Fairness, Diversity, and Appropriate Test Use in Law School Admission Models:
Observations of an Itinerant Dean
During a somewhat peripatetic career, I have been blessed with the
opportunity to visit and serve a number of American law schools. As itinerant travelers are wont to do, I have learned a few
lessons along the way. The
lesson that informs this brief essay is, in many ways, obvious. It is that law school deans and faculty, human beings that we
are, tend not to act until a crisis pays a personal call.
For most law schools,
admissions has yet to become our crisis. We
are generally aware that some schools, particularly the public schools in
California, Texas, and Washington, are struggling to maintain racial and ethnic
diversity without the traditional, direct means of doing so.
Too often, I fear, those of us in the rest of the country see their
struggles as only remotely related to what we are doing in admissions.
It is not yet our crisis; or so we think.
Law schools across the country, both those that are precluded from
engaging in affirmative action and those that continue the important struggle to
preserve it, must learn to do a better, more thoughtful and thorough, job of
admissions. To do so will take leadership from deans, a greater
commitment of faculty resources, and a closer working relationship among deans,
faculty, and admissions professionals.
are, in my view, at least three reasons why most law school deans and professors
have not had to pay a great deal of attention to admissions.
First, there has arisen in recent decades a class of admissions
professionals who know their jobs and perform them extraordinarily well.
As lawyers, we are trained to be at least somewhat deferential to people
with more expertise in a particular field than we have, and we have thus been
able to turn our attentions away from admissions, comforted by the fact that the
professionals are in charge and there is no crisis in our shop.
we have been blessed with an abundant and talented applicant pool
for many years. Although
most of the 1990s saw a loss of law school applicants—a loss that seemed
potentially catastrophic at times—that loss seems to have abated, at least for
now. Even during the worst years of
the recent downturn in applicant volume, for the vast majority of Law Schools,
there were many more applicants than seats.
Today, only a few law schools seriously struggle to fill their first-year
seats. The continued surplus demand
for our services has afforded most of us the additional comfort that our seats
will be filled with competent, even bright, students; that application-fee and
tuition dollars will continue to be adequate; and that the admissions process
needs no special attention or drastic revision.
third source of comfort has been the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
Most of us understand that the test is a very good one, that it is
convenient and reliable, and that it is the single best predictor of success in
law school that is available when admission decisions must be made.
An aura and a reality of science surround the LSAT, allowing us again to
give comforting deference to expertise that exceeds our own.
of this comfort has allowed law schools to turn their primary attentions to
other matters and, as comfort often does, has made many of us inattentive, if
not lazy. I need, here, to be clear
that I am not talking about the tireless, careful work of our admissions
professionals or even those faculty members who pore over applicant files for
our admissions committees. Rather,
I am concerned about the kind of numbers-driven approach
to admissions in which many law schools seem to engage, without the
benefit of periodic assessment of how that process shapes institutional
character, what alternatives might exist, and what benefits those alternatives
What We Do Now
each law school admissions process has its own unique characteristics, there is
one overarching method that predominates. This
process is a system of admissions triage. Applicants
are grouped into three categories based, usually, on a combination of
undergraduate grades and LSAT scores. Those with the highest numbers are admitted (usually
“presumptively” or “automatically”), those with the lowest numbers are
presumptively denied admission, and those in the middle receive what is often
called “full-file review,” perhaps a euphemism for a competition for the
remaining law school seats. Most
law schools do review their presumptive-admit files for disqualifying factors,
such as prior misconduct. Many also
review their presumptive-deny files for extraordinary circumstances, such as a
very interesting experience or unusual academic interest that might boost an
applicant into the middle category. It
is these middle files that receive the most attention, and consume the greatest
amount of institutional resources.
this admissions model, there are two important points at which law schools
exercise judgment. First, law
schools must determine the numerical values that define the three applicant
pools. This decision has at least
two important consequences: it
determines the potential size of each of the three pools and can, if not
properly monitored, disadvantage minority applicants.
very high presumptive-admit cutoff, and a very low presumptive-deny cutoff, will
place more of a school’s applicants into the middle category, where the more
exacting full-file review typically takes place.
