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LSAT: the devil's work?

Various people I respect, including my boss, tell me I should be less secretive on this blog about another forum at which I spend time, my Admissions 101 discussion group. We have very lively---some think occasionally too lively---exchanges over issues related to getting into college and other forms of higher education.

I post a new topic every Tuesday and Thursday, but some of these discussion strings acquire a life of their own. One of them, "Will AP or IB really get you college credit?", is in its third or fourth year--I've lost track--and is approaching 8,000 posts.

The participants are, by and large, well informed and not the least shy about pointing out to me how much more they know about this topic than I do. The fact that I have published a book on the subject, Harvard Schmarvard, just gives them more ammo to fire at me.

Admissions 101 is not for everybody. The people involved in the discussion tolerate a good deal of aggressive language. My producer recently removed one post from a frequent participant. The producer and I are discussing this incident because I don't think the post was out of line in the context of this feisty group. I apologized to the poster, who gloated over her victory. That is a typical Admissions 101 moment. If you try it, don't say I didn't warn you.

I will henceforth post each of my new Admissions 101 topics here, so you can take a look if the subject interests you. Here is today's new topic, and here is the link to the site:

Is the LSAT the work of the Devil?

I am freed, I believe, from certain encumberances now that my daughter has gotten into a law school she loves and I can express my views about the LSAT and its grip on the law school admissions system. I realize the SAT is very important to college admissions. We have talked about that. But I had no idea some law schools pretty much choose based on the LSAT and nothing else. I didn't know that a good LSAT score can get your admission fee waived. Does this make sense? I am fairly sure the GRE, which I took once, doesn't have such a death grip on the process. How about the MCAT or the GMAT? I will write about this eventually, but first I seek this group's wisdom.

By Jay Mathews  | March 16, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Admissions 101, college admissions, raucous admissions discussion group  
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I'd argue that the LSAT is indeed "the devil's work". I applied to law school last year with a score of 161 - not stellar, but definitely not bad. I earned a GPA over 3.5 from a college universally recognized as excellent and academically rigorous and a Master's Degree with a 4.0 from a university in DC; I participated in a prestigious and challenging two-year teaching program for which many law schools award application fee waivers or scholarships to applicants; I held numerous and significant leadership positions as an undergraduate and in my teaching program; and I won a number of awards during college for an activity dealing with international law. I was ultimately rejected by every one of the 14 schools to which I applied, ranging in rank from 3 to 45. Fair? I think not... and the test has nothing to do with the thinking and writing skills required in law school.

Posted by: beachflute | March 16, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

I participated in a prestigious and challenging two-year teaching program for which many law schools award application fee waivers or scholarships to applicants;

TFA ???

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 16, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Doesn't the LSAT have the highest correlation with 1st year grades of any graduate admissions test? It's 0.56 vs. 0.4 for the MCAT, 0.3-0.4 for the GRE (depending on field of study), and only 0.28 for the GMAT. Granted, that leaves a lot of variance but it's superior to any other single admissions criteria including college grades.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 16, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

The correlation between LSAT and law school success is significant. Besides, law schools also weigh grades about as much as the LSAT (and nothing else really matters).

I'm sorry to say beachflute, but a GPA "over 3.5" is not very good. If instead you had a GPA of 3.9, then most likely you would've been accepted by a decent school despite your low LSAT score. Moreover, the LSAT tests logical thinking, which is very much necessary for legal analysis. Besides, nothing else a law school takes into consideration (grades, recommendations, personal essay, work history, extracurriculars) reflects what's done in law school. The LSAT comes closest.

So perhaps there is a death grip, but it is justified. There simply isn't any better way to predict success than the LSAT combined with undergraduate grades.

Posted by: queue1 | March 17, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

1) It's an aptitude test. Many people assume they "deserve" to be attorneys based on their grades/brains, and then take the LSAT. My advice is to take the LSAT, see how you do, and then decide what you want to do. It's good for a number of years (GREs as well).

