Admission to law school has long been dictated by how well a prospective student performs on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This standardized, multiple-choice test is reportedly designed to measure skills needed to be successful there. However, it has also long been viewed as a barrier to admission for students from underrepresented groups.
[Above: Students on the University at Buffalo School of Law’s campus in New York]
Faced with declining enrollments and increasing public pressure to attract more students of diverse backgrounds and disciplines, some law schools are joining a creeping trend away from the LSAT — or, in some cases, from standardized tests altogether.
In March 2017, Harvard Law School announced that as part of a pilot program, it will accept either the LSAT or the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) from students seeking admission to its three-year JD program. In a press release, a Harvard representative said the change is “part of a wider strategy [at the law school] to expand access to legal education for students in the United States and internationally.”
“For many students, preparing for and taking both the GRE and the LSAT is unaffordable,” Dean of Harvard Law School Martha Minow told Harvard Today. “All students benefit when we can diversify our community in terms of academic background, country of origin, and financial circumstances.”
The move by some schools to accept the GRE in lieu of the LSAT is driven by the belief that some prospective students who may have been considering graduate school generally will have already taken the GRE and therefore will not have to also complete the LSAT in order to apply. Additionally, it’s possible that offering the GRE will attract law school applicants from more varied undergraduate areas of study and will add to the diversity of the student body.
For 2017-2018, the basic fee for the LSAT, which assesses logical and analytical reasoning, reading comprehension, critical thinking, and essay writing, was $180. Students who register to have the necessary documents forwarded to law schools may pay an additional $121 to $185. Law school reports, late fees, or test center and date changes are added costs. On the other hand, the GRE General Test assesses verbal, analytical, and quantitative reasoning and writing. In 2016, the standard administration fee was $150, with additional charges for late fees and test site and date changes.
Notably, more than a year ago, the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona (AU) became the first law school to accept either the GRE or the LSAT for admissions. Marc Miller, dean of the college, said in a February 2016 press release that the change, which stemmed in part from the results of a study, “would help better achieve goals of excellence and diversity in legal education and the profession.”
The 2015 study, conducted with the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organization that administers the GRE, sampled 78 current and former AU law students. It showed that GRE verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing subtests, along with undergraduate GPA, were valid and reliable predictors of law school success when measured against first-term law school GPAs. Thus, the study concluded that “the GRE General Test meets the American Bar Association’s legal education standard for use in admissions to law school programs.”
Among its other functions, the American Bar Association (ABA) sets the standards and rules of procedure for approval for law schools. Under its Standard 503, first year JD students seeking admission must take a “valid and reliable” admissions test to help assess their capability of satisfactorily completing a law school’s education program. Previously, Standard 503 put the burden on law schools to demonstrate the reliability and validity of admissions tests other than the LSAT. However, a recently proposed revision to the Standard.— a notice of and comment on the revision is scheduled for July — would create a process for determining the sufficiency of other admissions tests.
“It is puzzling not only that the ABA continues to insist on a particular standardized test as an absolute requirement for admission to law school, but also that it continues to insist that all admitted students have taken any standardized test [when] the trends nationally are in the other direction,” says James Gardner, JD, interim dean of the University at Buffalo School of Law. According to Gardner, nearly 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities make submission of a standardized test score optional.
Bob Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), agrees that “many graduate programs do not require all or many applicants to submit GRE or other standardized test scores.” However, he says it’s difficult to present an accurate tally.
“At the graduate level, admissions policies are … not institution-wide. Thus, some programs at a school may be test-optional while others rely heavily on GRE scores,” explains Gardner. “For law schools, a major problem is that accrediting bodies, like the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), have required their members to use standardized exam scores in the candidate evaluation process. [As a result], some institutions … that want to be test-optional cannot earn LSAC accreditation.”
Schaeffer believes that as with other facets of testing policy, the decision to accept scores from the GRE in place of the LSAT is driven largely by marketing considerations. “For law schools facing a sharp decline in applicants, it is a way to appear a bit more attractive to some undergraduates who would no longer have to take yet another test to apply,” he says.
According to the Financial Times, the number of students entering law school dropped from 52,000 in 2010 to just 37,000 in 2015. One of the reported reasons for the steep decline is that in the wake of the recession, many companies now spend less on legal services. Additionally, the Financial Times points to the automation of work previously handled by attorneys and to students who are wary of taking on substantial debt in a tough job market as other factors contributing to low law school enrollment.
In 2015, the National Association for Law Placement reported a 15.5 percent unemployment rate for attorneys. Other data show that in 2016, the unemployment rate for lawyers was 11.2 percent — nearly double the overall nationwide unemployment rate of 4.9 percent for all professions.
Whatever is driving recent changes to law school admission test policy, Schaeffer says that FairTest encourages institutions to periodically evaluate their requirements to determine whether tests are necessary to make fair and accurate admissions decisions. And while it is too early to tell how the recent changes at AU and Harvard will affect students, he says it’s not surprising that the GRE is about as useful as the LSAT in the law school admissions process. “Scores from different tests tend to correlate strongly with each other,” Schaeffer explains.
Gardner acknowledges that an LSAT score can provide useful information about the ability of a potential student to succeed as a lawyer but believes that it is not the only source of such information.
“A complete admissions file, including transcripts, essays, and letters of recommendation, addresses the whole person and is filled with useful signals,” explains Gardner. “The point is to predict later professional success, and there are many ways to do so. However, the present heavy emphasis on the LSAT in law school admissions often distorts decision-making and places excessive and unjustified weight on test scores.”
This approach to admissions often disadvantages individuals from underserved and underrepresented groups. Given this concern and what Gardner describes as the many challenges inherent in the current complex workplace, he welcomes any changes that free schools to make the best decisions and admit students who don’t necessarily fit the traditional law school mold.
“Success in the practice of law rests not only on successful book learning,” Gardner says, “but also on social and emotional forms of intelligence that allow people to navigate the workplace with effectiveness and sensitivity.”●
Kelley R. Taylor is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.