Diversity: Entry Gate

Jennifer Elrod, J.D., LL.M., J.S.D.
Part five of an ongoing series on diversity.

“Legal education is unusually stratified, and schools at the upper end of the hierarchy produce a disproportionate number of the profession’s most privileged and influential members.”1 From the admission process through graduation, applicants and students are categorized, measured, and ranked, and it begins with each applicant’s LSAT score. Because the U.S. News’ ranking methodology over-emphasizes applicants’ LSAT scores, most law schools do the same thing. When admitting their entering classes, law schools place excessive weight on a candidate’s LSAT score to bolster the school’s position in the U.S. News Rankings so the institution can achieve top-tier status. This over-reliance on the LSAT causes disproportionately high denial rates for African-Americans (61%) and Latinos (46%) law school applicants.2

I am not suggesting that law schools immediately throw out LSAT scores as they review applicant files. However, legal educators should look closely at an important trend in undergraduate colleges as many institutions now omit SAT scores when they appraise applicant files. Instead of SAT scores, undergraduate institutions use supplemental essays and various exercises to elicit a deeper understanding of an applicant’s knowledge and skill sets.3 The parallel between the SAT and LSAT tests is the strong emphasis each test places on cognitive skills (analytical reasoning and reading comprehension). While cognitive measures are helpful in assessing a college applicant, many other skills and abilities are equally important to the successful undergraduate. The same point pertains to law schools and their students. With regard to the use of the LSAT, one law school, Massachusetts School of Law (MLS), has eliminated the test from its admissions’ process, and, on this basis, the ABA has refused to accredit the school.4 MLS mandates that its applicants be interviewed and successfully complete an essay test graded by a law professor.5

An alternative test developed by UC Berkeley Professors Marjorie Schultz (law) and Sheldon Zedeck (psychology) assesses a candidate more deeply and broadly than the LSAT does.6 With funding from the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), Schultz and Zedeck set out to determine what characteristics or factors might foreshadow success as a lawyer, because the LSAT falls short in identifying and predicting anything beyond the potential student’s first-year grades, and even that claim is highly contested.7 In their work, the two researchers talked with thousands of judges, lawyers, faculty, students, and clients to determine what factors were central to effective lawyering.8 On the basis of this research, Schultz and Zedeck developed a list of 26 effectiveness factors, including analysis and reasoning; creativity and innovation; practical judgment; writing; speaking; passion and engagement; problem-solving; negotiation skills; organizing and managing work; evaluation, development and mentoring; stress management; listening; and community involvement and service.9 Next, Schultz and Zedeck set out to find and develop testing and measurement mechanisms to determine a candidate’s ability to perform based upon the 26 effectiveness factors. Broadly speaking, these testing mechanisms measure personality traits, motivation, values, and dysfunction.10 To elicit measureable responses, the test places the applicant in situations that require her to make decisions based upon a series of facts that complicate the initial scenario.11 The questions prompt the test-taker to use her experience and judgment to determine the best or worst course of action in a particular situation.12 The underlying theory is that the test can predict what an individual will do in circumstances that would likely make her a successful attorney, using skills such as problem-solving, innovation, and others that are not tested by the LSAT.

The Schultz-Zedeck Project suggests that law schools should expand their vision beyond the narrowness of the LSAT and look more broadly at their applicants as medical schools do. In many medical schools, applicants are viewed as more than their MCAT score. These professional schools ask whether an applicant would make a good physician, whether she possesses the requisite interpersonal skills, and whether she has the necessary motivation for the study of medicine.13 Law schools should do a similar type of appraisal when looking at applicants. For Schultz, the shift from a narrow and limited focus on LSAT scores to a broader examination of applicants’ skills and knowledge would have a twofold purpose: it would ehance the diversity of the legal profession and, at the same time, it would diminish the racial disparity that exists presently.14 “To rely heavily on a narrow subset of academic skills (in which the performance of racial groups most diverges) while ignoring a broad array of competencies important to professional effectiveness (in which racial groups perform rather similarly) unfairly advantages white applicants.”15

Now is the time for legal educators to do more than talk the talk of diversity, they need to walk the talk to make diversity a reality in law school and in the legal profession by opening wider the entry gate.

1. See Marjorie M. Schultz, Expanding the Definition of Merit, TRANSCRIPT 25 (Summer 2005).
2. See http://blogs.law,columbia.edu/salt
3. See Building a Better Admissions Test, Inside Higher Educ., Nov. 11, 2008, available at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/11/11/lsat.
4. See ABA May Drop LSAT Requirement, Inside Higher Educ., Jan. 14, 2011, available at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/01/14/aba_may_end_requirement_that_law_schools_use_lsat.
5. See http://www.mslaw.edu/Admissions_NoLSAT.htm. MSL will not seek ABA accreditation until the ABA does away with the requirement of the LSAT.
6. Linley Erin Hall, What Makes for a Good Lawyer? TRANSCRIPT 22 (Summer 2005), available at http://www.law.berkeley.edu/beyondlsat/transcript.pdf
7. Id., at 22, 23.
8. See Schultz, supra note 1, at 23-24.
9. Id. at 24 (complete list of the 26 effectiveness factors).
10. Schultz, supra note 1, at 26-27.
11. Hall, supra note 6, at 24
12. Id.
13. Schultz, supra note 1, at 25.
14. Id. at 27.
15. Id.