The LSAT: Gate Keeper to a Career in Law
The Law School Admission Test is a prerequisite for consideration for admission into any American Bar Association accredited law school. Applicants’ LSAT scores, along with their undergraduate grade point averages (UGPA), are the primary factors considered by law school admissions offices, with the LSAT usually weighted most heavily.
The LSAT measures analytical abilities and reading comprehension in three ways: structured logical “games;” logical reasoning (questions distilling information from brief arguments); and reading comprehension. The test consists of six 35-minute sections, of which 4 multiple choice sections are used to determine your score. Scores are scaled between 120 and 180, with the usual median score set at about 151, and 10% of test takers scoring 164 and above.
Measuring Up: What Does the LSAT Actually Predict?
According to the Law School Admissions Council (which designs and administers the LSAT) the test is intended to predict first year law school grades. Studies conducted by LSAC in 2010 showed correlations between test scores and first year grades between .12 and .56 (median .36). In other words, the tests predicted between 1 and 31% of the typical law student's first year grades.
Critics point out that even if the test is a valid predictor of first year law grades, it may not be an accurate gauge of performance as a lawyer. Skills such as creativity, negotiation, and oral argument are not measured by the time-pressured, multiple choice format of the LSATs. More troubling, the LSAT, like other high pressure, high stakes standardized tests, tends to favor certain racial, ethnic, gender, regional and economic groups. Put simply, white males from affluent New England backgrounds do better than others. Without wading into the intense debates that these results may trigger, one issue stands out: performance on the LSAT is significantly affected by test preparation, and test preparation is significantly more available to students from affluent backgrounds.
There is strong evidence that better preparation produces better test scores: this is true of all standardized tests, and is the foundation of the business plan of for-profit test preparation companies. In fact, most test prep companies explicitly advertise the expected score increases provided by their instruction, and several have money-back higher-score guarantees.
Affluent students have better access to the tools and time required to elevate their scores. With test prep fees that range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, and full-time study courses that may stretch from weeks to months, it is not surprising that dedicated students from well-to-do backgrounds have a better chance to earn high scores than others.
The Extraordinary Influence of the LSAT
Despite questions concerning the usefulness and fairness of the LSAT, the test remains incredibly important to admissions offices. Moreover, even statistically small scoring differences may be used by schools to discriminate among candidates in ways that have broad, long-term impacts on the make-up of the legal profession. In particular, the test has impacted the characteristics of those who reach the highest rungs of the profession as judges, justices and partners in top firms. A test that was intended to supplement multiple measures of undergraduate performance and competency has become a simple "cut score" that opens doors for some students and shuts them for others.
Consider this list, arranged in the order of the LSAT scores of the bottom 25% of each school's entering class in 2013. For students planning to go into law, this list reveals an insurmountable reality: if your score is below these lower boundaries, you have little chance of attending a given law school.
Graduates of the 18 schools on this list dominate the ranks of US Appellate Courts, the partnerships of top paying law firms, and other top legal jobs. One example: in 2013-2014 graduates of the 18 schools on this list filled 52 of the 53 coveted jobs as clerks to justices of the Supreme Court. The other 188 law schools in the US were represented by a single individual. In other words, the statistically insignificant difference between a student with a score of 162 compared to one with a 163 means that the lower scoring individual is very unlikely to become a Supreme Court clerk, and will have more difficulty during his or her career rising to the top ranks of the legal profession.
Why is this one number so important, and why does a score below a certain cutoff automatically disqualify applicants from particular schools and the opportunities that their graduates have? Why should a 163 so completely trump a 162? This is an especially salient question in light of the fact that the LSAT scores from less affluent or minority students have historically been lower than those of their affluent and non-minority counterparts, and that expensive test preparation can have significant impacts on scores.
The short answer to these questions: The U.S. News and World Report.
Though it is not the only list ranking to law schools, U.S. News and World Report law school rankings have the most dramatic effect on law school admissions offices due to their popularity and ubiquity. U.S. News uses a strict methodology with 12 different weighted categories, places all 188 ABA-accredited schools on one list. Many have critiqued the methodology, citing the seemingly arbitrary weight of the categories as well as the potential for schools to game the rankings.
The relative weight of the categories is indeed of concern. The median LSAT score of a law school’s admitted class accounts for 12.5% of the school’s ranking, while the school’s bar passage rate accounts for a mere 2%. Though one can certainly equivocate about the relative value of the LSAT and the bar exam as academic diagnostics, ostensibly the quality of the students coming into the school is more important to U.S. News rank than the quality of the students coming out of the school.
The extraordinary weight placed on an admitted class’s median LSAT score in the U.S. News rankings has in turn put extraordinary pressure on law school admissions offices. As many researchers have pointed out, diversity, defined broadly, has suffered on account of the rankings. Conformance to the 12 categories is producing less diverse student bodies, less diverse law school environments, and less diverse law firms and lawyers in the long run.
Can We Level the Testing Bar?
Recently, the ABA took up the issue of dropping the LSAT requirement in law school admissions, provoking considerable discussion. Many are of the opinion that though the test may be flawed, its predictive validity is useful and besides, it’s the only test we have. Work is being done to evaluate other ways of assessing potential law school students with an eye to what makes a good lawyer, rather than just a good student. A study spearheaded by Marjorie Shultz, a former Berkeley law professor, attempted to systematically address the issue, identifying several traits linked to successful lawyers—such as creativity, negotiation, and stress management—and suggested several ways to test for these traits. The researchers released their findings in 2008 and advocated for a wider investigation of their proposed new diagnostics; right now the LSAC is in the process of recruiting other schools to participate in a broader study.
But despite the potential for a new admissions test sometime in the future, the LSAT is the current yardstick. Even if the ABA drops the LSAT requirement, it is unlikely that most law schools will stop using it, in light of the pressure of the rankings.
The LSAT is here to stay for the moment, and it is an imperfect tool. It favors students with time, money, and training. Test prep companies often report score changes in the double digits for graduates of their classes: imagine how much that means when admissions offices are drawing lines between a 163 and a 162 to maintain their median score. Prices for comprehensive LSAT classes are a barrier (ranging from $800 to $2200, with tutoring on top of that), but most importantly, time in which to study is essential. Performance on timed tests, particularly of something as structured as the logic games section, improves dramatically with practice. Squeezing hours out of a full workweek in order to practice logic games is a luxury.
Better ways to reform law school admissions include rethinking the diagnostic yardsticks and revising or perhaps moving away from the ubiquitous rankings systems entirely. But until that systemic change happens, the LSAT experience can be made more fair for all test takers. Motivated lawyers-to-be should not be held back for lack of money. LevelBar seeks to put young applicants on more equal footing.