Law schools, measures of merit and the public’s perception of the legal profession

I see the affirmative action debate and the role of the LSAT (Law
School Admissions Test) in that debate as the major challenges facing
this organization – and legal education – over the next several years.

The last thirty years have seen an opening up of law schools and the
legal profession to women and people of color. When I started law
school in 1965, only one woman and one Black were in my class. All of
my professors were white men. Nationally, the picture was no different.
Only 4 percent of the law students entering in the years from 1965 to
1968 were women – and the percentage of minorities was even lower. At
that time, law schools didn’t even keep track of minority enrollment.

Last year, the picture was very different. Look at almost any law
school today and you see minority students and minority faculty,
although not enough…. We have made tremendous progress, not only in
transforming legal education, but also in transforming the face of the
legal profession. Our task, however, is not complete. And it is
becoming more difficult with the recent attacks on affirmative action
policies and practices in law school admissions….

At law schools throughout the Fifth Circuit [U.S. District Court],
which decided the Hopwood case [which disallows the use of race as a
factor in college admissions], minority applications have dropped
significantly…. The real shocker, however, occurs when one considers
a particular school. For example, the effect of Hopwood at the
University of Texas shows . . . [that] applications from Black students
fell 42 percent this year, and eleven have received offers. For
Hispanics, the number of applicants dropped by 16 percent, and
thirty-three have been admitted.

Even more disturbing is the outcome. On May 21, the Dallas Morning
News reported that only one Black student has agreed to enroll in the
University of Texas Law School’s entering class next fall, and only
twelve Hispanic students have sent in tuition deposits to secure a
place.

The picture for California public schools is no better, with the
number of Black applicants dropping by 24.8 percent and of Mexican
American and Hispanic applicants by about 23 percent. Again, when these
figures are examined at a particular school, the effect of Proposition
209 [which bans the use of racial preferences for any state-funded
organization in California] and the [University of California] Regents’
policy [which forbids the use of racially sensitive admissions and
scholarship strategies in the UC system] becomes even more disturbing.

According to an Associated Press article on May 15, the number of
Blacks admitted to Berkeley’s law school tumbled 81 percent and
Hispanic admissions fell 50 percent. These percentages translate into
fourteen Black students admitted for fall 1997 compared to seventy-five
last year, and thirty-nine Hispanic students compared to seventy-eight
last year.

These trends portend a return to the law school of the 1960s. If law
schools are precluded from taking race and ethnicity into account in
the admission decision, the number of minority students will drop
dramatically.

A recent study points to the fact that we cannot abandon affirmative
action policies if we are to continue to have minority students in our
law schools. The study shows that admission decisions based exclusively
on LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages will deny
admission to most minority applicants – even though they would
successfully complete law school and pass the bar examination. This
study clearly confirms the LSAC’s cautionary statement against
over-reliance on the LSAT and supports the use of race and ethnicity as
essential factors in the admission decision.

The study further shows that law schools have been doing the right
thing all along. We have been using race and ethnicity as positive
factors in order to achieve a diverse student body. We have not relied
on the LSAT or undergraduate grade-point average as the factors
determining admission decisions.

Because of the challenges to affirmative action, the LSAT has come
under increasing scrutiny. This organization has a major challenge:
explaining the validity of the LSAT as a predictor of first-year
success and at the same time, explaining its limitations. This will not
be easy….

Unfortunately, too many inside and outside of legal education
misperceive the utility of the LSAT. Too many think the test is the
perfect or the only measure of merit. We in legal education have also
sold the public at large the wrong message about it. Clearly,
applicants believe that the test measures merit and that a higher test
score of one or two points alone warrants admission over an applicant
with a lower score. Anti-affirmative action plaintiffs in the lawsuits
make the LSAT score a central part of their claims, alleging that they
should be admitted because their test scores and grade-point averages
were higher than many other applicants – mostly minority – who were
admitted.

We in legal education must debunk the popular myth that the LSAT is
the measure of merit…. The LSAT is a good product but it cannot and
should not be used as the sole determinant of admission to law school.
Like any good product, the test can be misused, and we should ensure
that we provide sufficient warnings to all constituencies about the
dangers in misusing it….

We can prove that the admission process is more than a numbers game.
It is about real people with real dreams. It is about taking risks and
admitting people who are different [and] whose backgrounds suggest they
will make different – but important – contributions.

We in legal education appreciate an admissions policy that does not
rely exclusively on numerical predictors. If we could persuade the
public that law schools and the profession are looking for lawyers with
a sense of justice, compassion, and commitment to service – and that
law schools would give applicants with such characteristics a
preference in the admission decision, even though their test scores and
grades are not that high – we might find that the public perception of
lawyers might improve.

DR. LEO ROMERO These remarks were made on May 31 as Leo Romero, dean
and professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, assumed
the chairmanship of the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), the
organization comprised of 194 member law schools in the United States
and Canada.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com