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.”

 

PARDON MY CYNICISM

A friend sent me a letter that he received recently from Wake Forest University, where his son is a sophomore. Actually, it came from the Law School, which was “excited to announce” a “Pre-Law Program for Undergraduates.” Last summer, the school offered a single course, “Legal Theory, Practice, and Communication.” It was such a hit that the school has now added a second summer prelaw class, “Advocacy, Debate, and the Law.”

Noble motives

The letter outlines a laudable premise: “The primary purpose of this Program is to show undergraduates what law school is like. Some college students in the past have applied to law school simply because they could not decide what else to do after graduation.”

So far, so good. The letter then acknowledges that law school “is now far too expensive to engage in a ‘test drive’ for a whole year. This Program gives  college students a realistic view of law student life and educates them about the career opportunities of lawyers.”

Again, so far, so good.

A worthy endeavor

Adequately informing undergraduates tracking themselves to law school is a vitally important educational mission that is long overdue. Colleges and universities have largely refrained from efforts to penetrate the confirmation bias of young people who think they’ll lead lives depicted in Law & Order, The Good Wife, and Suits. A legal career can be personally and professionally rewarding, but it’s not for everyone.

Wake Forest boasts that its program “gives college students a realistic view of law student life and educates them about the career opportunities of lawyers.” It’s nice to give undergraduates a taste of the Socratic method so it doesn’t upend them in law school. But other aspects are far more important.

Does the program include data on new graduates’ dismal job opportunities? For example, nine months after graduation, only 56 percent of the Wake Forest Law School class of 2011 secured full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree — the same as the overall average for all law schools.

Likewise, does Wake Forest’s prelaw program cover the staggering six-figure debt that now burdens the vast majority of new attorneys generally, whose median starting salaries have fallen to $60,000? Does it discuss the widespread career dissatisfaction among practicing attorneys? Let’s hope so.

Troublesome turns

Assuming Wake Forest has, indeed, included these and other essential elements of a truly valuable prelaw curriculum, other aspects of the program suggest competing agendas at work.

Why does Wake Forest offer its prelaw program only in the summer — at a cost of $3,240 per course? (“An interested student would receive maximum benefit from enrolling in both courses,” the letter notes.) Why not offer a course that provides meaningful insights into law school and the profession during the regular academic year? And don’t tell me that professorial teaching loads have become too burdensome.

Another item gave me pause. The press release announcing the Wake Forest program included this enticing remark from the law professor who co-teaches the classes: “Since we will have gotten to know the students, we will also gladly write letters of recommendation about the student’s ability to do law school work.”

His colleague added this: “In fact, we are very excited that one of our students, who applied to law school this year with our help, was accepted at several top-ranked law schools.”

Those comments don’t neutralize student confirmation bias; they reinforce it.

Closing the deal

And then there’s this: The law school admissions office “will waive the $60.00 application fee for any student who attended the summer Program this year who later applies to Wake Forest Law School.” More applications — even from unqualified students — lower a school’s acceptance rate and thereby raise its U.S. News ranking.

But that’s not all. Again, directly from the press release: “[I]f that student is admitted and enrolls at Wake Forest law school, the student will receive a tuition credit for the first year equal to the amount spent for tuition in attending the summer program. That’s right—you could get the law school to pay you back for the money spent on tuition this year for the Summer Pre-Law Program!”

Here are the only words missing from the pitch: Act now while supplies last!

Something is amiss when the lines used to sell a prelaw education read like a late-night infomercial for steak knives.