HLS v. LSAC

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Important news for people who hate the LSAT: Harvard Law School just announced that it will begin considering GRE scores in lieu of LSAT scores.

For the uninitiated, the GRE — Graduate Records Exam — is the standardized test that students headed for graduate school usually take. This is true for math majors and English majors alike. As you might have guessed from that brief list, the test is a broad survey of the skills necessary — or at least helpful — for school in general: verbal/written skills and quantitative skills. Missing from the GRE is the logic and argumentation bent of the LSAT.

Although University of Arizona did something similar last year, the GRE vs. LSAT scrum had been pretty lowkey. No offense to U of A, a strong law school, but most of the law school community met their bid with a yawn, although the makers of the LSAT took serious umbrage, perhaps seeing the move as writing on the wall. However, when the vaunted Harvard Law School decides the LSAT isn’t necessary anymore, the community sits up and takes notice.

This is likely the beginning of a larger shift that may see a number of law school traditions fall by the wayside. That’s because the law school model, which hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last few hundred years, is showing its age.

There are a few clear indicators. First and foremost, the number of applications, while better in the last few years, is still well below its historical high. Generally speaking, bar passage rates have gone down at many schools. So have employment numbers for recent graduates. The phenomena are all related because, as law schools have struggled to attract qualified candidates, many have lowered their standards to do so. It is in this environment that HLS made its announcement.

There are two ways to view this change, and both likely have some validity.

On the positive side of the leger, Harvard says the LSAT needlessly weeds out some students who’d do very well in law school with its odd subject matter. Along the same lines, LSAT prep can be expensive and all-consuming, which disadvantages a whole host of people who should be able to go to good law schools. It is in a bid for experiential diversity that Harvard has made this decision. Sounds good.

The more sinister view is that, if the leaked list is real, Harvard dropped from a tie at #2 in the US News & World Report rankings to a ghastly #3. US News heavily weights LSAT scores — or, more specifically, a school’s median LSAT score — in coming up with its ranking. Allowing in students who haven’t taken the LSAT means that Harvard can be more selective in admitting those who did take the LSAT. This could be a way for Harvard to pump up their numbers.

In its defense, Harvard mentioned that it wanted to cast as wide a net as possible in order to bring in people to their law school who will thrive but might otherwise not have a chance.

And this is where this seems like it’s probably a harbinger of things to come. To survive, schools are going to have to be relevant, not just standard bearers of the received wisdom about law school. With technology and society changing at a dizzying pace — and with the legal system creaking under the weight of those changes — it seems like we’re overdue to make an effort to reach out to people who don’t fit the traditional law school mold, which has mostly been humanities majors with plenty of analytical and rhetorical skills, but less technical skills.

So what does this mean for you, devoted LSAT student? Unfortunately, in the short term, not a lot. You can opt for the GRE, and apply to Harvard and U of A and exactly zero other ABA accredited schools. Or, you can take the LSAT and be able to apply to the 200 or so other ABA accredited schools out there. The LSAT is, for now, still the main law school gatekeeper.

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