January 01, 2016

From the Managing Director

It's (Appropriately) Complicated: Be Cautious in Using LSAT Scores to Evaluate Law Schools

Barry A. Currier
Managing Director

Now is a good time to review the role that an applicant’s LSAT score should play in the law school admissions process, as well as the significance that a law school’s LSAT score profile should have in the accreditation process. Nothing new, just a review of the fundamentals. Unfortunately, in the midst of a challenging environment for recent law school graduates (jobs, debt, and declining bar pass rates in many states) and for law schools (sharply lower and changing applicant pool, budget issues), some of these basics are being minimized, skewed, or disregarded. 

Admissions is not a precise science. We should not want it to be. An applicant’s LSAT score is significant in the law school admissions process, but it is just one factor. The guidelines of the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), which develops the LSAT test, specifically caution against the use of an LSAT score as the sole criterion for admission and suggest that it not be given undue weight in the admissions process simply because it is a simple, clear, and seemly objective number to use. Certainly it should not be used as a shorthand way to refer to overall potential of a student or a group of students for law study and bar passage. Regrettably, this convenient number plays a role in the U.S. News’ law school rankings far out of proportion to its true significance.

It is intuitive and not surprising that, in general, those with higher LSAT scores will outperform those with lower scores in law school and on the bar exam given that the LSAT is a high-stakes, standardized test; the bar examination is similar in many ways. The bigger the difference in the scores, the more confident one can be that the person with the higher score will likely outperform the person with the lower score in law school and have a better chance of passing the bar examination (particularly on the first attempt). The closer together the scores are, the less meaningful the difference, as the LSAC website’s discussion of the meaning of a score and score bands explains.  

The fact that one can chart the relationship between LSAT scores and first-time bar exam outcomes does not mean that that correlation should become the default way to predict the success of an individual student or group of students. It’s easy to use LSAT scores as a point of reference, but there are other easy reference points as well. With respect to the bar examination, a student’s and students’ performances in law school is much superior. Granted, we cannot know what that will be prior to the applicant’s study. But also clear are the facts that a law school’s curriculum and academic support program, together with the student’s effort have a significant impact on bar examination outcomes. 

Prior to a student’s starting law school, law schools can and do know much more than the applicant’s LSAT score. As convenient a measure of an applicant’s capacity for law study as the LSAT is, it is the combination of LSAT scores and undergraduate grades used as an index tailored to a school’s applicant pool and program of study that is a central piece of most law schools’ admissions processes. Beyond that, a holistic review of an applicant’s file is even better.

We know that substantial numbers of students outperform what their LSAT scores predict; others underperform. We know that the LSAT does not measure grit, determination, and the motivation for studying law – characteristics important for success in law school, admission to the bar, and career success. We know, as the LSAC counsels, that a host of other factors bear on the applicant’s chances of succeeding in law school and on the bar examination, including the applicant’s undergraduate experience (not just the UGPA but also the institution attended, major, and courses taken), graduate study, work experience, extracurricular activities, obstacles overcome, letters of recommendation/interviews, and other accomplishments and leadership positions held.

Much of this I know from having had the privilege of serving on the admissions committee at one law school where I was a faculty member, and having had some involvement in the admissions process at another school that I served as dean. My experience and perspective, which I am confident my colleagues around legal education share, is that schools (and many applicants) benefit significantly from a thorough review of application files.

No one that I am aware of disputes the notion that it is acceptable, indeed desirable, for law schools to offer opportunities to applicants whose overall profile suggests that they are good candidates for law study and might well become outstanding and contributing members of the legal profession, even if their LSAT score varies from the bulk of the students admitted to the school.

How much risk should a school take, or be allowed to take, by the law school accreditation process? How much risk should an applicant be allowed to take? These are difficult questions that merit serious discussion. That discussion is much less likely to happen if it is reduced to and focused on the simple data point of an LSAT score or school score profile. It is disappointing to read news articles and blog postings that pick an LSAT score and call it the dividing line between success and failure. It is just not that easy, and to try to reduce this difficult calculus to one number would disadvantage many otherwise qualified law school applicants.

To the suggestion by some that law schools are admitting and retaining students without making reasonable determinations about their capacity for law study in order to get their (borrowed) money, I note that the school’s need for tuition revenue is not on the list of factors that law schools should use in evaluating application files. If the evidence shows that a law school’s admissions process is being driven by the need to fill seats and generate revenue without taking appropriate steps to determine that students who enroll have a reasonable chance to succeed in school and on the bar examination, as ABA Standard 501(b) requires, then that school should be, and I am confident will be, held accountable.