Entry points: Law schools weigh merit of multiple tests

Stephanie Patton spent a hefty amount of money and five hours a week for three months preparing for the Law School Admission Test, aka the LSAT.

She recalls putting in much less effort to prepare for the Graduate Record Examination or GRE.

With the LSAT, Patton said, “You’re just hunched over this desk for hours on end, and the GRE, I don’t remember it being that grueling.” Patton is now a first-year law student at Widener University Commonwealth Law in Susquehanna Township.

The LSAT remains the ticket to most law schools, but some schools are accepting the GRE – a standardized test that is an admissions requirement for most graduate schools in the U.S. 

Standardized tests have plenty of critics. And the American Bar Association had been considering axing the LSAT and any other tests used in law-school admissions.

But at a meeting in Chicago in early August, the arm of the American Bar Association that oversees law school accreditation withdrew a resolution relaxing the requirement that all prospective law students take the LSAT.

For now, the rule remains as it was for law schools: Use the LSAT unless law students are undergraduates at the same institution as the law school or are pursuing a dual degree in another discipline.

If a law school uses a test other than the LSAT, it must conduct a study to prove that its alternate test is a valid and reliable predictor of law-school performance.

As of July, 23 law schools are accepting the GRE in addition to the LSAT. The list includes Harvard University, Cornell University and University of Pennsylvania.

Widener may join the list a year or two down the road, said John Benfield, the school’s associate dean for admission and administration. For now, Widener will still require the LSAT.

But if it has to prove that an alternative test works, Widener would not be interested in accepting the GRE any time soon, said Benfield. It, like other law schools, does not have the resources to study the correlation between GRE scores and first-year grades.

However, using the GRE in addition to the LSAT could be another option, Benfield said.

“The argument would be why is there only one test to determine law school successes when for most every other program, there are multiple tests that can be used,” Benfield said.

Not everybody does as well on one standardized test as they might on another, Benfield noted.

And not everybody does well on the LSAT, Benfield said, but that doesn’t mean that someone who scores poorly on the LSAT would be a bad law student.

“If you use the GREs they might do very well on it, and that, with their undergraduate GPA, would indicate success in law school,” Benfield said.

Having two options could make it easier for students, who might otherwise struggle to find a time to take the LSAT.

Historically, the LSAT has only been offered four times a year, but is now being offered six times, with plans to add additional dates in the future.

The GRE, meanwhile, is an on-demand test. Students can walk into a learning center and take it whenever they wish.

Advocates for the LSAT say it should continue to be the standard.

The test makes students feel they are all being judged by the same standard, said Kellye Testy, who is the president and CEO of Law School Admission Council Inc., which is based in Bucks County and administers the LSAT.

And the LSAT, Testy explained, enhances diversity in legal education.

In the absence of a consistent standard such as the LSAT, other less objective factors would come into play, such as an applicant’s prior education and personal connections, Testy said.

The test predicts success in law school, Testy said, noting that the LSAT also helps students understand whether law school is a good fit for them.

Additionally, studying for the LSAT, Testy said, builds skills students need for the first year of law school.

Three years ago when law-school enrollment was falling, Testy might have understood the bar association’s push to eliminate the LSAT.

The move could have reversed plummeting enrollment rates.

But times have changed.

A report released earlier this year by the Law School Admission Council found that the number of people applying to start law school in fall 2018 was almost 11 percent higher than it was at the same time last year.

The nonprofit’s statistics also show that nearly 30 percent more LSAT tests were administered in December 2017 than in December 2016. 

“Now enrollments are back up, so why reach for something that’s uncertain? Let’s think this through a little bit more,” said Testy.

Benfield said the boost in law-school interest can be attributed to general economic improvement and politics – what those in the legal profession have dubbed the “Trump Bump.”

The thought is that in the current political environment, Benfield said, people think they can use a law degree to fight for the causes they care most about.

“A lot of the issues that are out there in the political arena may very well require legal action to bring about some sort of result,” Benfield said.

That was the motivation for Patton, who already had a master’s degree in public administration.

“I felt like if I went to law school maybe I would have a little bit more ability to help people and make a difference in a way that you only can if you have a law degree,” said Patton.

While Patton scored higher on the LSAT than on the GRE, she said she didn’t prepare as much for the GRE as she did for the law-school test.

Patton also noted that she spent more money to take the LSAT – in addition to the books she bought to study for it – than she spent to take the GRE.

Once students are at school, they have to work just as hard whether they took the LSAT or the GRE, Patton said. And until there is data that can measure the GRE’s accuracy in predicting law school success, she said she can’t compare the two.

Shelby White
Shelby White covers banking and finance, law and Lancaster County for the Central Penn Business Journal. For tips, email her at swhite@cpbj.com.

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