I commend Dean Jay Conison of Charlotte School of Law for coming on to The Faculty Lounge and trying to defend the recent admission practices of Charlotte and his sister InfiLaw schools. I appreciate that he is willing to engage, at least indirectly, in this important debate with me. As an experienced criminal defense attorney (I’m currently back on active duty with the Air Force defending a capital murder case), I know very well what it is like to defend a position when the overwhelming weight of evidence is against you, so I don’t envy Dean Conison’s position. Well, come to think of it, maybe I do envy his position. Wasn’t I just trying to become Dean at Florida Coastal? But I digress. . .
In this post, I will respond to several of the points raised by Dean Conison and raise some questions that I hope he will consider answering in a follow-up post.
First, I didn’t assert that “no one with an LSAT below 145 has more than a trifling chance of passing a bar examination” nor did I say that “law schools should admit any student with an LSAT below 145.” (You should read the comments, not just the main post, Dean Conison. The comments are where the real action is on TFL) What I have said is that students below 145 should not be admitted unless they have a strong undergraduate record or other substantial indicators of success, and they prove themselves capable of law school level work through a rigorous admission by performance program. I have expressed doubt that anyone who scores below a 142 (18th percentile) possesses the analytical reasoning skills (and test-taking ability) to succeed in law school and pass the bar, but I’m sure there are rare exceptions.
Second, I don’t claim to be an “expert on legal education and in particular the relationship between LSAT and educational outcomes” and I certainly don’t have the extensive background in legal educations Dean Conison does, but I do know there is a strong, albeit imperfect, correlation between LSAT scores and success in law school and on the bar. If 25-30% of first time bar takers are going to fail the bar, a standardized exam, it stands to reason that many of those who fail are going to be those who aren’t very good at taking standardized exams, like the LSAT. It also stands to reason that if a substantial majority of a school’s students are from the bottom 25-30% of LSAT takers, then many of them, even if they do make it through law school, are going to fail the bar, where they must compete with recent graduates from other schools from the top 70-75% of LSAT takers. It also stands to reason that if a school is experiencing a downward trend in bar passage and struggling to meet the ABA standards for bar passage that the school should not substantially lower their admissions standards.
I am glad to hear that Charlotte utilizes an admission by performance program for at least some of their low LSAT applicants. But, Dean Conison, how many of the reported 446 students who matriculated at Charlotte in 2014 had to go through this admission by performance program? With a 146/142/138 entering class profile, Charlotte should have made almost the entire entering class go through it, and I’m pretty sure that is not what happened.
I really don’t know what the chance of passing the bar examination for students at 144 and below is. There probably isn’t much data on this question because, until the last couple of years, very few law schools would ever admit a significant number of law students with such a low LSAT score. But if anyone has such data, it is likely to be InfiLaw (and maybe Thomas Cooley). In a recent post, entitled “What Would Really Useful Law School Consumer Data Look Like,” I suggested that in order for a prospective student to be able to make a realistic evaluation of their chances, law schools should be required to provide the following data:
Each law school would be required to maintain a master database which tracked every law student who matriculated. The database would include the student’s undergraduate GPA (UGPA) and LSAT score. The database would track whether the student was academically attrited, voluntarily left school, transferred to another law school, or graduated. The database would also track each student who reported taking the bar and whether they passed on their first or a subsequent attempt.
Under my proposal, a prospective student would be able to plug in his or her LSAT score and UGPA at the law school's website and get a customized report. For example, a hypothetical applicant with a 150 LSAT and 3.0 UGPA would get a report containing the following data:
Over the last 7 years, we have matriculated x# of students with similar entrance credentials to your own, defined as those with a UGPA of 2.9 to 3.1 (+/- .10 from your self-reported UGPA) and an LSAT of 149-151 (+/- 1 point of your self-reported LSAT score). Of these x# of students, # were academically attrited (failed), # voluntarily dropped out, # transferred to another ABA-accredited law school, # are still enrolled (as of the beginning of the most recent semester) and # have graduated, earning their Juris Doctor degree. Of the # that graduated, # reported taking the bar at least once. Of these #, # passed the bar on their first attempt, for a first-time bar passage rate of x%. An additional # who failed on their first attempt passed on a subsequent attempt.
If Charlotte and the other InfiLaw schools have some special formula for identifying which students with low LSAT scores will succeed, as Dean Conison claims (“there is a difference between the predictive value of a lower LSAT at Charlotte and what it represents at another school that relies solely on LSAT and UGPA for predictions of student success”), then InfiLaw should welcome the opportunity to publish this data, so prospective students could see how much better off they would be at InfiLaw than other competitor schools.
