Law School Admission Test. Photo Credit: Mediaphotos/iStockphoto.com

A proposal to drop the requirement that law schools use the LSAT in admissions is heading to the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in August for final approval.

The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar on May 11 narrowly voted to push the controversial proposal forward, and a day later decided to fast track its implementation by placing it on the House of Delegates agenda during the association’s annual meeting in Chicago later this summer.

Should the house sign off, law schools would be free to use the GRE, other standardized tests, or no admission test at all, although opting to use no test would trigger extra scrutiny from the ABA as to whether schools are admitting unqualified students.

The Law School Admission Council (LSAC)—which administers the LSAT and has warned that eliminating its required use would hurt applicants and schools—likely won’t mount a campaign to sway ABA delegates to vote against the proposal in August, said LSAC president Kellye Testy in an interview Monday. But in light of Friday’s close 9-8 vote, the testing organization will continue to educate people on what it views as the benefits of its law school-specific admissions exam, she said. The LSAC has argued that its test is an important consumer protection for potential students to gauge their likelihood of succeeding on campus before investing their time and money in a law degree.

“Right now, we’re in a listening mode to hear how the schools, deans and admission deans are feeling about the decision,” Testy said. “I’m hearing from a lot of deans and other participants in legal education that they are wanting to really think this through now that they see where the council is—especially when they saw how close the vote was.”

Marc Miller, dean at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, welcomed the ABA council’s decision to do away with the long-standing LSAT mandate. Arizona in 2016 became the first law school to use the GRE in admissions, and now accepts approximately 10 percent of its U.S. students with such scores.

“It is so darned hard to reform either the profession or the educational system that supports it,” Miller said on Monday. “This is really exciting and neat and not where I thought the process of starting with the GRE would end up.”

Eliminating the LSAT requirement will open the door for law schools to experiment with different ways to admit students, Miller added. Arizona is already thinking about how the proposal could allow the school to admit students in the university’s groundbreaking undergraduate law degree program, in which undergraduates are taught by the law school faculty. And 17 schools currently allow or soon will allow applicants to provide either GRE scores or LSAT scores. They have cited the desire to attract more students with science, technology, engineering and math backgrounds in accepting GRE scores. The GRE is also more accessible because it is administered throughout the year, as opposed to the LSAT’s six annual administrations.

Miller said he expects the ABA’s House of Delegates to get behind the proposal to drop the LSAT requirement.

“It’s hard to imagine what the argument against this would be,” he said.” There is simply no answer for why legal education should impose a requirement that no other regulator or profession does.”

The ABA’s legal education council is tasked by the U.S. Department of Education with the oversight of law schools, but changes to its law school accreditation standards must go before the ABA’s House of Delegates for final approval. The house may twice reject a change to the accreditation standards. After that, the legal education council gets the final say.

The House of Delegates traditionally goes along with the council’s recommendations, but there is precedent for it to nix the council’s proposed changes.

The House of Delegates in February 2017 rejected the council’s much-debated strengthening of the bar passage requirement for law schools, after opponents argued that it would disproportionately hurt schools with high minority enrollment and further exacerbate the legal profession’s diversity challenges. Though the council has the ability to bring the bar pass standard back before the House of Delegates for reconsideration, it has not.

The council has been debating how to address the growing use of the GRE by law schools for nearly two years. Council president Maureen O’Rourke, dean of Boston University School of Law, described the existing standard as messy.

It requires law schools to use a “valid and reliable” test in admissions, with the LSAT being the only test specifically recognized as such. But there are loopholes in the rule. Law schools may admit up to 10 percent of their J.D. students without LSAT scores as long as they are high-performing undergraduates from their home universities or in dual degree programs. Moreover, the existing standard allows schools to use alternative tests as long as it can demonstrate that test’s validity and reliability in predicting law school performance.

A number of law schools have conducted studies of the GRE and concluded that it is as effective as the LSAT in predicting law school performance, though the LSAC has raised concerns over the methodology of those studies. Should the ABA House of Delegates approve the proposed change, law schools would no longer need to conduct validity studies for the GRE or other exams—paving the way for more schools to use alternative tests.

The proposed change is unlikely to result in an admissions free-for-all, however. The ABA is encouraging law schools to continue using an admission test by adding an interpretation to its admissions standard that says schools that don’t use any test will be presumed to be out of compliance with the rule stipulating that they admit only students likely to graduate and pass the bar. The school would then have to prove that its admitted students are likely to succeed—a burden many schools won’t want to take on.

“We think that will help encourage continued fairness to applicants and transparency, as well as consumer protection,” said Testy of that new interpretation.

For all the discussion that the proposed elimination of the LSAT has generated, opponents and proponents alike agree that the LSAT will remain the most common path into law school.

“On paper, the American Bar Association’s rule change has the potential to produce the biggest change to the law school admissions process in decades,” said Jeff Thomas, executive director of pre-law programs at Kaplan Test Prep. “In reality, since it’s not requiring schools to do anything, but rather only giving them the choice to make changes, many will likely do nothing at all.”

In addition to risking their accreditation by using no test at all, law schools like the LSAT because it helps them compare applicants across different undergraduate campuses. LSAT scores also play a significant role in rankings, thus schools will still seek out high scorers, Thomas noted.

“The bottom line is that applicants will still almost certainly have to take an admissions test and that test will still likely be the LSAT, but with the GRE gaining ground,” he said.

Miller said that Arizona’s GRE experiment has been an “unqualified success.” None of the students admitted with GRE scores have run into academic issues thus far, and they have met all the same milestones as LSAT-takers, such as working on law journals and winning writing competitions.

“I’m extraordinarily confident that three years from now, this will be seen as, ‘Why didn’t we do this before?’” Miller said. “The world won’t look wildly different. Most J.D. admissions will still be through the LSAT, some through the GRE, and some through innovative pathways we haven’t yet seen, but those little changes will make a big difference.”