The Threat to Diversity in Legal Education: An Empirical Analysis of the Consequences of Abandoning Race as a Factor in Law School Admission Decisions
Linda F. Wightman
New York University Law Review, Volume 72, April 1997


The use of affirmative action policies in school admissions has been a continuing source of controversy. In the wake of Hopwood, it is unclear if their continued use will even be possible. In an effort to inform the debate, Professor Wightman has engaged in a comprehensive empirical analysis to examine the impact of abandoning considerations of race and ethnicity in the law school admission process. Using data obtained from students who applied to law schools in 1990-1991 and from Fall 1991 first-year law students, she examined the likely effects of an admission policy that relied exclusively on LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages. Countering arguments that affirmative action policies merely reallocate minority students among schools, Professor Wightman’s study indicates that such a “numbers only” policy would result in a sharp increase in the number of minority applicants who would be denied access to a legal education, not just at the schools to which they applied, but to any of the law schools included in the study. In striking contrast to the decline in admission rates, Professor Wightman found no significant differences in the graduation rates and bar passage rates between those minority students who would have been accepted to law schools and those who would not. Thus a “numbers only” policy would deny a legal education to many minority applicants who were fully capable of the rigors of legal education and of entering the legal profession. Professor Wightman also examined whether any of several factors, such as socioeconomic status, could serve as an effective proxy for race and ethnicity in order to achieve a diverse student body. None of the factors she studied indicated satisfactory results. In short, Professor Wightman’s study shows that affirmative action policies are likely a necessary prerequisite to maintaining a diverse yet capable law school student body.


Questions about what role, if any, race should play in a variety of decisions ranging from awarding government contracts to offering admission to undergraduate, graduate, or professional school programs have attracted considerable public attention and debate in recent years. This study focuses on empirical data related to only one of those questions—the role of race as a factor in the law school admission process. In order to bring forward current data and statistical and psychometric models that can inform the discussion, this study examines, first, statistical evidence that law school admission practices provide preference to applicants of color and, second, the potential effect on the ethnic makeup of legal education today if those practices are abandoned. The results reported here sometimes support, and other times refute, assertions about the applicant pool, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and the admission process that frequently are incorporated into the competing legal and social arguments put forth during discussion of affirmative action issues.

The debate over the role of affirmative action in the law school admission process is closely linked to the difference in opinions about the role of the two most commonly used quantitative predictors of future academic performance—undergraduate grade-point averages (UGPAs) and scores on the LSAT, a standardized multiple-choice test of acquired reading and reasoning skills. The disagreement is fueled, in part, by a perceived tension between two approaches to admissions. On the one hand, there is support for achieving diversity in student enrollment through consideration of the race of applicants as one of the numerous factors evaluated. On the other, there is support for limiting consideration strictly to competitive indicia of an applicant’s individual academic achievement by relying heavily on quantifiable factors such as LSAT score and UGPA.

In the world of high stakes, competitive law school admissions, the LSAT score and UGPA provide readily available, quantifiable, and apparently objective aids to admission decision making. Partly at issue in the debate is the proper role of grades and test scores in the admission process. Should their role be limited to providing evidence that the applicant is likely able to meet the academic rigors of the legal education program to which she is applying? Or should comparatively higher test scores and grades alone warrant being preferred in all cases for a seat in a particular law school over all applicants with lower test scores or grades? Data are available to inform this debate, and this study analyzes and summarizes some of those data.

Part I examines data from law school applicants and matriculated law school students to empirically evaluate several assertions about affirmative action practices and outcomes in legal education. First, the analyses presented in this study address the question of whether aggressive affirmative action admission practices are still necessary in legal education. Results from data analyses are presented to demonstrate both the extent to which affirmative action appears to play a role in law school admission decisions and the overall consequences, in terms of ethnic makeup of law school classes, of abandoning consideration of race in admission decision making. In Part II, the appropriate role for numerical indicators is scrutinized. Data about the validity of using the quantitative measures for law school admission in general, and for minority applicants in particular, are presented and discussed. In addition, data about law school graduation and bar passage for law students who might not have gained admission absent some consideration of race in the admission process are compared with similar data for students who would have been admitted strictly on numerical indicators. The first part of the discussion addresses the question of appropriate use from the perspective of whether the LSAT score and UGPA are valid for the purpose for which they are intended. The second part focuses on the ability of those who would be systematically excluded from legal education by these two factors to complete law school successfully and gain entry to the profession. Part III of this study then examines several nonnumerical factors to evaluate whether they might be useful alternatives to considerations of race in order to achieve an ethnically diverse law school class.

The Threat to Diversity in Legal Education: An Empirical Analysis of the Consequences of Abandoning Race
as a Factor in Law School Admission Decisions

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