Harvard Law School breaks tradition to diversify legal education

by Molly McCracken on Apr 12, 2017 2:46:03 PM

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A conversation with Harvard Law School’s Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Admissions, Jessica Soban.

 Last year, The University of Arizona’s College of Law became the first school in the U.S. to allow applicants to submit their GRE scores as an alternative to the industry standard LSAT. And last month, Harvard Law School announced they’d be doing the same.

The LSAT has dominated law school admissions for 70 years, however declining applicant volume, shaky job prospects, and criticisms of a lack of diversity at top law schools, over the last decade have become critical indicators suggesting a need for change.

For a world-renowned school like Harvard Law, applicant volume is less of a concern than it may be for other institutions. The move reflects a broader strategy of the law school as a whole to improve access to a legal education and diversify their incoming classes. 

We spoke with Jessica Soban, Harvard Law's Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Admissions, to discuss why Harvard made this decision and why now.

JessicaSoban.png“The shift represents another step in a number of initiatives to increase access to a legal education. For example, we would love to increase the applicants with STEM backgrounds entering law. Putting people through another standardized test [the LSAT] seems arbitrary,” she said.

Allowing applicants to submit a GRE score reflects the changing nature of the school’s applicant pool. Specifically, the change aims to reduce barriers to entry for international applicants, applicants with diverse educational backgrounds, and low-income applicants.

Not only is the GRE offered more places worldwide, but it is also a required test for many other graduate disciplines outside of law, allowing prospective students to keep their options open, or to change paths, as they pursue graduate education.

Furthermore, for applicants to whom cost is a barrier to entry, the more Harvard expands their admissions criteria to allow alternate paths to completion, the less of a bottleneck there is for applicants to apply.

“80 percent of Harvard’s students receive some sort of need-based financial aid. Yet, test prep is so costly, especially LSAT test-prep, so there’s a disconnect there,” she added. “Anything we can do to knock down barriers for applicants helps.”

Circling back to how this change impacts Harvard’s overall admissions criteria, Soban emphasized that standardized tests are only “one sliver” of the admissions process.

“We’re looking for ways to diversify the profession,” she said. “I really do believe in an application process that looks at the whole person, which is why we added screening interviews to introduce a much more human element into the process.”

Will other law schools follow suit?

When a top-tier school challenges the status quo, it creates a starting point for a conversation at other schools to consider doing the same.

For Harvard, piloting the GRE scores in their admissions criteria relied on a few factors:

Not only did Arizona State introduce a good idea, but they also had their institution's massive research network to lean on.

“Harvard Law School is part of one of the biggest research institutions in the world. We had access not just to empiricists and statisticians, but also the Graduate School of Education,” Soban explained. “We had access to all of those resources when we made our decisions and took advantage of that to come to a much more robust conclusion.

For other schools toying with the idea of expanding their admissions criteria, Soban recommends admissions teams return to the principles and vision of their school.

“What is the principle stance that you’re trying to have for any process at your school? Your admissions process should reflect that to the world,” she said.

“For us, that became very clearly ‘access to a legal education.’ We are looking to train people who will be entering any number of professions - and we’re just trying to make the process reflect the principle.” 

Read more about Harvard Law School's pilot program:

Harvard Law Today: In pilot program, Harvard Law will accept GRE for admission

Washington Post: Harvard Law School will no longer require the LSAT for admission

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This post was written by Molly McCracken

Molly is the Content Specialist at Kira. She helps admissions teams find ways to work more effectively to build their best cohorts ever.