COUNTERPOINT: Sector-specific testing helps prepare students for their field

Luke Phillips | Daily Trojan

I don’t intend to study law, so I don’t have the same strong feelings about the LSAT that so many aspiring attorneys feel. I can see the rationale for allowing law school applicants to use the GRE in their applications, and in many ways it makes sense — it lowers the barrier for entry to application, it allows applicants to master’s and Ph.D. programs to use the same test for J.D. programs, it saves people lots of money, etc.

With that said, there are still benefits to having sector-specific testing requirements for applications to particular types of schools. Different trades have different jargon and different intellectual cultures, and it’s hard for a universalized test to do justice to the whole range of knowledge between fields. That’s why sector-specific tests were set up in the first place.

Take the MCAT for medical students. Most medical schools require it for applications, as it covers a broad range of medicine-specific knowledge necessary for medical students upon entry into the profession. Moreover, medical students will be studying things that their peers in master’s and Ph.D. and J.D. programs, for the most part, will never have to use.

Law is closer to the rest of the humanities than medicine is, but it nonetheless is still a highly technical field, with a specific set of intellectual skills required for its practice. A brief survey of practice questions for the LSAT, versus practice questions for the GRE, reveals the differences in thinking and logic expected of law students. For some of us non-pre-law plebeians, the LSAT practice questions seem like pointlessly technical sophistry. But in reality, they are designed to reflect the real technical nature of the course material law students will undergo in their courses and eventually in their profession.

Art by Deena Baum | Daily Trojan

This isn’t to argue that the GRE is less sophisticated or less valuable. It is to say, however, that the GRE is simply not as specifically tailored to the demands of law as the LSAT is, and implies a different, broader set of intellectual skills. When law schools begin accepting the GRE in lieu of the LSAT, they expect to receive applications from a cohort of applicants who studied for a different test, and are thus intellectually prepared in different ways than they were before. This poses some important questions for law schools’ purpose and action in the broader educational and labor force training contexts.

The blog Above The Law reports that market forces have largely been driving the shift toward law schools’ acceptance of the GRE — in a post-recession world where fewer and fewer graduates apply to law school in the first place, it makes sense to reduce the barriers to entry in an attempt to attract more applicants to fill spots in the programs.

But this implies that the law itself, if it is not in its current form attracting more talented students and applicants, might need some kinds of internal reforms to stay relevant and attractive to America’s best and brightest. This is not unique to law. Technical fields in the “applied humanities” neighborhood — for example, the officers’ corps in the U.S. Armed Forces, the diplomatic and intelligence professions, even academia — have been losing applicants in recent decades as the best and brightest go to the private sector for work. However, rather than simply changing their barriers for entry, some of those professions have made changes to benefits systems and job quality, and even to their recruitment and marketing, to attract the top crop of American graduates.

I don’t have any specific recommendations as to how law schools could accept more talented people. But a few things — for example, the skyrocketing costs of law schools, the prospect of some aspects of legal work being “boring” and “unrewarding,” the scarcity of the more desirable sorts of legal jobs — seem to turn people away, at least in my anecdotal experiences talking to pre-law students. Figuring out how to develop a better deal — a better “social contract” of the profession, if you will — may be helpful not only for law schools but also for bar associations themselves.

Luke Phillips is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.