2) Doing well on the LSAT and getting into a law school used to be the major hurdle, but these days even accomplished graduates from top schools are getting deferred or outright rejected by firms. It is simply very difficult to find jobs. If people are thinking they can "weather" the economy in law school or that it's the only way to go after that useless English or Philosophy major, you really need to think about what happens when 3 years from now you are $100k - $200k in the hole and still have no real job to think of. Simply doing well on the LSAT is the beginning of the story, not the end like it used to be.

Posted by: zippyspeed | March 17, 2010 7:43 PM | Report abuse

beachflute - a 161 and you only applied to top 50 schools?!? If you REALLY wanted to go to law school you should have had more realistic expectations.

Considering that you haven't gone to law school it would be hard to make an informed opinion on whether the LSAT reflects the skills necessary for law school. The LSAT tests your THINKING and READING skills - the two things you do most in law school.

Posted by: areynol9 | March 18, 2010 12:03 AM | Report abuse

Good question. Whether one thinks LSAT is the Devil's work depends on what one thinks the goals of a law school are.

If I were hopelessly naive and idealistic, I would say that law schools with space for, say, 150 incoming students should select the 150 students the school believes would make the best class. "Best class" is vague, sure. But presumably the things that make a good class include general intellectual and academic prowess, some collective diversity of life experiences, and a general possession of ideals the law school wants to foster. When it comes to assessing intellectual and academic prowess, LSAT scores and GPA are useful (but by no means definitive) tools.

However, in practice, it appears law schools' sole mission is to increase (or at least maintain) their ranking on the U.S. News and World Report's list. LSAT scores figure prominently in determining a law school's place on that list.

So as unfortunate as it is, heavy reliance on LSAT scores may well make excellent financial sense: a higher-ranked school gets more applicants, justifies higher tuition, etc. Because after all, a law school is a for-profit business, not some kind of charity, right? (The last statement comes with a heavy sarcasm tag: in practice, many if not most law schools are organized and pay taxes as charities.)

If you ask me (and you did! Yay!), the REAL work of the Devil is the US News rankings. If law school applicants gave that publication the contempt it deserves, the world would be a better place.

Posted by: OverWorkedOverPaid | March 18, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

As a 2L, non-traditional law student at the University of Richmond, I feel uniquely qualified to voice my opinion (vent?).

I could not agree more with:

"If you ask me (and you did! Yay!), the REAL work of the Devil is the US News rankings. If law school applicants gave that publication the contempt it deserves, the world would be a better place."

I scored a 162 on my LSAT after ten years out of school (both BA, pol. sci. & MA, history). No problem getting in to UR (and waitlisted at W & M, too) but once I got here I was STUNNED to get to know some of my fellow students who received fat scholarships for their high scores.

With a few exceptions they are NOT the top students. They did well on one test, on one day and UR (like all law schools) used scholarship money to lure them here to boost our ranking in US News.

The term "scholar"ship should be retired in favor of "signing bonus."

I love UR and chose it for our great clinical placements, its collegial, supportive culture, and ready access to more courthouses than any other city (save DC & Boston). I came here after 12 years of teaching, so I know good teaching when I see it and the UR faculty is top-notch. However, we're a small school and because of that we're overlooked and underrated in rankings.

We linger in the second-tier of U.S. News despite turning out high-quality graduates for a reasonable price. I'd bet "beachflute" didn't even consider us because of U.S. News!

Retain the LSAT, but reduce its impact in calculating rankings in order to end the current distortions. Of more importance are the following: success at interscholastic competitions (e.g. moot court competitions); academic support programs; clinical placement opportunities; success in placing grads in legal jobs; and, bar passage rates.

If these criteria counted more in calculating rankings, then money would flow to these programs and both students and schools would benefit. Aren't these the results that matter?

