An important new report entitled: 2015 State of Legal Education: An in-depth look into law school admissions choices” has just been released by Law School Transparency (LST). (Full disclosure – I had a minor role in editing some sections of the report.) The report has already received attention in the press (see this editorial in today’s New York Times) and is likely to receive more in the coming days. It is also likely to be a topic of conversation among current and prospective law students, many of whom rely heavily on LST for reliable information about law schools. I recommend that all law professors and law school administrators read it in its entirety. In the meantime, I offer below a summary of what I consider to be some of the most important findings and recommendations in the report.
As the title implies, the report focuses on the questionable admissions policies practiced by many law schools during the enrollment crisis from 2011 to the present (although there are several other important subjects covered as well). Using a risk profile that I developed based on LSAT scores (first reported here on TFL) the report identifies 74 schools which admitted classes consisting of at least 25% at risk students in the fall of 2014 (statistics are not yet available for the 2015 entering classes). Fully half of these schools, 37, admitted classes consisting of at least 50% at risk students (149 LSAT and below). Most disturbingly, 18 schools admitted classes where over half of the students were categorized as being at very high or extreme risk of failing out of law school or failing the bar exam. (See the list of schools here.)
The report acknowledges that LSAT scores are imperfect predictors, and that the risk presented by admitting a student with a low LSAT score might be offset by requiring that the student have a correspondingly strong undergraduate GPA. Through sophisticated statistical modeling, the report proves that this is not what is happening. (See the section headed “Serious risk law schools did not take enough students with better undergraduate GPAs” in the Analysis section of the report.)
To confirm the reliability of my risk-model, LST managed to acquire data regarding bar passage from two law schools. A school which chose to remain anonymous provided 7 years’ worth of data, and the University of Denver provided 14 years’ worth of data. The data confirms that my risk categories are valid. At the anonymous school, only 16% of students in the extreme risk category (144 LSAT or lower) passed the bar on their first attempt. At the University of Denver, students in the extreme risk category passed on their first attempt at the slightly higher rate of 27%. In the very high risk category (LSAT of 145 or 146), 19% passed the first time at the anonymous school, and 39% passed the first time at Denver. In the high risk category (147-149 LSAT), 23% passed the first time at the anonymous school and 57% passed at Denver.
The difference in bar pass rates between the anonymous school and Denver is largely attributable to the fact that the anonymous school is located in a state with a more difficult bar exam than Colorado. While minimal risk students (those with LSATs in the top third of LSAT takers -- 156 or higher) performed almost identically at the two schools -- 88% at the unidentified school and 89% at Denver – all other groups faired much worse at the anonymous school. For example, low risk students at the anonymous school (those with LSAT from 153-155) performed much more poorly than those at Denver, achieved a 63% first time pass rate compared to 84% at Denver. Modest risk students (LSAT of 150-152) at the school in the tough bar state had a 50% first time par pass rate, compared to 71% at Denver.
Of course, there could be other factors at play. It is possible that Denver did a better job of preparing its students for the bar exam than the anonymous school. It is also possible that Denver admitted students with low LSATs only when they had better than average UGPAs. It is also possible that Denver more aggressively attrited low performing students to weed out probable bar failers. Unfortunately, with the data that is publicly available, it is not possible to determine which of these factors, if any, contributed to the difference. But what these data sets reinforce is that LSAT scores have a very strong predictive value of bar passage.
It is important to keep in mind that these numbers represent only those students in the various risk categories who managed to graduate and sit for the bar. Presumably, a significant percentage of students in these high risk categories never graduated due to academic or voluntary attrition. So the real chance for achieving the dream of becoming a practicing lawyer is lower, probably much lower, than even these dire bar pass statistics would suggest.
The important question raised by this report is whether the schools that are admitting droves of very high and extremely high risk students are simply exploiting those students for tuition, knowing full well that such an applicant has a very low probability of success. If so, it would appear that these schools are at least potentially running afoul of ABA Standard 501(b) which states that “A law school shall not admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.” While the ABA does not quantify what chance of success qualifies as “appearing capable”, I would argue that no ABA-accredited law school should admit any student who has less than a 50/50 chance of becoming a lawyer, at least not without specifically advising the student, in writing, of their predicted success rate based on the experience of students with similar LSAT and UGPA profiles at the same law school over the previous 5 years. Schools desiring to offer “opportunities” to deserving students with low predictors (less than a 50% chance) should be required to offer the students at least a 50% refund if they fail within the first year, to prove that the school is not economically exploiting these students.
Unfortunately, the ABA has never seriously enforced Standard 501(b). Rather than closely scrutinizing admissions, ABA accreditors have primarily focused on back-end results. Thus, if a school is in compliance with Standard 316 on bar passage, it is presumed to be in compliance with Standard 501(b). Acceptable bar passage rates may have been a reasonably proxy for appropriate admission practices in an earlier era. When law schools had stable or increasing law school applications, so that the entrance credentials of each succeeding class were equal or superior to their predecessors, then past success on the bar exam by that school’s students may have been a reasonable indication that the school was engaging in responsible admissions. But in an era of declining applications, when each succeeding law school class is weaker than the last, looking at historic bar pass rates is all but useless in analyzing the soundness of current admissions practices.
We have already seen the results of the decision by many law schools in 2011 to start lowering their admission standards. The graduating class of 2014 performed abysmally on the bar exam, and the graduating class of 2015 performed even worse (even without any ExamSoft debacle to blame). The entering classes of 2013 and 2014 were significantly weaker than the 2011 and 2012 classes, suggesting that even more disastrous bar examination results are in the offing. Although complete statistics are not yet available for the 2015 entering classes, there is every reason to believe that the picture has gotten even bleaker this fall, as the number of applicants continued to fall in 2015, although not quite as precipitously as in the years 2011-14.
Although bar passage statistics at many high-risk schools have reached historic lows, few, if any, schools have yet run afoul of the weak and loophole-ridden ABA Standard 316 which sets acceptable bar passage rates. Because so many law schools lowered their admissions standards at the same time, law schools have largely been able to stay within 15% of the state average despite plummeting bar pass rates. The LST report recommends strengthening Standard 316 to close these loopholes for the future, while vigorously enforcing Standard 501(b) now. (See Action Items and this letter to the ABA)
The report recommends such common-sense actions as requiring law schools with high risk admissions policies to justify those policies by providing detailed empirical data to the ABA Section of Legal Education. Those schools unable to justify their admissions policies (and there are likely to be quite a few) should immediately be placed on probation.
Many of the schools on LST’s serious risk list are not only ABA-accredited, but are members of the Association of American Law Schools. The AALS also requires that school select “students based upon intellectual ability and personal potential for success in the study and practice of law.” The AALS should also closely evaluate the admission practices of member schools that are admitting large numbers of high risk students and take appropriate steps to censure or expel those schools who are violating the core values of the association.
Law faculties should independently demand that the administration at their law school provide data on law school completion and bar passage by LSAT and UGPA profile, and then insist that no students be admitted who do not have a decent chance of success. If law professors are to maintain any self-respect and live up to the high ethical standards of the legal profession, they must not continue to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of high risk students upon which their livelihood currently depends.