ABA mulls dropping LSAT requirement

By J. DeVoy

Once upon a time, professions had meaningful barriers to entry.  The inability to participate was not a mark of personal failure for the unsuccessful applicant, but an indicia of the profession’s selectivity, a characteristic retained largely for the public’s benefit.  One such guild was the ABA — until the mid 1990s.  Around that time, Janet Reno put a vise grip on its balls with the DOJ, making it enter into a consent judgment that required the ABA reduce the hurdles needed to enter law school.

The aftershocks to this consent decree have been clear for the last decade.  New schools constantly open at a rate of approximately 10 for every one that should actually exist (U.C. Irvine gets a pass).  Rudimentary legal work that, while low value, provided experience to new attorneys, is shipped off to India without requiring India to make a single concession back.  The ABA won’t carte blanche refuse to accredit overseas law schools.  And now, all but knocking down the last piece of battered fence keeping the teeming hordes out of law school, the ABA is considering making the LSAT optional.

On one hand, the LSAT is an arbitrary measure of potential with tangential relation to skills needed to compete in law school.  Like everyone, I too know smart people who bombed it and idiot strivers who did well after studying for three years.  I also know smart people with good scores and dumb people with appropriately bad ones.  As bad as the system may be, there is a need to group people roughly by cognitive ability and order them – something easily done by the LSAT’s 120-180 point scale.  When coupled with GPA, people of similar ability are, on paper, put together and then sorted into the academic institutions that best suit their ability.

To the extent the LSAT has value outside of an applicant’s score, it demonstrates the commitment to study for and take a test that could run an applicant several hundred dollars in expenses.  Law school applications, compared to PhD and even MBA processes, are a joke.  LSAC allows you to upload essays to its site and batch-process them with applications to several schools.  Virtually no school requires more than three essays, including optional ones that address diversity and interest in the school.  Considering that most colleges are bad and a high GPA can be manufactured with a series of intro-level courses, the LSAT is the only difficult thing about applying to law school.

The beneficiaries of this process will be law schools, like the colleges that dropped the ACT/SAT requirement before it.  Thousands more people will pay application fees directly to schools with the unfounded hope that they can gain admission.  If the system works as the starry-eyed applicants hope, either bar exam passage rates will plummet or school dropout rates will greatly increase.  It does not take much of a logical leap to see that the people to whom this prospect would be most appealing are also the most likely to bomb the LSAT, and want to preempt a bad score (despite a policy change a few years ago that allows for multiple retakes without penalty).

Ultimately, the LSAT will still be the best predictor of law school aptitude, even if an objectively bad one, but allow schools to admit more subjectively interesting candidates without this admissions priority being reflected in its LSAT or GPA reporting.  The same kind of Worldcom-style accounting that controls employment reporting for law schools will come to its admissions statistics as well.  Beyond defeating the utility of sites like lawschoolnumbers.com, this decision would make admissions a black box process at schools that choose to go along with it.

By obfuscating student quality, the employment prospects all but 5-10 elite schools would suffer, as employers would not be sure just what quality of students they were getting.  While a law school has time to pay its recent graduates $8/hour to sift through applicants who couldn’t be bothered to take the LSAT and find the touchiest, feeliest application of them all, a law firm does not have that luxury.  Nor does it want to.  The best thing a lawyer can have is information, and for law schools to deprive employers of that vital resource is a disservice to its students.  Nobody, rationally, would buy something of unknown contents or quality.