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May 17
Recalibrating.

Earlier this week, Vivia Chen wrote a piece on the American Lawyer’s Careerist blog, summarizing a long (and very enjoyable) conversation the two of us had the other day. The conversation covered a fair bit of territory—law school applications nationally and at Michigan in particular; waitlist activity; binding early decision plans; administrative structures at various law schools; legal hiring trends; and so on and so forth (getting pretty far afield onto topics like children and their college decision-making). The boiling down of about 60 minutes can be read in full here, Michigan Dean Says Law Schools Are Looking Beyond LSATs—but what has intrigued me is the way that boiled-down version got further boiled down by blog-reprisers to one takeaway about the LSAT, namely, something along the lines of my saying: “The LSAT sucks, and I am breaking free of its fetters.”

Whoa, Nelly.

Whoa, Nelly.

And here I thought I was making a wholly uncontroversial observation. In a period of a shrunken national applicant pool, in a world where there are a finite number of high LSAT scores, many, if not all, law schools will be increasingly faced with a choice of dropping the median LSAT or admitting at least some candidates whose sole appealing characteristic is a high LSAT score. Given that, I believe law school admissions offices are likely to make the choice to take a lower LSAT that is coupled with everything else they seek in an applicant, rather than to be fixated on the LSAT, to the exclusion of every other consideration.

Let’s start with the shrinking number of high LSAT scores. Think about it this way: If 200,000 people sit for the LSAT in a given year, 2,000 people will be in the top 1%; if 100,000 people sit, only 1,000 will be in the top 1%. So, when you have fewer people sitting for the LSAT, you will have roughly the same percentage of people getting any given score—say, a 172 or 173 and above, which typically corresponds to the 99th percentile—but you’ll have a smaller number of people with that score. In 2009-10, the high water mark, more than 170,000 sat for the LSAT. Last year saw a drop of about one-third since then: almost 60,000 fewer people sat, for a total of about 110,000. Ergo, about 1,100 were in the top 1%—roughly 1,100 people had scores of 172 or 173 and above.

Combined, the top 15 law schools alone have seats for more than 1,000 people.

Now, some of the 1,100 people with tippy-top scores won’t apply at all. But of the ones who do, some of them will have zero work experience. Others will write personal statements suggesting what might be gently called “challenging personalities.” Some of them will have a couple of felonies. Some of them will have truly catastrophic UGPAs. And so on.

In other words, because there’s a serious shortage of high LSATs, there’s going to be an even more dire shortage of people with high LSATs who are overall strong candidates. Recognizing this, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that a law school that commits to maintaining an LSAT median at all costs will soon find itself constrained to admit candidates who are palpably lacking in other respects.

Now, the tendency of law school admissions directors to over-rely on the LSAT has long been criticized. I personally have been called an LSAT w**** on more than one occasion. (Then again, I’ve also taken some flak for a willingness to experiment in a limited way with foregoing the LSAT as a metric. I’m tricky.) Being an ornery lawyer, when so accused, I am very comfortable firing back with a strong defense of the LSAT: It is, in my view, unquestionably the best admissions test out there, and if you told me I could only use one criterion in making admissions decisions, I’m pretty sure that would be the one I would choose.

But! It ain’t perfect. And not just because some test-takers will get law school grades outperforming what their LSAT scores would have predicted, but also because it is not designed to be perfect, from an overall admissions perspective. The Law School Admissions Council itself, in its Advice to Law Schools on Use of LSAT Scores, is quite forthright about the limits of this unique criterion’s utility: “[W]hile LSAT scores serve a useful purpose in the admission process, they do not measure, nor are they intended to measure, all the elements important to success at individual institutions. LSAT scores must be examined in relation to the total range of information available about a prospective law student.” Likewise, LSAC advises, “[s]cores should be viewed as approximate indicators rather than exact measures of an applicant's abilities. Distinctions on the basis of LSAT scores should be made among applicants only when those score differences are reliable.” Thus, even the most diehard LSAT supporter has to acknowledge that it is a misuse of the LSAT to rely on small score differences as the basis for a decision. For this reason, the LSAC publishes “scorebands” for each test result: six-point bands designed to quantify the extent to which “[t]he LSAT, like any standardized test, is not a perfect measuring instrument.” Each individual score should properly be viewed as plus-or-minus three points, which is the standard error of measurement.

And yet: admissions officers do in fact assign weight to even one-point differences. The degree to which this occurs varies among offices and among application years, but the standard explanation for the behavior is that admissions officers generally report feeling subject to enormous external pressures to maximize each entering class’s median LSAT. Some of this pressure is blamed on the omnipresent rankings, but honestly, even in the absence of rankings, I believe there would exist a certain compulsion each year to equal or better the past year’s median.

The current relative dearth of high scores, though, provides a new, strong countervailing pressure. When there are a lot of high LSAT scores, there are a lot of applicants who have both a high LSAT and interesting qualities. Making admissions decisions in that case requires fewer hard choices: You can maintain your median LSAT and have an interesting class.

But no competent admissions director, in my view, wants to enroll a class with a high median LSAT accompanied by a high median vacant stare and a high median inability to string words together into a sentence. Lawyers need to be able to write, to communicate orally, to interact well with people. Law schools, to fulfill their educational missions, need students who have something to share, experientially, with their colleagues. I have yet to have a faculty member compliment me on getting someone with a high LSAT, but they frequently express excitement about their students’ useful and instructive pre-law-school-life experiences.

I’m sure I’m not alone in my views. My informal observations this admission season suggest that my colleagues at other schools have been much more likely this year to admit the well-prepared and interesting student with an LSAT score that is a couple of points below last year’s median. When the push of tough decisions faces the shove of the rankings, I believe that most admissions officers at most schools will admit the students who, taken as a whole—with the LSAT as one component of that whole—they think will be most likely to make the institution proud in the long run. To me, that’s just common sense.

-Dean Z.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning

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