LSAT v. GRE – RHETORIC v. REALITY

[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.”

 

TRUTHINESS IN NUMBERS

Two recent developments here and across the pond share a common theme: ongoing confusion about young attorneys’ prospects. But the big picture seems clear to me.

Last month, I doubted predictions that the UK might be on the verge of a lawyer shortage. I expressed even greater skepticism that it presaged a similar shortfall in the United States. In particular, College of Law issued a report suggesting that an attorney shortage could exist as early as late 2011 and “may jump considerably in 2011-2012.”

This came as a surprise because the UK’s Law Society has warned repeatedly about the oversupply of lawyers in that country. Why such dramatically different views of the future?

Some commenters to an article about the College of Law report suggested that perhaps the study hadn’t taken into account the existing backlog of earlier graduates who, along with young solicitors laid off in 2008 and 2009, were still looking for work.

Another explanation may be that the College of Law and its private competitors, including Kaplan Education’s British arm, wants to recruit students to their legal training programs. Sound familiar?

The following is from the College of Law website:

“84% of our LPC graduates were in legal work just months after graduation.*”

But mind the asterisk: “*Based on known records of students successfully completing their studies in 2010.”

I wonder who among their students isn’t “known.” As for “legal work,” a recent former UK bar chairman observed that the oversupply of attorneys in that country has driven many recent LPC graduates into the ranks of the paralegals. Digging deeper into the College of Law’s 84 percent number yields the following: 62 percent lawyers; 22 percent paralegals “or other law related.” At least the College appears to be more straightforward than American law schools compiling employment stats for their U.S. News rankings.

That takes me to the recent ABA committee recommendation concerning employment data here. U.S. News rankings guru Robert Morse has joined the ABA in assuring us that help is on the way for those who never dreamed that law schools reporting employment after graduation might include working as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Morse insists that if the schools give him better data, he’ll use it.

It’s too little, too late. Employment rate deception is the tip of an ugly iceberg comprising the methodological flaws in the rankings. For example, employment at nine-months accounts for 14 percent of a school’s score; take a look at the absurd peer and lawyer/judges assessment criteria, which count for 40 percent. Res ipsa loquitur, as we lawyers say.

Frankly, I’m skeptical about the prospects for progress even on the employment data front. Until an independent third-party audits the numbers that law schools submit in the first place, their self-reporting remains suspect. No one in a position of real professional power is pushing that solution.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Allen & Overy — a very large firm — announced its “second round of cuts on number of entry level lawyers hired” — from the current 105 London training contracts down to 90 for those applying this November.  The article concluded:

“The news comes after the latest statistical report from the Law Society highlighted the oversupply of legal education places compared with the number of training contracts in the UK legal market. The number of training contract places available fell by 16% last year to 4,874 and by 23% from a 2007-08 peak of 6,303.”

So much for the College of Law’s predictive powers. Prospective lawyers in the UK are probably as confused as their American counterparts when it comes to getting reliable information about their professional prospects. Most students everywhere assume that educational institutions have their best interests at heart.

If only wishing could make it so.