What Predicts Law Student Success? A Longitudinal Study Correlating Law Student Applicant Data and Law School Outcomes
Journal of Empirical Legal Studies
Alexia Brunet Marks & Scott A. Moss, What Predicts Law Student Success? A Longitudinal Study Correlating Law Student Applicant Data and Law School Outcomes, 13 J. Empirical Legal Stud. 205 (2016), available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jels.12114/pdf.
Despite the rise of “big data” empiricism, law school admission remains heavily impressionistic; admission decisions rely on anecdotes about recent students, idiosyncratic preferences for certain majors or jobs, or mainly the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Yet no predictors are well-validated and studies of the LSAT or other factors fail to control for other factors. The lack of evidence for what actually predicts law school success is especially surprising since, after the 2010s downturn, law schools now compete for fewer applicants. We fill this gap with a two-school, 1,400-student, 2005--2011 longitudinal study. We coded nondigitized applicant data and used multivariate regression analysis to predict law school grades (LGPA) from many variables: LSAT; college grades (UGPA), quality, and major; UGPA trajectory; employment duration and type (legal, scientific, military, teaching, etc.); college leadership; prior graduate degree; criminal or disciplinary record; and variable interactions (e.g., high-LSAT/low-UGPA or vice-versa). Our results include new findings about how to balance LSAT and UGPA, plus the first findings that college quality, major, work experience, and other traits are significant predictors of law student grades, controlling for other factors: (1) LSAT predicts more weakly, and UGPA more powerfully, than commonly assumed---and a high-LSAT/low-UGPA profile may predict worse than the opposite; (2) a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) or EAF (economics, accounting, finance) major is a significant plus, akin to three and a half to four extra LSAT points; (3) several years’ work experience is a significant plus, with teaching especially positive and military the weakest; (4) a criminal or disciplinary record is a significant minus, akin to seven and a half fewer LSAT points; and (5) long-noted gender disparities seem to have abated, but racial disparities persist. Some predictors were interestingly nonlinear: college quality has decreasing returns; UGPA has increasing returns; a rising UGPA is a plus only for law students right out of college; and four to nine years of work is a “sweet spot.” Certain groups---those with military or public-sector work, or a criminal/disciplinary record---have high LGPA variance, indicating a mix of high and low performers requiring close scrutiny. Many traditionally valued traits had no predictive value: typical prelaw majors (political science, history, etc.); legal or public-sector work; or college leadership. These findings can help identify who can outperform traditional predictors like the LSAT. Several caveats are explained in the article, however, because statistical models cannot capture certain difficult-to-code key traits: some who project to have weak grades retain appealing lawyering or leadership potential; and many will over- or underperform any projection. Thus, admissions will always be both art and science---but perhaps with a bit more science.
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The authors' preprint version, which is titled What Makes a Law Student Succeed or Fail? A Longitudinal Study Correlating Law Student Applicant Data and Law School Outcomes, is available here at http://scholar.law.colorado.edu/articles/625/.