The American Bar Association recently published a very detailed "Report of the Special Committee on the U.S. News and World Report Rankings" organized by the ABA's Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar to "examine rankings of law schools."
Among the key conclusions of the ABA's report:
"The U.S. News and World Report's annual ranking of law schools overwhelmingly dominates the public discourse on how law schools compare to one another. As a result, U.S. News rankings have assumed ever increasing importance to any law school that wishes to attract students and faculty and to retain support from alumni and university leaders. The criteria U.S. News uses for rankings now has a powerful influence over the management and design of American legal education."
"Despite these frequent calls across the spectrum of legal education, the public has continued to rely heavily upon U.S. News rankings in comparing—and making decisions about—American law schools. The result has been to change decision-making within American legal education. There is rich history in the American legal profession of debate and dialogue about what constitutes quality in legal education. In the last two decades, both within the academy and outside it, that discussion has increasingly come to be constrained and at times driven by the need to preserve and improve a school's rankings in U.S. News. This has been true even when the U.S. News rankings methodology is at cross purposes with a school's mission or aspirations."
"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."
Additionally, the ABA report felt that the impact of the U.S. News law school rankings could offer insights for law firms about to be ranked by U.S. News and Best Lawyers in the upcoming Best Law Firms rankings:
"But 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 that field. This, we believe, is the most important lesson from the law school experience for those law firms who may ranked by U.S. News in the future."
The U.S. News response:
It's clear that the U.S. News law school rankings have a large impact on law schools and prospective law school students. The ABA implies that the U.S. News rankings are behind rapidly rising tuitions at law schools, why law schools are offering more merit-based aid and less need-based aid, and why some law schools aren't enrolling enough at-risk law students with far lower LSAT scores compared to the school's typical LSAT score.
But there are other key factors behind these trends. It also must be pointed out that the ABA does not cite real evidence behind these often-repeated claims of the degree to which U.S. News exerts power over law school behavior. In other words, it's very easy for the ABA and law school academics to blame U.S. News for many of the negative practices at law schools. Law schools and the ABA need to take far more direct responsibility for these trends.
Concerning law school tuition costs, for example, there's basic economics of demand being greater than supply, which is one key reason why law schools can keep raising their tuition. The number of prospective students taking the LSAT test is still at record levels. Many law schools are still receiving very large numbers of applications despite the poor state of the legal job market. This all means that there is still a near record demand for legal education and not enough capacity at the top schools.