Recently, the American Bar Association (ABA) circulated a proposal to remove the requirement for law schools to use a “valid and reliable” admissions test as a key piece of the application process. The proposal is currently open for public comment and the ABA will review those comments before its meeting this November. Currently, most accredited law schools require students to submit LSAT scores and some allow students to take either the LSAT or GRE to fulfill their application requirements. Though we have no doubt the proposal is inspired by good intentions, we strongly disagree with this proposal and believe that dropping the requirement for a “valid and reliable” exam such as the LSAT will do more harm than good for the following reasons:
The LSAT benefits law schools
The LSAT score provides the most highly correlated metric to student success in the first year of law school. Universally regarded as the most challenging year of law school, 1L puts aspiring lawyers through a gauntlet of intellectually rigorous tasks and requires students to exhibit the focus, time management, and critical thinking skills paralleled on the exam. The challenge for many admissions officers with whom we’ve spoken lies in evaluating a huge applicant pool with metrics that are often subjective and difficult to compare across demographics.
One such metric, a student’s GPA, can vary widely from campus to campus and from major to major. In high school, students typically study the same general subjects such as Precalculus or U.S. History, but even then, college admissions committees can find it difficult to evaluate grades across the same courses when comparing them to high schools across the country where the quality of instruction and the rigor of the grading varies widely. In college, students can choose from thousands of courses in hundreds of disciplines, which makes comparing GPAs even more difficult.
The LSAT, however, covers a specific set of logical skills, not simply rote content that requires memorization such as math formulas and vocabulary. The application of these logical skills mirrors those that are required when examining a case or applying a statute. Students who excel in law school need to have the capacity to develop these skills more than they need to know how to graph a polynomial or calculate the volume of a figure. This is why the LSAT is better than the GRE at what it was designed to do: predict the ability of a given student to be able to handle his/her 1L. Outside of testing logical reasoning skills, the LSAT also acts as a filter for those students who aren’t willing to work hard to improve. After preparing many thousands of students over nearly two decades, we’ve found that improvement requires sustained commitment and the diligence to work through difficult material, similar to what is expected of a newly admitted applicant. For law school admissions committees, there is still no better indicator of first year success than the LSAT.
The LSAT benefits law students
Law school is hard. The LSAT is also hard. Recognizing flaws in arguments, dissecting dense, sometimes near inscrutable reading passages, and using deductive methods to arrive at a conclusion are essential to both. Many students set a plan spanning several months of intense study before they take their first official LSAT. The foresight, commitment, time management, and organizational skills required parallel those needed for success in law school. In many ways, prepping for the LSAT gives students a taste of what preparing for a case or a paper or a final exam will feel like once they are accepted.
The LSAT benefits the legal profession
Good lawyers have demonstrated competence and have passed a set of standards to practice law. The difference between hiring a good attorney who understands the details of the law and one who is unprepared for the task can have devastating consequences. For this reason, it should be difficult to pass the Bar and practice law. Just as most people would like their heart surgeon to have met the rigorous standards and exhibit the knowledge and the ability to operate with confidence, so too they would like their attorney to have met the appropriate standards to succeed in the real world. The stakes in the courtroom can be as high as they are on the operating table. While a physician may not practice diagramming molecules in an organic chemistry textbook in his/her current career, the knowledge of organic chemistry and biology is essential to getting into and graduating from medical school. Much like the intellectual obstacle course that weeds out those that may not be best suited to becoming a doctor, the LSAT weeds out those who would not be best suited for a career in law. For careers that are this important and have real life-changing outcomes based on decisions made by their practitioners, setting a high standard is necessary to make sure those who go on to pursue the profession are equipped to do so.
Response to Common Criticism of the LSAT
Many proponents of abolishing the exam translate the imbalance of outcomes on the exam to mean that the LSAT itself is inherently biased. This is simply not true. What is true is that the test is incredibly difficult if a given student does not have the resources to pay the price for an official administration or the cost to study for it. In this way, the test reveals the much larger problem in a society where resources are not distributed equally. Unfortunately, that inequality is not limited to LSAT preparation, but is also a factor in essay composition, application support, letters of recommendation, and almost every component of a law school application.
We would argue that of all aspects of a student’s application, however, the LSAT is the least affected by this resource imbalance. A student cannot, for instance, pay another person to take his/her LSAT, but wealthy students can pay a former admissions counselor from a Top 14 law school to review or even write their personal statements, polish their applications, and connect them to influential people. Students with considerable means may be able to use their parents’ networks to build relationships with powerful references, secure coveted internships, and free themselves of the real obligations of paying the rent, working a part-time job, or caring for a elderly family member. It would be foolish to refuse to acknowledge that having more financial resources makes studying for this difficult exam easier for some, just like it would be foolish to think that removing the LSAT as a cornerstone of the LSAT admissions process would solve the resource imbalance problem.
Fortunately, the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) has been proactive about this resource imbalance and currently offers two tiers of fee waivers for students with demonstrated need, allowing them to take the exam free of charge and granting them a free license to digital copies of all the previously released official PrepTests. LSAC has gone a step further by partnering with the Kahn Academy to offer free basic preparation available to anyone, and, in a move unique in the wider test preparation industry, has partnered with several top companies that provide comprehensive LSAT preparation to offer LSAT fee waiver “scholarships.” Students who submit evidence of their fee waiver to our company, for example, will receive our full course with the exact same features as a full-paying student entirely for free. Working with those who utilize these free resources, we’ve had the privilege of watching students from extremely challenging environments struggling with severe socio-economic barriers earn incredible scores. In fact, their scores often catapult them into a higher tier of schools and open more opportunities than any other single metric of their application ever could. Getting a high GPA and participating in clubs may not be possible for a student working full time, caring for family, commuting long distances to class, or dealing with the myriad struggles linked to a lack of financial resources, but getting a great LSAT score certainly is possible. We know this because we’ve seen it so many times. Some of our brightest, most gifted students have been those who’ve come through the LSAT fee waiver scholarship program.
We do not wish to insinuate that even with the plethora of free information and resources available in the marketplace, the path to law school will be equivalent for all applicants. Every part of the educational process, from the quality of high school courses that prepare and position students for a successful undergraduate experience to the quality of mentorship and role models that can guide a prospective student through the application process suffers from a resource imbalance. But among the pieces of a law school application that indicate to the admissions committee who will or won’t succeed in their first year of law school, the LSAT is the most highly correlated, least gameable, and most useful of them all.
On behalf of the LSAT Engine Team