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To be, or not to be: The LSAT Debate

With nearly 86% of all U.S. lawyers being white, the legal profession is in desperate need of diversity. In the name of said diversity, the ABA is currently moving forward in making admissions test, such as the LSAT, optional for admission into law school.

Adebisi Adetoye just completed her first Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, in November. She dreams of becoming a civil rights attorney, but if she doesn’t do well on the exam, there’s only one more chance as her fee waiver only covers two exams.

The LSAT is a standardized test administered by the Law School Admission Council, or LSAC, for prospective law school candidates and is often described as one of the most difficult exams one shall ever face. The purpose of the LSAT is to test the skills that are necessary for success in the first year of law school.

Adetoye’s dream of becoming a civil rights attorney comes from having experienced many instances of racism as a Black woman. She describes her experiences with racism as “traumatizing” and remembers most how they made her feel, which now motivates her.

“My goals are bigger than me. I’m doing this for how I felt when I was in those situations, not for myself,” Adetoye said.

Adetoye spent about $675 preparing for the LSAT, which she paid for herself with her full-time job as an administrative assistant and extreme budgeting. She had been primarily self-studying with video courses and books for about eight months and knows that more tutoring would’ve been the next best step, but she was not able to afford it.

When the day of the test came, every worst-case scenario ran through her head.

“I fully thought that my proctor was not going to show up or that my proctor wouldn’t have all my accommodations together, that my computer was somehow going to crash,” Adetoye said. “I was thinking worst-case scenarios.”

Luckily, none of that happened and once the test began; she went into autopilot. The minute the exam was over she called her family and said, “that was the worst test of my life.”

“You’re just so emotionally and mentally drained by the end of it,” Adetoye said.

She’s confident that she did her absolute best. As she waited for her scores to be released for nearly three weeks, she would constantly remind herself that the results are not a reflection of herself.

“I think part of it is just that like there’s so much riding on it mentally like and I’m still working through it of like remembering that like the test isn’t a reflection of myself because I feel like so much of myself has gone into the process of studying for it that it feels like it is a reflection of me,” Adetoye said.

Unfortunately, the odds aren’t in Adetoye’s favor. According to the LSAC’s latest Performance Report people of color score, on average, lower than whites, who score the highest average. However, the American Bar Association, or ABA, is currently moving forward in making admission tests, such as the LSAT, optional for admission to law school. This proposed change has caused a heated debate centered around the need for diversity.

Historically, the legal profession is one of the least diverse in the nation. Nearly 86% of lawyers in the U.S. are white, according to the American Bar Association’s 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession, and 64% of LSAT test takers are white, according to the Law School Admission Council’s volume report, which is updated daily.

For Raymond Manzo, president of San Francisco’s La Raza Lawyers Association, a Latino Bar Association, these statistics and stories show what’s wrong in our society.

“People that have resources and have money can succeed and anyone else who doesn’t or has other responsibilities continue to have to struggle and I think that’s what leads to our legal system being so underrepresented,” Manzo said.

When Manzo was studying for the LSAT he felt like he was at a disadvantage. Manzo noticed that people who had tutors would do substantially better than him. When he was studying for the exam, Manzo would come home from work, eat dinner and then self-study from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. with only the help of a preparation book.

“If I misunderstood something I didn’t have anyone to let me know I was wrong,” Manzo said.

Manzo admitted that tutoring seems worth it, but the costs can be outrageous.

Ten hours of LSAT private tutoring costs roughly $2000 from a tutoring organization such as Kaplan or Blueprint. If people choose to do an in-person course they’d be looking at spending at least $1400. These are the prices for the most basic study packages. Comprehensive tutoring and preparation course packages can go up to $5000.

Alternatively, there’s the option to reach out to independent tutors or instructors that work outside major organizations such as Kaplan and Blueprint. According to Branden Frankel, an independent LSAT instructor and the founder of Personal Statement University, a company focused on helping prospective law students with their personal statement, tutoring from big box companies like LSATMax or Blueprint can cost significantly more than if you were to go through a small independent tutor.

This isn’t because the instruction is necessarily better. According to Frankel, the tutors in major companies such as Blueprint are usually recently graduated undergrads who took the LSAT and are looking to make money before they begin law school.

