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An exterior view of the entrance at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Mitchell Hamline Dean Anthony Niedwiecki told the law school early this year that it was withdrawing from the U.S. News and World Report law school rankings. (Photo courtesy of Mitchell Hamline School of Law)

Bowing out of U.S. News rankings

Mitchell Hamline, others withdraw from ‘elitist, nonscientific’ evaluations

On May 11, U.S. News and World Report released its highly anticipated law school rankings as it does every year. This year, however, Mitchell Hamline School of Law — along with many other law schools across the country — did not participate.

There has always been a love-hate relationship with the U.S. News law school rankings. They are — for better or worse — something prospective law students rely on when deciding what law schools to apply to and to ultimately attend. One of the first things that a prospective law student learns is that there are different “tiers” of law schools — again, determined by the rankings. Schools at the very top are not only heralded as the best but can be portrayed as being the only avenue for success in the legal field. The T-14 (top fourteen ranked) schools have often been coveted by prospective students.

It is true, looking at the recruitment practices of some of the largest law firms, and who is offered clerkships for the U.S. Supreme Court (and seats on the court), that students attending the top tier law school will have opportunities that law students at other universities do not. However, it is untrue that going to the top law schools is the only avenue for success. Mitchell Hamline says that it has graduated more of the state’s judges and attorneys than any other law school, yet it isn’t in the T-14.

In the past, law schools have oriented themselves to advance in the rankings. Some of them have even cheated. A decade ago, the University of Illinois College of Law was embroiled in cheating scandal when it reported inflated LSAT scores to U.S. News. It was fined $250,000 by the ABA, the first time a law school was ever fined for reporting inaccurate consumer data. Still, law schools have been encouraged to be creative to juice their employment statistics for the sake of the rankings.

There have been murmurings about opting out of this system for a long time.

“This has been building for many years at law schools across the country,” said Anthony Niedwiecki, president and dean of Mitchell Hamline in St. Paul. “Law deans have long complained those rankings are opaque, elitist, nonscientific, and not reflective of student interests.”

The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, according to Niedwiecki, was the addition of metrics by U.S. News last year that “had the effect of devaluing students from underrepresented groups.”

Yale University, which has consistently been at the top of the rankings, made headlines in November 2022 when it announced that it would no longer participate. Harvard pulled out the same day that Yale announced its withdrawal. The deans of Harvard and Yale issued statements that the rankings discouraged law schools from acting in the best interest of law students’ education. Additionally, they maintained that the rankings discouraged law schools from giving need-based aid instead of merit-based aid.

Emboldened by the moves of these top law schools, several other law schools followed suit.  “It mattered that schools that had consistently been ranked in the top 20 by U.S. News were the ones to drop out,” Niedwiecki explained. About a third of U.S. law schools have pulled out of the rankings. Mitchell Hamline is the only Minnesota law school to do so.

Understandably, this mass boycott caused U.S. News to scramble, resulting in a double delay of the publication of the statistics. The methodology for the rankings changed this year, with employment making up 33% of the ranking (up from 14%). It reduced the impact of things like LSAT/GRE score (5% down from 11.25%) and peer assessment (12.5% down from 25%). The data is, at best, incomplete since so many schools did not submit proprietary data.

Niedwiecki told the law school early this year that it was withdrawing from the rankings. That meant the school would submit no proprietary data to U.S. News, though students could fill out surveys voluntarily and U.S. News could access publicly available information posted by the school.

“I saw this as an opportunity to downplay a system that never fit us well and to focus on telling our story in our own way,” he said. “What we value as a law school and the things we’re excellent at doing are not things valued in the rankings.”

He stressed that, while the law school did not submit data, it also did not prohibit anyone from submitting surveys or U.S. News from using publicly available data. The law school chose not to submit proprietary data.

“Some of what U.S. News measures has value, but there is other value that is not measured,” Niedwiecki said. “U.S. News gives more weight to schools with student bodies that graduate and all go into jobs that require bar passage or where a J.D. is an advantage. That seems a no-brainer, but it’s actually not.

“We have a larger, older population of students than most law schools who are mid-career professionals who want to get a law degree because it will help them in their profession. They have no intention of becoming a practicing attorney after law school, and as such don’t intend to take the bar exam.”

Niedwiecki cited an example of a Mitchell Hamline graduate now serving as the first female chief of her First Nation community in Canada, a job that does not require bar passage but uses the training students receive from law school.

“I worry that prospective students might see a lower overall ranking and assume that means the school doesn’t value what they value in a law school,” Niedwiecki said. Students searching for a diverse student body might mistakenly believe that the ranking encapsulates this. “The unique diversity of our student body, for example, is one of our greatest strengths but is not measured by U.S. News.”

As for the new U.S. News rankings, Stanford and Yale tied for the top spot. University of Minnesota is ranked at number 16 (up five spots). St. Thomas ranked 96, while Mitchell Hamline ranked 167.

Niedwiecki said he was unsure whether the rankings would go away, but also noted that he was not opposed to giving prospective students a way to compare law schools. He suggested a more open-source model that includes other criteria that prospective law students may value.

“I think there’s also something to be said for educating prospective students on how to use rankings. No one’s final decision should come down to what the school’s ranking is. The rankings should holistically be considered among all other factors,” Niedwiecki explained. “Prospective students are smart enough to be given several sets of data on various elements of the law school experience, and they can go from there in making their decision.”

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