It’s a revolutionary change in American legal education: Harvard Law School has announced that it will no longer require the LSAT—a one-of-its-kind reading and logic exam offered only a handful of times per year—as a criterion for admission to its incoming class. Students can instead submit their scores on the GRE, a more straightforward test (sometimes called a “grown-up SAT”) used for admission to a wide range of master’s and PhD programs.
Experts have noted that Harvard’s decision is likely to create a trickle-down effect at other schools. Stanford and Yale—two smaller elite programs that are Harvard’s fiercest competitors—probably have the prestige and institutional heft to hold on to the LSAT. But it’s very plausible, if not likely, that most other major American law schools will be accepting GRE scores as well in the next five years.
So… this is bad news for the LSAC (the company that produces the LSAT) and it’s good news for prospective law school applicants who are well-qualified overall but just haven’t been able to crack the test’s notorious Logic Games section. But what does it mean for the legal profession in general?
Harvard law school says that the move is intended to broaden the range of students who think about seeking a JD. “The pilot program to accept the GRE is part of a wider strategy at Harvard Law School to expand access to legal education for students in the United States and internationally,” it said in a press release. Martha Minnow, the outgoing dean, suggested that the GRE option might attract students from majors that are not traditionally gateways to law school:
[g]iven the promise of the revolutions in biology, computer science, and engineering, law needs students with science, technology, engineering and math backgrounds. For these students, international students, multidisciplinary scholars, and joint-degree students, the GRE is a familiar and accessible test, and using it is a great way to reach candidates not only for law school, but for tackling the issues and opportunities society will be facing.
All of this language sounds very sunny and optimistic. But there are more serious questions about the future of the legal profession looming in the background. First, overall interest in legal careers has plummeted since the financial crisis—not just because business has dried up, but because other callings (including finance, consulting, and Silicon Valley) started to eat in to the supply of smart young people who want to become lawyers. While Harvard still has a growing applicant pool, it almost certainly has fewer high scorers to choose from: The number of enrollees with a 165+ LSAT score (the low end for consideration at a top-10 school) declined by 42 percent between 2010 and 2015.
More broadly, the Harvard gatekeepers seem to have a sense that elite legal practice is due for major changes. The days when tens of thousands of bright political science majors from top schools could walk the beaten path from top colleges to top law schools to big New York firms to make huge amounts of money doing due diligence for major corporations are disappearing over the horizon. New computer algorithms are competing with firms to provide traditional corporate legal services at lower cost, even as advances in technologies like self-driving cars are creating new legal frontiers that were unimaginable in the heyday of BigLaw in the 1990s and early 2000s. The best lawyers of the next generation will likely need more entrepreneurial flair and interdisciplinary knowledge to make it big in a competitive and changing field.
So while young people thinking about law school might be excited about the diminishing importance of the dreaded LSAT, the fact that Harvard has decided to grow and diversify its applicant pool is not a sign that it’s all rainbows and butterflies in the American legal profession—it’s a sign that the old system that seemed to offer a comfortable middle class lifestyle to any bright college graduate who wanted it is no longer in place, and that it’s anyone’s guess what will come next.