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Law School Admissions: Is It Time to Drop the LSAT?

By Thai Phi Le

September 5, 2017

standardized test

Late-night cramming sessions with peers and hours of LSAT practice tests are a rite of passage for prospective law students. Created in 1948 to help schools better gauge candidates’ readiness for the rigors of law school, the LSAT has been required testing for any student pursuing a legal education. But is the LSAT’s days as the end-all, be-all gateway to law school coming to an end, making way for the more ubiquitous GRE?

In February 2016, the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law became the first law school to open admissions to GRE test takers. The debates that followed in the legal sphere centered on whether removing the LSAT requirement was an attempt to boost decreasing admission numbers.

In a statement, Arizona dean Marc Miller defended the school’s decision, arguing that there were not only other indicators of success, but that accepting GREs would help increase diversity in the profession. “We believe the goals of excellence and diversity in legal education and in the profession will be better achieved if the LSAT is not the only standardized test used by law schools,” said Miller.

By March 2017 the conversation had grown more serious when perennially top-ranked Harvard Law School announced that it, too, will start accepting GRE scores as well as LSATs from prospective students. What does this mean for the future of law school admissions and would others follow suit?

While it is still too early to tell if this could be the beginning of a new trend, two other top schools—Georgetown University Law Center and Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law—joined Harvard and Arizona in August.

Shelley Broderick, dean of the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, says that schools like Harvard and Georgetown can more easily make changes to their admissions process than others. “It’s easy for Harvard to consider [these changes] because the grades on both the GRE and LSAT that they are going to get are going to be in the top 1 percent. There’s not a whole lot of risk,” she says.

“[For] other schools whose applications aren’t in the top 1 percent, what we have to figure out is what will studies show the correlation is between the GRE and first-year grades. If your first-year grades are good, you’re very likely to pass the bar,” says Broderick. “The correlation is really key, and there is one with the LSAT. We don’t know yet if there is one with the GRE.”

Attracting More Diverse Applicants

Like Miller, Darrell Mottley, former D.C. Bar president and principal shareholder at Banner & Witcoff, Ltd., believes that opening admissions to GRE test takers would create a pool of students that is more reflective of the diverse society, from low-income students to those who switch professions later in life. “Harvard changing [their admissions] opens it up to more people to apply,” says Mottley. “It’s only a test. I don’t think the LSATs are a good indicator of a person’s success in law school. It’s not passing the bar.”

Diversity is also important to Broderick, who says that she would like to open her school to a greater swath of candidates. She specifically talks about the low-income and minority students who have already paid to take the GRE, or for whom the LSAT and preparation tests are difficult to afford, but have other indicators of success—from previous work experience to impressive undergraduate grades. “We would love to be in a position where we could give them that opportunity without requiring them to take the time and expense of yet another test,” she says.

Broderick recounts the story about a student admitted to UDC without an LSAT “in living memory.” Matthew Kaplan had outstanding academic and work references. He worked on Capitol Hill for a congressman for years and decided that he needed a legal education to keep progressing in his policy career. He asked for extra time to take the LSAT due to a disability and was denied. He sued the Law Student Admission Council, which administers the LSAT, and won, but during that time, he was accepted into UDC.

“I admitted him as a special dean’s admit because of his outstanding credentials and references and because I thought his case was righteous,” says Broderick. The student graduated in 2016, passed the bar on his first try, and is now working at the D.C. Court of Appeals.

“He’s a star, and I’m very proud of our action to accept him and allow him that opportunity, but it had ABA consequences,” says Broderick. While UDC’s credentials were not threatened, the law school got a report for failure to be in compliance with ABA Standard 503, which requires LSAT scores for admission.

For now, Broderick says UDC will be looking to see what the data shows, but “we are absolutely not moving in that direction under the current [ABA rule].” That rule, however, is now meeting growing pressure from the law school community. 

In June, deans from five law schools (University of Arizona, Northwestern, University of California Irvine College of Law, USC Gould School of Law, The George Washington University Law School, and the University of Texas School of Law) submitted comments to the ABA opposing proposed revisions to Standard 503 because it still required a standardized test for admission to JD schools.

“There are many and better ways other than a standardized test to determine whether a law school believes an applicant can succeed in law school and pass the bar. That is why most law schools consider a range of factors, including academic ability (undergraduate grades, rigor of the undergraduate program, graduate studies), work experience, volunteer or public service, life experience, leadership, challenges overcome, career goals, writing skills, personal motivation, and letters of recommendation,” they wrote.

Despite greater support from schools in the highest rung, Broderick believes that “most schools are going to take a wait-and-see” approach to see how the ABA will react to avoid accreditation issues. “It’s not something you want to put at risk,” says Broderick. “Just not worth it.”

Contact Thai Phi Le at [email protected].