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Friday, August 11, 2017

In This Week's News: Some law schools accept the GRE. Conservatives' heads explode.

To a certain breed of conservatives, even the term "diversity" is a red cape in front of a bull.

How else to explain this bizarre headline, and the unfortunate article more generally, to Georgetown Law Center's announcement that it will start accepting the GRE as an alternative to the LSAT.  Northwestern made this announcement just before, joining Arizona and Harvard in the group of law schools (presumably to expand) to consider the GRE as one alternative test to the LSAT in evaluating law school applicants.

From that, we get treated to a polemic about how this move represents the decline of western civilization -- or, at the very least, the decline of law schools' commitment to admitting highly-qualified students. 

We can and should debate the complex question of law school testing and, with it, how best to evaluate the skills, credentials, and experience of students to law schools.  Yet, the argument we made, along with the other law schools who have announced this move, have precious little to do with an end-run around standards and quality.  Nor do any of us presume that applicants-of-color are unable to achieve success either on the LSAT or in law school or in the profession.  Rather, we said, and we mean, that we are looking to expand the pool of interesting, talented candidates, especially from STEM fields, who might view the strictures of the LSAT -- the narrowness of the test, as well as the procedures by which it is administered -- to create a disincentive to considering law school.  Nothing here about lower standards; indeed, nothing here about the quest to, in Professor William Otis' extravagant words, "adjust the student body to reflect the ethnic makeup of the electorate."

So, to Ward Connerly, Prof. Otis at Georgetown, and others, keep moving along folks, there's nothing to see here.


Posted by Dan Rodriguez on August 11, 2017 at 03:31 PM in Daniel Rodriguez, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


They're trolling for clientele and looking for ways to add more political patronage to the admissions process while retaining deniability.

What the society at large really could benefit from would be a set of punches end the bloat in the legal academy.

1. Limit by federal law inter-state and international recruitment to attend law school to 9,000 a year, adjustable each year according to changes in the dimensions of the labor force. The 9,000 berths would be distributed via multiple-price auction held by the federal government, with extant law schools as participants.

2. End federal subsidies to attend law school. End any state subsidies to attend private law schools. This would include federal guarantees on student loans and wretched excess in creditor protection in bankruptcy proceedings.

3. Allow people to sit for state bar exams without a JD degree.

4. Enact at the state level consumer protection laws contra private law schools. Should, in any 6 year period, the share of graduates having passed the bar exam on their first attempt should fall more than 1.5 SD below the statewide median, the attorney-general should then bring suit to close the school and distribute its assets to successors named in the charter.

5. Have the state legislature close weak state schools. The Southern University Law School in Louisiana would be an example. The state has other law schools to pick up any slack.

Posted by: Art Deco | Aug 11, 2017 4:33:34 PM

A couple things, as someone who went to Georgetown and is rather fond of the LSAT:

Your school, and Harvard, gave the reasons they gave, but Georgetown's stated reasons do sound in lowering barriers to applicants who are less competitive LSAT-takers but more competitive GRE-takers, in hopes that this will make the student body more diverse in some unspecified sense, and not necessarily - at least not explicitly - more diverse in the sense that more STEM majors will get into Georgetown. As that's so, I don't think it's unfair at all for people to question whether *Georgetown's* move is intended to lower standards or ethnically diversify the student body. I'm not sure it's unfair for people to raise the same concerns about the other schools' moves just because they've publicly given other reasons, but Georgetown has itself put its decision in terms that can easily be read that way and are perhaps best read that way.

So for example, the Georgetown-produced article you link to is entitled "Don't Let the LSAT Get You Down," and speculates that "maybe you feel that the LSAT does not reflect your skills, in a competitive law school admissions process, as well as the GRE. For some, the dream of Georgetown Law and its peer schools may appear, perhaps unfairly, out of reach." The Dean of Admissions says of this move that "it is well past time that the legal profession open wide the doors to an even more diverse population that better reflects American society as a whole. We think that allowing the use of the GRE will help us to accomplish that goal.” The dean of the law school adds that the school is "committed to attracting the best and the brightest students of all backgrounds. We believe this change will make the admissions process more accessible to students who have great potential to make a mark here at Georgetown Law and in successful legal careers, but who might find the LSAT to be a barrier for whatever reason.”

