Second-year law student Brittany Alzfan, 23, center, studies May 25, 2017, at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. The law school is studying the possibility of accepting the GRE as an admission test, in addition to the LSAT. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune)
In a move that shirks a tradition as old as baby boomers, law schools around the country are starting to consider accepting an admission test other than the LSAT. And Chicago-area schools are watching closely.
The University of Arizona College of Law started it. Early last year, it announced that it would accept either the GRE graduate school entry exam or the LSAT law school aptitude test from applicants.
Around the country, law school deans’ heads turned.
Then in March, Harvard Law School, a pioneer among its peers, announced plans to start accepting GRE scores for admission as part of a pilot program. Now, Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law in Chicago is studying the possibility of accepting the GRE.
"This is a new world. Law schools are looking at much more sophisticated data," said Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern’s law school. "It’s just simply a matter of time, and probably a short amount of time, before the hegemony of the LSAT will destabilize and law schools will be looking at other criteria for admission.
"The question is, Who wants to be the first movers?"
For law schools, accepting another, more user-friendly admission test in addition to the LSAT could mean more applicants and a more diverse class — ethnically and academically.
But it could also mean teetering on the brink of noncompliance with standards from the legal education section of the American Bar Association, which contracts with the U.S. Department of Education to accredit law schools.
Currently, if an accredited school wants to start using an alternative admission test, like the GRE, it is required to demonstrate that test is as valid as the LSAT in predicting law school success.
Northwestern’s law school had enough students who had taken both tests to gather data, and it hired an outside firm to conduct a study, Rodriguez said. Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J.-based nonprofit that administers the GRE, is conducting a national validity study, which it plans to complete by August, involving more than a dozen law schools, including John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
But many schools, some of which don’t have the resources or data to conduct their own studies, are waiting to see what changes the bar association makes in its requirements.
At a hearing scheduled for July 13, the Chicago-based association plans to vote on changes to its admission test standards that would allow it to begin determining whether alternative tests are valid. That could mean the more than 200 ABA-accredited law schools wouldn’t have to conduct their own studies.
"Why undertake a somewhat primitive study on our own if a professional one is forthcoming?" said Harold Krent, dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law.
Law schools around the country could benefit from a standard validation, Krent said. "Then we could move on and take our pick."
Each school is different, as are its students. Krent, for example, said he did much better on the GRE than the LSAT.
Deans argue that the GRE, administered multiple times weekly, often via computer, is more accessible than the LSAT, administered four times each year at designated testing centers.
The Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT, is taking steps to change that. It recently announced it will lift the limit on the number of times a person can take the test in a two-year period, starting with the September test.
"Our board of trustees thought that the test limitation might be an unnecessary impediment to test takers," spokeswoman Wendy Margolis wrote in an email. "This new policy could change if LSAC observes abuse."
More changes are coming, Margolis said. But the organization maintains that the movement toward the GRE did not spark the changes.
The number of people applying to law school has been dropping since 2010, according to data provided by LSAC, and some law school deans argue that accepting a more accessible test could help reverse that trend. About 54,500 people applied to start school in fall 2015, down almost 38 percent from five years earlier.
But it’s not just in the numbers, Northwestern’s Rodriguez said. Students with more diverse areas of study, such as science or technology, who are still making career decisions aren’t taking the LSAT, he said. They’re taking the GRE.
"All things being equal, when you’re looking at a more diverse cohort, you want to provide ample opportunities for students who have prepared themselves in more eclectic ways," Rodriguez said.
Both tests have been administered for almost 70 years, but the LSAT has long been the sole admission test for law schools.
Reconsidering how things are done is "appropriate, considering the pace of change today," said University of Illinois College of Law Dean Vikram Amar, whose college is not on the verge of changing any policies. But trepidation can be just as appropriate.
"The legal profession is changing, and law schools are adapting to it," Amar said. "But change isn’t always progress. … Law is a discipline that values tradition, and I think there are some good things about that."