“They [major tutoring companies] also just have immense marketing reach,” Frankel said. “And so, if all you know is well, I took this course and now this course is offering me tutoring at $200 an hour, then I guess maybe I just take the $200 an hour.”

Independent tutors like Frankel rely on word of mouth and often don’t have the substantial marketing infrastructure that is needed for greater outreach. Of course, there are independent tutors who have obtained enough credibility and outreach over time to charge significantly higher rates.

Adetoye attempted to get help from two different independent tutors but was ghosted both times. Her first tutor asked Adetoyte to fill out the necessary forms and complete a preliminary consultation only to call her goals unrealistic; Adetoye never received the final package price and welcome packet.

The second tutor was fairly new in the business, so he charged only $50 per session. She had sessions with him once a week for about two and a half months. Thirty minutes before a scheduled session she received a text from him that said he needed to reschedule because he was graduating that same day. She replied to him with no problem rescheduling and congratulated him on his graduation. After that text, she never heard from him again.

While searching for tutors she would come across many that charge relatively high prices: up to $200 per hour.

She saw the high prices and thought to herself, “Who can afford that?”

These costs don’t include registration. Enrollment of just one LSAT exam is $215, which does not include the Credential Assembly Service, or CAS, Report of $195 subscription for five years and $45 per CAS report, which is required by most ABA accredited law schools.

The LSAC does offer fee waivers, which covers two exams, the CAS subscription, six CAS reports, a one-year subscription to the LSAC’s official LSAT prep plus and a score preview. Without the waiver, this would cost at least $1,039 in total.

Adetoye was able to acquire a fee waiver from the LSAC after an initial denial and appeal. They initially denied her because her income combined with her mother’s, as she lives with her mother, was more than the implemented threshold. She had to go through the appeals process and submit a heavy amount of paperwork. Although she was happy that she was able to appeal the decision to acquire a fee waiver, she was also upset about the process.

“I think it’s really nasty to make people essentially prove to you that they’re poorer than you think they are,” Adetoye said. “I just think that that’s really shitty and it really feels exploitive to me.”

On the same day Adetoye took her first LSAT, Brian Recinos took his second. He works full-time as a legal assistant in San Francisco and studies daily using Khan Academy, a free online service. Recinos, who is Latino, knew if he was able to afford private tutoring or a study course, he would have a better chance of achieving his ideal score.

He thought about taking a course to prepare for the LSAT, but the price tag quickly stopped him. It was too expensive for him to afford.

“It goes to show how if you come from money, you’re fine,” Recinos said.

Recinos felt stressed and rushed the first time he took the LSAT, but his familiarity with the exam gave him confidence the second time around.

“I felt more determined, more confident. I probably did better. I think that for sure helped me out a lot,” Recinos said. “But if it turns out I did worse on my second test. I’m probably going to cry.”

Recinos scored a 154 on his first attempt, but for him to get the financial aid he needs, he must get a higher score.

The day Recino’s and Adetoye’s LSAT score was released, the entire website crashed due to the large volume of traffic on the site. The scores were released at 9 a.m. Eastern time Nov. 30, nearly three weeks after the two had taken the exam. Adetoye wasn’t sure why she was unable to access the website initially, so she turned to Reddit. On Reddit she found posts pleading for others to get off the website so others could see their scores.

Can y’all get tf off this website pls 😭 from LSAT

Adetoye was finally able to see her score two hours later. She score a 160, and Recinos scored a 158. Recinos was happy with his score and plans to begin applying to law schools. Adetoye’s score was within her goal range, and she is happy with it as well. She did score within the lower side of her goal range, but she’s happy regardless as this was her first time taking the test and she scored far better than when she first began her LSAT journey. Since her fee waiver covers one more exam, she plans to retake it.

The LSAT is not like a normal test where you pass or fail. Instead, it is based more on a percentile system. One’s score is based on the number of scored multiple-choice questions answered correctly, and there is no deduction for incorrect answers. After arriving at the raw score, it is converted to an LSAT scale from 120 to 180, with 120 being the lowest possible score and 180 being the highest possible score. This is done to make it easier to compare scores across different LSAT administrations, a process called test equating. Along with a scaled score, test takers receive a percentile rank, which reflects the percentage of test takers whose scores were lower than their own.

