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.

18 Responses to ABA mulls dropping LSAT requirement

  1. Mike says:

    Look on the bright side: Guys like you will be competing with idiots. Once you get past the hump of building a practice, you’ll be rich.

    A friend of mine is a 50-something, mega-trial lawyer. He loves the new developments. “More idiots working in insurance defense firms makes my job easier. Winning big verdicts is like taking candy from a baby.”

    Sure, it sucks for the clients – who, lacking sophistication, need someone to pre-screen lawyers through LSAT, bar exams, and other barriers to entry. But since when did the ABA care about clients?

    • J DeVoy says:

      Even idiots can buy ads, though. The problem with competing against idiots is that 1) Not all clients are sophisticated, even when they have serious problems and a lot of money to throw around, and 2) they turn the signal-to-noise ratio markedly against you. “Luck,” for lack of a better word, is an important part of any business success, but as a profession law should have more emphasis on skills than luck. The glut of attorneys inverts that proposition.

      Your friend, whose perspective I would share in his position, shows why the profession is structured as a ponzi scheme. When people finally stop going to law school, there might be enough adjustment that the gap between the top and bottom will not be as pronounced.

      It’s funny you mention clients, too, since the rationale for all these school openings was partially that expanding the number of lawyers available would increase low-cost legal services to the needy and indigent. That hasn’t happened at all; these new schools charge absurd tuition to student bodies where a significant portion could not attend any other law school.

      • Mike says:

        It takes money to advertise, so unless the really stupid lawyers have a bank roll, they die off.

        Law is a pyramid, but not a Ponzi. A Ponzi collapses when there isn’t an influx of new suckers. With law, the best thing that could happen is that people stopped attending law school.

        What you’ll start observing in law is a pyramid with a pharaoh on top, and slaves at the bottom. Look at any big trial firm. It will be J. Devoy and Associates – even if you have people who’ve been working with you for years.

        Law, like most of society, is becoming two-tiered, and winner-take-all. There are fewer middle-income lawyers, and more really rich and really poor lawyers.

        Naturally this will vary by practice. Many really good criminal defense lawyers, for example, are losing their practices because there’s a glut of incompetent lawyers. And because criminal clients don’t know any better.

        The Big Money, though, is still out there. You’ll get it.

        Yes, it sucks that most clients will suffer. Again, though, we’re talking about the ABA. How many lawyers have been disciplined for being incompetent? Those sleeping Texas death penalty lawyers are still practicing.

        The ABA has never been about clients, or even most lawyers. The ABA exists to help those at the top of the BigLaw pyramid. More lawyers means more people capable of doing document review. Hell, look at market rates for doc. review lawyers. It used to be $40 or so when I graduated in 2004. Now it’s down to $23 – even in big city markets.

        The ABA is serving its BigLaw masters quite well.

        • J DeVoy says:

          Law, like most of society, is becoming two-tiered, and winner-take-all. There are fewer middle-income lawyers, and more really rich and really poor lawyers.

          Off topic, but this exact dynamic happened with realtors during the mid-2000s.

          • MikeZ says:

            It sucks for the realty profession but that actually needs to happen. Frankly realtors do jack shit in the internet age. Google now provides everything a realtor does without the $12K commision. So seeing realtors suffer isn’t really a bad thing (unless your a realtor)

  2. Justin T. says:

    My solution to the LSAT problem has always been to add a mathematics section, similar to the GRE. Adding a math section would weed out the people who a) are too stupid or lazy to pass a math test, and b) apply to law school because it’s the easiest of the post-graduate paths to follow, since there’s little if any profession-specific prerequisites required to gain admission. If the LSAT were harder and contained a math portion, it would keep out people who apply to law school specifically because there’s no math involved. And really, is it the worst thing in the world to ask lawyers to understand college-level math as a professional requirement?

    • Supe says:

      The attorneys who can’t do college math embarrass the profession. Without understanding math, you cut out a bunch of great arguments because people believe numbers.

  3. Halcyon 2L says:

    I still don’t understand how knowing that Anne sits next to Betty but not Celeste (but only if Darren sits three chairs from Edward) would be an accurate measure of my law school success. (I have seen few accurate assessments of “success” at law school too, for that matter.) I’d like to see some data justifying your position. I think your position is based on belief or self-perpetuating mechanics. In my case, about 20%-25% of my school did better than I did on the LSAT, and I have outperformed ~80% of that group–supposedly.

