LSAT-Optional Admissions: A Step in the Right Direction
The ABA’s Strategic Review Committee has again recommended eliminating the requirement that law schools use a valid and reliable standardized test in admissions. It had done so in 2018 but withdrew the proposal before it could be formally adopted. This time feels different and more likely to pass. Adopting the proposal would bring the ABA in line with its professional school accreditor peers. This is a small, but potentially important, step in the direction of making a career in the law possible for far more students and enabling law schools to innovate and differentiate for everyone’s benefit.
Consider the gatekeeping mechanisms most prospective U.S. lawyers must surmount: the SAT or ACT (despite recent test-optional admissions in some undergraduate schools), completing a bachelor’s degree, the LSAT or GRE (often more than once to achieve a competitive score), completing a three- or four-year J.D. program, passing the bar exam, and the state bar admissions process. All of these processes are challenging and expensive winnowing mechanisms, made easier only with substantial resources. In 2019 just 32% of Americans 25 or over had at least a bachelor’s degree. For Black and Hispanic/Latino Americans those percentages are about 22% and 17% respectively. Accounting for student loan interest, private undergraduate education today can easily reach $400,000. Law school tuition and overall cost of attendance has similarly skyrocketed. For too many, a career in the law is just not within reach. Removing the testing requirement can and will make it easier for some without flooding the profession with the unready.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that if Standard 503 is amended as proposed that we should or will see widespread adoption of test-optional admissions policies in law schools. What I am saying is that the availability of test-optional admissions policies will give law schools critically needed flexibility to experiment in admissions, which has the potential to facilitate beneficial change throughout legal education.
Right now, law schools are remarkably similar in curriculum, admissions, structure and career placement. Our first-year curricula are largely dictated by the ABA and a series of shared assumptions about important upper-class courses. Moreover, decades of commitment to the LSAT requirement have homogenized law school admissions. The result has been an ecosystem that shares much of its value but which, unfortunately, also shares and replicates weaknesses across many institutions. We have been trying to address problems like lack of diversity in the profession, poor attorney wellness, a gap between what employers and clients say they need and what law grads do well for a generation, but it’s hard to see how we’ll do it as things stand. We need significantly different kinds of law schools to build significantly different kinds of lawyers to address these challenges.
And there shouldn’t be so great an adherence to our current admissions thinking such that we can’t try something new. For all of our gatekeeping prowess, we are remarkably poor at measuring the relationship between our various gates and actual performance in the profession. We rely on bar passage as a proxy for qualification, but apart from a few studies showing some weak relationship between bar performance and late career ethics violations, we actually don’t know how to predict who will be a great lawyer. What if all this time we have been screening for one range of qualities when we need others? Or, more to the point, what if some prospective students with relative strength in aptitudes we traditionally overlook in law school admissions, like collaboration, learning agility, quantitative reasoning, project management and emotional intelligence are just as likely to be great lawyers if given different curricula or learning contexts?
Many defenders of the LSAT and other standardized tests believe they promote diversity by permitting students that either attended less well-known undergraduate schools or that had lower undergraduate GPAs to distinguish themselves in law school admissions with one competitive test score. But the lesson of DEI initiatives across industries is that helping a few more through the door should never be the point. Given how poorly these tests predict academic performance without all the accompanying context of a holistic review process, this Hail Mary benefit is a meager tradeoff in comparison to building a fulsome and complimentary admissions and curricular environment designed purposely to enable diverse students to succeed.
Without the testing requirement, maybe we’ll see more 3+3 programs, accelerated programs and specialized extended programs for nontraditional students from underrepresented, but highly desirable, professional backgrounds. Maybe we’ll see schools experiment with alternative curricula for students admitted under nontraditional criteria. Perhaps schools will implement more apprenticeship or lab models. Some schools may develop programs that better address the needs of disabled and neurodiverse students. With new flexibility in distance learning, creative class scheduling and now a potentially crucial change in admissions criteria, we have a real chance to make this a moment of transformation for our industry.
These initiatives will be tepid at first, with most schools continuing to require the LSAT or GRE for the majority of their entering students even if they technically adopt test-optional policies. Law school admissions, like most professional and private undergraduate higher education, is not just about qualification, but rather intense competition. We do not assess applicants against a standard of “good enough” or not. Our charge is to enroll “the best” students we can, given the pool. We believe we do this in service of students to acknowledge and reward their academic success and tenacity; in service to our schools on the theory that the strongest students will produce the most dynamic and valuable intellectual experience for students and faculty; and in service to clients on the theory that we owe them the best possible lawyers. I don’t know if this intense competition paradigm is correct, but I do know that I practice it, and every law school with which I have been associated practices it. So, I suspect we’ll see standardized tests in admissions until we can satisfy ourselves that we can still make these relative judgments about prospective students.
Still, just as was the case with the arrival of the GRE, some schools will be more aggressive, and others may be followers but with better ideas or better execution. The important thing is that law schools get more degrees of freedom. We must change and grow before we are disrupted by technology, other professions or some combination.
If it does move forward with this change, the ABA seems likely to adopt it in a way that ensures only the most gradual uptake of test-optional policies. The first issue with adoption will be lack of clarity on reporting requirements under the new rule. If a student has a valid LSAT score but does not report it, preferring to be evaluated under a test-optional policy, but the ABA requires that score’s inclusion in the school’s annual data report, it will be functionally the same as if that student submitted their LSAT score. Schools cannot ignore LSAT scores that affect their reportable medians under the current rubric. If the ABA issues a different rule or says nothing, and U.S News is similarly obscure on how it will include these students in its methodology, many schools will wait until the rules are clear or limit these programs to a statistically insignificant number of students.
But truthfully it will take substantial time for anything at all to happen. This recommendation is out for comment until at least November and won’t be taken up by the House of Delegates of the ABA until its February meeting. The Strategic Review Committee has the last word, but the House of Delegates can send it back for additional consideration and comment, twice should it choose, and it’s unclear when the committee would act were that to happen. There certainly appears to be no circumstance in which the 2023 entering admissions cycle would be impacted. Still, this is undeniably a step in the right direction, even if it is a slow and small one.