Over the past decade, University of California-Berkeley law professor Marjorie Shultz and Vice Provost Sheldon Zedeck have been searching for a better way to predict a student’s potential aptitude for law.
Thanks to their efforts, the LSAT may soon have competition. Shultz and Zedeck began their research project—funded by the Law School Admission Council—following the passage of California’s Proposition 209, which barred public institutions from considering race, ethnicity or gender. Shultz said the law significantly hindered UC Berkeley Law’s ability to diversify its student body.
“We only had one Black student in the class [after Proposition 209], and we had had one of the most varied and diverse student bodies in the country, so it made a huge impact,” Shultz said, adding that the young man was already a student who had simply returned to school as the proposal passed. “Berkeley Law School … thought it was a good time to think about the way admissions were done.”
The Redefinition of Merit Committee was created and given the task of addressing one of the law school’s most pressing dilemmas: How do we define “qualified”?
The committee’s interest in answering that question struck a chord with Zedeck, a psychology professor at the time, and colleague of the committee’s chair. Zedeck’s expertise is in employee testing, selection systems and assessment; so he wondered if his career research would echo in student admissions. The committee invited him to a meeting.
“It was an interesting challenge,” Zedeck said. “The LSAT is used to predict first year success (or GPA), and I was curious to see if it could predict more than success in law school.”
Shultz, who is now retired from teaching, volunteered to work on the project, and Zedeck soon joined her. Together, they fashioned a battery of tests and questionnaires that measured academic prowess as well as predicted how effective a person would be as a lawyer.
The latter was based on 26 factors devised through interviewing, surveying and testing thousands of Berkeley Law alumni (plus their clients, supervisors and colleagues). Factors included “creativity/innovation” and “able to see the world through the eyes of others.”
The pair created a formula that was used to quantify the presence of these traits from biographical and professional information, as well as personality tests. LSAT scores and transcripts were also examined.
According to Schultz and Zedeck, not only were these tests as effective as the LSAT in predicting first year GPA, but the agonizing race and gender divide prevalent in LSAT test scores was nonexistent. At the end of the study, Zedeck and Shultz felt that the LSAT was not an accurate predictor of career success in law and that a wholly academic idea of merit was one-dimensional.
Their conclusion: the narrow definitions of merit and qualifications had become barriers.
The test score divide, which often prevents people of color from being admitted into law programs, has long been the LSAT’s Achilles’ heel. In 2008, more than 16,000 students of color were admitted into American Bar Association law schools, according to the Law School Admission Council, less than half the number of White admitted students.
“The quality of education, access … is different among racial groups,” Shultz explained. “But important lawyer characteristics like advocacy, diligence, creativity, practical judgment – those are not distributed through the population by race. With school-oriented skills, there’s about 300 years of history of difference.”
Zedeck and Shultz’s paradigm show an even racial distribution among the more effective law professionals they studied. If plans to try this research on a national scale are approved, this study may present a viable solution to the disparity.
“If a more diverse student body gets into law school, then more diverse people get out to become a more diverse body of legal professionals and policy makers,” Zedeck said.
It is now up to the LSAC to decide whether this pilot will be done again on a national scale. Zedeck said LSAC’s funding of the project signals serious interest among the institutions that rely on LSAT scores for the admissions process, adding that he expects to hear from the council soon.
“I can think of at least a dozen law schools that said, ‘Hey, we’d like to become a part of this study,’” Zedeck said. “If LSAC does it on a national basis, they can be.”
Though neither Shultz nor Zedeck thought it would take a decade to complete the project, they said they are satisfied with the results. Zedeck said he hopes the LSAC funds a national study. Shultz added that she believes a national study would likely have similar findings and hopes that testing organizations and schools will rethink their admissions criteria.
“People always said there should be a way to be able to predict a good lawyer, but people thought it just wasn’t possible,” Shultz said. “It took a lot of time, but it seems we have found a way.”