    In dropping the requirement, it’s possible that the LSAT–which has an ABA sponsored monopoly–will have competition from other indicators of success. And I kinda’ like that. It should be subject to market pressure to improve, because it sucks.

    I think my multiple externship and clinic experiences will be the stronger indicator of my ability to be or not to be a good attorney. My LSAT score tells no one anything accurate besides how I performed on that specific LSAT, and perhaps suggests what schools I could attend as a result.

    • Justin T. says:

      and perhaps suggests what schools I could attend as a result.

      That right there is the problem: a test like the MCAT decides IF you’re good enough to go to medical school, whereas the LSAT pretty much only decides WHERE you’re able to go to law school. The barrier to entry is already too low, and dropping th LSAT requirement will only make it easier for people who shouldn’t be lawyers to go to law school.

      • Halcyon 2L says:

        So you agree its a shitty test? I see the ABA here considering to surrender as the only body responsible for forcing the LSAT to get better.

        The LSAT doesn’t seem to be based on science so much as belief and an test-prep industry, perpetuating certain self- affirming cycles. If we raise the barriers, which seems to be what you’re suggesting, shouldn’t there be scientific evidence that the test proves what it purports to–that it ensures qualified people become attorneys? How else do we hold the LSAT’s feet to the flame without *any* market pressure at all? I am not opposed to standardized tests in theory–I think there needs to be accountability. I don’t see that happening from the ABA–I don’t think they can make it happen on their own.

        • Justin T. says:

          I definitely agree that it’s a shitty test. My concern is that with even reputable schools ignoring the realities of the present job market and admitting more students than ever, dropping the LSAT requirement won’t force schools to reevaluate the admissions rubrics and create a new standard; my concern is that this will allow schools that already let in too many students lower the bar to admission even further and make it that much easier to flood the market with barely-qualified law graduates. Sure, some schools might reevaluate their admissions criteria an formulate a more appropriate test that’s more indicative of ability and future performance than the LSAT is now, but my guess is that removing the last, albeit imperfect, barrier of selectivity will only serve to further devalue an already declining profession. How convenient it will be to finally be able to admit those students who are ready to pony up the cash for tuition but for their unfortunate inability to score higher than a 145 on that pesky LSAT!

  4. Will says:

    Dropping the LSAT would be a blow to the standardized testing industry, will they sell study guides and expensive courses to?

    “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”

    That’s pretty much every University course.

    Coming from a Canadian university in the sciences I never had to take an aptitude test. I would prefer to see people put effort into their courses which may be useful and not a standardized test. People drop out all the time, especially in the sciences and I don’t see it as a problem.

    My degree specifically being in Computer Science we don’t have an ABA equivalent, so companies can out source all work to India if they want. Anyone can do CS related tasks even without any training (or try, at least). I wish the legal profession the best of luck trying to keep the hoards away. For the record no I wouldn’t want an ABA equivalent either

  5. [...] tl;dr. This was quickly followed by the news that the ABA is considering making the LSAT optional. Writes The Legal Satyricon: Ultimately, the LSAT will still be the best predictor of law school aptitude, [...]

  6. I am completely in favor of getting rid of the LSAT, and I don’t agree that it is a good predictor of performance in law school.

    That said, it is the only speed bump that keeps every fucking idiot who majored in sociology, and now who realizes that they can’t make a living with it, from applying to law school.

    Better plan — drop the LSAT, but require a “pre law” package of courses from undergrad (including ethics) that will be the equivalent of a year of study.

    What would be really cool is a way to weed out the whiny spineless fucktards from the profession, but that alas, is likely only a dream.

    • Jason says:

      How would your proposal work for people who are long out of undergrad, perhaps switching careers? I entered law school nearly a decade after undergrad (business major), and about 5 years after getting an MBA. You wouldn’t expect me to go back to college for a series of pre-law courses, would you?

      • Justin T. says:

        Why not? If you wanted to go to medical school, you’d likely have to take a series of courses in biology, organic chemistry, anatomy, etc. Why should law be any different?

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