SAN JOSE � There is no denying it � the list is power.
Each spring, U.S. News & World Report unveils its ranking of the country’s top law schools, which is partially based on LSAT scores. And each spring, law school deans, faculty, students and alumni anxiously wait to see where they are going to fall.
Yet diversity advocates aren’t thrilled the publication’s yearly ranking yields so much influence in the legal community. They complain too much weight is placed on the LSAT, which, they say, unfairly weeds out minority applicants, who historically score lower on the exam than their white counterparts, according to records kept by the Law School Admissions Council.
The average LSAT score in the 2002-2003 testing year was 152.2, according to the admissions council. The African-American average was 143.2, and Latinos/Hispanics stood at 148.3, with Puerto Ricans at 141.3. Whites scored an average of 153.9. These numbers have remained roughly consistent over the last several years, according to the council’s records.
Although the ethnic discrepancy clearly concerns law school professors and diversity advocates, many experts stop decidedly short of calling the LSAT racially biased.
“Racial bias is a complicated thing,” said Marjorie Shultz, a Boalt Hall School of Law professor. “It’s very hard to grab sound bites about that without being misunderstood.”
Christopher Arriola, president of the Santa Clara County Bar Association, which is studying diversity issues at Silicon Valley firms, predicts the law school entrance exam will eventually change because of public pressure.
“The biggest clog in the [diversity] pipeline is the LSAT and getting through law school,” said Arriola, a Santa Clara County prosecutor. “It discriminates against people of color who are not as adept at the cultural issues presented in the test.”
Asked to identify a specific question that could be classified as discriminatory, Arriola threw out a hypothetical, explaining that sometimes test questions can include situations and words such as “regatta,” which minority students might not know.
Yet the argument that LSAT scores carry more weight than other elements of a student’s application package “is somewhat of a subjective notion,” said Robert Weisberg, a professor at Stanford Law School and former chair of the school’s admissions board.
While Weisberg acknowledges that a low score “is a very serious warning sign that you won’t do very well,” the number isn’t the only measure Stanford considers.
Undergraduate GPAs and teacher recommendations are also scrutinized, the professor said, noting that applications with high LSAT scores can also be turned down in favor of someone who may have an average score but a compelling recommendation.
Weisberg said class diversity “is a major factor” but concedes “you just don’t see as many minority students in the upper realm of the LSAT as you’d like.”
Asked why he thinks that’s the case, Weisberg said only, “It’s a fact of American higher education.”
Berkeley’s Shultz wants to change that.
Spurred by the elimination of affirmative action in the mid-’90s, Shultz has spent the last six years researching a new kind of admissions test she hopes will take pressure off the LSAT and increase the minority applicant pool.
“The LSAT is clearly way overused,” Shultz opined.
Law schools “aren’t training academics, and yet they weigh academic-type testing more than anyone else,” she continued. “You are graduating lawyers. You really ought to care what makes an effective lawyer.”
The professor and her team came up with 26 characteristics � including problem-solving, communication and practical judgment � that make up an effective lawyer. From there, Shultz developed a test with questions that focus on these characteristics.
But Shultz stresses her test isn’t meant to replace the LSAT.
“I make no accusation of bigotry on the LSAT,” Shultz said. “My beef is with [its] failure of imagination and research.”
Shultz is not alone here.
“The LSAT was never meant to be used that way,” echoes Rodney Fong, assistant dean for bar exam services at Golden Gate University School of Law.
The test “is just one tool to help schools project performance in the first year of law school,” Fong said. “Unfortunately, many schools are using it as the primary gauge.”