The first 2 law schools to drop the LSAT could be just the beginning

Keywords Economy / Law Schools / neglect
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Two law schools said this month that they would begin accepting applicants who have not taken the Law School Admissions Test, a move that may help curb weak interest and plunging enrollments in law schools across the country. The State University of New York at Buffalo Law School and the University of Iowa College of Law said they would admit students from their respective undergraduate colleges based on their grade point average and scores on standardized tests other than the LSAT.

“Taking the LSAT is a pain, and it is expensive,” says James Gardner, the dean of SUNY Buffalo’s law school. The test comes with a $170 fee, often on top of months-long prep courses and tutoring that can cost thousands of dollars. “This is just a way to identify strong-performing students based on perfectly rational criteria that don’t involve the LSAT,” Gardner says.

He acknowledges, however, that the change might be a lifeline to law schools, which have lately been suffering from a persistent lack of bodies. “It does address that problem to the extent that they remove what is, for some students, an obstacle for applying to law school,” says Gardner. In 2014, first-year enrollment at U.S. law schools fell to about 38,000 — its lowest point in four decades, declining 28 percent since a peak in 2010. First-year enrollments have declined by around 20 percent since 2011 at both SUNY Buffalo and the University of Iowa.

The two schools are the first to announce that they've taken advantage of a recent ruling by the American Bar Association, which accredits U.S. law schools. In August, the ABA changed its rules to allow law schools to fill up to 10 percent of their class with students who have not taken the LSAT, as long as they were at the top of their college class and scored highly on the college aptitude tests the SAT and ACT; or graduate school exams the GRE or GMAT.

More law schools will likely follow their lead. Before the ABA loosened its standards, around 15 schools had successfully applied for special dispensation to admit some students without LSAT scores, and Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education at the ABA, expects these and other programs to take advantage of new rules allowing them to do so without informing the ABA.

The test has been a longstanding favorite of law schools because it offers strong clues about who to admit. Research has shown that the LSAT scores are a good predictor how students will do in the first year of law school, and higher scores are correlated with bar pass rates. The ABA says it has studied academic outcomes from students who had been admitted to the 15 programs that already allowed in some students without the LSAT, and found that they were no worse off than those who sat through the four-hour exam.

Currier says doing away with the test might draw people to a career in law who would otherwise go to business or medical school. As to whether the new school policies might diminish the test's popularity, Wendy Margolis, a spokeswoman for the the Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT, says she isn’t worried. “We don’t see a huge impact from this,” she says.

The use of alternative exams could open up the market for test companies, Currier says, “if the ACT, SAT and GRE decide to do the work to compete for the business that LSAT does."

Law schools could apply for an even more liberal application of the new rule: ditching the LSAT for more than 10 percent of the class and using a different standardized test as an admissions gauge for those students, if they can conclusively show that the exam is as good a predictor of academic achievement as the LSAT. As more schools begin experimenting with admissions, the composition of new law school classes could change, and the LSAT could lose standing as an exclusive ticket to law school.

“We are really at the front end here of what this might mean,” says Currier.

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