A just-released study from the University of California-Berkeley’s law school points out that the Law School Admissions Test, a sort of SAT for applicants to law school, focuses lopsidedly on takers’ cognitive skills while overlooking key non-cognitive traits possessed by successful lawyers. And no, that doesn’t mean an aptitude for ambulance-chasing or filing phony class-action suits.
Instead, the 100-page report, prepared by former Berkeley law professor Marjorie Schultz and Berkeley psychology professor Sheldon Zedeck, asserts that the LSAT, which includes sections on reading comprehension and legal reasoning, “does not measure for skills such as creativity, negotiation, problem-solving or stress management.” Schultz and Zedeck pointed out that while one’s score on the LSAT correlates well with success as a first-year law student, it doesn’t correlate well with one’s future success as a lawyer. They had earlier identified 26 different non-cognitive traits that they said did correlate with future success in the legal profession: “negotiating skills, problem-solving and stress management,” as the Wall Street Journal’s law blog summed them up. After identifying those traits, in interviews with thousands of successful California lawyers, the pair’s research team developed methods for measuring them in law school applicants, via biographical, personality, and “situational judgment” modeled on employers’ personality tests for prospective employees.
There is little doubt that good lawyering can depend as much on how lawyers interact with their clients and argue in courtrooms as on the grade they got in first-year constitutional law. Obviously lawyers need more than sheer cognitive facility to deal with ill-tempered judges or hold troubled clients’ hands—and testing people skills may well be a useful supplement to testing cognitive skills. Still, it’s hard not to conclude from leafing through the Schultz-Zedeck study that its authors have overemphasized the softer side of law. Jeffrey Brand, dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, delivered a touchy-feely anti-LSAT manifesto in this vein to the Recorder, a legal newspaper in San Francisco: “We need lawyers with the kind of skill sets that the world needs — like empathy, persuasiveness and the willingness to have the courage to do the right thing — which the LSAT does not measure.” This ignores the fact that lawyers are also expected to win their cases—which means knowing something about the law.
It is also hard not to suspect that law school deans’ and professors’ sudden promoting of “empathy” as just as desirable a trait for lawyers as knowing the difference between a negative easement and an equitable servitude represents yet another attempt to devise end-runs around state bans on affirmative action in law school admissions.and elsewhere at public institutions. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Schultz and Zedeck began their research ten years ago, shortly after California’s voters approved an anti-affirmative action ballot measure in 1996.The ban led to an immediate drop in enrollments of blacks and Hispanics at UC-Berkeley’s prestigious law school, because members of those groups don’t perform as well on average as whites and Asians on standardized tests, including the LSAT. By contrast, on the non-traditional personality tests devised by Schultz and Zedeck, members of both genders and all ethnic groups seem to perform equally well or badly.
The UC-Berkeley report is part of a trend among a handful of law schools to de-emphasize LSAT scores in admissions, just as some colleges are de-emphasizing SAT scores in undergraduate admissions. In 2007, for example, the law school at the University of Michigan, a battleground for litigation over affirmative action, decided to admit a handful of applicants from Michigan undergraduate programs without requiring them to take the LSAT if their grades were high enough. The problem for all those schools is that the American Bar Association, a leading U.S.accrediting body for law schools, adamantly refuses to give its seal of approval to any school that does not require SAT scores from its applicants—and some states refuse to let people practice law who have not graduated from an ABA-accredited school. That means that although law schools may eventually downplay the LSAT in making admissions decisions, they are unlikely to jettison it entirely.