The Law School Admission Test is here to stay in Ontario despite moves south of the border to loosen requirements to use it, law school administrators in Ontario say.
The American Bar Association is reconsidering a rule that requires law schools to make the LSAT mandatory in order to gain accreditation in the wake of studies indicating that reliance on it is undermining diversity efforts.
John Nussbaumer, associate dean for the Auburn Hills campus of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School just outside of Detroit, has written extensively on what he calls the “misuse” of the LSAT in admissions practices across the United States.
In his most recent review article, he looked at data from 10 years of law school admissions and found that 60 per cent of black applicants, who have a lower average LSAT score than their white counterparts, find themselves denied entry to all of the law schools they applied to. For Hispanics, 45 per cent found themselves entirely shut out, compared with just 31 per cent of white applicants.
“I think the ABA proposal is a step in the right direction but because it leaves things up to the schools about what weight to give to the LSAT, it’s not going to solve the problems that flow from the misuse of the LSAT,” Nussbaumer says.
According to Jane Emrich, assistant dean of students at the Queen’s University Faculty of Law, the problem is less pronounced in Ontario because most universities have alternative processes to increase the proportion of historically disadvantaged groups in their classes. Last year, Queen’s admitted 22 per cent of its first-year class through its access category.
“Most of our law schools have special consideration categories, and in those categories, the academic factors may be weighted differently in order to serve those ends,” Emrich says.
Applicants in every category had to submit an LSAT score, but Emrich says it doesn’t have any particular weight in the faculty’s holistic admissions process. Osgoode Hall Law School and the University of Toronto both use the same word to describe their admissions processes.
“We don’t have a mechanized review,” Emrich says. “We don’t use some sort of formula. It’s just one element. Ultimately, you’re making a reasonable judgment on who you think has a good potential to succeed in law school.”
Correlation studies by the Law School Admission Council that administers the test show the LSAT is a better predictor of first-year performance than a student’s grade point average.
Ian Holloway, dean of the University of Western Ontario’s faculty of law, is also a trustee of the admission council. He calls the LSAT a “key factor” in Western’s admissions process and says the committee gives equal weight to a student’s score on the test and grade point average. It will also consider community and public service as well as a personal statement in the decision.
According to Holloway, law schools still need the LSAT to compare undergraduate grades across a wide range of fields from different institutions. As a result, it reduces the chances that law schools will overlook students from lesser-known universities, he says.
“Given the volume of applications, it’s hard for me to imagine being able to make admissions decisions fairly without some sort of instrument that helps level the playing field. The concern is if you take away this [common] element, you’re providing an opportunity for unconscious biases to creep into the process.”
But Nussbaumer says the law-school rankings system in the United States has compounded the problems with the LSAT. The pre-eminent U.S. News & World Report rankings for law schools include median LSAT results as a key factor, thereby encouraging institutions to use artificially high cut-offs in order to boost their scores.
At the same time, Nussbaumer says many schools profess a commitment to diversity but notes few can back it up with numbers in graduating classes.
“I don’t have any beef with schools who say they’re only going to admit the best and the brightest based on the LSAT, and we know that will have an impact on diversity but we’re happy with that. That’s never how schools do it. If their mission is diversity, they should set those LSAT requirements not based on the rankings report but based on where a student will have a reasonable chance of success.”
That’s exactly what happens at the University of Windsor’s faculty of law, according to assistant dean Francine Herlehy. She says her own LSAT “was not a shining moment in my academic career” but notes she got into Windsor “because this law school looked at what else I offered.” At Windsor, the LSAT is just one of seven factors considered for admission.
“We’re probably a school that pays less attention to the LSAT,” Herlehy says. “We want to be open to looking at a person in terms of what their academic successes have been, what their personal accomplishments have been, how they view a legal education, and what they’ll do with their law degree in terms of moving forward as a social tool. All of those things are important.”
But Herlehy says the LSAT still has an important role to play and doesn’t expect many schools north of the border to ditch it as a requirement. Each Canadian law school sets its own admissions criteria and could choose to make it voluntary. “It does provide a reasonable objective measure of a student’s skills and aptitude for the study of law,” Herlehy says. “I think people have found a way to use it as a tool.”
In Ontario, the only program that doesn’t mandate the LSAT is the French common law program at the University of Ottawa. “It’s not part of the consideration at all,” says Ellen Zweibel, vice dean of the English program there. “To the extent that these types of exams are time-tested and it’s in English, it just doesn’t make sense.”