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The controversy surrounding Columbia Law School’s documentation of a “disturbing” decline in enrollment of minority students at law campuses around the country has deans and professors in New York state discussing a perceived cultural bias in the LSAT examination, combined with the test’s exaggerated importance as an element of the annual rankings of their institutions by U.S. News & World Report. Although LSAT scores have actually trended upward during the past 15 years, according to the report, many in the New York legal academy contend that informal “cut-off” numbers set by law schools have simultaneously risen – as a means of gaming the U.S. News rankings to their competitive marketing advantage. No one is more vociferous on the topic than Professor Douglas D. Scherer, director of the Legal Education Access Program at Touro Law Center, who said dependence on higher LSAT scores “demonstrates crass hypocrisy with regard to the expressed commitment to diversity” because the standardized test “has very little predictive capability” in forecasting students’ eventual success as students and practitioners, and therefore serves merely to “weed out” blacks, Latinos and other minorities presumed to be unprepared for the rigors of legal education. “This is an outrageous form of institutional discrimination,” Mr. Scherer said in an interview. “If this were done in the employment area, you’d see disparate impact lawsuits.” The Columbia Law study was released in January in conjunction with the Society of American Law Teachers. It found that although black and Chicano students have applied to law schools in relatively constant numbers over the past 15 years, their representation in law schools has fallen. The study concluded: Even more worrisome is the fact that during the same period, African American and Mexican American applicants are doing better than ever on . . . undergraduate grade point average and LSAT scores. In addition, the size of law school classes and the total number of law schools have increased, making room for nearly 4,000 more students. Despite all that, first-year [minority] enrollment has declined 8.6 percent, from a combined 3,937 in 1992 to 3,595 in 2005.

The decline comes at a time when most law campuses in the country, and all 15 in New York, offer some combination of scholarship programs and pre-law preparation courses for minority candidates, who tend to come from low-income families; when bar groups and private law firms offer the same, along with internships; and as a black constitutional law professor and his family prepare to take up residence at the White House. “I’m not sure why we’re seeing this decline, but it’s very much a troubling reality,” said William Treanor, dean of Fordham University School of Law. “Is law not seen as an attractive career? Are the barriers to success too high?” He added, “It may be the case that some law schools’ decline can be traced to a focus on the [U.S. News & World Report] rankings, but I do think most schools are more concerned with their fundamental mission.” Like other campuses, Fordham Law has initiated three “pipeline” programs to ensure future pools of minority candidates. On Nov. 1, for example, Fordham Law hosted a day-long schedule of workshops in partnership with the Council of Legal Education, providing minority college undergraduates with counsel on LSAT preparation and general advice on pursuing a legal career. Mr. Treanor said the Nov. 4 election of Barack Obama will prove “inspiring” to future minority applicants who will “see the legal profession as a place where their talents will flourish and thrive.” But Mr. Scherer maintained that inspiration was no substitute for wholesale change, which he said would only come about with devaluation of both the LSAT and the U.S. News “rankings game,” as Mr. Treanor termed it. Mr. Scherer’s view is supported – less forcefully, in whole or in part – by Professors Leonard M. Baynes and Victor Goode of St. John’s University School of Law and the City University of New York School of Law, respectively, and Dean Richard A. Matasar of New York Law School. “There is a lot of risk aversion in American law schools,” said Mr. Matasar, who acknowledged the steady decline. “Schools are much more reticent to take chances for two reasons: fear of the U.S. News rankings and fear of taking more marginal students who might risk the school’s bar exam pass rate.”

Culturally Biased?

Applicants to law schools certified by the American Bar Association take the half-day Law School Admission Test, a standardized exam developed by the Law School Admission Council to measure reading and verbal reasoning skills. The LSAT, essentially unchanged since 1971, is sometimes accused of cultural bias that, while unintended, might place minority applicants at disadvantage. Critics contend that in terms of general knowledge, what is common ground for majority white candidates may not be seen as familiar to blacks, for instance. From the Web site www.testpreppreview.com, possible culturally biased propositions that form the bases for questions from past LSAT exams include: • When the goalie has been chosen, the Smalltown Bluebirds hockey team has a starting lineup that is selected from two groups; • One of the most intriguing stories of the Russian Revolution concerns the identity of Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II. . . . On July 17 or 18, [Bolshevik revolutionaries] murdered the Czar and what was thought to be his entire family. . . . [T]here were rumors suggesting that Anastasia had survived . . . . [The] search to establish her identity has been the subject of numerous books, plays, and movies; • Never again will you have to pay high prices for imported spring water. It is now bottled locally and inexpensively. You’ll never taste the difference . . . . [H]owever, if you’re likely to be embarrassed to serve domestic spring water, simply serve it in a leaded crystal decanter; • The village of Vestmannaeyjar, in the far northern country of Iceland, is as bright and clean and up-to-date as any American or Canadian suburb. It is located on the island of Heimaey, just off the mainland. One January night in 1973 . . . in some backyards red-hot liquid was spurting from the ground. . . . The island’s volcano, Helgafell, silent for 7,000 years, was violently erupting!

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