A long and lawyerly debate is underway at the American Bar Association over a question that could have lasting consequences for diversity in legal education: Should taking the LSAT be mandatory for people applying to law school?
Today, law schools accredited by the bar association must require applicants to take a “valid and reliable” admission test — in most cases, students take the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT. The association is considering dropping that requirement, and letting each law school decide for itself whether tests are necessary.
Opponents and supporters of the change both make arguments on behalf of diversity — a sensitive subject in the field of law, which is disproportionately white. The arguments echo other debates over standardized testing at all levels of higher education, a practice that some see as an equalizer and others see as a barrier.
What’s going on at the bar association?
The American Bar Association, a professional organization for lawyers that describes itself as the “national voice of the legal profession,” is split on the issue.
Dropping the LSAT requirement was recommended almost a year ago by the association’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, the national agency that accredits law schools. But the proposal was voted down earlier this month by the House of Delegates, the bar association’s policymaking arm.
On Friday, the 21-member council, most of whom have experience as law school administrators or professors, decided to move forward with the proposal despite the rejection by the House of Delegates, a much larger body of nearly 600 members. The House is expected vote on the matter again at a meeting in August.
After that second vote, the council would have the power to make the change with or without the delegates’ approval.
Dropping the LSAT requirement is not a new idea. The council put forth a similar resolution in 2018, but withdrew it after delegates expressed opposition. The council then devoted more study to the issue and, last year, solicited public letters; the responses were split fairly evenly for and against.
Does every law school require the LSAT now?
Already, many law schools do not require that first-year applicants submit LSAT scores. That’s because the bar association’s testing requirement can be interpreted to allow another standardized test, the Graduate Record Examination or G.R.E., to satisfy the requirement. Other, smaller exemptions also exist, but the vast majority of applicants must take one of those two tests.
Of about 200 law schools now accredited by the bar association, just over half accept applicants who have taken the G.R.E., according to Educational Testing Service, which administers the exam. It costs about $220 and tests a broad range of skills, including reasoning, math and vocabulary.
Even so, most law school applicants still take the LSAT, which consists primarily of multiple-choice questions intended to test applicants’ logic and analysis skills. This year, the exam costs $215 to take; students often spend hundreds or thousands more on test preparation.
What are the arguments for dropping the requirement?
Proponents want to give law schools more flexibility in how they recruit and admit students, in the hope that doing so may make a dent in the profession’s relative lack of diversity.
Research by Aaron N. Taylor, the executive director of the Center for Legal Education Excellence at AccessLex, a nonprofit organization, suggests that use of the LSAT in admissions is one of the reasons that Black aspiring lawyers are accepted to law schools at lower rates than their white counterparts.
Jeryne Fish, vice chair of the National Black Law Students Association, took the LSAT in 2019 after two months of preparation, and is now in her third year at New York University’s School of Law. She notes that the proportion of lawyers in the United States who are Black has been largely stagnant at around 5 percent for more than a decade.
Ms. Fish, 26, described the field of law as “antiquated” and said that reconsidering the LSAT would be worth a shot. “I do think it is a great first step to at least allow schools to try to do something different,” she said. “And to allow the field to do something different.”
Law school accreditation is already unusually restrictive, said Bill Adams, the A.B.A. Council’s managing director. Accrediting agencies for other professional schools, including medical and business schools, do not insist that the schools require a standardized test score from applicants.
“There has been criticism that our standards have stood in the way of schools being more creative,” Mr. Adams said.
The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law pioneered the practice of accepting applicants with G.R.E. scores instead of LSAT scores in 2016. Marc L. Miller, the school’s dean, said the change prompted new conversations about admissions testing.
“You end up with a vast pool of new potential candidates” under his school’s new system, Mr. Miller said, adding that students also gained more flexibility in choosing which test scores to share when they apply.
The school is now developing another potential admission exam, called JD-Next. Some early research has suggested that scores on JD-Next show smaller racial disparities than LSAT scores.
What do opponents of dropping the LSAT requirement say?
Many opponents say they are open to change, but don’t want to rush. Without a standardized test, they say, law school student bodies could become even less diverse, because other criteria for deciding who to admit could turn out to be even more biased against applicants of color, as well as people from low-income families and first-generation college students.
Paulette Brown, a delegate and former member of the bar association’s council, who was also the first Black woman to serve as the association’s president, said she was undecided on the LSAT question until last week. At the Feb. 6 delegates’ meeting, she made a last-minute decision to speak against dropping the requirement.
“Every time I hear the word ‘flexibility,’ the hair goes up on my neck,” Ms. Brown said to the delegates. “Because when you talk about flexibility, that means subjectivity. And when you introduce subjectivity into any process, it provides too much opportunity for mischief.”
In other words, she said, unconscious bias could creep in. Like other opponents of the change, Ms. Brown argued that the association should wait and collect more data.
Danielle R. Holley, who is the dean of the law school at Howard University and sits on an advisory committee for the Law School Admissions Council, a nonprofit organization that earns revenue from administering the LSAT, said that the bar association could take an interim step — for example, by allowing for more exceptions to the LSAT requirement — and watch the results.
“I am very concerned that things like recommendation letters, and other types of packaging that rely on students having both information and privilege, will become the currency of the realm, instead of a more objective factor like the LSAT,” she said.
She added that if the accreditation board left the matter up to individual schools, market forces could drive law schools to drop the LSAT requirement — not out of careful consideration about best admissions practices, but as a way to compete for applicants.
Kristin Theis-Alvarez, the dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, argued that law schools were already making careful choices informed by diversity goals, even with the testing requirement in place.
“I think supporters of the change,” she said, “are overlooking something experienced admissions professionals understand well: that the appropriate use of tests, as part of a holistic review process, contextualizes scores within a much larger and more nuanced qualification profile.”
What does this all mean for law students?
If the council’s proposal to drop the LSAT requirement is approved, law school applicants would probably not see any change until 2026, and even then, law schools could decide to continue to require the test.
Legal education tends to embrace change slowly, Dr. Taylor said, so altering the rule would be unlikely to create turmoil.
“But such a move could foster curiosity among law schools about more comprehensive and equitable ways to choose winners and losers in the admission process,” he added. “And that would be a good thing.”
It is still unclear what that would look like. For years, deans and lawyers on both sides of the LSAT debate have been marshaling studies to make their case, and most of them acknowledge that they cannot say for sure what would happen if schools stopped requiring the test.
According to Ms. Theis-Alvarez, the proposed change would be “likely to increase the confusion and expense for candidates that is associated with navigating the law school admissions process,” which could hurt first-generation college students more than others.
The Supreme Court could soon inject more uncertainty. The court appears poised to hand down a decision that would jeopardize affirmative action in higher education, which could decrease the representation of Black and Latino students.
But when it comes to diversity, LSAT scores are only a part of the puzzle. Mr. Adams of the bar association said that law school accreditation should focus less on restrictions for applicants, and more on the schools’ outcomes, like the share of students who ultimately pass the bar.
And Ms. Fish pointed out that once students graduate and start working as lawyers, their standardized test scores matter a lot less. “I’m not saying this is a horrible test,” she added. “But I also understand that there is more to me than just my LSAT score.”