As law school tuitions rise and jobs grow scarcer, New York U. and other law schools announce curricular changes, often aimed at revamping the third year. But are such changes addressing the real problem?
Law school accreditation standards require every law school to use the LSAT or a comparable test in assessing every applicant for admission. This standard is unusual. There is, for example, no comparable requirement of an admissions test in the medical school accreditation standards.
A committee of the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education is reviewing the accreditation standards and proposing revisions. The committee has been unable to decide whether the requirement of an admission test should be retained. This inability to decide reflects a deep division among participants in legal education.
Some argue that the standard (which as a practical matter calls for the LSAT) ensures use of a test with demonstrable predictive value and ensures uniformity of assessment. But the standard has been criticized on many grounds. Some are technical and relate to drafting. Others concern its impact, especially as impeding student body diversity and encouraging costly competition on prestige. These criticisms are sound and important, and have convinced many that the requirement should be eliminated. Yet, there is an even more fundamental problem which has not been addressed: the standard is oblivious to the current critique of law schools — that they ill serve students as consumers of educational services.
The critique — sounded in newspapers, blogs, lawsuits, and elsewhere — is complicated and wide-ranging, but in essence comes down to this. There are two broad functions of higher education. One is to provide students with a path to intellectual and personal growth, preparing them to participate in society as informed and inquiring citizens and leaders. This is the liberal arts function. The second is to provide students with a path to a job or career. This is the vocational function. For a very long time law schools, although professional schools, have oriented their work toward the liberal arts function. The current critique begins with the charge that law schools have neglected the vocational function. In doing so, the critique continues, schools fail to deliver value to students as consumers — specifically, as consumers of educational services that should lead directly to a job or career.
In this light, consider the current accreditation standard. It requires a test of an applicant’s "capability of satisfactorily completing the school’s educational program." The standard focuses on student success in law school, rather than success after graduation. It is thus concerned only with the law school as an academic enterprise and implicitly holds schools accountable only for student achievement up to graduation. In this respect it treats a law school much like an undergraduate college. It is not surprising that the ACT and SAT may work as well as the LSAT in assessing capability for academic success in law school.
But a law school is not simply a post-graduate version of an undergraduate college, and cannot be concerned only with student intellectual growth. A law school exists to serve as a path to a job or career, and no law school can remain in business if it is not reasonably successful in helping move its graduates into satisfying jobs and careers. There is certainly no objection to law schools using the LSAT (or the ACT or SAT) as part of an admissions methodology, to the extent it helps evaluate capability for academic success. But to require such a test as an accreditation standard, and indeed to require only a test relating to academic success, promotes an outlook that ignores accountability for outcomes beyond completion of the three-year program. It promotes the very outlook and practices that have exposed law schools to withering criticism in the past few years.
Eliminating the requirement of the LSAT or similar test would be a strong signal to law schools. It would give law schools express freedom and implicit encouragement to consider in the admissions process the full meaning of student success, not only in the classroom but in careers beyond. Contrary to the fears of some, eliminating the standard would not signal an end to concern with academic ability or academic performance. Rather, it would signal that law schools and the law school accreditation system understand the full range of purposes and values underlying modern legal education.
Change is difficult. But law schools well understand that new outlooks and new modes of operation are essential if schools are to have continued influence and success. Eliminating a requirement that reinforces a too-narrow view of legal education would be a small, but powerful, step, in this necessary process of institutional adaptation and change.
Jay Conison is dean of the Valparaiso University Law School.