A Forked River Runs Through Law School

by Angela N. Johnson

Timothy Clydesdale examines the differences in race, gender, and age on law school performance and bar passage using Law School Admissions Council data (the Bar Passage Study or “BPS”) which includes a dataset of 27,478 entering law students, along with their grade point averages, LSAT scores, bar examination results (up to five attempts) and of course the race, gender, and age of those individuals.  Having this detailed information allows Clydesdale to reveal how race, gender, or age might impact one’s predisposition for success.  Moreover, by controlling for various factors (which I will explain further in this summary) Clydesdale is able to hypothesize why or why not such predispositions within a given class (race, gender, age) may appear.  For example, once Clydesdale had determined that students over the age of 30 earned inferior grades to those under 30, Clydesdale was able to pinpoint why that might be – that rather than physical age, it is that students over the age of 30 have a greater likelihood to experience life events during the 1L year which hinder the student’s success, restrictions on study time (due to family responsibilities and demands), and a greater chance of being impacted by physical illness.  Nevertheless, there is a “4% gap in passage rates between those bar examinees who began law school at age 30 or older and their younger counterparts” (Clydesdale 2004, 713).  Clydesdale determines that law school grades correspond directly to bar passage rates; so knowing that law students over thirty are more likely to earn lower grades, it is not surprising that this also translates to lower bar passage rates.  Most importantly, Clydesdale sheds light on the disparity between the groups and even the disparity in six-categories of law schools.  The report’s findings found that “women have better undergraduate grades than men, but lower standardized test scores, which are weighted more heavily by the gatekeepers (ie. Law School Admissions Committees), those women allowed through end up navigating the river better than the men do.  Both rivers run parallel and end at the same place, but the rides are different indeed, and fewer complete the white-water course” (Clydesdale 2004, 711).  Though this report is very broad and goes beyond my course of study on women as law students, I found its findings to be extremely relevant in shaping the overall picture of which groups are more likely to succeed or struggle in law school (and beyond) and why disparities exist. Clydesdale’s research entails: 1) The reducibility of bar passage gaps to law school grades, 2) the reducibility of law school grades to academic gaps at law school entrance (rather than LSAT score), 3) the possibility that law schools enlarge rather than reduce academic gaps at law school entrance, and 4) the possibility that the LSAT unevenly restricts access to law school.

Clydesdale’s research makes apparent that contrary to popular belief, the LSAT score may not be an accurate predictor of first-year law school performance, especially when examining gender, race, and socioeconomic status.  Rather, one’s prior academic performance prior to entering law school is a “significant, positive, and persistent predictor of one’s final law school GPA” (Clydesdale 2004, 745). Though, “Bar passage is primary explained by final law school GPA.  But bar passage draws on general academic ability as signified by undergraduate GPA and readiness of legal education (or standardized test-taking ability) as signified by the LSAT.  Those with the best performance in all three of these areas have the highest probabilities of passing the bar” (Clydesdale 2004, 751).

Law School Demographics

According to Clydesdale, the typical (i.e. modal) first-year law student is a white male in his early twenties, who speaks English as his first language, attends law school full time, expresses high self-confidence, possesses no physical or learning disabilities, is neither married nor has children, plans 0-9 weekly hours of paid employment during the first year, and comes from an above-average socioeconomic background.  Obviously typical does not mean exclusive.  At the time of the study, 44% of the students were women, 16% were nonwhite, 17% were 30 or more years old, and many are from social backgrounds unlike the typical first-year student.  Sixty-three of law students in the BPS attend second-tier law schools (those schools ranked 50-100 in U.S. News & World Reports), 25% attended first-tier law schools (ranked 1-50), 8% attended third-tier schools, and 3% attended historically minority law schools. 10% of the law students in the study attended school part-time, 8% participated in remedial pre-law programs, 4% had physical or learning impairments, and 1% reported English was not their best language (Clydesdale 2004, 725).  Upon learning of these demographics, I couldn’t help but question, how these demographics compared to those attempting the LSAT.  In Honigsberg’s “Closing the LSAT Gender Gap,” I learned that women are more likely than men to abandon aspirations of attending law school after taking the LSAT.  So while Clydesdale’s study reveals that women who entered law school have lower test scores, I can guess that the disparity when including those who chose not to pursue law school, would be even greater. Further, the LSAT is only offered in English, so while 1% of matriculated law students reported English was not their best language, it is likely that a much higher percentage took the LSAT but were “weeded out,” not to mention deterred from sitting for the exam in the first place.

