Diversity: The LSAT
Part four of an ongoing series on diversity.
I was unable to complete my Diversity column for the January issue of the Voice because Dean Ortiz and I were preparing to do a presentation on Diversity Strategies at a major San Francisco law firm. During our discussion with the firm’s attorneys and staff, many stated they wanted their work place to be more reflective of the larger society: a mix of people who come from various countries; affiliate with various identity, linguistic, or gender groups; have physical challenges or learning differences; and reflect a broad range of socio-economic groups. The attorneys and staff were interested in strategies and ideas for ways in which they might create and maintain a diverse workplace. They were seeking specific steps and measurable outcomes to actualize the talk about diversity.
To increase the legal profession’s diversity, law schools must focus on what is hampering or preventing the entry of a critical mass of people of color, and must put in place a workable solution that admits and enrolls under-represented students. In large measure, the current lack of diversity in law schools is attributable to the convergence of two things: U.S. News & World Report Rankings (“USN Rankings”) and the focus on median Law School Admission Test (“LSAT”) scores. The median LSAT score is a number publicized by law schools as a critical characteristic of each entering first-year class. The higher that median, the better chance a law school has for a higher USN Ranking. Thus, as law schools seek to climb in the rankings, raising the median LSAT score has become the fastest and best way to do this.
Of course, people are always looking for ways to categorize, sort, and rank people, things, and places. For example, who is the best professional tennis player, what is the best car, or where is the best restaurant. Law school faculty and deans follow a similar pattern of categorizing and ranking applicants through their LSAT scores and then aiming for the highest possible median. The USN Rankings purport to provide law schools with a way to see where they measure in relation to one another. However, the USN Rankings over-emphasize reputation, including median LSAT score, while under-emphasizing or virtually ignoring outputs such skills training, legal employment, and debt load. This calls into question whether the resulting hierarchy is meaningful or relevant to legal education and the profession, where one factor is so prized to the exclusion of other important factors.
Nevertheless, the USN Rankings push law schools to raise their median LSAT scores as each school tries to move up the ladder. As a consequence, the USN Rankings exert a disproportionate influence on the law school admissions process. In general, an applicant cannot apply for admission without an LSAT score whether or not the law school is an ABA-accredited institution. The LSAT is the major gatekeeper for law school admission because it restricts access to legal education. Despite claims to the contrary, most law schools determine an applicant’s acceptance or denial based on the candidate’s LSAT score.1
The most significant negative impact of the LSAT is this: large numbers of people of color are routinely denied admission to law school. According to a recent study by Columbia Law School and the Society of American Law Teachers, the denial rate for people of color between 1990 and 2008 was staggering: 61% of African American applicants were not admitted while 45.63% of Mexican-American candidates were denied a seat.2 This despite the combination of improving LSAT and GPA numbers for these applicant groups. During this fifteen-year period, there was an increase of approximately three thousand additional first-year seats as several new law schools opened their doors but there was a decrease in the admission of African Americans and Mexican Americans.3
Most law school recruiting materials claim that their admissions committees look at candidates holistically. The committee considers a candidate’s personal statement, letters of recommendation, undergraduate grade-point average, and LSAT score. However, this cannot be accurate when there are such significant differences in acceptance and denial rates between white applicants and people of color. In reality, 70 to 80% of law school admissions decisions are based on one number: the candidate’s LSAT score.4
Some believe that the LSAT score is an accurate predictor of an applicant’s “success” in law school. This claim of predictive value is highly controversial and the subject of on-going research and debate.5 Further, there is a great deal of contention over the accuracy and fairness of a standardized test as a measurement of an individual’s skills and abilities. The LSAT primarily focuses on analytical reasoning and reading comprehension, which are indeed important to a student’s learning in law school and to the practice of law. But they are not the only relevant or important skills for law students to be effective in school and for lawyers to be successful in practice. For example, one might score a 175 on the LSAT, but that does not translate into the skills of sitting down with a client and being able to glean the necessary facts and information either in a clinical or a work setting. One could argue that these are practical skills that can be developed and enhanced in law school but that argument misses the main point: the law school admission door is shut to many people of color simply because they have not scored a particular number on a standardized test that is narrowly drawn to favor a particular set of learners.
Moreover, the issue of LSAT scores preventing people of color from being admitted to law school is nothing new. One can run an internet search and read dozens of law review articles from the 1960s through the present that discuss the absence of meaningful representation in law school of people of color based upon their LSAT scores.
Of course, I am not suggesting that open admission to law school is the answer to the lack of diverse entering classes. There is a better and fairer way to test and assess law school applicants. That will be the subject of my next column.
1. See generally Soc’y of Am. Law Teachers, SALT on the LSAT (2003).
2. See Columbia/ SALT, A Disturbing Trend in Law School Diversity (2010) available at http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/salt/. Further, the number of applications for these two groups remained constant over a fifteen-year period. Id.
4. Socy’ Am. Law Teachers, supra note 1, at 2.
5. See generally Symposium, The LSAT, U.S. News &World Report, and Minority Admissions, 80 ST. JOHN’S L. REV. 1 (2006).