opinion | Why Yale Law rightly left the US news rankings

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James Forman Jr. is the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale and Faculty Director of the Yale Law and Racial Justice Center.

Last week, the Yale Law School, where I teach, announced that it was withdrawing from US News & World Report’s annual law school rankings. Many people were shocked. After all, Yale has always been #1 in the more than 30 years since the rankings came out. Why leave a system that has brought so much fame?

Because US news rankings are somewhere between silly and insane – they hurt law schools, applicants and graduates. As someone who has been reading law school applications and advising prospective students for nearly a decade, I could cite dozens of reasons for dropping the ranking. But here are the top 3.

1. The list encourages students to make decisions based on the ranking and nothing else. When I help prospective law students choose a school, I encourage them to talk to current enrolled students or recent graduates to learn more about the student culture. I challenge them to check whether the courses, clinics, and professors match their interests. I encourage them to visit – in person or virtually – and get a feel for the school, the community, the city.

I mostly waste my breath. Here’s a story I could tell a dozen versions of: A few years ago, the Yale Admissions Office asked me to call an admitted student who wanted to choose between Stanford and Yale. As we spoke, I learned that the student was from California, was in a committed relationship with a partner in California, and wanted to practice in California.

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After listening to them, I said, “Well, if it were me, I’d go to Stanford.” The applicant was obviously surprised – shouldn’t I open Yale? But I couldn’t understand why it was such a difficult decision. The more we talked, the clearer it became that there was nothing on Yale’s page of the ledger except that it was #1.

A few months later, the admissions office called back to say thank you for my recruitment call: the student had chosen Yale.

2. Ranking discourages schools from helping graduates pursue careers in the public interest. When I was in law school, students aspiring to such a career—myself included—complained that public interest jobs were harder to find than law firm jobs. Civil rights law firms and public defense offices cannot afford to hire new attorneys because they require so much training in their freshman and sophomore years. Even those who can hire freshmen seldom know how many openings they will have until students have to make job decisions long after graduation. The result: Students in my day often gave up their public interest dreams and joined law firms, fearing they would leave law school unemployed.

In response to this problem, some schools have developed bursaries to pay graduates for first or sophomore years at civil rights law firms or legal aid and state defense offices. I have lost count of the number of students who have made fabulous careers in social justice thanks to these scholarships.

But here’s the bug: US News counts students on such grants as unemployed. Since the rankings measure the percentage of students who have jobs outside of law school, the more public interest grants a school sponsors, the lower the rankings look. Schools like Yale can take the hit, but schools that are in the middle of the field and trying to grind their way up are unlikely to offer their students such opportunities.

3. I saved the most important issue for last: the ranking discourages schools from accepting students with low LSAT scores. The LSAT does a good job of measuring certain skills, but ignores many others that good attorneys need. Still, it figures prominently in the file of every law school applicant. As a result, students struggling with the test are at a severe disadvantage.

Today, I lead a program that helps New Haven residents from underrepresented groups find their way into law school. Each spring, I speak to admissions officers about the grantees in our program. These are compelling applicants who have overcome hurdles most of us cannot imagine. You will bring dramatically different life experiences to law school and the legal profession. Most admissions directors understand; You’ve read the file and seen courage and perseverance jump off the page.

But when I call about a colleague who didn’t do well on the LSAT, the admissions director has to balance enthusiasm for the person with concern for the school’s average LSAT score, a crucial element of the rankings. A few great people with low LSAT scores will make it, because picking up two or three won’t hurt the overall average. But many more excellent candidates are rejected.

Of course, disabling the leaderboard won’t solve all of these problems. It will not overcome ingrained thought patterns, incomplete definitions of merit, or the tremendous structural advantage that race and wealth confer. But it’s an important step.

In response to Yale’s decision — and the growing list of schools joining it — to stop ranking US news, the company vowed to continue publishing its list. This decision surprised no one. US News publishes the rankings to make money, and it won’t stop as long as people read them.

What can we do against it? The way is clear for the law faculties. They’ve complained about the rankings for years; Now you can follow Yale’s example and resign. Consumers should do the same. Stop relying on US news rankings — or any rankings.

How can you tell if a school is good? Look at dates, visit a school’s website, talk to students and alumni and visit them if you can. Then, when someone asks you if your school is #1, you can tell them, “It’s #1 for me.”

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