Artwork by Arina Gerasimova

Industry Overview

Following economic downturns, applications to professional and graduate programs tend to increase dramatically. This is largely due to the economic concept of opportunity cost; the cost of pursuing graduate education decreases since there is less financial gain in immediately getting a job. The economic downturn attributed to COVID-19 has been no exception, with Canadian schools such as Western University and The University of Toronto seeing over 20% increases in applications for their law programs. 

The law school application process is inequitable, expensive, and negatively affects minorities, people with disabilities, and dependents. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) — the non-profit organization that administers the LSAT and related services  — charges prices that financially distress people before they have even taken on the inevitable debt that law school requires. LSAC is the only provider of this admission test that every law school in Canada (bar francophone ones) and the majority of law schools in the U.S. require for admission. The test often makes up a large part of an applicant’s profile and can determine acceptance outcomes. LSAC holds exclusive control over the supply of this test – the very definition of a monopoly. 

In this article, I will be examining the LSAT and three issues that stem from this monopoly because compared to other similar standardized tests and application processes, LSAC and law schools have failed to champion access to the legal field. Diversity and inclusion are critical in law because it impacts the profession's ability to reflect the diversity of the people requiring legal services. Instead, LSAC has created a system that blocks individuals from becoming lawyers before they can even study the law. The three main issues that I will propose a solution to are: the financial impediment to enter law school, the inequity, and how much success on this test determines the futures of young students wanting to pursue law. 

The Financial Obstacle

Consider this scenario: you are a university student who has already accrued a bit of student debt, but you aren’t ready to enter the workforce. You have wanted to go to law school for years, so you decide to do some research into the costs associated with law school. There are favorable credit terms and some scholarships for law students that make attending law school affordable, so you decide to apply. You learn that it might cost a year to study and thousands of dollars for the LSAT to get into law school. What should you do now?

University students and debt are words heard together far too often. LSAC, the test it administers, and the other services it provides create a financial barrier that discourages many students from even attempting to get into law school. Some of the most notable costs that come with taking this test include the approximate CAD $250 (USD $200) per test fee (most students take the test multiple times), the $100 application fee per school (most apply to approximately 10 schools), and the cost of study materials for the test in general. These study materials include the almost required $100 purchase of previous tests, selecting a test strategy book which costs anywhere from $300 to $1500, or even entering a specialized class which could cost up to $3,000. Of course, these costs are in addition to the opportunity cost of studying extensively for any standardized test. 

The expensive application process may contribute to the latent legal market, which refers to the untapped market of people who currently aren’t using legal services to resolve legal issues. The Legal Services Corporation calls this the “Justice Gap”, since 77% of legal problems don’t receive legal help and faced by low-income individuals receive either inadequate or no legal help at all. The lack of access to justice is caused by multiple factors including the high cost of legal services, which in turn is due to factors like traditional legal fee structuring. It may also be influenced by lawyers needing to charge high prices to pay off law school debt. Although debt incurred while applying to law school may be marginal relative to other factors causing the latent legal market, contributing in any way to decreasing access to justice is a failure on the legal profession’s part. Thus, the application process creates inequity before applicants enter law school and can perpetuate it afterwards.

Inequity and Discrimination 

Inequity in the application process arises because the forced dependence on LSAC’s expensive services (the LSAT and application processing) largely affects those who are already underrepresented in the legal profession: individuals with disabilities, of low income, and Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC).

While LSAC does have routes for applicants to seek disability accommodation, these accommodations are unfortunately typically quite difficult to actually acquire. There is a consistent pattern of applicants with disabilities being denied accommodation, as the LSAC looks for a consistent medical history dating back to birth, which has resulted in individuals who clearly fall under the accommodations category to be passed over. One lawsuit in particular, Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. LSAC, saw the judge state the following: “[The council] deprived certain candidates of their automatic right to accommodations previously granted on comparable tests by improperly imposing substantive conditions on the candidate’s ability to accept those accommodations, and denied those candidates and others the right to the procedural safeguards established.” 

The inequity within the law school application process only exacerbates the current inequity issues within the profession. The LSAT itself is something that with enough time, hard work, and resources can be mastered to a certain extent, benefiting those who can afford to take time off from work or school to focus on preparation. This effectively pushes down BIPOC or lower income individuals who may not be able to dedicate so much time towards studying for the test or afford critical resources. This has traditionally been a major barrier for these individuals to enter the legal profession, which ultimately limits the ability of the legal system to meet the diverse needs of the people in its jurisdiction.

