Law School Admission Council Aims to Quash Overreliance
By Jess Bravin
NEWTOWN, Pa. -- The Law School Admission Council, which
administers the Law School Admission Test, finds itself wrestling
with a problem as vexing
as any on its
three-hour exam: how to wean its members from what it calls their
"historic overreliance on the LSAT."
The test, first administered in 1948, has become the single
most important factor in deciding who gets admitted to a law school. But it is
in danger of becoming a casualty of the legal and political battles over
affirmative action. The latest blow came on Tuesday, when a federal judge in
Detroit struck down the University of Michigan Law School's admissions system,
in part because whites generally had to score higher on the LSAT than minorities
to be admitted.
Michigan Law, wanting blacks and Hispanics to constitute at
least 10% of its enrollment, adopted the policy partly to compensate for the
fact that whites, on average, score 10 points higher than blacks on the LSAT.
Similar policies at law schools in California, Texas and Washington state have
been ended in recent years, either by voter initiative or court action, spurring
officials to seek new ways to get more minorities into the profession.
While setting different standards for whites and minorities
is unconstitutional, U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman proposed in his
ruling this week that schools "relax, or even eliminate, reliance on the
LSAT." Evidence suggests that the test "does not predict success in
the legal profession at all," the judge wrote, so "one must wonder why
the law school concerns itself at all with an applicant's LSAT score."
Elliott Milstein, an American University law professor and
past president of the Association of American of Law
Schools, concurs. "If important societal goals" such as enrolling
minorities "are being thwarted" because of heavy reliance on the LSAT,
he says, "we ought to be open to thinking about whether we need the test at
Sensing the direction of the prevailing legal winds, and
seeking to protect its place at the center of legal admissions, the LSAC has
been trying to persuade admissions officers to rely less on the test and help
determine other ways to measure aspiring lawyers. In December, the council
committed $10 million toward those ends and invited researchers to apply for
grants. The funds come from fees charged to students, who typically pay at least
$200 for the LSAT and related services.
Given in five 35-minute sections, the LSAT purports to
measure reading comprehension with passages that the student must dissect, as
well as "analytical reasoning" and "logical reasoning"
through a thicket of puzzles and word problems. It does not test knowledge of
such things as the U.S. Constitution or legal principles, history or ethics.
Scores are reported on a scale from 120 to 180.
The admission council acknowledges that the test serves only
to predict which applicants are likely to have higher grades than others in the
first year of law school. Nevertheless, the test has become central to a law
school's standings. The influential annual ratings published by U.S. News &
World Report use the scores of incoming students for 12.5% of each school's
Unlike other factors, such as reputation among lawyers and
judges, the profile of students is within a school's control. So if a school
wants to boost its rank, "the quick fix is, 'Let's get next year's LSAT
median up,"' says the admission council's president, Philip D. Shelton,
himself a former dean at the Mercer and Washington University law schools.
The council long has said its exam is but one of many factors
that schools should weigh when reviewing applicants. But the fact is, Mr.
Shelton says, that law schools have largely followed that advice only for
minority groups. For others, Mr. Shelton says, essays, recommendation letters
and lists of undergraduate activities could rarely redeem a moderate LSAT score.
No one knows the precise reason for the gap between scores of
blacks and Hispanics and those of whites and Asians. Theories range from poor
schools in minority neighborhoods to inherent bias on the exams themselves. But
it's clear that race-blind admission decisions based primarily on LSAT scores
and, to a lesser extent, college grades have had a devastating effect on black
and Hispanic enrollment.
At the University of California's three law schools, for
example, blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans made up 9.4% of the 2,600
students admitted in 2000; in 1996, the last year of affirmative action, they
were 18.4% of the admits. In the same period, Asians have remained constant at
about 18% of admits, while white admissions have grown to 72.8% from 63.9%.
Last year, Rennard Strickland, dean of the University of
Oregon law school and chairman of the LSAC board, wrote in an essay that, thanks
partly to affirmative action, administrators became "inattentive, if not
lazy" about the shortcomings of an LSAT-driven admissions process. To
encourage admissions officers to rely less on the test, the LSAC last year
devised a handbook laying out eight "new models" of how to weight
The council's favored method -- which it acknowledges is
"the most labor- intensive" -- requires schools to assign candidates
ratings in nine categories, including "leadership," "obstacles
overcome," "accomplishments" and work experience. The LSAT and
undergraduate grades could each account for only 10 of 49 points. The handbook,
however, ended up being "pretty meaningless," Mr. Shelton says, since
schools were unwilling to abandon their current systems without confidence in a
In January, the council began a modest experiment with
several hundred students who registered online for the LSAT. In exchange for a
$25 rebate on test fees, the students completed a 14-question form that asked
them to describe "factors that . . . may have caused your LSAT score(s) . .
. to underestimate your ability to be a successful law student or
attorney." They were also asked to discuss their qualities of
"integrity, initiative, perseverance, compassion, generosity and
civility," to indicate whether their parents were immigrants and to
describe their "personal experience, if any, of racial diversity."
The questionnaire aims to elicit evidence that an applicant
overcame racial discrimination -- which courts have found to be permissible --
rather than automatically giving minority applicants an edge.
Mr. Shelton says the council will team up this year with
three or four law schools, as yet unnamed, and conduct a dual admission process
-- one using the questionnaire, one not. Though actual decisions will be based
on the current system, the council hopes to determine whether using the forms
would have resulted in more minorities' being admitted. It hopes to quantify the
questionnaire's answers in some manner but isn't sure at the moment how that
will be carried out.
The LSAC has also funded the first phase of a $500,000
project at the University of California, Berkeley, that aims to develop a new
test to complement the LSAT. Researchers want to find "criteria that will
predict successful lawyering, as opposed to successful law studenting,"
says Marjorie Shultz, a law professor who, along with a psychology professor,
designed the project.
Starting in July, the researchers will survey students,
faculty and alumni of Berkeley's law school, Boalt Hall, on the skills and
traits a lawyer needs. The hard part will be figuring out how to test for those
traits. One possibility, Ms. Shultz says, could be multiday projects in which a
group of applicants would be assigned a specific task. They would then be graded
on how much they contributed to the group's success, which Ms. Shultz says more
closely resembles the way lawyers work in firms. "Screening devices ought
to be job- related and not simply extraneous," she says.
As the LSAT debate goes on, some critics are even saying a
high score might indicate negative attributes. Prof. David B. Wilkins, who
directs Harvard Law School's Program on the Legal Profession, cites research
showing that "the higher your LSAT score, the lower your likelihood to do
community service" as a lawyer.