Why is the LSAT so important to law schools?

The LSAT.  A half-day standardized, multiple-choice exam that has more impact on one’s law school application than any other factor.  Law schools will routinely tell you that a student’s cumulative GPA and LSAT score are the top two factors they consider, and the half-day LSAT is typically even more important than one’s overall GPA that took 4-7 years of blood, sweat and tears to accomplish.

Why?  Although there is a correlation between one’s LSAT score and how well one does in law school, the LSAT is by no means a perfect indicator of anything.  Many of the absolute best lawyers I know did not do particularly well on the LSAT.

In order to appreciate the relevance of the LSAT score, one needs to put oneself in the shoes of an admissions committee member.  From my work on the Advisory Committee to Harvard University’s Admissions Committee, I know how challenging (and sometimes tedious) it can be to go through an extensive number of  applications.  After a while, things become a blur.  It’s hard to remember one personal statement from another.  Soft factors matter, but they are often very hard to evaluate – and sometimes a nightmare to use as a basis for making meaningful comparisons between students.

From my many conversations with members of law school admissions committees, two things jump out at them:  (1) the person’s overall GPA, and (2) the person’s standardized test scores.  The overall GPA is meaningful but has subjective components to it:  a 3.8 GPA in an “easy” major from a school known for grade inflation may not be as impressive as a 3.6 GPA in a “hard” major from a tougher school.  Using GPA’s is useful but difficult because the comparisons are not a true “apples-to-apples” comparison.

And then there is the LSAT.  The imperfect, sometimes unfair, frustrating, half-day LSAT.  The LSAT remains the one and only thing that these admissions committee members have to compare students on a pure nationwide curve – i.e., the one and only true “apples-to-apples” comparison.  The LSAT isn’t perfect, but it is the most objective comparison they have to work with.

Added to all of that is U.S. News and World Reports, which focuses upon and publishes the average GPA and LSAT scores of a law school’s student body.  The law school rankings given by U.S. News and World Reports are important to law schools.  Higher overall LSAT scores of a law school’s student body tends to correspond with higher overall rankings for the law school.  Hence, the LSAT becomes even more disproportionately important.

Does that mean it’s time to panic?  Absolutely not.  But  the LSAT is a test that one should take seriously.  Study hard for it and practice diligently.  Repetition matters, and taking lots of practice exams is beneficial – just like shooting lots of free throws in practice helps increase one’s confidence to make a free throw during the actual basketball game.  But remember this:  your LSAT score makes a big difference when it comes to getting into the law school(s) of your choice.  However, it makes NO difference after that.  None at all.  You can become a spectacular lawyer regardless of your LSAT score.

Finally, for those of you who read my last blog entry about California’s Three Strikes law, keep this in mind: even if you completely bomb the LSAT, it will not be nearly as bad as what may happen to you if you steal a piece of pizza with two “strike priors”!