[NOTE: The trade paperback edition of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, 2016) — complete with an extensive new AFTERWORD — is now available at Amazon.]

The Wall Street Journal reports that the University of Arizona College of Law has begun accepting GRE scores in lieu of LSATs. Two other schools — the University of Hawaii and Wake Forest — are performing validation studies to determine whether they, too, should make the move to GREs.

At Arizona, Dean Marc Miller said, “This isn’t an effort to declare war on anybody. This is an effort to fundamentally change legal education and the legal profession.”

To “fundamentally change legal education and the legal profession,” accepting GRE scores instead of LSATs seems like a misfire. Beyond the rhetoric is a reality that might reveal what else could be going on.

The GRE Is Easier

According to the executive director of prelaw programs at Kaplan Test Prep, Jeff Thomas, “The GRE is regarded as the easier test. The entirety of the LSAT was meant to mimic the law-school experience, while the GRE was not created for that particular purpose.”

But the fact that the GRE is easier doesn’t explain why some law schools want to use it. Self-interest and U.S. News rankings might.

LSATs Are Telling a Sad Story 

As LSAT scores of entering classes have dropped at many schools, so have bar passage rates. According to the University of Arizona School of Law’s ABA Reports, its median LSAT for matriculants in 2012 was 161. For 2015, it was 160. That’s not much of a decline, but at the 25th percentile, the LSAT score went from 159 to 155.

According to the school’s website, in July 2013, 92 percent of first-time test takers passed the Arizona bar exam. In July 2015, the passage rate was 84 percent.

The GRE Isn’t the LSAT

Such trends suggest another possible reason for allowing students to substitute the GRE for the LSAT: It buys law schools time and complicates prelaw student decision-making. At many schools, year-over-year LSAT score comparisons have documented the willingness of many deans to accept marginal students. The easiest way to stop such time series analyses is to make that test optional.

The GRE will be a new data point. Until schools report those scores for two or three years, it won’t reveal trends in admitted student qualifications. That will deflect attention away from the “declining quality of admitted students” narrative that has become pervasive. Never mind that the narrative is pervasive because, based on LSATs and undergraduate GPAs for matriculants at many schools, it’s true. (Between 2012 and 2015, the University of Arizona School of Law’s undergraduate GPA for matriculants dropped at all three measuring points — the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles, according to its ABA reports for those years.)

The Heavy Hand of U.S. News rankings

In addition to confusing the story on the declining quality of applicants, law schools have another reason to accept the GRE. Applicants will take both exams and pick the better result for law school consumption. It’s analogous to the current ABA rule allowing schools to use only a student’s highest LSAT score.

Prelaw students who do badly on the LSAT will submit the GRE score instead. The ongoing self-selection of poor LSAT scores away from the applicant pool will increase the 25th, 50th and 75th percentile LSAT values for the scores that remain. Until all schools adopt the GRE option, it will help the U.S. News rankings of the schools that do it.

There’s precedent for such behavior. Most high school students take the SAT and the ACT. Where a college allows either score, students submit the higher one.

Look Beyond the Rhetoric

Trends at the two other schools mentioned in the WSJ article might be relevant to all of this. At the University of Hawaii, compare the 2012 and 2015 ABA forms reporting LSATs for matriculants:

75th percentile: 2012 – 160; 2015 – 158

50th percentile: 2012 – 158; 2015 – 154

25th percentile: 2012 – 154; 2015 – 151

Likewise, at Wake Forest the results are:

75th percentile: 2012 – 165; 2015 – 162

50th percentile: 2012 – 163; 2015 – 161

25th percentile: 2012 – 159; 2015 – 157

At this point, the appropriate legal phrase is res ipsa loquitur — the thing speaks for itself.

The ABA is planning to determine independently whether the GRE meets its accreditation requirement allowing schools to use the LSAT or another “valid and reliable” test when making admissions decisions. The profession’s leading organization is likely to approve the switch. That’s because doing so will perpetuate what has become the ABA’s central mission in legal education: protecting many law schools from scrutiny and meaningful accountability.

That’s about as far as you can get from trying “to fundamentally change legal education and the legal profession.”



Anyone holding out hope that the market for new lawyers might self-correct will be disappointed. Two recent developments continue to make that clear.

More lawyers needed?

The first comes from Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, which is considering a move from Tempe to downtown Phoenix. It’s seeking approval from the ASU Board of Regents for a three-year capital improvement plan that includes $129 million toward construction of a new law school complex.

The proposed site is now a parking lot. Compared to the current 165,000 square feet, the new facility would be 294,000 square feet. Documents reportedly sent to the regents include a business plan that would increase the school’s current enrollment and degrees by 50 percent.

A failing grade

Why would ASU entertain such an idea? Presumably because school officials think they can fill classrooms by using statements like those currently appearing on ASU’s website:

“96% of [2011] graduates seeking employment were employed or continuing their education…82% of those employed secured full-time, long-term employment.”

Those numbers look respectable, but take a closer look at the school’s most recent ABA employment data.

In 2011, ASU awarded 201 law degrees. Nine months later, only 137 of those graduates — 68 percent — had long-term, full-time jobs requiring bar passage. (Ten of them became solo practitioners — a tough beginning for any new graduate.) Another eight had jobs where a J.D. supposedly provided an advantage; another eight held other non-legal professional positions. That’s 153.

The 82 percent “full-time, long-term employment” statistic on the ASU website results from excluding 15 more students: seven unemployed and seeking work, three pursuing graduate degrees, three  with unknown employment status, and two unemployed but not seeking work.

