Exam preparation companies and the LSAC (Law School Admission Council) both point to a remarkable statistic when people question the LSAT’s efficacy. That statistic? High LSAT performance strongly correlates with success in the first-year (1L year) of law school.
Of course, as Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” But let’s assume that this statistic is true. (I have no reason to doubt it, and I have found no alternatives online.) Does this mean that your LSAT score is your destiny in your first year of law school?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at what the LSAT tests, and then look at law school to see what the connection might be.
The LSAT (according to the LSAC website) uses three types of questions: reading comprehension, analytical reasoning questions, and logical reasoning questions. But for test-takers, two distinct types of questions stand out: reading comprehension and “logic games” (which are essentially math puzzles).
Reading comprehension tests how fast you can read and understand unfamiliar information. This skill translates directly to law school’s first year because the first year involves high-volume reading in an unfamiliar field. Legal language can be arcane, and professors often choose historic, poorly written, overruled cases in the first months of class. Wading through this material takes time, and strong reading skills can cut this time to a minimum. Also, strong readers often write well, which is a key law-school skill.
Logic games test how well you can follow a series of rules and learn how to take a test. These skills translate to law school, but much more loosely. Following the black-letter rules is key to legal analysis. And learning the tricks to exams gives you a competitive edge against your classmates. But the rules and strategies for logic games are vastly different from legal rules and strategies.
So, even though these skills transfer, it seems odd that there would be a strong correlation between the LSAT and 1L success. Why would students who enter as better readers and who can learn how to do math puzzles necessarily do better than other smart students, like superior undergraduate writers? After all, no one knows the rules before their 1L classes, and the tricks of law-school exams are distinct from those on the LSAT. Further, most law-school tests are essay-based exams, not the multiple-choice format found on the LSAT.
I think the best explanation for this strong correlation is that success on the LSAT correlates with strong exam strategy. If professors taught legal rules and exam strategies, success would come down to rule memorization and writing ability. But first-year professors do not teach that way. Instead, professors teach through the case-law method.
The case-law method, like any other, has pros and cons. Because the law is taught through cases, some rules are more memorable because they are attached to a story. But often, black-letter rules are buried and never made clear to students. So, the ability to learn the material for yourself while using solid test-taking strategies becomes paramount. For instance, students who sought out Bar Exam material would be on the right path.
In my view, LSAT success strongly correlates with 1L success because first-year students are not taught exam strategy. Instead, students are busy trying to figure out the rules buried within each case, rather than focusing on test-taking as a learnable skill. Therefore, students who do poorly on the LSAT must efficiently learn the subject matter and work on practice problems/mock exams to rapidly improve their test-taking ability. With that preparation, this strong correlation does not have to be destiny.