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Law School Diversity May Improve After Rankings, LSAT Moves

Dec. 1, 2022, 10:00 AM

Top law schools’ efforts to increase student body diversity could get a boost from moves to drop LSAT requirements and participation in the U.S. News rankings.

An American Bar Association panel voted last month to move away from a requirement that law schools use the Law School Admission Test or another standardized test for admissions, although the decision isn’t final. About the same time, Yale Law School announced it won’t participate in the U.S. News and World Report law school rankings due to concerns over methodology, triggering an exodus by at least eight other top-ranked law schools.

These two changes will give more flexibility, particularly to top schools, which could seek out more diverse student bodies or offer public interest fellowships after graduation without concern about the impact on their rankings, experts say.

“I hope it will make the legal profession more inclusive, because it will look at other factors than traditional factors that have been looked at to determine who gets an opportunity,” said John Pierre, a law professor at the Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, La.

Ranking Effect

The heads of law schools shunning the U.S. News rankings said the metrics punish schools for bringing in low-income students from diverse backgrounds by focusing heavily on LSAT scores and undergraduate grades.

The methodology also discourages schools from promoting careers in public service by treating fellowships as unpaid jobs and skewing student debt data, the leaders said.

“In recent years, we have invested significant energy and capital in important initiatives that make our law school a better place but perversely work to lower our scores,” Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken said in a Nov. 16 statement.

“That’s because the U.S. News rankings are profoundly flawed—they disincentivize programs that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession.”

Daniel Rodriguez, a professor and former dean at Northwestern University’s law school, said if U.S. News is challenged on its ranking hegemony, it might give more maneuvering room to schools to take more chances.

“What they’ve been preaching is, ‘oh, we have holistic admissions, we take into account other criteria,’ but the reality of it is they’re very attentive, as I was when I was dean, to, the median LSAT scores, because of how significant it is for the rankings,” Rodriguez said.

Northwestern Dean Hari Osofsky is among the law school leaders who hopes the moves spur U.S. News to overhaul the ranking process.

“Law schools have an important role to play in preparing the next generation of legal professionals and in advancing greater justice, and our rankings should reflect that,” Osofsky said in a Nov. 21 statement.

Top Schools

So far, much of the movement is coming from top-ranked schools.

“I predict that not many schools outside the Top 14 are going to withdraw from the rankings. They need U.S. News more than the U.S. News needs them,” Above the Law founder David Lat said.

Refusing to take part in the U.S. News rankings could benefit the best law schools because they will have more flexibility in the kind of students they choose, Lat said.

That’s because they won’t be penalized for offering graduates paid public interest fellowships after graduation. These school-funded positions have been abused in the past by lower ranked schools that wanted to improve their employment scores, he said.

“That’s why U.S. News discounts those jobs,” Lat said. “It will benefit the top 14 schools because they will be able to say we are going out on a high note.”

Deans at two top-ranked schools questioned efforts to withhold information from U.S. News.

University of Chicago Dean Tom Miles told students in a Nov. 23 email that the school will continue to furnish information since “most of the data we supply to U.S. News are already public, and the rest is information we have no reason to withhold.”

Cornell Law School Dean Jens David Ohlin said in a Nov. 23 statement that “withdrawal from the rankings process will not have the desired impact that many assume that it will have.”

“The reality is that U.S. News & World Report is a journalistic enterprise, and they don’t need anyone’s permission, including mine, to publish a ranking, and they have ready access to information from the ABA and other public sources to construct their rankings,” Ohlin said.

Test of Admission

The LSAT tends to favor wealthy applicants who can pay for expensive test prep and can afford to keep taking the test until they can get their desired score, said Anna Ivey, who wrote “The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions.”

Doing away with the LSAT requirement “could open up the path to law school to different kinds of people, but, in practice, it’s not some kind of magic wand that a school can just wave,” Ivey said. There are colleges that chose to be test-optional and the student body became diverse while other colleges that followed the same strategy didn’t end up with students of different backgrounds, she said.

“It would still require each individual school to really reexamine its institutional priorities,” said Ivey, who runs a college and law school admissions consulting firm. “But it would give both the schools and the applicants more flexibility.”

Challenges abound, she said. LSAT scores historically have correlated bar exam passage rates after law school.

“The law schools do have to care about the intake side because they don’t want to admit someone and set them up for failure,” Ivey said. “That’s something law schools will have to think through.”

More than 50 law school deans wrote to the ABA in September voicing concerns about eliminating the standardized admissions test. “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,” they wrote.

Slow Change

The top law schools will continue to be the most prestigious, attract the strongest applicants, and the top law firms for recruiting, Lat said. They will still figure in the U.S. News rankings, but the magazine will use “placeholder scores” instead of data furnished by the university.

“The legal world changes very slowly, if at all, and I don’t think people are going to start thinking that Harvard and Yale are not good schools because U.S. News hasn’t given them a medal,” Lat said.

Even if the ABA moves forward with dropping the LSAT requirement, it wouldn’t happen before the fall of 2025. U.S. News will likely continue to rank law schools that don’t participate, with less information than they currently have.

That means the results of these changes will take years to discern.

“It is much too soon to know what the impact of these developments will be on law schools and legal education,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean at UC Berkeley’s law school.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kaustuv Basu in Washington at kbasu@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com