LSAT vs. GRE: What's Next?

Legal education experts consider fallout from increased interest among law schools in using a test other than the LSAT.

August 14, 2017

The law schools of both Georgetown and Northwestern Universities announced last week that they would start to accept the Graduate Record Examination for admissions, not just the traditionally required Law School Admission Test. These two law schools join those at Harvard University and the University of Arizona in accepting the GRE -- amid a growing debate over proposed changes in American Bar Association standards that could limit the ability of law schools to use tests other than the LSAT.

Inside Higher Ed asked a number of experts for their views on the significance of the debate over law school admissions tests. Their responses follow.

Gilbert HolmesGilbert Holmes, dean and professor at University of La Verne College of Law

At the University of La Verne College of Law, we have a history of enrolling and graduating a diverse student population. Our incoming and graduating classes for the past five years have had more students of color than any other grouping. More than 35 percent of our current population is of Hispanic origin.

In this context and in the context of being an access school, we are continually seeking to identify the “diamonds in the rough” -- applicants who did not perform well on the LSAT but have the qualities, skills and educational acumen to succeed in law school and in the practice of law. The GRE, with its broader view and assessment of skills, might serve as the lens through which schools like La Verne Law are better able to identify those nontraditional students. The GRE might also provide an opportunity to expand the general assessment of law school applicants. This is relevant and valuable as we engage students in more broad and experiential learning to prepare them for a wider range of career paths.

Use of the GRE as an admissions tool is intriguing for schools like the University of La Verne College of Law, but as with any innovation, it requires more study to discern the true benefits.

Anna IveyAnna Ivey, founder of a consulting firm on law school admissions and former admissions dean at the University of Chicago Law School

Law schools should be innovating; their admissions process hasn't changed much for a long time in the grand scheme of things. In the meantime, the legal profession has changed rapidly, and the wider context as well, of course. Based on my own experience as a law school admissions officer, I was never all that impressed with the LSAT as the end-all, be-all, and if it weren't for the rankings, I'm not sure law schools would emphasize it as much as they feel forced to. This isn't just about diversity, although that matters. This is also about the skills that lawyers need today.

One of the things I like about the GRE is that it tests quantitative skills; those skills do matter for practicing lawyers, who need to know how to read a balance sheet, calculate damages, think about a regression analysis, etc. I'm always curious about the correlation between LSAT scores and bar-passage rates, and I'll want to know how good a predictor a GRE score will be. I'm eager to see more data. This is all happening in a context where [undergraduate] colleges are increasingly going test optional altogether. I'm not surprised that law schools are revisiting the tests they rely on as well. The LSAT could use some competition in any event. There's been little innovation with the LSAT for a long time. I'm not surprised that Law School Admission Council announced more test dates and is finally exploring digital test administration now that the GRE is nipping at its heels. The GMAT has been fighting with GRE for market share for some time now in the M.B.A. world, and the GMAT is miles ahead of the LSAT in terms of innovating with test delivery.

Kyle McEnteeKyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a group pushing for law schools to provide more information about their programs to prospective students

In the long term, it's important for the health and diversity of the legal profession to shift the focus of law school admissions away from the LSAT and GPA toward a process that identifies traits that make for good lawyers. Today, however, the ABA utilizes an accreditation framework that fails to address unethical admissions policies at U.S. law schools. The dramatic decline in interest in law school has caused immense revenue pressure at the majority of law schools. Several dozen of these schools responded to their precarious financial position by enrolling students who are unlikely to complete school or pass the bar exam, let alone find jobs that enable repayment of their considerable debt burdens.

Since the end of 2015, the ABA has made critical improvements, including a maximum attrition rate and more sensible enforcement of an already-existing standard that prohibits schools from enrolling students who do not appear capable of competing school or passing the bar. The latter has already led to sanctions at four law schools. However, this is only half of the necessary regulatory change. Law schools must also be held accountable for poor bar-passage rates. The current bar-passage standard is riddled with loopholes that make it nearly impossible to fail. A stricter, simpler standard will set admissions back on the right track, at which point schools can make the other adjustments needed to create a better profession.

Suzanne ReynoldsSuzanne Reynolds, dean of Wake Forest University Law School

Legal education is responding to the changes in the practice of law, where lawyers are increasingly part of a multiprofessional team on a single project. In the admissions setting, law schools would like to see more applicants with graduate and professional interests in several fields. A number of universities, like Wake Forest, promote dual degree programs for the J.D.

Why shouldn’t applicants for those programs submit a single score that several graduate and professional schools can use to determine the admissions question? At least at Wake Forest law school, we are not interested in increasing the size of our J.D. class. We are interested, however, in increasing the pool of applicants with the kind of multidisciplinary interests that will serve them well at graduation. I predict that the LSAT will remain the primary test for most law school applicants. But it only makes sense to encourage students interested in law school and one or more additional graduate or professional programs to use one standardized test in the admissions process.

Michael SauderMichael Sauder (right), professor of sociology at the University of Iowa, and Wendy Espeland (below left), professor of sociology at Northwestern University, co-authors of Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation and Accountability

In Engines of Anxiety, our book about the effects of rankings on law schools, we show that LSAT scores were one of the focal points of efforts by schools to improve their rankings, whether through more restrictive admissions practices, the adoption of gaming strategies or the expenditure of more time and effort on the micromanagement of entrance class statistics.

Wendy EspelandIn the short term, the use of GRE scores or other alternatives to the LSAT could have a positive effect on diversity in law school admissions, since there would be less focus on a single number, an applicant’s LSAT score. It is possible that -- since GRE scores are not currently counted by U.S. News in their calculation of admissions statistics -- this would be a path to diversify a class (diversify in any number of ways) without risking severe damage to their rank. Or some forms of diversity might be promoted if students who do well on the GRE are different than those who do well on the LSAT.

However, a careful examination of the history of rankings suggests that this loophole would likely be short-lived. U.S. News, or other rankers, will find new ways to quantify. Equivalencies between the GRE and the LSAT will be developed and the same rankings pressures will reassert themselves. Only a more holistic approach, one less centered on quantification, could alter this. This seems unlikely given the power of U.S. News rankings. [Editor's clarification: U.S. News already factors in GRE scores, and not just LSAT scores.]

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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