As for the rest? The school itself funded full-time, short-term positions for 18 new graduates. Add in the others holding short-term or part-time jobs and — voila! — you reach the stunning “96 percent employed or continuing their education” number.

Curiously, the same article reporting the school’s plans to increase enrollments and degrees by 50 percent also quoted Dean Douglas Sylvester’s comment that the school has “no current plans to grow our J.D. (Juris Doctor) class beyond its historical size and beyond the capacity of the college to continue to find productive employment for all of our graduates.”

If the dean’s remark — “the capacity of the college to find productive employment for all graduates” — defines a passing grade, his school is already failing.

Predictable response to unfortunate stimuli

In March 2012, Dean Sylvester promised “to reduce the cost of attending law school to make it more available to students of different income levels.” So far, there’s no evidence that he is succeeding in that mission, either.

In-state resident tuition at ASU has increased from $19,225 in 2009-2010 to $26,267 for 2011-2012. For non-residents, tuition has risen from $32,619 to $40,815. The stated goal of these dramatic tuition hikes is financial self-sufficiency for the school.

Meanwhile, spending lots of money on new facilities enhances the average-cost-per-student component of any school’s U.S. News & World Report ranking. But if ASU is pandering to that metric, it’s doing so at a steep price to students.

As ASU and other state schools try to eliminate their need for public funds, student loan debt is filling the gap. The average debt for ASU’s law school graduates is $103,436. Together with the school’s employment statistics, such growing indebtedness suggests that techniques aimed at self-sufficiency for the school are having the opposite impact on many of its graduates.

Bouncing back?

Finally, the ongoing glut in the market for lawyers illuminates the second aspect of law school dysfunction. A recent Am Law Daily article heralded the legal sector’s “bounce-back” month in September, adding about 1,000 jobs. “Bounce-back” to what is an interesting question.

From September 2011 to September 2012, the net growth in legal jobs was 5,900. During the same period, law schools graduated more than 44,000 new attorneys. Anyone who thinks that retirements and other natural attrition will close that gap is dreaming. One state-by-state analysis estimates that net lawyer surpluses will exceed 25,000 annually through 2015. Overall, the legal sector is still 50,000 positions below its pre-economic crisis 2008 employment level (1.17 million in 2008 vs. 1.12 million currently).

That takes us back to the contest for the best use of space in downtown Phoenix. If the choice is what’s there now — a parking lot — and a proposed big new ASU law school complex, root for the parking lot.


Who are these people?

Recently, the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar rejected an important recommendation of its Special Standards Review Committee. The proposed rule would have required law school-specific disclosure of salary information. No dice, said the Council.

It raises a question that no one seems willing to ask: Who are these Council people, anyway?

Perhaps the Council’s composition is relevant to understanding why it vetoed its own committee’s effort to promote greater candor. In approving a host of other transparency initiatives that have been far too long in coming, the Council stopped short of requiring what might be the most important disclosure of all:

If a student manages to get a job upon graduation, what are the chances that it will pay well enough to cover educational loans, rent, food, and the bare necessities of life?

I don’t know how individual members voted, but their affiliations are interesting. The current chair is dean of the New England School of Law, which has a perennial place in the U.S. News & World Report unranked nether regions. (Regular readers know my disdain for the U.S. News rankings that have transformed deans into contortionists as they pander to its flawed methodology. But as an overall indicator of general quality groups rather than specific ordinal placement, they confirm what most people believe to be true anyway.)

Consider the other academics on the Council. The Chair-elect is also a dean — Washington University School of Law (23rd on the U.S. News list). The Council’s Secretary was dean at the University of Montana School of Law (#145 ). Others deans and former deans on the Council hail from Hamline University Law School (unranked), North Carolina Central University School of Law (unranked), University of Kansas School of Law (#89), University of Miami School of Law (#69), Boston University School of Law (#26). Another member is an associate dean —  University of Minnesota Law School (#19). The remaining academic Council members teach at Drexel University (#119) and Georgetown (#13).

Several other Council members who are not full-time professors have teaching affiliations with, for example, Cleveland-Marshall Law School (#135), University of Utah (#47), and Arizona State University (#26, tied with BU and Indiana University).

Each institution has its share of outstanding faculty and graduates; that’s not the point. But if these or most other schools had to disclose their recent graduates’ detailed salary information, would it make any of them look better to prospective students? Not likely.

The “appearance of impropriety” is an important ethical concept in the legal profession. Any dean or former dean on the Council who voted in favor of salary disclosure should say so. Those who don’t should live with the guilt by association that will accompany adverse inferences drawn from their silence.

Here’s the current Chairman’s spin on the situation: “There should be no doubt that the section is fully committed to clarity and accuracy of law school placement data. Current and prospective students will now have more timely access to detailed information that will help them make important decisions.”

Unless, of course, the information that students seek relates to the incomes they’ll earn after forking over $100,000-plus in tuition and incurring debt that they can’t discharge in bankruptcy.

Also from the ABA statement:

“The Council specifically declined to require the collection and publication of salary data because fewer than 45% of law graduates contacted by their law schools report their salaries. The Council felt strongly that the current collection of such data is unreliable and produces distorted information.”

If a forty-five percent response rate is sufficiently low to throw out data as unreliable because it produces distorted information, what does that say about U.S. News‘ survey used to calculate almost one-seventh of every law school’s 2013 ranking? The response rate for its “assessment by lawyers/judges” component was twelve percent.

I know, I know: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (Emerson, R.W.,”Self-Reliance,” First Essays, 1841)