Should Law Schools Require the LSAT?

For University of Texas senior Trevence Mitchell, preparing for the LSATs while working to pay his college tuition and balancing a full course load was a challenge.

"I did average," said Mitchell about his performance on the test. "I've always wanted to go to a top-tier school, so my score is well below what top-tier schools normally accept. I would have felt better applying if I would have been more confident in my score, but I did what I could do."

Now, a Standards Review Committee from the American Bar Association may recommend an end to the LSAT requirement for law schools, and make it optional.

"With a tentative vote, a majority was in favor of eliminating the requirement," David Yellen, a member of the 14-person committee and dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, told ABC News.

Currently, accredited law schools require a "valid and reliable" admissions test to "assist the school and the applicants in assessing the applicants' capability."

Traditionally, this test has been the Law School Accreditation School, or LSAT.

According to Donald Polden, committee chair and dean of Santa Clara Law, in Santa Clara, Calif., the LSAT has shown to be a reliable predictor of first-year performance for law school applicants, but "not how they will finish or what type of lawyer they will be," Polden emphasized.

So far, first-year UT law student Claire Smyser agrees. "I think that if you have a lot of trouble on the LSAT, then I wouldn't be surprised if you have a lot of trouble in law school because it tests the same type of reasoning," she said.

Why Drop the LSAT?

In light of changing college admission policies that make SATs or ACTs optional, Polden said the ABA is likewise evaluating the LSAT.

Waiver programs at several law schools at state universities already exempt these schools from the LSAT requirement for state residents who have graduated from their own universities.

"If the ABA can be giving waivers here and there, then [the LSAT] really isn't a full requirement and why not just say it's not a requirement?" said Yellen.

Diversifying Law Schools

An impetus behind such waiver programs and the potential elimination of the LSAT requirement is to help diversify law school student bodies.

"It's been definitively demonstrated that there's a significant test gap for African Americans whether you're talking about the SAT or the LSAT," he said. "There's a smaller gap for Hispanics, but still significant."

"A Disturbing Trend in Law School Diversity," published in 2009 by Columbia University School of Law in New York City and the Society of American Law Teachers, demonstrated a lag among African-American and Mexican-American law school admissions, even as these minority groups continued to apply to law schools in relatively constant numbers.

Statistics from the same study show spikes in the rates at which African Americans and Mexican Americans have been shut out of law schools from 2003 to 2008: 61 percent for African-American applicants and 46 percent for Mexican-American applicants as compared with 34 percent for Caucasians.

U.S. News and World Report Rankings

Yellen points to law school rankings such as those published in U.S. News & World Report as a possible reason behind this trend. The website publishes yearly law school rankings heavily based on the median LSAT score of a law school's incoming class.

According to Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News, law school admissions data counts for 25 percent of their annual Best Law Schools rankings. A majority of low scores from minorities can lower the median score for an incoming class and thereby drop the school's national ranking.

The importance of rankings reaches across the academic spectrum. John Hotard, former director of career services for the Fordham Graduate School of Business, in New York, said that for mid- or third-tier universities, "rankings and revenue are very closely attached." According to Hotard, higher rankings for these schools translate into a higher number of applicants.

"Schools are businesses, and admissions are marketing departments of all schools," Hotard told ABC News. "The prestige of a university is definitely based on keeping classrooms full."

LSAT Pros and Cons

The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) administers 170,000 LSATs annually at testing centers worldwide. When contacted by ABC News, director of communications Wendy Margolis responded that the LSAC is currently "just waiting and seeing" what the ABA will decide about the LSAT requirement.

"We're not commenting on that right now because we really have not been informed of any decision by the ABA as yet," Margolis said.

In his blog on the U.S. News website, Morse acknowledged the ABA's review of the LSAT requirement and defended this test's legitimacy. "We believe that comparing law schools on their students' LSATs and undergraduate GPAs is the most direct way of determining which schools have enrolled the 'best and brightest' students," he wrote.

Morse also confirmed that the LSAT would remain a "heavily weighted factor" in their annual law school rankings regardless of their decision.

Yellen said U.S. News may create rules for their rankings that impose a penalty on schools for whatever student they're not getting LSAT scores from. "If (U.S. News) does that, that would mean that most schools would continue to require the LSAT," he said.

Dean Larry Sager, of the University of Texas Law School, where minority students make up 30 percent of the student body, said that getting rid of the LSAT requirement would allow schools more flexibility.

"The idea that the ABA should require accredited law schools to adopt a particular position about the LSAT strikes me as a mistake," said Sager, who believes that law schools should instead be measured by the rigor of their degree standards.

Sager speculated that if the LSAT was optional, schools could avoid the test in certain situations where it might misrepresent applicants' abilities. Case in point: foreign law graduates.

"We're living in a global era and law schools are going to be educating a global population," Sager said. "The LSAT might or might not be a good measuring device for foreign law graduates who are coming to get the basic law degree in the United States."

Schools Continue to Support LSAT

In interviews with ABC News, deans from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Santa Clara Law and University of Texas Law speculated that their own schools would continue to use the LSAT, even if the ABA drops the requirement.

"Things might change in profound and interesting ways," Sager predicted. "But nevertheless, my basic guess in the short term is that the LSAT would continue to be an important part of the admissions process, but possibly less ubiquitous part."

Deans from Yale, Stanford and Columbia Law were contacted via e-mail but declined to comment.

Polden says that it will be at least two years before a final decision about the LSAT requirement sees the light of day. After the committee makes their recommendations this summer, an ABA council will review their draft, followed by open hearings, to which the public will be invited to make suggestions.

Meanwhile, Mitchell, who is African-American, has been accepted into five schools so far. He applied to 18. But disappointment creeps into his voice when he talks about his top choice: UT Law. "Yes, I have heard back from UT [Law]. I was rejected."

Still, in the face of deflating statistics about African-American admission rates, Mitchell remains optimistic, "Those who really want to become attorneys are going to find a way. They're going to push themselves to achieve." contributor Reshma Kirpalani is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Austin, Texas.