The ABA Council and LSAT Scores

January 10th, 2016 / By

As Law School Transparency documented last fall, LSAT scores have plunged at numerous law schools. The low scores, combined with previous research, suggest that some schools are admitting students at high risk of failing the bar exam. If true, the schools are violating ABA Standard 501(b).

Two leaders of the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar recently offered thoughts on this issue. Justice Rebecca White Berch, Chair of the Section’s Council, and Barry Currier, Managing Director of Accreditation and Legal Education, each addressed the topic in the Section’s winter newsletter.

Taking Accreditation Seriously

Berch and Currier both affirm the importance of enforcing the Council’s standards; they also indicate that the Council is already considering school admissions practices. Justice Berch reminds readers that the Council enforces its standards largely through review of each school’s responses to the annual questionnaire. This year, more than half of approved schools are replying to inquiries based on their questionnaire responses–although Berch does not indicate how many of those inquiries relate to admissions standards.

Currier, similarly, endorses the Council’s process and promises that: “If the evidence shows that a law school’s admissions process is being driven by the need to fill seats and generate revenue without taking appropriate steps to determine that students who enroll have a reasonable chance to succeed in school and on the bar examination, as ABA Standard 501(b) requires, then that school should be, and I am confident will be, held accountable.”

This is good news, that the Council is investigating this troubling issue. If we want to maintain legal education’s status, we have to be serious about our accreditation standards. But two points in the columns by Justice Berch and Managing Director Currier trouble me.

The Significance of LSAT Scores

Both Justice Berch and Currier stress that LSAT scores reveal only a small part of an individual’s potential for law study or practice. As Justice Berch notes, “an LSAT score does not purport to tell the whole story of a person.” This is undoubtedly true. Many law schools place far too much emphasis on LSAT scores when admitting students and awarding financial aid. Applicants’ work history, writing ability, prior educational achievements, and leadership experience should play a far greater role in admissions and scholarships. Rather than targeting high LSAT scores for admission and scholarships, schools should be more aggressive in rewarding other indicia of promise.

At the other end of the scale, I don’t think anyone would endorse an absolute LSAT threshold that every law school applicant must meet for admission–although we do, of course, require all applicants to take the test. There are too many variables that affect an admissions decision: a particular applicant with a very low LSAT may have other characteristics signaling a special potential for success.

LSAT scores, however, possess a different meaning when reported for a group, like a law school’s entering class. A law school may find one or two applicants with very low LSAT scores who display other indicia of success. That type of individualized decisionmaking, however, should have little impact on a school’s median or 25th percentile scores.

When a law school’s 25th percentile score plunges 10 points to reach a low of 138, that drop belies the type of individualized decisionmaking that responsible educators pursue. This is particularly true when the drop occurs during a period of diminished applications and financial stress.

The Charlotte School of Law displayed just that decline in entering credentials between 2010 and 2014. Nor was Charlotte alone. The Ave Maria School of Law dropped its 25th percentile LSAT score from 147 to 139. Arizona Summit fell from 148 to 140. You can see these and other drops in the detailed database compiled by Law School Transparency here.

We shouldn’t confuse the meaning of LSAT scores for an individual with the significance of those scores for a group. As I have suggested before, the score drops at some law schools are red flags that demand immediate attention.

Limited Resources

Justice Berch reminds readers that the Council’s accreditation process is “volunteer-driven” and that those volunteers already “give thousands of hours of their time each year.” More, she suggests, “should not be asked of them.” Even making the best use of those volunteers’ hours, she warns, careful review of the LSAT issue will take time.

This caution sounds the wrong tone. As professionals, we owe duties to both our students and their future clients. If law schools are violating the professional commitments they made through the accreditation process, then our accrediting body should act promptly to investigate, remedy, and–if necessary–sanction the violations.

Of course schools deserve “an opportunity to justify the admissions choices they have made before sanctions may be imposed.” But students also deserve fair treatment. If schools are admitting students who cannot pass the bar exam, that conduct should stop now–not a year or two from now, after more students have been placed into the same precarious position.

The LSAT drops cited above occurred between 2010 and 2014. More than a year has passed since schools reported those 2014 LSAT scores to the ABA. Isn’t that enough time to investigate schools’ admissions processes? What has the Council done during the last year, while more students were admitted with weak scores–and more graduates failed the bar?

Accreditation signals to students that schools and their accrediting body are watching out for their interests. If schools need to contribute more money or volunteer time to provide prompt review of red flags like these LSAT scores, we should ante up. Maintaining an accreditation process that fails to act promptly smacks of protectionism rather than professional responsibility.


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