Narrowing the distance between the upper and lower decision points
reduces the size of the middle category, thereby requiring a law school to read
fewer “full” files, but also limiting its exercise of file-review judgment
to a smaller group of applicants. These
decisions have obvious relevance to the question of how much human resource a
school must devote to applicant-file review.
important, the setting of presumptive-decision boundaries can have an impact on
the disposition of minority applicants’ files.
Given the vexing persistence of gaps in undergraduate grades and LSAT
scores across racial and ethnic groups, high numerical boundaries for the
presumptive-admit and middle categories can exclude some minority applicants who
would be successful law students and lawyers.
This impact can be ameliorated, of course, during the full-file review
process, but only for those minority applicants who make it to that review.
second point at which law schools exercise judgment in the triage model is in
determining whom to admit among those receiving a full-file review. For many law schools, these are the people who actually will
show up for orientation—those applicants whose chances for admission were not
automatic and who may not have more attractive alternatives once all decisions
are made. Folks whom one law school
admits “presumptively” are probably competitive elsewhere, and many
applicants choose to attend the law school to which their chances of admission
were least certain. So, in a sense,
these are the files to which a law school should devote the most attention, at
least in the current model.
fear, however, is that a focus on the numbers infects the full-file process
review as well. That is, even
within the group of files receiving a more exacting review, there remains a
strong preference for applicants with higher numbers, even when the differences
between those numbers may be quite small—so small that they certainly should
not be the basis for selecting one applicant over another.
The importance of numbers even at this stage can still be explained by
their convenience and reliability, but there is an easy and increasingly common
explanation for this focus: law school rankings, particularly those of U.S. News
and World Report. Law schools
believe that the LSAT scores of their students play an overwhelming role in
determining their rank, and cower in fear of even minute slippage in the annual
numbers-fest. We in legal education too easily grant that magazine power over
our decisions. Moreover, I suspect
that many deans cite the rankings as an excuse for the numbers fetish in which
we, and our faculty, would indulge even without the rankings.
to be Done?
and foremost, we must find a way to reduce our reliance on numerical predictors
when making admission decisions. I
am certainly not calling for the abandonment of predictors.
Rather, I would like to see them take their proper place in the
process—as useful, important information that describes one or two of the many
qualities each applicant possesses and that law schools should seek.
we define our students primarily by their numbers, the numbers also define us.
The first step in a reevaluation of our admissions processes, and a
movement away from over-reliance on the numbers, must be a careful examination
of our institutional character. We
must, at each law school, ask ourselves who we are and who we
wish to become. We need to
understand our special institutional mission. We all like to think that our law
schools are more than their U.S. News rankings, but we are not always good at
defining ourselves, at pointing out the differences that exist among us, and at
seeking applicants and students who share our values and goals.
Students contribute an enormous amount to the life and character of a law
school. Our selection of them must
be informed by our sense of purpose. Unless
our mission statement reads, “We seek to be a unidimensional law school whose
students have the highest achievable LSAT scores,” the numbers cannot help us
as much as we might like.
a law school has established its aspirations, it must revise its admissions
practices to ensure that it is attracting and admitting applicants who will
advance them. Recruitment materials
and messages should reflect this mission, allowing applicants to distinguish
among the many law schools competing for their applications and to select those
schools that best match their personal goals.
Perhaps more importantly, the admissions committee must decide what
specific qualities and experiences will most contribute to the school’s goals,
and seek ways to find evidence of those qualities and experiences in admissions
files. Recruitment and admission
materials must be revised to ensure both that applicants understand what
qualities a law school seeks and that they have a meaningful opportunity to
demonstrate those qualities within a paper or electronic file.
