been a merit-aid/scholarship arms race that correlates tightly with the growing emphasis on rankings,” he says. “Because the rankings created an incentive for schools to improve LSAT/GPA, scholarship resources were focused on students with strong LSAT and GPA.” Several of the law schools say that their values have come under intense – and even distasteful – pressure because of the need to perform to the expectations of the rankings. Law school tuition can be towering. Yet student loans are sometimes steered toward people with highest test scores and other factors who will boost the annual rankings, regardless of their economic need, critics claim. Public-interest law careers are not supported as much as the schools say they would like to, again due to the rankings.Yale’s Law School dean wrote in her statement explaining the boycott that U.S. News’ rankings “disincentivize programs that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession. We have reached a point where the rankings process is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession.”Recommended: What You Need to Know About Refinancing a Law School Student Loan

Opponents to the US News’ Rankings Speak Out

Georgetown’s representative says, “The U.S. News rankings have always been run by personnel who lack a fundamental understanding of the legal profession, which leads to mistakes and errors in their algorithm.”And in an April letter to U.S. News, Harvard Law School’s assistant dean of student affairs says that the rankings not only undermine the efforts of many law schools to support public interest careers for graduates but “the employment data U.S. News published during the embargo period is inaccurate, incomplete, and does not match the data reported to and published by the [American Bar Association].”U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona called on institutions to “stop worshiping at the false altar of U.S. News and World Report” during a conference hosted at Harvard Law School in March. “Rankings discourage institutions with the largest endowments and greatest capacity to enroll and graduate more underserved students from doing so because it may hurt their selectivity,” Cardona said. “Instead, the most life-changing higher education opportunities go to young people who already have every socioeconomic advantage.”It was debates about how employment was being quantified that fueled the complaints of several law schools, leading to the first-ever delay of the U.S. News rankings.Making it even more complicated, the ABA does not seem to want to play a role in law school evaluating. U.S. News says it is getting data from the ABA. But in a statement, the ABA says it does not provide data to any body that ranks law schools.“Neither the American Bar Association nor its Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar endorses, cooperates with, or provides data to any law school ranking system,” said the statement. “No ranking or rating system of law schools is attempted or advocated by the ABA. Rather, the ABA provides only a statement of the accreditation status of a school.”

How Has US News’ Law School Rankings Changed?

When you get beyond the elite law schools in the 2023-2024 list, the changes in the ranking of law schools are noteworthy. Reuter’s described those shifts as “significant movement.” says, “The biggest winners here are Minnesota, Ohio State, Boston College, Fordham, Georgia, Wake Forest, and Texas A&M, up five, eight (for three schools), nine, 15, and 17 spots in the rankings, respectively.” It looks as if the biggest winner on the entire list was “Kansas, which moved up 27 places in the 2024 law school rankings, propelling the school into the Top 50. The biggest losers here were Alabama, GW, and William & Mary, with two 10- and 15-spot drops, respectively.”Spivey says, “It was very predictable that we’d see somewhat stabilized rankings at the top — there almost always are — but wild swings as you drop down because of a vastly new methodology. This was almost exactly what everyone was expecting.”But why the wild swings?U.S. News says, “There was more emphasis on outcome measures and less emphasis on reputation and selectivity this year, which led to some shifts in the rankings." Spivey’s explanation of why outcomes became more critical: “It was necessary in the sense they had to reallocate +21% weight due to the boycott, and this was a logical place for much of it to go.” 

The Way Forward for Students

The debate over law school rankings seems to be kicking off some fundamental changes in how U.S. News & World Report analyzes colleges. On May 17, the publication released a statement saying that the 2024 Best Colleges methodology “will place greater emphasis on outcomes for graduating college students.” Methodology updates will include “increased weighting on a schools' success in graduating students from different backgrounds” and “removing the following factors as ranking indicators: alumni giving, faculty with terminal degree, class size and high school standing.”These shifts in values may be seen in next year’s law school evaluations too.Another question is: Should the U.S. News & World Report rankings for law schools fade away completely, what kind of criteria could best inform students?Georgetown’s representative says, “There are several other public rankings available and we believe there should be even more. We want clear and transparent data that gives prospective students the ability to easily access and weigh information that matters most to them — from financial aid and loan forgiveness for public interest attorneys, to fellowship opportunities and potential career paths.”Spivey says, “Fit. Debt. Outcomes. Those three words are really all that matters, in my view.”The right fit “can be determined by talking to current students and alumni and ideally visiting schools,” he says.“Debt should be at the forefront of every applicant's mind, because depending on your financial situation, having considerable debt might lock you into a 10-15 year career path that is miserable for you but that you are beholden to in order to pay off your student loans,” Spivey continues.As for outcomes, he says, “Law school is a professional school; the point is to graduate and get a job in the field. There is a great deal of this employment data that is publicly available, for free, without any need for rankings.”For the present, despite the boycott and the delay and the shift in methodology, the U.S. News & World Report law school list still seems important to those selecting a school.“People love rankings and I suspect applicants still will,” says Spivey. Recommended: Getting Rid of Student Loan Debt: 13 Options

The Takeaway 

The debate over U.S. News & World Report’s annual law school rankings has led to something of an impasse between some of the nation’s top law schools and the magazine that has ranked them for over 30 years. Despite a widespread law school boycott of the annual list, U.S. News is moving forward with its rankings. The debate is stirring up some provocative, and possibly transformative, discussions about law schools’ values and how to best support those values in student admittance and education.With average student loan debt soaring, paying for higher education can be challenging. Refinancing student loans has its pros and cons. When deciding whether to refinance, remember that doing so makes you ineligible for federal student loan forgiveness programs for that amount, including need-based financial aid.
Photo credit: iStock/gradyreese

About the Author

Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau writes about student loans, mortgages, car insurance, medical debt and many other finance topics for Lantern. A veteran of the magazine business, she has edited stories on personal finance for Good Housekeeping and DuJour magazines and has written articles for The Wall Street Journal, Readers' Digest, Parade, Town & Country and Lifetime/A&E, among others. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan.
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