Tyrie Robertson, like his roommate Recinos, will retake the exam for better scholarship and financial aid opportunities. Robertson, who is Black, has already taken the LSAT twice and has spent roughly $600 to $700 on preparation alone, which he paid for out-of-pocket from his job and savings.

Robertson was lucky enough to secure a coupon from San Francisco State University for $500 off Blueprint. With it, he was able to register for an LSAT preparation course for about $500 to $600 instead of more than $1000.

Having an instructor and being in a classroom setting was extremely helpful for Robertson. Having an instructor present meant someone was there to guide him when he needed help for him to understand better. With peers, he was able to take advantage of the questions they asked that he may not have even thought of.

Robertson described the LSAT as “demoralizing” and a “mental health game” because as one sits down to study for the exam, they realize they know nothing.

“If you don’t get it, it’s terrible, you want to cry,” Robertson said.

One must be in the right mindset to take on the LSAT according to Robertson.

With the course and his own self-preparation through Khan Academy, Robertson was able to raise his score from a 145 to a 157.

Being able to access and afford additional resources such as LSAT preparation courses or online study materials, can make all the difference. Unfortunately, this puts people of color at a disadvantage.

Data from the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances show that the median white family has $188,200 in family wealth compared to just $24,100 and $36,100 for the median Black and Hispanic families. Even when added together that doesn’t even make up half of the median for white families.

Adetoye, Recinos and Robertson are all people of color that have used their own personal income to fund their LSAT expenses, and all three have jobs that they schedule their preparation around. This can make it harder for them to focus and limits their possible study time.

“Coming home from a long day of work, you’re sitting in traffic for like 30 minutes and then having explained to yourself that you need to go and study for like two and a half hours is like, so unimaginable,” Adetoye said. “It’s very, very hard.”

Adetoye would hear how others have more time to study because they don’t work or only work part-time.

“That’s really a luxury that a lot of people don’t get to have,” Adetoye said. “I think that people glorify being able to study for five, six hours a day because it’s really not possible for a lot of us.”

According to Manzo, the lack of time to focus creates a big disadvantage.

“Someone that’s working 40 hours comes home and does two hours of studying every night, is not going to have the same score as someone that’s devoted three months of just studying for it,” Manzo said.  “And that number can really move you from going to open so many more options and doors to you, and so many more higher tier schools potentially.”

The lack of resources is indeed reflective of LSAT performance. According to the LSAC’s latest Performance Report, people of color have lower scores than whites. Blacks/African Americans and Puerto Ricans have the lowest average score.

Despite this, the ABA has acknowledged the test as, “a fair measure of first-year law school performance and correlates well with the final law school grade-point average, rank in class, and performance on bar examination.”

Research has confirmed that the LSAT is the single best predictor of law school success, and Lily Knezevich and Wayne Camara of the LSAC claim, “LSAT scores provide a reliable and valid measure for law schools to use as one component of the admission process—information that cannot be adequately addressed solely by the use of college grades or other admission factors.”

Adetoye doesn’t think LSAT scores can be truly indicative of law school performance. When she was faced with the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, she was a completely different person. She described her SAT score as horrific and outright disrespectful and is in no way an accurate reflection of who she is as a student now.

“If you saw my score, you never would have thought that that would have been the same student that I was in college,” Adetoye said. “And so, I don’t really feed into the whole, like, ‘your standardized test score is indicative of your performance.’ And I don’t necessarily think that’s true.”

She was lucky to find a school that was test-optional, Muhlenberg College. Instead of submitting her SAT scores, she went in for an interview with an admissions counselor. She was grateful for the opportunity and because of her experience, she’s fond of law schools going test-optional and replacing it with either interviews or supplemental essays.

On Nov. 4, the ABA released its final recommendations on Standard 503 Admission Tests. Originally the ABA required the use of a “valid and reliable admission test” in law school admissions, but if the revisions are approved, “a law school may use admission tests as part of sound admission practices and policies.” This revision would leave it up to each law school to decide whether they will continue the use of admission tests such as the LSAT or any other test such as the GRE.

