The Justice Pipeline: Good Outcomes Come From Good Inputs
A Q&A With Dean Paul Caron (Pepperdine) and Dean Emerita Kellye Testy (Washington), the new president of LSAC
PAUL: Kellye, tell us how your transition has been to LSAC after 15 years of serving as a dean at two schools, and particularly now as the ABA is considering significant changes to the Accreditation Standards on admission?
Kellye: It’s certainly been busy and interesting, Paul. After winding up 8 years leading University of Washington Law, I had planned a sabbatical, but was called to step up for this opportunity to work nationally to advance legal education at a time of significant change. I am devoted to advancing access to justice, and the justice pipeline depends upon attracting outstanding (including diverse) candidates to our nation’s law schools. In this new role, I am marveling at how much I had to learn even though I’d been a dean for a long while and active in many of legal education’s allied organizations, including AALS and the ABA.
PAUL: What are a few examples of what you are learning at LSAC?
KELLYE: First, as a dean, I really did not understand all that I should have about the admission process and the law admission ecosystem. I attribute that to both the “40 miles wide and an inch deep” nature of the modern dean’s role and to being blessed in both of my deanships to have outstanding professionals handling admissions. There is a lot to understand, much of which is critical to the debates we are now all having about the best accreditation standards and practices for law school admission.
For example, I did not realize the collective resource that LSAC provides without charge to our schools that would be highly inefficient to do individually. The employees of LSAC are working directly and daily on behalf of the nation’s law schools on so many fronts in addition to the ones well known. Some examples that I did not fully appreciate are staffing phone banks from 8 AM to 8 PM ET to assist candidates in applying to law school; administering the Credential Assembly Service (CAS) to make the application process convenient for candidates and schools; developing the software (ACES) used by all schools to conduct their admission processes, and providing staff training and nearly 24/7 help desk support; supporting the nation’s prelaw network that feeds the law school pipeline; and helping students prepare for the LSAT, including a new free prep course in partnership with the Khan Academy.
PAUL: What do you see changing at LSAC under your leadership?
KELLYE: Quite a bit, much of which is already underway. As anyone who has worked with me knows, I’m a change agent, not a placeholder. Substantial change will be driven by our understanding more fully the pressures law schools and the legal profession face and responding more precisely and more nimbly to provide the products and services schools need to thrive. When our members thrive, the justice pipeline is strengthened and we all benefit. We will use additional technological resources and also leverage our long tradition of personal service to both candidates and schools.
PAUL: Do you think schools will quit using the LSAT if the ABA does not make them?
KELLYE: No, I don’t. I trust that most schools’ self-interest (which includes their care for students and our justice system) will mean they will continue to rely upon the LSAT as one part of a holistic admission process for substantially all applicants. We all want to be part of building a great profession, advancing the rule of law and justice. We can’t have those good outcomes (or good graduation, bar pass, and employment rates) without good inputs.
PAUL: Does that mean that you do not support schools using no test or a different test in the admission process?
KELLYE: No, it does not. There has for some time been a role for using no test or a different test for a limited number of applicants, and I continue to support that. We did that at UW Law in our joint JD/MBA program with the GMAT. Schools used to supplement their core admission practices through a variance process under ABA Standard 503, but the Section closed that safety valve due to unfortunate resource constraints. Every system needs a safety valve, and I believe the current debates are a result of the pressure that built up without that option (and especially in the context of a declining admission market).
What I do not support is creating an environment that would encourage schools to accept just any test (or no test) for the vast majority of applicants. Schools have stated their desire to expand the pool of applicants. I strongly oppose merely substituting another test or no test for the LSAT, because it is the best and fairest test for law school admission, because its substantial use also supports the admission infrastructure outlined above that we all depend upon, and because otherwise legal education puts too much at risk without actually increasing the overall pool of candidates. I think most schools intend to use any alternatives to the LSAT in this limited way, but it will be important for schools to make that clear to applicants.
PAUL: Do you think there is risk of unfairness to applicants if schools are relying on more than one test or no test?
KELLYE: Yes, I do; and as with most instances of unfairness, it will most impact those who are most vulnerable. It is unfair for applicants to have to wonder “what will count” when schools review their application. We are already hearing a lot of concern from candidates about whether schools will evaluate them fairly for admission and scholarships without a consistent and transparent set of inputs. That concern is well founded, because it is not possible to correlate test scores from two or more different tests ─ being in the 80th percentile of one test does not equate to being in the 80th percentile of another. Making such comparisons violates all industry standards in educational testing. LSAT scores mean the same thing to candidates and law schools from Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania, from Washington State to Washington DC, and everywhere else. That is the very reason for having one standardized test.
A second source of unfairness is related to cost. The two barriers to more students choosing legal study are the image of law/lawyers in society and the cost of law school, including the cost of applying. To now have students worried that they need to take two tests rather than one will only add to the cost, and it will privilege those already of means.
A third source of unfairness is that academic support professionals use the LSAT to make sure that their students will thrive. Without it, we risk not giving students a fair assessment of their likely success in law or the support they need to do their best.
PAUL: Any other thoughts as we all move forward together?
KELLYE: Yes, having been a dean myself for a long time, it is not the motivation of the deans I worry about, but rather the substantial economic pressure law deans are under from various sources to fill their classes. One of the hard parts of being a dean is that you are a CEO in some contexts and a middle manager in others. As I have often said, we don’t need “just innovation,” we need JUST innovation. I hope we can all continue to talk and really understand the issues before making major changes. I was concerned at the recent ABA Council meeting with several instances of inaccurate and incomplete facts. It needs to mean something that a law school is ABA approved, and we need to work together to advance respect for law and lawyers. We owe it to our students and to the world law serves to be leaders in quality, intellectual integrity, equity, and fair process. I look forward to continuing to work closely with deans, admission professionals, and other leaders in legal education to strive to reach the promise of equal justice under law.