The Volokh Conspiracy

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New Law School "Mismatch" Data from UCLA Lawprof Richard Sander

Not surprisingly, low LSAT scores are strongly correlated with low bar passage rates.


In a new post, Sander recounts the history of his work on "mismatch" (the incoming academic qualifications gap between students who are favored in admission because they contribute to 'diversity' and the student body as a whole) in law schools. After noting that it's been extremely difficult to acquire additional data,

Robert Steinbuch (a colleague at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock) and I eventually secured the public release of data from 12 cohorts of law students at four law schools, covering about 6,500 students in all. And after a multi-year review process, the Journal of Legal Education—the official organ of the Association of American Law Schools—has now agreed to publish the first set of our results in its next issue.

Our findings indicate that mismatch can account for two-thirds to three-quarters of the Black-white gap.

Our findings are even stronger than we expected. A student's degree of mismatch in law school is by far the strongest predictor of whether he or she will pass a bar exam on a first attempt. In 2005, I estimated that mismatch could account for half of the bar-passage gap between Blacks and whites, with the rest caused by lower average pre-law-school preparation levels among Black students. Our findings indicate, however, that mismatch can account for two-thirds to three-quarters of the Black-white gap, as well as more than half of the Hispanic-white gap. Importantly, we found that when one fully controls for mismatch, LSAT, and UGPA, race-specific effects completely disappear. Many critics of mismatch had argued, without evidence, that poor minority performance might be caused by "hostile" environments in law school or "stereotype threats" faced by underrepresented students. Our results flatly contradict such claims.
Most of our results are in regression analyses that can be hard for those without a technical background to interpret. But one of our tables, reproduced below, makes the basic pattern clear. It shows first-time bar-passage rates for several thousand law graduates, grouped by their LSAT score and whether they attended an elite, somewhat-elite, or non-elite law school. Unsurprisingly, students with high LSAT scores had high bar-passage rates at all schools and did particularly well at the elite school in question. But students at the elite school with LSAT scores 12 to 14 points below the median of their fellow students (i.e., LSAT scores of 150-152) had only a 22 percent first-time bar-passage rate, while students with the same LSAT score at the non-elite school in question had a 79 percent first-time bar-passage rate. In other words, lower mismatch translates into dramatically better performance.

I wrote an oped on a related subject almost twenty years ago, and I heard from several law school deans and administrators (none of whom wanted their names or schools identified, naturally). Each of them told me that there was a "cutoff," known at their law school, below which the odds of student bar passage plummet. You can see this effect in the mid-150s at UCLA, the low 150s at UC Davis, and the mid-140s at UA Little Rock.

They added that if they resisted accepting URM students with LSATs below that threshold, the ABA accreditation people threatened them with being placed on probation for having an insufficiently diverse student body–even though ABA rules required law schools not to admit students that they thought would not succeed academically.

In other words, the ABA prohibited them from taking white or Asian students with LSATs below a certain threshold, knowing that those students were unlikely to become lawyers, but required them to admit at least some Black or Hispanic students with those scores. Worse yet, no one informed the students admitted with those LSATs that their odds of ultimately passing the bar were low. (Indeed, Sander's chart understates the matter, because it excludes students who fail out or drop out of law school before they have a chance to take the bar.) Even worse, at a public hearing I participated in, an ABA official acknowledged that for accreditation purposes, the ABA only cares how many URM students matriculate, and does not care, or track, how many ultimately make it through law school and pass the bar!