Now, a couple things, apart from any school's intentions in accepting GRE scores, concern me about accepting GRE scores in law school admissions. The first is the math section, which seems orthogonal to law-school performance. Now, I understand that the algebra and geometry the GRE tests is grounded in analytical reasoning that on some level isn't so different from the LSAT's infamous logic games. But there are people with very fine analytic abilities who nevertheless struggle with numbers or shapes and angles - many of them, stereotypically at least, are fine lawyers - and to the extent the GRE places demands on its takers' quantitative or geometric abilities that are distinct from analytic reasoning, I don't see what they should have to do with law-school admissions, outside of marginally dragging down applicants' undergraduate GPAs by way of required math courses. Moreover, part of excelling on an algebra or geometry test is memorizing rules of algebra and geometry; I don't see what an ability to accurately memorize those rules should have to do with law-school admissions. To the extent - and I strongly suspect this is the case, even if it isn't said openly - that law schools are allowing GRE-for-LSAT substitution because the logic games sink the scores of students they'd like to attract, while high-school geometry won't be a huge weakness for most any reasonably intelligent applicant who seriously prepares for the GRE, this does look like an exercise in barrier-lowering for the sake of barrier-lowering. I don't quite understand the idea that it opens doors to STEM students qua STEM students; nothing's stopping a bright math or physics major from excelling on the LSAT's more difficult sections, which are basically a non-quantitative take on algebra.

Second, it worries me that a large component of the GRE is apparently memorizing recherche vocabulary in preparation for answering the GRE's antonym and analogy questions. Law isn't about memorizing strange words; certainly in the course of studying the law one learns a lot of new words, but law students don't brute-memorize legal vocabulary, or even case names. Rather, they learn it, and them, through use. (Besides, many law-school exams are open book and turn far more on understanding than memorization of anything.) One can be extremely bad at memorizing or defining words and be an absolutely stellar law student. Here again, it seems to me that the GRE replaces genuinely hard aspects of the LSAT with things that are (a) much easier (outside of memorizing words it takes little intelligence to say which word is antonym of which), (b) not germane to law school, (c), to the extent that they trip applicants up, likely to weed out the wrong people, i.e., bright people who aren't great at memorizing vocabulary or didn't hunker down with thousands of flash cards. And again, I suspect that the increased ease of the test is the point of the substitution, since it certainly can't be about diversifying law school student bodies to include flashcard whizzes.

Finally, your school's press release cites a study, so does Georgetown's, and Harvard's may as well, but those of us on the outside haven't seen these studies, don't know their size or duration, and may at least doubt that they're the soundest studies. I'm not sure how a study of GRE-takers who happen to attend your school or Georgetown before GRE scores became acceptable in applications wouldn't suffer from selection bias of one kind or another. They also seem odd studies in that everyone in them presumably took an LSAT as well and got in under admissions standards that place considerable weight on high LSAT scores. You simply haven't studied those students who, as Dean Treanor puts it, "find the LSAT to be a barrier for whatever reason," or as the Georgetown article more bluntly puts it "feel the LSAT doesn't reflect [their] skills." Who you've studied are students who did at least passably on the LSAT, most extremely well, and who are also studious enough and catholic enough in their interests to take the LSAT *and* GRE and consider attending graduate school, if indeed they didn't attend it before coming to you. Such students may well be unusually high achievers for reasons that have nothing to do with what their GRE scores are measuring.

Other than that, I have no brief for or against advancing ethnic diversity in law schools, but I *do* think it's better to do so directly than by the indirect means of accepting an easier and somewhat non-germane test, as the latter lowers barriers across the board and less accurately selects from among the applicant pool.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Aug 12, 2017 6:49:33 PM

At the recent SEALS conference, at least one dean on a panel said that the GRE math section actually correlates with first year law school performance BETTER than the LSAT. Didn't give a cite, don't know if his source is his own school's data or publicly-available data. I am not debating the previous poster's various points, merely observing that there may be more to the GRE than he (or I) was aware of.

Posted by: anon from the beach | Aug 12, 2017 9:46:37 PM

Law schools' commitment to admitting highly-qualified students took a turn for the worse five years ago, when almost all of them lowered their standards at the 25th percentile for LSAT scores. Last year, scores on the MBE portion of the bar exam were at a 33-year low, and the NCBE has said that it expects the trend to continue for at least a few more years, based on admittance standards of ABA law schools declining.

