As their application numbers collapsed in recent years, a good number of law schools were forced to choose between their academic standards and their finances. With fewer qualified candidates to go around, some decided to shrink their enrollment numbers and forgo a bit of revenue rather than drastically relax their admission criteria. But many others took the path of least resistance, opening their doors to poorly qualified students willing to pay tuition.
As a result, a depressing number of law schools are now filled with students who may simply not belong there. According to a new study released this week by the advocacy group Law School Transparency, there were 37 institutions last year where at least half of all new students scored below a 150 on the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, up from just nine such schools in 2010. Why is that significant? The group argues that students who fail to break the 150 mark face a "serious risk" of eventually failing their state bar exam once they graduate, which would leave them unable to actually practice law.
To put this in perspective, there are only 203 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. That means nearly 1 in 5 are now admitting classes that are half made up of at-risk students. At 74 schools, meanwhile, at least a quarter of new students failed to clear a 150 on their LSAT.
"We are not aware of a time when so many law schools had something like an open enrollment policy," the report states, noting that 4 out of 5 people who applied to law school last year were admitted by at least one. "To a real extent, we're in uncharted territory."
Under ABA rules, law schools have a responsibility to admit students who stand a chance of one day passing the bar, because the vast majority of states require them to do so in order to become licensed lawyers.1 The problem is that, while research suggests that students with lower LSAT scores are more likely to fail the bar, there's no real consensus in the legal academy about how low is too low on the entrance exam. In part, that's because it varies with geography; passing the bar is far harder in some states than others. (God help the poor J.D.'s of California.) But the bigger issue is that nobody really seems to collect the data. The ABA doesn't require schools to report bar passage by LSAT score, and those that track it internally are loath to reveal it to the outside world.
Traditionally, this has made it hard to shame or crack down on law schools for admitting large numbers of underqualified students, since the precise definition of underqualified has remained vague (administrations have also argued that stricter requirements would make it harder to admit minority students, who tend to score lower on the LSAT). Making the situation worse: Law schools aren't required to report standardized test scores of students below the 25th percentile, so nobody truly knows how low their standards might go.
The Law School Transparency report is an attempt to finally set some public standards for the legal academy. Its risk scale was created by former law professor David Frakt, who developed it based on data from students at Western State College of Law, where he was tasked with improving bar passage rates. When Frakt and I spoke on the phone, he broke it down this way for me:
- A "high risk" student, with 147 to 149 on the LSAT, stands a 50 to 60 percent chance of passing the bar exam on his or her first try.
- A "very high risk" student, with a 145 to 146 on the LSAT, has a less than 50 percent chance of passing.
- An "extreme risk student," with a 144 or below, has less than a one-in-three chance of passing.
In the end, these are really rules of thumb. "Intuitively we understand that a high LSAT score gives you a high likelihood of passing the bar and a low LSAT score gives you a low chance of passing the bar. But we don’t know where to draw the line, where below a certain point you have a negligible chance of passing," Frakt admitted. Still, Law School Transparency's report provides other evidence supporting Frakt's findings. The organization convinced an anonymous law school as well the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law to share their bar passage rates by LSAT score. At Sturm, "high risk" students passed the bar 57 percent of the time on their first try. At the anonymous school, they passed just 23 percent of the time on their first go, and 58 percent of the time after multiple tries.
Law School Transparency's argument also dovetails with the simple fact that law grads have been passing the bar at shockingly low rates over the past two years. When the trouble first emerged in 2014, many pinned the blame on a software malfunction that left many test-takers unable to load their essays—a somewhat traumatic event dubbed "barmageddon." But this year, passage rates have continued to decline; among students who took the test this past July, scores on the multiple choice section hit their lowest level since 1988. As Bloomberg noted, that may partly be because the exam has added a new section that made it more difficult. But it's starting to look like graduating law students really might just be "less able," as Erica Moeser, head of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, put it last year.
What to do about it? Law School Transparency would like the ABA to tighten the minimum bar passage rates that law schools are required to maintain, which are currently loose enough that no school has ever lost its accreditation for failing to meet them. Another would be to require schools to actually start publishing data on the correlation between LSAT scores, college grades, and bar passage, so that students can at least judge for themselves whether a J.D. would be a worthwhile personal investment. That seems to be the approach favored by the chairwoman of the ABA's accrediting body, who told the New York Times, “I’d like law schools to be up-front, telling students that your indicators say you may not have what it takes to pass the bar.”
But no matter what the answer is, someone will need to force law schools' hands. By now, too many have shown they can't be trusted to protect students' interest on their own.
1The one exception is Wisconsin, where the legal customs are as strange as the land is frigid.