How odd that both Yale Law School and Harvard decided on the same day that they would no longer be enablers to U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of law schools. And then the next day Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of Berkeley hopped on their coattails as backbenchers are wont to do. Such a weird coincidence.
Having come from an age before law school rankings at USNWR, I’ve neither been a fan nor frankly cared at all about the list. More importantly, I’ve known many lawyers who went to Harvard and Yale law schools,* teaching me that it’s not the school but the individual that makes a great lawyer. So the fact that any law school decides to pull out is not, in itself, of any consequence. If the rankings collapsed tomorrow, I would lose no sleep.
But the concern raised is why they conspired to blow off the rankings. According to scandal-ridden YLS Dean Heather Gerkin, it was for the greater glory of the profession.
For three decades, U.S. News & World Report, a for-profit magazine, has ranked the educational quality of law schools across the country. Since the very beginning, Yale Law School has taken the top spot every year. Yet, that distinction is not one that we advertise or use as a lodestar to chart our course. In fact, in recent years, we have invested significant energy and capital in important initiatives that make our law school a better place but perversely work to lower our scores. That’s because the U.S. News rankings are profoundly flawed — they 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. As a result, we will no longer participate.
Yale Law alumnus David Lat provides a prolix discussion about Dean Gerkin’s contention that being ranked “disincentives programs that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students.” Stripped of its rationalizations, however, the arguments are basically that if some programs Yale chooses to promote might impact its number one ranking, then it no longer wants to play.
Of course, the rankings have been criticized for many years for failing to reflect much of what schools believe to be important. Prawfs tend to hate it, but they’re prawfs so no one cares. And while the rankings may well be inaccurate, or more to the point, a poor reflection of the quality of education provided at any given law school, they remain the only objective basis for comparison. Of course, the rankings have nothing to do with whether a school is the right fit for any particular student.
But there is a more cynical take on what’s going on here that has less to do with high brow aspirations and more to do with how these law schools plan to reinvent themselves in a post affirmative action world.
Other observers have criticized the rankings pullout as part of a larger assault on standardized test scores and other traditional barometers of merit. If U.S. News changes its rankings to deemphasize or eliminate LSAT/GRE and GPA factors, which YLS and HLS have criticized U.S. News for fetishizing, how can applicants from less-privileged backgrounds—applicants who didn’t go to Ivy League undergraduate institutions, who don’t have well-connected parents, or who don’t have well-paid law school admissions counselors—distinguish themselves?
Not having any horse in this race like David, I’m disinclined to lift any heavy weights on behalf of Yale or Harvard law schools, and discount Chemerinsky’s “me too” entirely. Rather, the cynical explanation is far more consistent with the various other changes with regard to standardized testing and grades that has become fashionable at schools that have chosen to dedicate themselves to serving the underserved.
One of the foundational assumptions of diversity and inclusion is that the students admitted for the cause are every bit as qualified as the students who are otherwise admitted. Without the metrics, how would one know? Sure, there have long been complaints that all the standardized metrics are biased against the marginalized, which may be true to some extent, but the elimination of metrics means that no one can tell whether they are as qualified. The absence of evidence is not evidence, and even the rationalization that tests are unfair doesn’t provide an objective basis upon which a fair determination can be made.
What made these most elite schools elite was that they presumptively turned out excellent lawyers. They took in the best and brightest and turned out our future senators, presidents and Supreme Court justices. Whether they could try their way out of a paper bag could only be tested in a courtroom, but they had the pedigree for greatness that lesser schools did not.
Breaking their grasp on the top tier of legal consequence isn’t a bad thing. It’s about time we worried less about what law school a justice went to than what kind of lawyer they were. But if these schools are the leaders of the profession, and they most assuredly are, and lesser schools share their vision of the future, and they most assuredly do, and now that they’ve broken ties from the USNWR rankings to free themselves from the constraint of objective metrics to determine excellence, which they most assuredly have, the rest of the law school dominoes may fall.
Dean Gerkin says this is all for the best.
The U.S. News rankings also discourage law schools from admitting and providing aid to students with enormous promise who may come from modest means. Today, 20% of a law school’s overall ranking is median LSAT/GRE scores and GPAs. While academic scores are an important tool, they don’t always capture the full measure of an applicant. This heavily weighted metric imposes tremendous pressure on schools to overlook promising students, especially those who cannot afford expensive test preparation courses.
How would Yale know these students have “enormous promise” without any objective basis to distinguish the ones who do from the ones who do not? If that’s the choice Yale and Harvard are making, so be it, but lofty rhetoric doesn’t hide the school’s eschewing excellence for mediocrity in the name of diversity. If Yale was proud of their choice, they would do what was right and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, it’s taking its ball and going home.
*Q. How do you find out if a lawyer went to Harvard? A. He’ll tell you