A recent report by UC Berkeley researchers delves inside the Law School Admissions Test, examining its effectiveness and possible new testing methods.
The LSAT is currently used to predict a student’s academic success in their first year of law school, but does not predict future success in the profession as an attorney. The study aims to find tools to design a test that would assess professional effectiveness more comprehensively.
Through an eight-year project, UC Berkeley principal investigators Marjorie M. Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck sought to find characteristics that current lawyers think are important and to suggest broadened criteria for predicting candidates who are effective lawyers.
“Some of tests were predictive in ways that we think would be valuable if confirmed on national level,” said Shultz, professor of law at UCB’s Boalt Hall School of Law. “You wouldn’t expect to substitute or remove the LSAT but we would hope – pending on national research – the testing process to include a wider range of tests used in a variety of ways.“
The research involved three phases. The first stage consisted of an interview with focus groups and surveyed UC Berkeley alumni who are practicing lawyers and identified 26 factors important to effective “lawyering,” including advocacy, negotiation, problem solving, management, advising clients and stress management.
The second stage involved examining existing standardized tests for methods that would be useful in predicting the 26 factors.
In the final stage, researchers used volunteer alumni from both UC Berkeley and UC Hastings College of Law to take the tests researchers chose in the second phase. They factored in their LSAT scores, law school and undergraduate grades and their scores on the researchers‘ new versions of tests, then asked supervisors and peers to evaluate the participants on the 26 factors developed in the first phase.
“We are trying to broaden what is evaluated as primarily the admission’s decision to law school,” Shultz said. “If proved to be effective this might be relevant to the bar exam.“
Wendy Margolis, director of communications for the Law School Admissions Council said in an e-mail interview that the current LSAT provides a standard measure of acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills that law schools can use as one of several factors in assessing applicants.
The current LSAT is designed to measure skills that are considered essential for success in law school – reading and comprehension of complex texts with accuracy and insight, organization and management of information and the ability to draw reasonable inferences from it, critical thinking and the analysis and evaluation of the reasoning and arguments of others, Margolis said.
“The test is quite successful in doing what it is intended to do,” she said. “There may be other measures that would assess traits that would be useful for practicing attorneys.“
Ellen Rutt, associate dean for admissions at the University of Connecticut’s law school and chair of the Law School Admissions Council, which runs the LSAT, said that predicting first-year success and later success are two entirely different things.
“It’s impossible to have prior knowledge of the subject matter,” Rutt said. “You can’t study law before you can go to law school. So [the LSAT] touched the most tangible aspects that are most useful in studying law.“
The LSAC provided a great deal of funding for the research and is interested in the results, but any changes to the test would be preceded by research and field-testing.
“The skills the UCB researchers measured are worth investigating further, and we plan to do so with their cooperation,” Margolis said. “The study that was done by UCB is preliminary, and we plan to do further research before considering any changes to the LSAT. It is far too early to tell whether any additions to the LSAT, or any supplemental measures, may be forthcoming.“
Any new additions will be the focus of new research, but the LSAC maintains that the test accomplishes its job.
“[The LSAT] is not perfect but it’s not useless either. It’s the best we have right now and these [researchers] are trying to make it better,” said Vikram Amar, associate dean at UC Davis‘ King Hall School of Law.
Amar said the test does its job of measuring academic ability but it does not capture how well one works with people, determination, listening skills, resourcefulness and problem solving.
“Those are things that fall through the cracks,” Amar said. “Ideally you should test for a broader set of skills but is that practical?”
The study was exploratory and used only UC Berkeley and Hastings participants. With about 200 law schools in the country, national research at a parallel level with the report would be necessary, Shultz said.
POOJA KUMAR can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org