The LSAT as Predictor of Success

The purpose of the LSAT is to be a filter for people entering law school. The four sections of the test look at three areas of competency LSAC deems relevant to being a lawyer: logical reasoning, logical problem solving, and reading comprehension. According to LSAC, their test is a great predictor of first year performance in law school. However, the most highly regarded law school in Canada, the University of Toronto, states on their website that it has found GPA to be a better predictor of first year law school success than other factors. This debate around whether GPA or LSAT score is superior in predicting law school success is moot, however. 

The question here shouldn’t focus on law school success, but success as a lawyer. Many lawyers do not find the LSAT to be an objective tool to foresee performance in the legal community. Some lawyers that performed less strongly on the LSAT have had successful careers and are excellent litigators. The LSAT does not measure the nuanced competencies that predict success in the field of law, like the ability to work with people, judgement, and empathy. Regardless, this section leads to the crux of this op-ed: if the LSAT is purely a marker used for admission filtering, why let LSAC dominate the market with the LSAT? 

Solutions for a Broken System

There is no one solution that can address all of the issues above, but there are two main strategies that could help solve the market monopoly issue: accepting other standardized tests and using a more holistic admissions process.

Accepting Other Standardized Tests

Except for francophone schools, no law school in Canada accepts applications using a standardized test other than the LSAT. They should accept other similar tests in place of the LSAT because it creates competition in the law school admissions testing marketplace which increases access to opportunity, thereby expanding the pool of qualified candidates. McGill University, for example, has one of the top law programs in Canada, and is among other bilingual and francophone schools that have termed the LSAT as an optional application component, creating greater equality in the application process. They recognize that the LSAT presents an unfair advantage to native English speakers as compared to Francophones. As discussed previously, the inequities of the LSAT range beyond just language accessibility and other schools should consider making the LSAT optional or accept other tests to ensure that applying to law school itself is more accessible.

Tests like the GRE evaluate competencies similar to the LSAT, and utilize a similar scaled, credible, and normally distributed scoring range. Additionally, the GRE is offered more times per year, has more available resources, and has been used for some acceptances at top North American law schools like Yale already. These schools therefore offer a more efficient application process for individuals who already completed multiple degrees that required taking the GRE or a test similar. Further, a study across 21 American universities revealed that the GRE is equivalent to the LSAT in predicting first year law school grades. While introducing other forms of testing can lead to difficulties in equalizing testing difficulties  — since some applicants are naturally more inclined to one test over others  — this allows for more diversity of background and can be partially addressed if schools create space within their acceptance pool to specifically admit non-LSAT applicants.

Some Canadian law schools already reserve space within their acceptance pool for Indigenous applicants who are evaluated on a different scale, resulting in a lower median LSAT required for admission. Despite entering with lower scores, these Indigenous applicants still succeed in law school and as lawyers. Creating a pool of acceptance spaces for those who took another standardized test, or who did not take a standardized test at all, would likely create a similar outcome to this.

Holistic Interview Admission Process

Law schools, particularly those in Canada, need to implement an interview portion (in-person or virtual) in the application process. Currently, 17 of the top 50 law schools in the United States incorporate interviews as part of their admissions process, and a growing number of schools have been joining this group. Interviews allow admission committees to admit applicants on a holistic basis and diminishes the dependence on the LSAT that currently exists. This would allow for evaluation of other important competencies needed to be a lawyer, as well as enable students to demonstrate themselves in a way that may not be apparent through a standardized test.

While universities implementing and placing a greater emphasis on interviewing applicants would be beneficial to a wider scope of applicants, the main limitation is the willingness of law schools to expend extra resources (time, money, etc.) to make this happen. Nevertheless, many law schools claim to want to let in applicants on more than just their numbers, so this would be one way to do it. However, this might not entirely remove dependency on the LSAT unless all or most candidates are given the opportunity to be interviewed, since most universities that currently interview potential applicants still use LSAT scores to screen potential interviewees.

Author’s Experience

I took the LSAT exam this past summer. I studied roughly 250 to 300 hours, taking 40 full length practice tests. A month out from my first test in August, I had to decide whether to immediately spend another $250 CAD to sign up for the October for insurance, or not spend $250 CAD and risk having to wait until November if it  didn’t go well (this is another issue with LSAC, it should let the signup stay open so people can see their test results before signing up for another test). 

I spent the $250, an option many don’t have. I ended up writing the October test to achieve my goal test score, improving upon my August test. I was lucky to have the financial support from my parents for study materials, multiple test registrations, and other process items that many don’t have the support for. The process favours those in situations like mine. I am not asking LSAC to uplift everyone to the same level, just to simply not push anyone down.

The current standardized testing monopoly in law admissions needs to be changed in order to increase diversity within the legal profession and access to justice. Greater equity can be achieved by limiting LSAC’s grasp on law school applicants via a holistic application review process and reserved spots for applicants for which the LSAT is optional or interchangeable with another test.