Low scores on the Law School Admission Test have dipped at most schools in recent years, a new report shows. A paper released last month by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the nonprofit that creates part of the bar exam, shows that since 2010, 95 percent of the 196 U.S. law schools at least partially accredited by the American Bar Association for which the NCBE had data lowered their standards for students near the bottom of the pack. The NCBE compiled data from the American Bar Association and the Law School Admission Council, the group that administers the LSAT, to illustrate the decline in LSAT scores for students at the 25th percentile—meaning, the students who were at the very top of the bottom quartile of students.
Standards aren’t just falling at lower-tier schools—Emory University, ranked among the top 20 U.S. law schools by U.S. News and World Report, had the single largest drop in LSAT scores for this group, enrolling bottom-tier students who’d scored nine points worse than three years earlier—a 5 percent drop. In fact, 20 of the 22 U.S. News top-20 schools—there was a three-way tie for 20th place—were enrolling students with lower test scores. Across all schools, LSAT scores for the 25th percentile dropped an average of three points.
It’s not news that tough times have fallen on law schools and law degrees. Jobs in law are getting harder and harder to find, and the best and brightest are adapting to the new reality. But what having gone to law school has retained, thus far, is that the people who graduate from it are generally considered to be smart. If admissions criteria lower, will that change?
There have always been some questionable law schools out there. Not just some of the tent-pole schools that have only recently cropped up, but public schools as well (particularly HBCUs). Graduating from high school used to mean something, but at some point it became regarded by many as more a certificate of attendance than anything. College degrees, at least within some disciplines within some schools (particularly, but not exclusively, for-profit business park colleges) has similarly been devalued. A law degree from Harvard will always mean something, but will “a law degree” on its own fail to impress without knowing more (like “which school?”). Could be.
Law schools generally have something that other schools don’t, however: the bar exam. Unless they significantly dumb that down, the result of lower admission standards in law schools won’t be dumber lawyers, but law school graduates who can’t pass the bar. That is an extremely valuable tool. Schools that lower their standards too much should have an immediately apparent and transparent metric by which that will be made clear. Law schools can game and have gamed employment numbers. It seems harder for me to game bar passage rates. And since the tests are administered by states rather than by schools, it seems less likely that they will be lowered to make law schools look better.
Not that any of this will do a whole lot of good for New Yorkers who got law degrees from Arizona State and can’t put them to use, of course.e
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