Law in the Internet Society
Even though I’m a few years removed from applying to law school, it still strikes me how opaque the entire process is. The Columbia Law admissions website emphasizes that the school reviews applications “holistically” by looking at not just grades and test scores but also “personal qualities considered requisite to scholastic success, professional distinction, and public service”.

And yet nothing about my experience and the experience of others seems to back this up. If we’re being honest, there was nothing in my application that spoke to “personal qualities”, “professional distinction”, or “public service”. What I did have was a high LSAT score in a year where the number of high scores dropped 20%. That, along with a good (but not great) GPA, was enough for admission to some of the most selective law schools in the country, including Columbia.

My results were just another version of the same story told hundreds of times on online forums and in pre-law societies. The message: law schools don’t really care about your extracurriculars, work experience, or personal narrative. It’s all a game – put together the highest GPA and LSAT you can, then wrap it up in a clean application. While the admissions office might paint a picture of the perfect applicant as a bright and well-rounded student who is engaged in his or her community, the applicant they’re most likely to admit is the one who spent all summer holed up in their room, drilling logic games until they can get a perfect score on that section. There is an “efficient” way to go about preparing an application – namely, to study for the LSAT at the expense of everything else. Columbia’s website suggests that volunteering or being a part of student governance makes a meaningful difference, but it really doesn’t move the needle. Raising your LSAT from a 170 to a 173 does.

This isn’t necessarily an indictment of the way Columbia and other schools select their students. It’s a difficult task for an admissions office to pick offerees based on their “personal qualities” when they’re given a stack of paper applications to choose from. Different members of the admissions committee might have different ideas regarding what “personal qualities” they see in a particular file, but it’s hard to disagree over whether one number is bigger than another. Plus, schools are concerned with their public image, which is inevitably tied to the GPA and LSAT medians they publish every year. Every law school claims that their students are special, that they picked the leaders and visionaries of tomorrow. Of course, all of that is unverifiable. What is easily verifiable is what the school’s medians are and how that compares to the medians of their peers.

But, even if we assume that the school’s admissions standards are correct, it still begs the question: if this is what the school wants, why don’t they just ask for it? If what they’re really looking for are the most impressive numbers on paper, shouldn’t they tell applicants to focus on those numbers? To illustrate this point, I’d draw a comparison to another opaque selection process – EIP. Much like applying to law school, it’s a competitive and stressful process that people learn about through rumors and gossip. But, to its credit, I’ve always felt like law firms were remarkably clear about what they expected out of the students. Only three things really mattered in getting an offer – your grades, whether or not you were on law review, and your performance in purely behavioral interviews. I was told unequivocally that other things which seemed important (your extracurriculars, where you spent your 1L summer, what law you “know”) really didn’t matter at all.

In turn, I think law firms got what they asked for. Every 1L hears that their grades this year are paramount, and most end up prioritizing their GPA over all else. Before EIP, interviewees do the preparation necessary to perform well during an interview. The 1Ls don’t spend their time preparing for things firms don’t consider. The students who join organizations do so out of a genuine interest or passion, not because they can add it as a resume line item. Again, one could question whether firms are best served by enforcing somewhat arbitrary grade cutoffs (although it's probably even more difficult for law firms to make informed choices about candidates than law schools), but they do a good job of indicating to students how important those cutoffs are.

Ultimately, I see a mismatch between the stated policy of law schools, including Columbia, and their actual desires. If they ask for well-rounded students, they should actually value qualities that indicate well-roundedness. If they want the students with the best stats, they should make that clearer from the outset. The current paradigm of paying lip service to certain qualifications while actually making decisions based on others does a disservice to both the school and potential students.

-- By MichaelPan - 10 Oct 2019

I think it would be a good idea to make a draft that lies closer to the center of the course's interests, not just ones you and I might happen to share. But because we do share those concerns, let me offer some substantive comment on the subject as it is presented in this draft.

First, I think it might be useful to adopt a different model of admissions behavior. The ranking system named after US News & World Report, an ancient weekly news magazine from the late Stone Age, requires certain statistical phenomena in the class of a top-top law school. The median LSAT score must be in the 99th percentile. Various quartile mean properties with respect to GPA, etc., must also be preserved. Self-evidently, LSAT score could be said to be the "only thing that matters" with respect to half the class. That's not actually something that the applicant can control. There is no evidence that—within the top 10% of the population of test scores—the exam is "valid," in the sense that percentile placement reflects a statistically-significant change in performance. About a tenth of the test-takers, in other words, are randomly distributed through the top ten percent of the scores, but only those randomly-placed in the top 1% have access to half the seats. Similar questions arise about the validity of the other statistical measures that supposedly "are what matter."

The "efficient means of life for getting in" hypothesis is bullshit, if—after all the tests and etc. they roll one ten-sided die to figure out whether you are admitted, right? Actually, the best way to get into the school is to be an excellent student and interesting person who is comfortable in your skin and happens also to be lucky. But that's not what the happy music says, because: (1) we don't want to emphasize the foolish way in which we are stuck to the ranking system; and (2) we're also trying to create a demographically and intellectually diverse community of students under the scrutiny of a society that's not sure how to do that or whether it matters. The result is not optimal in any sense, but we aren't willing to change it fundamentally because it seems to work well enough.

The employment system you also describe adequately, but only with respect to one class of employers. Only large entities hiring in bulk either would or could operate on the basis you suggest. When I am hiring lawyers, which I am almost always doing in my practice, I interview a few people carefully, and their grades are so unimportant I never look at a transcript. If someone has done well she will say so in her cover letter and on her c.v., so I won't be left to find it out from the transcript. After 30 or 45 minutes' interviewing, I know what the teachers could tell me on the transcript if they had actually put more effort into grading their students than teaching them, which I truly don't believe is my colleagues' professional priority, thank Heaven.

Once again, the difference is between the need for statistical bases to differentiate large numbers of cases, and the effort to evaluate individuals in order to teach and to practice more effectively. Change in scale from small to large irrevocably imposes measurement in place of qualitative evaluation. You can choose how to be educated or employed with that reality in mind.

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r2 - 18 Nov 2019 - 18:52:36 - EbenMoglen
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