After law school GPA, one's median LSAT is the strongest predictor of whether one might pass a bar exam and perhaps leverage a very expensive degree into a satisfactory job. This is not to say that the GRE lacks the same predictive value, because we don't know that yet, but in light of the last several years, it's not wrong to question AALS' motives here. For most law schools, this is about putting loan conduits in seats, not adding diversity to an incoming class or to the profession more broadly.

Posted by: John Thompson | Aug 13, 2017 8:36:06 AM

It is easy to ridicule the opposing position when it is articulated like the quote within the article:

"if you use things like the SAT and the LSAT and the MCAT, that those things will lock out 'minorities,' . . . I think that is sad — I think it's best to set standards and to some extent that will inspire people to meet those standards."

There is no meaningful difference between the SAT and the GRE in this context. The SAT (at least, the version we took when we were young) and the GRE basically test for the same thing. The same racial gap seen in SAT scores can be observed in GRE scores. Anyone who promotes the SAT as a standard while criticizing the GRE is not worthy of consideration.

Now, there probably is a high correlation between high scores in the GRE (the math section) and high scores in the LSAT. And to the extent there are people who do well on the GRE but not on the LSAT, it would likely be someone who is perfectly capable of applying the fact patterns on the LSAT but is unable to read and interpret the logic games under time constraints. Would that be a problem in law practice? And is that a defect that law teaching cannot address?

Others may disagree, but I have never in my limited law practice drafting motions found a need to interpret facts within seconds. I also think that my legal education did train me to read faster.

Posted by: anon | Aug 13, 2017 10:25:46 AM

A bit of a tangent, but William Otis is not a full-time instructor at Georgetown. He is identified on our web site -- this is the first time I have ever heard his name, so I had to look him up -- as an adjunct. https://www.law.georgetown.edu/faculty/otis-william-g.cfm#

Whether Otis misrepresented his status, or the reporter misunderstood it, I'd prefer if Dan didn't repeat either of those errors. Maybe this is academic status-policing. Often, it is harmless. "Professor" to the general public connotes objectivity and dedicated expertise, both of which some adjuncts may possess in excess of some full-time academics. Maybe there's nothing except my ego at stake in labeling adjuncts "Professor" in news stories.

In this case, though, Otis seems to be representing himself as an internal and ignored dissenter in a community to which he is, in fact, an almost complete outsider.

Posted by: BDG | Aug 14, 2017 9:53:55 AM

"Id prefer if Dan didn't repeat either of those errors." Hey, Brian, don't shoot the messenger! I suspect that the practice of adjunct faculty being referred to as professor is fairly widespread and I suspect that neither Georgetown nor any other law school, wants to engage in the, your words, "academic status-policing" to regulate this. He was quoted; and I responded to the quote. Georgetown Law wants to disavow quotations from their faculty, full-time and part-time, they can do so. Although I wouldn't recommend that practice. Marketplace of ideas and all that.

Posted by: dan rodriguez | Aug 14, 2017 10:02:56 AM

Not to take us even farther from Dan's post -- which was good, by the way! -- but I'm sure he would agree that university officials or faculty members disavowing the statements of other members is just another Wednesday on campus. (Or whatever day you hold your own faculty meetings). In other words, that's the "marketplace of ideas" in action. I just object to individuals overstating their tenuous connection to my community in order to lend their statements a veneer of either authority or particularized grievance. Which, again, to be fair, it is not entirely clear happened here.

Posted by: BDG | Aug 14, 2017 11:39:01 AM


I don't know how widespread it is, by my university (or at least my department) does the same, referring to adjuncts as professors.

I think some of the confusion arises from "professor" having three different uses. The first is to refer a specific academic rank; the second is an honorific; and the third is a job description. Instructors can do the job of professoring without holding the rank. When talking to a faculty senate or a hiring committee, the distinction between ranks is very important, but a lay audience is more concerned with just knowing what the person's job is and not how they fit into the campus hierarchy.

Now all that aside, my department not only calls us "professor," but insist that we have our students call us the same. We're told this is to make things easier for students and reduce "confusion," but I suspect the reason is to keep our students in the dark about getting a bargain basement teacher.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Aug 14, 2017 12:24:06 PM

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