Well, get ready, because in a few short years, our nation’s lawyers may get a lot dumber. The American Bar Association (ABA), the body in charge of accrediting law schools, is about to make some major changes to the rules about law school admissions. Since the 1950s, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) has been a key component to any prospective student’s admission package; now, amid increasing pressure from law schools to be permitted to accept more (read, “less qualified”) students, the ABA may throw out the LSAT requirement altogether.
To maintain its ABA accreditation (and be a “real” law school), a school is required to comply with a number of rules, ranging from use of the LSAT score as an admissions factor to faculty qualification requirements to number of classroom hours. The LSAT itself is a three-hour multiple-choice standardized exam, which tests three things: 1) reading comprehension; 2) formal logic; and 3) verbal logical reasoning. It’s pretty tough, and for many would-be law students, the LSAT is an almost monolithic obstacle positioned between themselves and their dreams of practicing law. And that’s exactly how it should be.
For years, I’ve heard everyone from law professors to parents whine about how the LSAT is irrelevant, how it is an inaccurate predictor of student performance, and how it is becoming obsolete. LSAC (the people that write and administer the LSAT) is an organization criticized often for its secrecy, inflexibility, and outright monopoly on the law school admissions game. Throw in the millions of dollars companies like Kaplan, The Princeton Review, and Testmasters stand to make from test-prep services, and you’ve got yourself a multiple-choice villain with lots of enemies.
However, plans to eliminate the LSAT requirement do so at the risk of sacrificing something of which new lawyers need more, not less. Logic. The LSAT is the only mainstream standardized test that assesses logic in a variety of formats; without an obligation to admit only students with a demonstrated ability to understand logic, we’re in trouble. Law Schools such as at Northwestern University, Harvard University, Georgetown University, and Rutgers have already decided to accept the [easier and less logic-based] GRE in place of the LSAT.
I’ve worked with thousands of LSAT students over the last two decades, and here’s what I can tell you: the test isn’t perfect, but it is useful in a very basic way. Students at the top of the score scale tend to do well in law school, and students at the bottom tend to do poorly in law school. Given that law school culminates in the bar exam — another standardized test of reasoning, it makes good sense to weed out ill-equipped people early on in the very expensive process of legal education.
These days, it’s almost impossible to leave the house without hearing someone complain about how unfair it is that, “everybody gets a trophy.” The value of rewarding children for committing to and participating in healthy activities notwithstanding, decisions like one to nix the LSAT really are the manifestation of over-inclusiveness eroding excellence. There was once a time when not everyone got to be a lawyer; it was a profession for the academically-outstanding and the logically-proficient. When purveyors of six-figure legal educations no longer value the ability to understand logic enough to require it, their statements are clear: law school is a business that cares more about the tuition checks coming in than about the fate and quality of the lawyers coming out. While we’re on the topic, let’s pull back the curtain on who really wants trophies – the law schools themselves. If every school uses the same test to determine admissions standards, the level of selectivity is transparent. The more the schools obscure their criteria, the more they can claim to be competitive and elite, without sacrificing the hefty tuition checks from those who might not make the cut.
It’s true that standardized tests as yardsticks are inherently problematic – especially in light of overwhelming statistical evidence that minority students are disproportionately affected. In the case of the LSAT though, the change proposes to swap out one imperfect standardized test for another. If law schools really wanted to do better, they could. If we, as a society, worry that certain groups of students never seem to perform well on the LSAT, we can and should learn why and fix the cause – not the result.
Tests are part of life. If we feel that police officers, firefighters, doctors, and dentists must take difficult tests to determine their fitness, why are we so willing to let lawyers off the hook? Further, why, when a fifty-year-old exam starts to exclude too many college graduates, are we more interested in changing the exam than in fixing the education system that failed our low-scorers?
The ABA’s council on legal education will be considering the fate of the LSAT at its November meeting in Boston. Let’s make sure we pay attention.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.