Why the LSAT?

Many an anguished LSAT student has thrown up her hands in disgust and cried out, “Why do I have to figure out the order some clowns get out of a car to be a lawyer?” or “Why do I need to find the flaw in an argument about the mating habits of the greater sage grouse to get into Harvard?” I remember studying for the LSAT myself — a decade ago now — when, after giving up on an especially brutal Logic Game requiring me to pair boys and girls into dance teams, I asked myself aloud and quite loudly in a hushed library, “Why am I doing this?”

Why, indeed.

The vast majority of LSAT-related articles floating around the Internet address the “what” and “how” of the LSAT: What is on the test? How does one go about studying for it? These are very important questions, the answers to which every aspiring lawyer must at some point answer.

The “why” of the LSAT, however, goes mostly unaddressed. Why does one have to do well on the LSAT to go to law school when it has practically nothing to do with the law? After taking the exam, doing well, going to law school, practicing law, and then teaching the Blueprint LSAT course, I have a pretty clear idea of the answer to that question:

The LSAT tests one’s ability to think like a lawyer, which, in turn, allows admissions officers at law schools to pick people who are more likely to succeed in law school and as lawyers.

Skeptical? Let’s take a closer look at the pieces of the LSAT. There are three section types that factor into one’s LSAT score: Logical Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, and Logic Games, the last of which the makers of the LSAT refer to as “Analytical Reasoning.” There are two scored sections of Logical Reasoning, and one scored section each of Reading Comprehension and Logic Games.

Logical Reasoning

I take Logical Reasoning first because it composes approximately half of the scored questions on the exam. Logical Reasoning tests one’s ability to evaluate arguments, and a huge chunk of a lawyer’s life is devoted to constructing her own arguments and disputing opposing counsel’s arguments.

Most Logical Reasoning questions provide a brief argument – a conclusion and some support for that conclusion – and then ask you a question about it. A question might, for example, present an argument by a scientist in which the scientist concludes that a particular chemical dumped into a stream is causing deformities that have been observed in the fish in that stream. The scientist might support his conclusion by citing a study showing that this very chemical has caused deformities in laboratory mice. If it causes deformities in mice, it’s a good bet that it causes deformities in fish too, right?

Well, after throwing this tidbit your way, you might be asked to weaken the argument. The LSAT is asking you to pick out an answer that makes the conclusion – this particular chemical is causing these deformities in fish – less likely to be true. A correct answer choice might be something like, “The chemical affects a gene in mice that fish don’t have.” If you think like a lawyer, you’ll know that this blows the scientist’s support for his conclusion to pieces. Mice are different than fish in a way that makes the study irrelevant to fish deformities. A wrong answer, on the other hand, might look something like, “The study was performed after the deformities among fish were first observed.” Yeah? So? That doesn’t mean the study isn’t good evidence. A successful LSAT taker can both identify relevant evidence in order to undermine a conclusion and dispense with something that’s irrelevant.

This ties in very nicely with what law students and lawyers do. In a law school final exam essay, you might be given a set of facts about a legal case where inhabitants of a particular neighborhood are suing a corporation, claiming that harmful pollutants created and spread by the corporation are causing cancer in the neighborhood. You might be asked to argue for the corporation, and showing that a particular study cited by the neighborhood residents is irrelevant to their condition would be persuasive evidence that the corporation shouldn’t be held liable for that condition. In other words, you’re being asked to weaken the residents’ argument. As a lawyer, you’ll do the same thing in real life.

This is just one way in which you’ll be asked to understand argumentation, both good and bad, on the Logical Reasoning portion of the LSAT.

 

Reading Comprehension

To put it mildly, you’re going to read a lot in law school. Not surprisingly, you must comprehend what you read in order to participate meaningfully in class and do well on exams. Reading Comprehension on the LSAT, though, is different than Reading Comprehension on other exams. In law school, the vast majority of your reading assignments will be judicial opinions. In a judicial opinion, the judge in a case – or, more likely, the judge’s law clerk – will lay out the arguments of the plaintiff and the defendant and come down on one side or the other.

So, like Logical Reasoning, you’re being asked to evaluate arguments, but, in Reading Comprehension, there’s more to it. You’ll need to identify the arguments – there are usually two or more – and determine how they relate to one another. For instance, a Reading Comprehension passage might feature an author considering the relative merits of two methods of corn cultivation, ultimately deciding that one should be used and the other shouldn’t. While corn cultivation is irrelevant to law school, being able to determine that the author is identifying arguments for each of two opposing positions and coming down on one side is a pretty good analog to reading a judicial opinion intelligently.

Incidentally, there’s so much reading in law school that it’ll be tough to keep up. (My eyeglasses prescription changed about every month when I was in law school.) The fact that the LSAT hits you over the head with four passages and 27 or so questions in 35 minutes tests your ability to read and understand quickly as well as thoroughly, which tests your ability to keep up with the reading.

