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U.S. News & World Report tweaks law school formula after rankings revolt

Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn., led a rebellion in recent weeks against U.S. News & World Report's law school rankings. (Peter Hvizdak/New Haven Register/AP)

U.S. News & World Report tweaked its law school ranking formula this week in response to intense criticism from law deans that led more than a dozen prominent schools to halt their cooperation with an annual listing that holds profound sway within the legal profession.

But several prominent law deans involved the rankings rebellion said they remain unsatisfied.

The revisions, published Monday in a letter from U.S. News, include giving more weight to certain steps schools take to promote public-service careers and less weight to how judges, academics and lawyers perceive the reputation of the schools.

“In recent weeks, we have had conversations with more than 100 deans and representatives of law schools — well more than half of this academic leadership group,” Robert Morse and Stephanie Salmon, two U.S. News leaders, wrote in an open letter to law deans. “Based on those discussions, our own research and our iterative rankings review process, we are making a series of modifications in this year’s rankings that reflect those inputs and allow us to publish the best available data.”

Law school revolt against U.S. News rankings gains steam

Whether the revisions would mollify enough critics to quell, or at least ease, the revolt remains to be seen.

Heather K. Gerken, leader of Yale University’s top-ranked law school, did not back off from her criticism of U.S. News. Yale’s break with the ranking process in November touched off the revolt.

“Having a window into the operations and decision-making process at U.S. News in recent weeks has only cemented our decision to stop participating in the rankings,” Gerken said in a statement.

Georgetown University’s law school, ranked 14th, is also standing by its decision not to participate this year.

Georgetown law dean, William Treanor, who has voiced criticisms of the methodology to the publication for years, said he was pleased and appreciative that U.S. News appeared responsive to some important concerns. “It’s a step forward,” he said. “... But more needs to be done, for the rankings to be reliable.”

Treanor called for U.S. News to make its ranking algorithm public, so that prospective students could know what data was used, and how different factors are weighted. He said he would like to see more credit given to law schools’ efforts to promote diversity and access, such as giving weight to need-based financial aid or to loan forgiveness for people going into public-interest careers. In its statement, U.S. News alluded to similar concerns, and said it “will require additional time and collaboration to address” those issues.

And the other thing that will be important going forward, he said, would be for U.S. News to have people on their team who know legal education. It would enable them to fairly assess the data, he said.

“If you’re going to be an umpire,” he said, “you have to know baseball.”

He said it was striking that the response from Georgetown Law faculty and alumni had been “uniformly positive” to the decision not to participate.

Russell Korobkin, interim law dean at the University of California at Los Angeles, another school that had joined the revolt, said Tuesday he had no immediate plans to change the school’s position. Asked about the U.S. News statement, he said: “This is a positive step, but the devil is in the details.” U.S. News ranks the UCLA law school 15th on its list.

The University of California at Berkeley’s law school, ranked 9th, could reevaluate its decision not to participate if U.S. News makes certain changes.

“I don’t know enough yet,” Erwin Chemerinsky, the UC-Berkeley law dean, said. “I’ve read this letter, and I just don’t know to what extent it addresses the concerns that caused us to decide not to participate.”

One of those concerns is that students who continue their studies — doing doctoral research, for example, in a joint-degree program offered by the law school — pull down the school’s ranking. The U.S. News methodology gives more weight to students who go on to full-time work after graduating.

“It makes no sense that those count as ‘not fully employed,’” Chemerinsky said.

In its letter, U.S. News acknowledged that sometimes rankings “may not capture the individual nuances of each school.” But it added: “We have been following legal education and the profession for more than 30 years. We routinely and consistently talk with legal professionals and legal academics, and stay abreast of changes in the legal education landscape.”

Every year, U.S. News collects data from law schools that it uses for the rankings. Most of the top 15 law schools on the U.S. News list, as well as a number of others, have said they would decline to supply that data for the next edition of the rankings, to be published in the spring.

But other information is publicly available through the American Bar Association. For the upcoming rankings, U.S. News said it plans to rely on that public information in the calculations it performs to sort law schools. It also plans to omit from the number-crunching certain data on school spending and student debt.

U-Va. law school joins ranking revolt

Law school leaders are gathering this week in San Diego for a meeting of the Association of American Law Schools. Morse and Salmon said they would be there and would “welcome additional discussions.”

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