ABA May Drop LSAT Requirement

Accreditation rules could change to allow law schools to decide for themselves whether applicants must report scores.
January 14, 2011

An American Bar Association panel reviewing law school accreditation rules is leaning toward recommending an end to a requirement that law schools use the Law School Admissions Test.

If the panel follows through on its current inclinations -- and the ABA approves the changes -- law schools could gain flexibility they now lack to make the LSAT optional or drop the test. Whether they would do so remains to be seen, but many undergraduate colleges have made the SAT and ACT optional in recent years and generally have found that such shifts attract more applicants and a more diverse applicant pool without leading to any loss in academic performance.

Donald J. Polden, dean of the law school at Santa Clara University and chair of the ABA committee studying the standards, said that in two preliminary discussions of the issue, a "substantial majority" of committee members indicated that they would like to drop the LSAT requirement. (He confirmed a report on the likely shift in requirements, first published by The National Law Journal.)

Polden said via e-mail that there are "good arguments" for dropping the LSAT as an accreditation requirement. He said such a move would provide "greater flexibility for schools to achieve diversity goals in their admitted classes, permitting schools to experiment with admission programs that benefit the school without being penalized by U.S. News ranking changes attributable to those programs, following some of the thinking of undergraduate institutions on optional standardized entrance exams." An ABA report last year was highly critical of the way many law schools are obsessed with high LSAT averages, which lead to higher rankings from U.S. News & World Report, and said that the link between test scores and rankings was discouraging efforts to promote diversity among law students.

Still, Polden said he wasn't endorsing the shift and didn't expect his law school to change its admissions policy if the ABA changes its rules. He said that there are still a number of "unresolved questions" about how law schools would report data on their applicants and enrolled students in an LSAT-optional era. For example, he said he wasn't sure how law schools would report on classes in which some applicants submitted scores and others did not, or whether policies would govern whether law schools could require the test of some but not all applicants.

A spokeswoman for the Law School Admission Council, which runs the LSAT, said that the organization was not commenting until the ABA issues a final recommendation.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said that a switch in the ABA's policy would be "a significant step toward correcting the overuse of standardized testing in the law school admissions process." But he said that the "real hurdle" would be getting law schools to end their LSAT requirements or, if keeping the requirement, to "reduce their emphasis" on the exam.

Schaeffer said that a shift by the ABA "would be a victory" for the Massachusetts School of Law, which "fought against the ABA's arbitrary rule that they require standardized exam scores even if such a policy conflicts with the school's mission."

The refusal of the Massachusetts School of Law to require the LSAT was among several disputes that led to years of fighting with the ABA over its refusal to accredit the nontraditional law school. The ABA won the court battle, and the Massachusetts School of Law opted to operate without ABA recognition or an LSAT requirement. The Massachusetts School of Law requires all applicants to have interviews and to take an essay test it has developed, and argues that its method helps to identify talented students who might not have earned great LSAT scores.

Lawrence R. Velvel, dean of the school, said via e-mail Thursday that even if the ABA changes its policies, his institution won't seek its accreditation. "We want nothing to do with such accreditation because we found out that it was -- and remains -- elitist, plays a major role in causing ABA tuitions to be over two or three times higher than ours, pays vastly insufficient attention to practical subjects, and goes far to reading the poor and the lower middle class out of law schools and the legal profession."


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