It Would Be A Catastrophe For Legal Education for Law Schools to Go Test Optional

The American Bar Association is still considering whether to allow law schools to go test-optional for their admissions decisions.  A test-optional regime does not mean law schools must stop requiring the LSAT (or the GRE) for law school admissions, but this is a likely result.  Although many law school deans are against the move to make law school test optional, they will feel compelled to stop requiring the LSAT so that their law schools can compete with other law schools who will not mandate the test.  Law schools need to attract students, and a move to test-optional is a (misguided) way of making students more attracted to law school.  Having been in legal education for a decade now, I feel quite strongly that going test-optional will be harmful for law students, for law school, for the practice of law, and for education in general.

The LSAT measures skills that are important for law students and lawyers, and for improving nuanced critical thinking, such as reading comprehension, logical reasoning, and analytical reading.  These skills can be developed with practice, and one way to amplify students’ readiness for law school is to require them to study seriously for the LSAT, where they will learn about logical fallacies and, my favorite, the contrapositive.  (I did not take an LSAT course, but even buying a not super expensive study book and ordering a few practice tests greatly improved my analytical skills.)  Students who come to law school having a base level of these skills will be much more successful, and professors can teach at a higher level for all of their students.

Further, because the test is so well adapted to reading and analysis, LSAT scores are quite correlated with law school performance and bar passage, especially at the extremes.  Below a certain LSAT score, a student is very unlikely to pass the bar, required in most states to practice law (for good reason; lawyers have a tremendous responsibility to their clients — criminal and civil — and to the courts, to perform their jobs competently).

The reasons proponents give for abolishing the LSAT (or another standardized test) requirement do not hold up to scrutiny.  First, it is true that no one test can measure a student’s aptitude, potential, or readiness.  But this is why the LSAT is used only in conjunction with other metrics.  Perhaps more significantly, there is the important issue of equity. In the aggregate, certain groups perform worse than others on the LSAT, by a significant margin.  Abolishing a good test because it yields inequitable results is a willful blindness that will compound the social problems going test-optional is trying to solve.  The inequities in education and resources that lead to diverging test results will continue to manifest throughout law school.  The problem is not the test.  To remove a standardized indicator that often helps disadvantaged students – who don’t have fancy college degrees or recommendation letters – will mean a much greater risk that law students who are unlikely to pass the bar or succeed in law school (unless the demands of law school are greatly reduced) will assume a great deal of debt as schools become needier for student enrollment. 

Equity cannot be the only value that drives decision-making.  For lawyers, who should be better at balancing interests, this seems like a myopic and scary move.  No one benefits if there isn’t a standardized way to distinguish students with greater need for academic support and those whose critical thinking and reading skills are already well developed.  No clients benefit if lawyers cannot serve them well.  This may ultimately end up creating far greater social inequities. 

Besides the LSAT, law schools could look at grades, which are heavily inflated as undergraduate institutions lower demands of rigor in order to attract students, essays, or perhaps interviews.  Any of these metrics will be far more subject to bias and will not give students the benefit of the learning they gain from studying for the LSAT.

I am writing this mostly as a warning, because I love the law, I love teaching, and I believe in students’ potential, if we challenge them and prepare them well enough.  We should not let the American Bar Association, in its single-minded zeal, create a race to the bottom where we all lose.