It may sound unusually obvious, but if a law school values the
perspectives of those who have met and overcome personal or societal challenges,
for example, it must encourage applicants to describe those experiences and
provide the space, both psychological and physical, for those descriptions.
believe that a law school’s thorough soul-searching, will result in a lengthy
list of qualities that are desirable in students, and that no single student can
possibly embody them all. Such a
process should inevitably lead to the conclusion that a law school values a wide
range of qualities among its students and that diversity among those qualities
makes for the most interesting and broadening learning environment for students
and faculty. My point here is not
to sound another plea for diversity, although that plea cannot be made too
frequently. Rather, I am suggesting
that more law schools should begin to look at their admissions processes as ways
to enroll a class, not merely a collection of individuals who have survived the
competition with other applicants.
In this approach, a decision to admit an individual applicant
might be based more on qualities that he or she could bring to a
class—qualities that few other applicants might bring—than on traditional,
numbers-based measures of merit. There
is an example common to law school admissions that helps make this point.
Seasoned admissions committee members and admissions professionals often
say that, at some point in the admission cycle, they just cannot bring
themselves to admit the 51st political-science major with a strong undergraduate
grade-point average and good LSAT score. But
they are troubled by a sense that the applicant has somehow earned a place in
the entering class. By shifting the
focus away from traditional conceptions of individual statistical merit,
and toward a process of
constructing a class, admissions decision-makers can begin to reduce their
reliance on the numbers while enriching the learning environment for all.
Such an approach might also begin to erode the sense of entitlement to a
seat in law school among those who believe their grades and test scores are all
that should, or do, matter. This
sense of entitlement clearly lurks beneath today’s anti-affirmative-action
litigation; its erosion might help to forestall future suits and change the
national dialogue about affirmative action.
law schools undertaking or considering a reexamination of their admissions
policies, I heartily recommend a recent publication of the Law School Admission
Council: “New Models to Assure Diversity, Fairness, and Appropriate Test Use
in Law School Admissions.”
This booklet makes the case for considering alternatives to our
predominant approach to admissions, and describes several alternative ways in
which the process might work. I have no illusions that this booklet contains the one method
that will meet all of our needs, or that any of the models it describes will
necessarily work better for any individual schools than current practices.
Rather, I hope that the booklet will help law schools think creatively
about what they are doing and understand that alternatives do exist.
know that it is difficult to undertake change without a strong motivation for
doing so, and without some
indication that change will result in a tangible benefit.
I hope this essay has highlighted ways in which change is necessary.
We are planning, through the Law School Admission Council, to help law
schools experiment with alternatives to our current practices in an effort to
determine whether those alternatives hold any promise.
I hope, over the next year or two, that LSAC will be able to enlist five
or six law schools to conduct two simultaneous admissions processes.
One track would utilize each school’s usual process, through which
actual admission decisions would be made. The
second track would be an alternative (or shadow process) that incorporates some
of the ideas described in more detail in the New Models booklet.
This second track would involve, presumably, a more labor-intensive
review of candidate files, based on a more thorough search for non-numerical
admissions factors. Results from
the two tracks could be compared and evaluated to determine whether the
alternative approach would yield an entering class that more closely fits the
law school’s goals and missions.
the beginning of this essay, I mentioned the tendency among the legally trained
to give deference to those with special expertise.
This essay is an appeal to that other defining trait of lawyers and,
especially, law professors—the belief that there is no field that we cannot
master ourselves. We must master
the issues and methods of admissions, using experimentation, creativity, and
thoughtfulness. There is a better
way, and we must work together to find it.
I hope all law schools
will rethink their admissions processes. A
more thorough, and thoughtful approach to admissions can provide real benefits
to students, faculty, and the life of the law school.
*Dean and Phillip Knight Professor of Law, University of Oregon, and Chair,
Law School Admissions Council. James
M. Vaseleck Jr. provided major assistance in
the preparation of this essay.