The battle against the US News Law School Rankings has finally begun. After decades of groaning and grumbling about how bad the rankings are, many top law schools have said they are withdrawing from the rankings, including many out of the top 10. I applaud this move, but I fear that law schools might break out the champagne too early. The battle might be won, but the war might ultimately be lost unless law schools do more than just withdraw.
Law schools aren’t really dropping out of the rankings; they are just pledging to refuse to submit certain data that US News wants. US News issued a statement declaring that it will continue ranking whether law schools cooperate or not. The dragon hasn’t been slain; it’s just not going to get some of the food it wants.
Rankings are almost inherently reductive and imperfect, but certainly there can be better and worse approaches, and US News has a terribly flawed approach that has been a scourge to legal education and has hurt students. It is a shame that US News has shown a great disregard for students or for what’s good for legal education. US News acts as though they just want to sell issues and produce rankings cheaply and easily. For decades, professors and law schools have offered up thoughtful critiques and suggestions to improve the rankings, but US News has ignored nearly all of them. US News could have worked with law schools to come up with a more fair and sensible method to rank, but it has never done so.
Law school reputation is quite slow-moving. US News, however, wants to sell issues every year. So the trick they try is to make a ranking system that is plausible enough yet also shows sufficient movement to entice people to buy issues each year. The movement is mainly an illusion, an attempt to make a turtle race look like a horse race. See here for more detail about this point, which I made years ago.
Even the more sensible metrics used by US News are flawed. The reputational ranking scoring system isn’t sufficiently granular. A 1-5 scale for roughly 200 law schools is just not enough. On that scale, the top 30-40 should all get 5’s. See here for my parody of this problem.
Reductive as rankings are, people crave rankings, and there is money in ranking for US News. Thus, don’t expect US News to fold. Rankers gonna rank. US News will just use whatever data it can get their hands on.
Now would be a wonderful opportunity for US News to adopt a new attitude and work cooperatively with law schools to come up with a better way to rank. Maybe US News could take this opportunity to look in the mirror and see that hardly any law school likes the rankings, even those ranked at the top. When both the winners and losers of a ranking system hate it, that’s not the kind of consensus one wants.
I certainly hope that these recent events usher in a new era of peace between the ranker and rankees, but based on US News’s past record, I’m doubtful it will finally work with the legal academy rather than against it. Instead of developing a good ranking approach, US News will just cook up a new formula based on publicly-available data. It will likely create a shallow and unthoughtful ranking as in the past.
I worry that this initial victory might ultimately leave the legal academy worse off. US News will continue on. If the goal for law schools is to have a ranking that is fair, thoughtful, and not damaging to legal education, merely trying to starve US News of information won’t be enough. The only way for law schools to win is to come up with a better way to evaluate law schools comparatively. They can do this with US News or without it, but nature abhors a vacuum.
I fear that although the battle will be won, the war will be lost when we see the new US News rankings based on other data. To use a metaphor, the rebel is fine while rebelling, but often has no plan for governing if the rebellion turns out to be victorious. I fear that this is where law schools might end up. US News will quickly regroup and will be back with something new. Will the new US News rankings be better or worse? The cynic in me says worse.
The bottom line is that there is no way to fully vanquish rankings. If schools stop submitting data, US News will find other data, and the rankings might be better but could also be worse. There will be rankings, and there won’t be a void. I thus think the best options would be (1) to see if US News would willing to be more cooperative and develop a formula based on the input of figures in legal academia and the profession; or (2) for a group of law schools to take the lead and hire a firm to help them produce a better ranking (or set of rankings). Otherwise, come ranking time next year, the legal academy will find itself saddled with an even more shallow and damaging ranking system by US News.
Daniel J. Solove is John Marshall Harlan Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. He is the founder of TeachPrivacy, a company that provides computer-based privacy and data security training. His most recent book is Breached! Why Data Security Law Fails and How to Improve It, published by Oxford University Press 2022.