The American Bar Association is considering a major change in legal education: eliminating the longstanding requirement that applicants for law school take a valid and reliable admissions test like the Law School Admissions Test. This change would be effective with the law school class entering in 2026.
The ABA’s Council on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar on Nov. 18 advanced this proposal to the next step. This means it moves for consideration by the ABA House of Delegates in early 2023.
Although this proposal is well-intentioned, it would be premature to take this action without careful research on how it will affect law school admissions. This is especially important with regard to diversity.
It is for this reason that we were among 60 law school deans—each with a steadfast record of supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion—who recently joined together to express our strong opposition to the ABA proposal. We are deeply concerned that its adoption would harm efforts to diversify legal education and ultimately the legal profession.
No one likes taking tests, and no standardized test is perfect. Tests should be one of many factors in a holistic admission process that considers the entire applicant.
Will Hurt Diversity Efforts
Properly used, standardized tests, such as the LSAT, are extremely helpful in assessing whether applicants are likely to succeed in law school and gain admission to the bar. They can also be a tool for enhancing the diversity of our incoming classes.
Research consistently shows that the LSAT can help identify students who are capable of succeeding in law school, even though their grades or other credentials alone might not so indicate. That includes students who come from less-advantaged backgrounds and underrepresented groups, as well as non-traditional or second-career students.
If law schools abandon the LSAT or other validated tests in their admissions processes, something else will take its place. It is quite possible—we think probable—that greater emphasis will be put on GPA, written or verbal recommendations, the reputation of undergraduate institutions, admissions officers’ familiarity with those institutions, or other subjective factors that are more subject to privilege and bias than test scores.
There is no reason to believe that these other factors will be as reliable in predicting success, and it’s quite possible they will diminish law school diversity.
Without the LSAT as a factor, law schools may be less willing to take a chance on students who do not perform well on GPA or other metrics. For example, some students worked to put themselves through school or had to care for family, and they would enhance the diversity of our institutions and our profession.
Students who struggle early in college, as sometimes happens with first-generation college students, may have lower initial grades and thus overall lower grade-point averages.
Standardized tests also play a vital consumer protection function, giving prospective students valuable information on whether they are prepared for law school and which schools might be the best fit for them. In addition, they help law schools determine those students who need extra academic support to succeed.
There is little to no concrete data to support eliminating the test requirement. The ABA’s proposal represents little more than a roll of the dice, a bet that eliminating the standardized test requirement will boost diversity. We shouldn’t gamble with the future of legal education or the lives of thousands of prospective law school students, especially given the soaring costs of legal education and the enormous student debt that many students incur in law school.
It is no answer to say that the amendment to Standard 503 would merely eliminate the mandate to use the LSAT or another test in admissions, while giving law schools freedom to use them if they choose. This response ignores the realities of law school admissions.
When one school eliminates the LSAT as a requirement, its peers will be under tremendous pressure to do the same, or risk losing applicants and potential students.
The push to eliminate the test requirement is especially disappointing because there are alternative ways to encourage innovation in law school admission that could bring our community together and allow us to move forward immediately to advance diversity and access.
One alternative, supported by at least 60 deans and numerous other legal education leaders, is to expand the opportunity that already exists for law schools to admit some students without the LSAT under ABA Standard Interpretation 503-3.
Greater Flexibility Needed
Currently, the 503-3 requirements are extremely restrictive. Law schools can admit no more than 10% of students without a standardized test, and generally only students who are enrolled at the undergraduate institution associated with their law school. In addition, only those students with an SAT or ACT score in the 85th percentile and a class ranking in the top 10% or a 3.5 GPA can be admitted.
The ABA should consider increasing the percentage from 10% to 20% and removing some other restrictions. This will encourage schools to experiment with other ways to reliably gauge readiness for law school.
Expanding Interpretation 503-3 would provide greater flexibility to law schools, while still retaining the benefits of standardized assessments for both schools and students. Most importantly, it will provide concrete evidence on what kinds of admission policies and programs work to expand diversity and those that don’t.
Unfortunately, the ABA Council rejected such compromises at its November meeting.
The fall 2022 entering law-school class was the most diverse class in history. We must continue to seek greater diversity among law students and lawyers, but there is no evidence that removing the standardized test requirement will achieve this goal.
At a minimum, we need more study and more data on the potential impact of such a radical change in admissions standards to avoid potential consequences to diversity, equity, and inclusion that are the opposite of what is intended.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Erwin Chemerinsky is the dean of UC Berkeley School of Law and the Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law.
Daniel Tokaji is Fred W. & Vi Miller Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School.