Embracing Our History as We Embark on a Digital Future
The Law School Admission Council reaches two major milestones this year as it launches the Digital LSAT and reaches the 75th anniversary of the conception of the LSAT itself. The world has undergone many dramatic changes since the first students sat for the LSAT, but LSAC’s guiding principles of promoting quality, access, and equity in legal education have remained steadfast.
Our story began in May 1945, when Frank Bowles, admissions director at Columbia Law School, wrote to John Stalnaker at the College Entrance Examination Board to suggest the creation of a test with a high predictive value for success in law school. His letter underscored a fundamental problem: Before the LSAT came into widespread use, the legal field was dominated by white men from privileged backgrounds. Getting into law school required being vouched for by an uncle or father who already held a prominent position at a university, law firm, or court. The LSAT’s early role, then, was to open access to law school on a fair basis that depended on the candidate’s potential, not on privileged ancestry or an Ivy League pedigree.
Two years later, Bowles and two others from Columbia traveled to Princeton to discuss, in detail, the possibility of the College Entrance Examination Board preparing a law aptitude test. The notes from that gathering are meticulous and offer a fascinating view into the vision behind the development and evolution of the LSAT, which was first administered in February 1948. At that time, it took six hours to complete and included more than 500 scored questions across 10 sections. It wasn’t long before the test was scaled back from a full day to a half-day.
As law schools embraced the LSAT, the doors of admission began to open to more people of color, more women, more religious minorities, and more people from a wider variety of academic institutions. In the early 1960s, the LSAT played a role in a key moment in American history, as LSAT test centers in the American South were desegregated in response to grossly inferior conditions to which African American test takers were being relegated by local officials. That successful effort was a precursor to the broader desegregation of college admissions test centers in the Jim Crow South in the mid-1960s. As the civil rights movement exposed deep racial inequities throughout society, including the legal profession, LSAC, along with other law-related organizations, created the Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) — an organization that LSAC has continued to support for what is now over 50 years.
LSAC expanded internationally in 1975 when it partnered with Canadian law schools for the first time. By the following year, the organization had 174 member schools in the U.S. and Canada. Then, in 1983, when the federal government restricted loans to law students, LSAC created the Law School Assured Access Program, which provided “loans of last resort” to law students. This program was spun off in 1993 into an independent nonprofit corporation called “Access Group” so that it could grow more fully as a lender. Although the Access Group no longer makes loans to law students, it now has over $800M in reserves from the profits on those loans and is currently seeking to define a new mission under the name AccessLex Institute.
LSAC’s commitment to diversity expanded in the early 1990s when it launched an outreach initiative targeting Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs. That effort later was expanded to schools with significant Latinx and Native American populations, and we continue to support student travel to forums and training workshops for prelaw advisors at these colleges and universities. In the mid-1990s, LSAC hosted the first Native American Prelaw Workshop, and at the end of the decade, LSAC began making grants of up to $5,000 for jointly sponsored workshops for diverse communities in areas not served by LSAC Law School Forums.
LSAC also realized that the key to increasing lawyers from diverse backgrounds required a focus on the success of those candidates admitted. The focus on leveling the playing field by supporting the academic success of students from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups led to the Academic Assistance Initiative. For over 15 years, LSAC supported the development of academic assistance programs in law schools and the professional development of faculty and administrators who provide academic assistance to enrolled law students. Now, most every law school has an academic support program with roots in this vital initiative.
Around the same time, we began expanding our services for member law schools and candidates to help them more easily connect with one another. Those services included a Letter of Recommendation Service, electronic applications to all ABA-approved law schools, and a wide range of tools and services to assist law schools in managing their application, matriculation, and ABA reporting processes. These efforts were a precursor to what our member schools know today as ACES, recently renamed Unite, and the Candidate Assembly and Referral Services.
Since the turn of the 21st century, LSAC has steadily increased its commitment to helping students from a wider spectrum of backgrounds enter the legal field. Last year, to help level the playing field for all test takers, LSAC and Khan Academy launched Khan Academy Official LSAT Prep, the first free and authentic online test prep program for the LSAT. By early 2019, 40,000 students from diverse backgrounds were using Khan Academy Official LSAT Prep each month. We have also increased the number of LSAT administrations which further makes it easier for all law school hopefuls to find a time and place to take the exam.
That brings us to now, when we’ve just launched two of the biggest changes in LSAT history: on-demand LSAT Writing, which started with the June 3 LSAT, and the Digital LSAT, which started with the July 15 test administration. What changes can we look forward to next year, or the year after that? It’s too early to say, but we know the world is changing, and LSAC is committed to changing along with it — in a way that maintains the integrity of our flagship exam, serves the legal community, and provides access to a legal education, and to justice, for everyone.