Wither the LSAT

By Dr. Harold A. Black



Merry Christmas.

The accrediting council of the American Bar Association voted 15-1 to recommend the elimination of the LSAT or any other standardized examination from the admission requirements for law school. The debate within the council was whether standardized tests limited diversity amongst law school students. Individual law schools could still maintain the requirement if they so choose. Ironically, Southern University’s law school announced that it is still going to require the test. Given that Southern is an HBCU, presumably diversity is not an issue of prime importance.

Previously some of the top law schools in the country, Harvard, Yale, and U C Berkeley withdrew from the US News and World Report rankings saying that the rankings ignored their efforts to diversify their student bodies. The rankings downgraded certain actions by the schools. For example, one law school dean said that “students who have received public interest fellowships from the school or are pursuing other graduate degrees are “effectively classified as unemployed” and negatively affect a school’s ranking.”

Predictably the knee jerk reaction on the right was that the law schools were lowering admission standards to increase the number of minority students. One writer called this “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But is this really the case? The writer did not do any basic research to discover whether the LSAT is a prime predictor of whether a law student is admitted to the bar. Many standardized tests are culture-bound and predict the test takers culture rather than the ability to perform in college or graduate school. This may be the case with the LSAT. I don’t know the metrics used by US News but their current methodology is obviously flawed.

Looking at the research on whether the LSAT is an important predictor in law school success, there is conflicting evidence. One study finds that the LSAT is the best predictor of success in passing the bar exam while another finds that law school GPA is the most important indicator. I have not looked at the studies but suspect that LSAT and law school GPA are most likely highly correlated. I would think that the appropriate measure of success would be the percentage passage rate on the bar exam. When looking at that metric, the University of Wisconsin, not Harvard, Yale or Berkeley, has the highest first-time passage rate. The question is whether the first time passage rate of those schools eliminating the LSAT is adversely affected by adding more diversity to their student body. That is an empirical question and a study by the American Bar Association that shows that a rising percentage of non-white students is associated with a rise in first time failure rates. Perhaps the elite law schools are leaving US News because they know their rankings will fall due to diversity admissions.

Of course, this means that the next step is going to be an advocating of elimination of the bar exam as a requirement to be admitted to practice. Currently all states require the bar exam. Four states, California, Virginia, Vermont and Washington do not require going to law school in order to take the bar. My uncle was an attorney and then a judge in Ohio. He read the law while clerking as a paralegal, took the bar, passed it and was admitted to practice. Classical economists have long argued that the purpose of the bar exam is to limit the number of lawyers thereby maintaining high salaries and billings for existing lawyers. Obviously, there are incompetent lawyers, amoral lawyers and crooks that have passed the bar. I don’t know if the bar exams for each state have been vetted to test only the law and not cultural aspects. But if a bar exam only tests knowledge of the law, then I see no reason why it cannot be a final hurdle to admission to practice.

However, the question remains as to what are the best metrics to use for admission to law school. When I was a professor and on the PhD admissions committee, one year the student with the lowest undergraduate GPA and test scores ended up earning the PhD and is now a tenured faculty member at an excellent university while the student admitted with the highest GPA and test scores flunked out of our program. The indication is that in some cases, undergraduate GPA and test scores do not predict one’s desire to learn and to achieve. Therefore, while I think that the indicators are that GPA and test scores are important, there are exceptions that demand individual scrutiny.