Posted by: truly1 | March 18, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

It makes sense for two reasons: 1) the LSAT is a surprisingly good indicator of first year law school success (which pretty much determines your success in law school overall, and thus your job prospects), and 2) the skills necessary to do well on the LSAT are very similar to the skills a lawyer actually needs. The obvious reason why it doesn't make sense is that your future is determined in three hours. But I firmly believe that someone with a sharp legal mind, with adequate preparation, should have no problem doing well on the LSAT. If you have the mind of a lawyer, it's not a very difficult test. And if something goes horribly wrong during those three hours, cancel it and take it again.

I do agree that the US News rankings are the real work of the devil (and this is coming from someone at a very top school).

I also agree with the commenters above who pointed out to beachflute that a 3.5 is not a particularly impressive GPA (unless you're in a challenging program at Princeton/Harvard/Yale), and that with that GPA and a 161 on the LSAT, one shouldn't expect admission to any top 45 schools.

Posted by: Joamiq | March 18, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse


I'm not certain whether the LSAT is a good indicator of first year law school success, although that certainly seems reasonable. What is decidedly unreasonable is the tail end of your first statement ("... and thus, your job prospects.")

I know I know... summer associate hiring is done on the basis of 1L grades; where you summer determines the next few years of your legal career; etc. But this facet of the industry is no less ridiculous than using the LSAT so heavily as an admittance criterion. Because as highly correlated as LSAT scores and 1L grades are, there's a weak correlation at best between talent as a lawyer and 1L (or indeed, law school) grades.

If firms want to hire the "best" law school grads -- and they do -- then focusing on high grades from a highly-ranked school is the wrong way to go. Over the years, I've seen many a Harvard/Yale grad miserably fail at the practice of law.

However, I unfortunately understand exactly why hiring is done that way: there are way too many resumes for any given spot to be thoroughly screened, so the school rank/class rank cut is a convenient one to make.

I also disagree with your second statement ("the skills necessary to do well on the LSAT are very similar to the skills a lawyer actually needs.") What skills a lawyer actually needs depends on the practice area. But in virtually any area, inter-personal skills rank high among what's needed. For example: the lawyer should be able to communicate clearly and concisely; the lawyer should be able to manage client expectations; the lawyer should anticipate questions and *perceived* issues arising from the matter they're working on, etc.

The "perceived" word is important. By that, I mean issues the client perceives. These may be totally nonsense from the perspective of any half-decent lawyer, but that's not as relevant. At the end of the day, the practice of law is a service industry, and the primary objective is to make (and keep) the client happy.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Posted by: OverWorkedOverPaid | March 18, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Keep in mind that the difference between a "great" LSAT score and a "mediocre" score typically comes down to getting about 4 or maybe 6 more questions right (even if you guess). It is a very narrow spread. Those who have the money, time, and resources to spend thousands on LSAT prep will score higher. That's not a test of aptitude. It is a test of resources.

Several posters have commented on the correlation between LSAT and law school grades, but correlation is not causation.

In between that one test and 1L grades that come out about 18 months later are a hundred superseding factors -- from individual work ethic, to a given school's grade curve, to the degree of academic support, to the quality of the faculty, to the existence of wonderful mentors. I could go on.........

Not only that but a high LSAT score sends you to a highly ranked school where the grade curve is higher -- so, OF COURSE those students have higher grades! UVA's curve is a 3.3; UR's is a 3.0.

Also, quite frankly, the highly ranked schools are not as tough on their students as are the lower ranked schools where more faculty are adjuncts, there is less academic support, and often weak law skills/ writing programs. At many of the really low-ranking schools it is extremely difficult just to survive. With GPA curves of 2.9 or 2.5 -- almost EVERYONE has a lower GPA than the below-average student at UVA.

LSAT as a determiner of lawyer-quality?? Phhhbbbbbttttttttttt.

Overemphasis on LSAT blinds us to much more important qualities.

Posted by: truly1 | March 18, 2010 11:10 PM | Report abuse

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