According to a new survey conducted by Kaplan in November, a significant number of law schools will continue the use of the LSAT even if the ABA, which accredits them, no longer requires it. Kaplan surveyed 82 law schools and found half of them said they were “very likely” or “likely” to continue the use of the LSAT in admissions. Only four schools told Kaplan they are “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to stop requiring applicants to take an admissions test if the mandate is dropped, while 37 said they did not know what they would do.

The ABA is moving forward with these proposed changes in the name of diversity. The proposed changes will go to the ABA’s House of Delegates in February 2023 for final approval. If approved, the change would be implemented in Fall 2025.

The LSAC has repeatedly defended the testing requirement and in September 2021, 60 law deans responded in dissent to the proposed changes. In the letter, the deans warned that these changes might place more weight on undergraduate grade-point averages, recommendations, the reputation of the undergraduate university and other subjective factors.

“We believe that, if the proposed amendment to Standard 503 were adopted in its current form, it likely would be detrimental to law schools’ goals of bringing in diverse classes of students and, ultimately, to the diversity of the legal profession,” the deans wrote. “For if law schools abandon the LSAT (or some other validated test) in their admissions processes, something else will take its place.”

Adetoye claimed this is already happening as all the listed factors by the deans  carry great weight in admissions and those, such as the law deans, acting as if they don’t already are just being dishonest.

If two people with the exact same application and statistics apply to Harvard Law School, and the only difference is one applicant attended Harvard for undergrad while the other attended a much lesser-known school, they’d choose the one who went to Harvard over the other, Adebisi said.

Diversity is a major factor of the LSAT debate, with some calling the LSAT a roadblock to building a diverse legal profession while others argue that it is an equalizer that helps underprivileged aspiring lawyers.

Most of the people I spoke to both agreed and disagreed with aspects from both sides of the debate. The LSAT, as it stands now, is both an equalizer and a roadblock.

Robertson describes the LSAT as a double-edged sword. On one hand, if you come from an undergraduate school that’s not the best, have a low GPA, or do not have the best letters of recommendation, the LSAT can open doors for you that were previously closed. On the other hand, due to society, a lot of people of color haven’t been given the opportunity to dedicate and apply themselves as much as they would like, Robertson said.

The issue of the lack of diversity within the legal field is a complicated one, to say the least. Every step into a legal career can be a roadblock for people of color: the costs of law school are astronomically high, quality part-time or online law school programs aren’t often an option and the BAR exam, although varies by state, can be costly for first-time takers. The LSAT, as it stands now, is just one drop of water in an ocean.

Everyone had a wide variety of possible solutions: instituting a test-optional system that involves interviews and explanatory essays describing why test scores or GPA isn’t an accurate reflection of themselves, using simplified language and vocabulary on LSAT exams, affirmative action and having everyone just test blind.

Manzo agreed that exams such as the LSAT and BAR are big barriers, but simply removing the exam requirement isn’t enough as it doesn’t ensure opportunity for people of color. Law schools need to be intentional and acknowledge the need for students of color by giving them a chance and helping them succeed once admitted, according to Manzo.

“You can’t just say like I opened the door for you. Now you do it. No, this is cycles and systematic issues that have harmed communities, and opening a door is not enough. So even if you get rid of the [exam] scores, you’ve got to make sure people are still getting in, and once they’re in that you’re giving them a lot of resources and taking the time to develop them,” Manzo said.

Manzo has faced the lack of diversity first-hand as an active attorney and heard from his peers of its effects. He said it causes a feeling of not belonging.

“Having leadership that’s predominantly white males is really common, and that really hurts that feeling that you can succeed in your position and that you know you’re valued,” Manzo said.

The issues surrounding the lack of diversity within the legal field are plenty and the debate of the proposed changes for the use of admissions tests is far from simple, but a solution must be found regardless. Racial and ethnic diversity within the legal profession is essential in ensuring that laws are being created and administered for the benefit and protection of all people regardless of their background, according to the ABA.

About the Journalist
Photo of Jocelyn Hernandez Gomez
Jocelyn Hernandez Gomez

Jocelyn Hernandez Gomez earned her undergraduate degree in Journalism at San Francisco State University where she also minored in English Literature. She grew up in San Jose, California and moved to San Francisco in 2019 to continue her education. Jocelyn is a member of the NAHJ and plans to continue an education in law after she graduates from SFSU in Fall 2022.