So, here is my challenge to Dean Conison: Will you provide data to back up your claim that Charlotte has “validated predictors of success”? And what is Charlotte’s definition of success? Will you tell us what percentage of 136-138s, 139-141s, 142-144, and 145-147 LSATs are academically attrited, what percentage graduate, what percentage pass the bar on their first attempt, and what the “ultimate bar pass rate” is for these cohorts?
Dean Conison claims that students from Charlotte transferred to a number of more prestigious schools. No doubt this is true. He also claims that “many of these students had LSAT scores ranging below 145.” I’m not sure what “many” is and I’m not sure what “ranging below 145” means either. Is that the same as “below 145”? And how far below 145? Even if a handful of 144s and 143s did well enough in the first year at Charlotte to be accepted as transfer students at other schools, that really doesn’t prove anything. Of course, if Charlotte admits hundreds of students at 144 and below, a few of them will succeed. And it is likewise not surprising that some of those who did were eager to leave Charlotte for a law school where their employment prospects are far greater. It is well known that first year grades are a better predictor of bar passage than LSAT and undergraduate GPA, so it is perfectly rational for law schools to accept transfer students who have outperformed their predictors and proven that they do have the aptitude for the study of law. (And yes, the schools to which they transfer get to charge them full tuition, and don’t have to include them in their admission statistics. Boo hoo.) The ABA recognizes that transfer attrition can impact a school’s bar passage rate because typically those who transfer to higher-ranking schools have a very high pass rate. Holding on to your top students also improves the law review, moot court and other competition teams, and the quality of discourse in class, and enhances the reputation of the school with employers. That is why at Western State we did everything possible to hold on to our top students, offering them full scholarships, plus guaranteed summer jobs or a stipend to attend a summer abroad program after their 1L year. I recommended a similar approach to Florida Coastal during my Dean candidate talk.
Dean Conison has also mischaracterized my views by claiming that I view all law schools, as “just a black box, into which one inputs LSAT scores and outputs bar passage.” Indeed, I have prior posts on this blog which were devoted to how law schools can get the most out of students of modest ability. I believe strongly that some law schools are doing a better job of educating students than others, but without the more granular data that I have proposed that law schools should have to report, it is difficult to determine which schools are doing so.
I have said in previous posts and I will say again that I don’t doubt that Charlotte Law and its InfiLaw sister schools are providing a decent legal education. The faculty are highly qualified and I am sure they are very dedicated, and it appears that the academic support program is very robust. But even the greatest faculty and academic support staff in the world are not going to turn hundreds of students with poor grades and rock bottom LSAT scores into law school graduates who are capable of passing the bar and succeeding in the hyper-competitive legal profession. No doubt there might be a few exceptions, but are there enough exceptions that InfiLaw can fairly say that they are admitting only students with a reasonable chance of success? Without actual data, it is impossible to know. Until Dean Conison provides some real, verifiable, information, this “purported expert” remains highly skeptical.
Updated Christmas Day
More questions for Dean Conison: Since no ABA schools currently publish statistics which break down how low LSAT performers are doing in law school and on the bar, then how does Charlotte Law and InfiLaw know that their low LSAT students are doing better than at competitor schools? How are you "validating" your magic formula for identifying hidden law school aptitude?
You indicate that LSAT scores are not a matter of prestige for Charlotte (obviously). But for the overwhelming majority of those in the legal profession, especially those that are in a position to hire recent law school graduates, the quality of the admitted student class, as reflected in their LSAT scores, is a significant factor in their perception of the general quality of the school and likely quality of the graduates of that school. Another significant factor in the perception of the school's overall quality is the bar pass rate. Therefore, by admitting students with weaker predictors than any other law school in the country, you have not only ensured that the school will continue to have an extremely low bar passage rate, but you have completely destroyed the perception of your law school within the profession, ensuring that the few students who actually make it through to graduation and pass the bar will have an extraordinarily difficulty time finding employment. This trend is already reflected in your school's abysmal employment numbers, which are undoubtedly just going to get worse, as the school's reputation continues to tank. (2013 numbers: 153 of 350 graduates employed in a position requiring bar passage, or 43% - 17 of the 153 were employed by the school, with 9 of 17 in short term positions; 2012 numbers: 123 of 234 in positions requiring a law license, 53%; 2011: 59 of 97 in real attorney jobs, 61%) Given these undeniable truths, how can it be in anyone's best interests, other than those employed by, or shareholders of InfiLaw, to engage in your current admission practices? And even if such practices might benefit the employees and shareholders of InfiLaw in the short term, if your bar pass rate and employment numbers continue to plummet, what makes you think that you will not lose accreditation? Or that students will continue to come? Are you so cozy with the ABA because of your prior position as Chair of the Accreditation Committee of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar that you think Charlotte School of Law is untouchable?