It's time to rethink the law school entrance exam monopoly

It's time to rethink the law school entrance exam monopoly
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Sometimes modest changes spark huge debates. That has been the case with the decision by some law schools, led by the University of Arizona, to accept the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) as an additional basis for law school admissions.

The openness to innovation at U.S. law schools has been spurred by the changing legal market and the dramatic downturn in applications for JD programs since 2010. But the addition of the GRE would have been a good idea at any time. For many decades, virtually every applicant to a U.S. JD program was required to take the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT.

Law is the only field of graduate or professional study whose regulator requires the use of a standardized test. The American Bar Association accredits U.S. law schools, and its Section on Legal Education requires that “a law school shall require each applicant for admission as a first-year JD degree student to take a valid and reliable admission test to assist the school and the applicant in assessing the applicant’s capability of satisfactorily completing the school’s program of legal education.”

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This standard doesn’t require use of the LSAT, but it does say that law schools using any other test must establish its rigor and value. That is exactly what the University of Arizona did, in partnership with Educational Testing Service (the nonprofit group that owns the GRE). It is what other law schools including Harvard, Northwestern, Georgetown and Columbia have done since.

 

The upsides include greater availability (the GRE is given all the time, pretty much everywhere; the LSAT was given in classroom settings four times a year, and has now moved to six), faster scoring, and assessment of additional types of knowledge, notably including quantitative reasoning. We were particularly interested to find that the quantitative section of the GRE had some of the strongest predictive power for success in law school, perhaps because legal reasoning is similarly rigorous and structured, notwithstanding its other humanistic aspects. 

The GRE is far more portable than the LSAT. The GRE can be used for application to a wide range of graduate and professional programs. This makes it a natural test for use by students already in graduate programs, or those who want to pursue a joint graduate degree.

Such broadly trained lawyers – whether in business, psychology, technology, or foreign relations – thrive in the modern legal marketplace. As artificial intelligence displaces the most routine tasks of legal practice, lawyers will need to bring these broader perspectives to add value for their clients. And, law schools cannot reasonably expect their applicants to spend months and thousands of dollars studying for multiple entry exams.

From the standpoint of law schools, the GRE radically diversifies and expands the pool of people who can be encouraged to consider law school. Around 100,000 people a year take the LSAT; around 700,000 a year take the GRE.

Many people take the GRE as juniors in college, when they are still shaping their future educational and professional plans. Law schools can now begin conversations with those diverse populations, including many STEAM students who might not have previously considered law.

Diversity is good. So is competition.

But the move to include the GRE option raises some deeper questions. The purpose of a standardized test is to help law students and law schools get some information about their ability to succeed in law school. We found that both the GRE and LSAT predict first year grades to a respectable, but small, degree.

Still, one might reasonably ask what relevance first year grades have to overall performance in law school, or performance as a lawyer. Surely some who take longer to master the classwork may in the end go farther. We believe the life of a lawyer is more about the distance travelled than the speed past the first post.

Fortunately, the Council of the ABA Section on Legal Education is currently considering a proposal that would remove the standardized test mandate and put law schools in line with business, medical and other professional schools. Instead, law schools would focus on the responsibility to admit students who can learn the law, pass the bar, and provide sound and ethical counsel.

If the new proposed rule is enacted, most law schools will still use standardized tests including the LSAT and the GRE, just like most business and medical schools still use tests. But we will also see innovation, such as intensive in-person assessment and conditional admissions.

We hope the modest expansion to include the GRE as an option for admission to JD programs echoes and amplifies the larger and deeper debates about the legal profession, access to legal services, entry to practice, the provision of legal services through technology and increasingly by nonlawyers, and how expensive it is to become a lawyer.

Marc Miller is dean, and Christopher Robertson is associate dean for research and innovation, at the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law.