 

Logic Games

Ah, Logic Games. I’ve saved the best for last. I happen to like Logic Games, which is not the case for many, many test takers. In fact, most students grudgingly accept that Logical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension test lawyerly skills, but, when it comes to Logic Games, it’s a bridge too far.

However, take a step back, and it actually becomes pretty reasonable. A Logic Game gives you a situation – what your law school professors will call a fact pattern – and a bunch of rules – what your law school professors will call… well, rules. Applying rules to facts is pretty much what the practice of law is all about.

The fact that a game might talk about which toy dinosaurs get displayed in a store window and which don’t might seem irrelevant to law school, but applying rules to determine who is and isn’t part of a group certainly is. You might think of the window as a class action lawsuit and the dinosaurs as potential plaintiffs. All of a sudden, it becomes pretty darn important to figure out who gets into the window display and who doesn’t.

More deeply, understanding how a rule applies to a situation includes understanding not only its immediately intended effect, but also other side effects it might have. A statute – a fancy word for a law written by a legislature – can be hundreds or even thousands of pages long. Invoking one particular provision of a statute that seems to help your case might trigger other provisions of the statute or even provisions of different statutes that might do harm to your case. There might be case law out there – a judicial opinion – that interprets that statutory provision in a different way than seems reasonable. Invoking state law might trigger federal law or vice versa. The possibilities are endless.

A Logic Game is a (relatively) low stakes forum for testing a person’s ability to manage something as complex as the law. If someone can’t do it on a test, that person will be the target of many malpractice lawsuits in the unlikely event that he becomes a lawyer.

Going back to the Logic Game that has haunted my dreams for a decade, let’s say a particular question assumes that Frank and Winifred are paired as dance partners. There might be a rule that says that when Winifred isn’t paired with John, Alan is paired with Stephanie. Still with me? The question might ask, “Which of the following could be true?” I can cross off an answer that says that Stephanie is paired with Bill. If your head is spinning and you have no idea who this Bill character is, don’t be alarmed. Pairing Winifred with Frank triggered a chain of events, and, if you were keeping track of them you’d know what’s going on with Stephanie, which in turn let’s you know what isn’t going on with Stephanie. Sorry, Bill.

In much the same way, applying a particular rule in a legal case might preclude some seemingly unrelated thing from being asserted. Knowing that ahead of time makes you a good lawyer. Failing to anticipate that makes you the attorney for the losing party in the case.

 

The Data

Now that we’ve talked about the qualitative stuff, let’s talk hard numbers. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC), the non-profit company that creates and administers the LSAT, regularly conducts studies of the predictive value of the LSAT. You can find a brief summary of their 2010 study here and a mind-bogglingly technical paper on their 2012 study here.) These studies compare performance on the LSAT with performance in the first year of law school, measured by first year GPA. 

In the 2010 study, LSAC surveyed 189 law schools to determine the correlation between LSAT performance and first year GPA. Correlation in this model is measured on a scale from 0 to 1. If they found a correlation value of 0, it would mean that the LSAT had no predictive value for success. In such an instance, it would mean that plenty of people who did well on the LSAT bombed their first year, and plenty of people who bombed the LSAT aced their first year. A correlation value of 1, on the other hand, would indicate perfect predictive value, meaning that, in every case, the better one did on the test the better one did in their first year of law school. No exceptions.

Not surprisingly, the data was in between these two extremes. Among all 189 schools, there was a correlation of anywhere between .12 and .56. On the low end of that spectrum, the LSAT was still somewhat predictive of success or failure, and, on the high end, it was substantially predictive. The median was .36, meaning that the school smack dab in the middle of those 189 saw a predictive correlation of .36.

To put that in perspective, the LSAT is a better predictor of success than is undergraduate GPA. Among those same 189 schools, the correlation between undergraduate GPA and first year GPA was between .09 and .45, with a median of .28.

This overall comparison between the predictive value of the LSAT and the predictive value of undergraduate GPA illustrates quite dramatically the importance of the LSAT. As weird and as seemingly unrelated to law school the LSAT is, the numbers don’t lie. The better you do on the exam, the better you do in law school.

There’s an inference to be drawn from all of this, which is that studying for the LSAT has value above and beyond getting into the law school of your dreams. The LSAT is a learnable test. Put that fact together with the fact that it tests your ability to think like a lawyer, and you come to the conclusion that studying for the LSAT helps you learn to think like a lawyer before you crack a law school book. So, when you’re in the midst of studying, you ought to look at it as an opportunity to get the ball rolling on being an attorney rather than a temporary roadblock like so many of your peers.

 

Branden Frankel is Marketing Director at Blueprint LSAT Preparation, 2010 graduate of UCLA School of Law. He scored a 175 on the June 2006 LSAT.

 

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