Women – LSAT Scores, Undergrad GPAs, Law School GPAs, and Bar Passage

To help separate the portion of the research most relevant to my topic area, I will collect the report’s findings under subheadings for ease of access. In a nutshell, “Women law students have higher undergraduate GPAs but lower LSAT scores than men law students (just as they do with high school grades and SAT scores; see Lemann 1990, Zwick 2002).  Women law students also express lower levels of self-confidence at entrance to law school, report more gender discrimination, experience more race discrimination during law school and undergo more life events during their first year of law school than men do.  In all other respects, however, women and men law students are similar: They appear to have comparable socioeconomic origins, plan equal hours for employment and study, earn similar grades, graduate from law school at similar rates, and pass the bar examination at similar rates” (Clydesdale 2004, 732-733). I find it interesting that on one hand, LSAT scores are a reliable predictor (allegedly) of first-year law school success, yet even though women consistently score lower on the LSAT (and fewer women reach the highest echelons of LSAT scores) Clydesdale finds that “gender has no significant relationship to first-year GPAs” (Clydesdale 2004, 737). Moreover, unlike racial discrimination, Clydesdale finds that gender discrimination in law school is unassociated with first year grades. Ultimately, Clydesdale finds, that even though women’s first-year grades are equivalent to their male classmates, it is women that earn higher final law school GPAs (Clydesdale 2004, 740).  Though Clydesdale claims that women experience substantial improvements in their 2L and 3L years, he does not include data that determines this to be absolute; perhaps he overlooked the possibility that women’s performance level remains and their male classmates decline. In terms of bar passage, “Women and men law students have equivalent probabilities of passing the bar, regardless of entrance factors, follow-up factors, type of law school attended, or academic performance differences” (Clydesdale 2004, 747). In sum, Clydesdale’s portion of research dealing specifically with women law students reveals that “For women law students, the hardest part of the journey is being allowed to begin (i.e., they must get through an uneven LSAT checkpoint to enter the river; cf. Kidder 2001).  Women have higher undergraduate GPAs than men, but because law schools favor LSAT scores in admission decisions, some portion of women applicants are restricted from pursuing law degrees.  Women who do not pass through this LSAT checkpoint ride the easier fork; in fact, the analyses demonstrate that women navigate it better than men of identical race, age, social backgrounds, law school experiences, and academic preparations” (Clydesdale 2004, 752).

Older Law Students

Older law students are more likely to drop out in the first year, less likely to graduate, and less likely to pass the bar than their younger counterparts.  They are also more likely to attend law school part time, have physical or learning disabilities, have more family responsibilities, and plan paid employment at two to three times the rate of their younger classmates.  Older law students have lower socioeconomic status origins, make greater use of pre-law remedial resources, experience more major life events during their first year, and report more gender discrimination prior to law school than younger law students.  Older law students also have, on average, lower undergraduate GPAs and lower LSAT scores” (Clydesdale 2004, 733).  In other words, it is not the age that is the factor, rather it is the greater likelihood of older students to experience family obligations, first-year life events, and personal illness that makes this group (the older than age 30 crowd) to attain lower law school GPAs and bar passage rates.  This distinction is important to realize because Clydesdale’s research reveals that “entering law students who planned to study more hours weekly, were married, had more family financial responsibilities, and came from higher-status social origins had higher first-year GPAs than their counterparts” (Clydesdale 2004, 737).  While planned study hours and social origins may vary from group-to-group, being married and having more family obligations and financial responsibilities would seem more likely to apply to the over-30 group. Though unsurprisingly, entering law students with children had consistently lower first-year GPAs than those without (Clydesdale 2004, 738). In the end, Clydesdale discovers that older law students excel in their 2L and 3L years and ultimately end-up-with equivalent GPAs as their younger counterparts (Clydesdale 2004, 740).  However, “students who plan more hours of study, and married students (net of children and family financial responsibilities) have higher final GPAs than their counterparts” (Clydesdale 2004, 743).  Moreover, “law students with greater family financial responsibilities (net of marital or parental status) often have significantly better final GPAs; such responsibilities, rather than interfering with academic performance, appear to help these law students perform well academically” (Clydesdale 2004, 744). Though, significant life-events during the 1L year impact both the 1L GPA and final GPA, and according to Clydesdale, “the more life events a student experiences during their first year of law school, the lower their first-year and final GPA. It does not matter whether these experiences are positive (e.g., getting married, having a baby) or negative (e.g., personal illness, death of a family member): All such experiences distract students and lower law school grades – not just immediately (during the first year), but over the long term as well” (Clydesdale 2004, 744).  Clydesdale did not apparently study the effects of a significant event during the 2L or 3L years and the potential impact that would cause.   In terms of bar passage, Clydesdale finds that “law students 30 years and over have significantly lower probabilities of passing the bar examination than their younger counterparts” (Clydesdale 2004, 746). And similar to GPAs, students who experience one or more first-year life event during their first year of law school had lower bar-passage probabilities (Clydesdale 2004, 750).

Social Capital and Socioeconomic Status

I was very surprised to learn that “social capital, or the number of attorneys in one’s family” was consistently nonsignificant.  “Having a familial connection to legal practitioners does not aid or hinder one’s academic performance during the first year of law school” (Clydesdale 2004, 738). It would be interesting to compare these findings to any stats on performance in grad school generally (comparing first-generation undergrad and/or graduate students and students whose parent(s) attended grad school). In which case, there may be a benefit for graduate students whose parents are also college educated and/or have also attended graduate school regardless if the student is following the same course of study as that of the parents.  Though “legacy” type law students do not alone perform better than non-legacy students, Clydesdale finds that “law students from lower status origins have lower LSAT scores and lower law school grades, and these factors in turn reduce probabilities of passing the bar” but despite the influence socioeconomic differences have, Clydesdale finds that “holding them constant does not eliminate race, age, or impairment outcome gaps” (Clydesdale 2004, 755).

Impact of Faculty

In light of research focused specifically on impacts of law school faculty, I am not surprised to find that “Students with higher GPAs are more likely to report having faculty who demonstrated concern for students and attention to good teaching” (Clydesdale 2004, 739).  Additionally, students with higher final GPAs were more likely to report better instructional quality, more minority instructors, and more women instructors . . . quality instruction and faculty diversity are significantly associated with better student performance, which in turn is positively associated with bar passage (Clydesdale 2004, 744; 754).

Law School Graduation

According to Clydesdale, 90% of whites, Asian American, and “other” Latino American law students graduate law school.  Just over 80% of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans graduate, and 86% of Puerto Rican Americans graduate (Clydesdale 2004, 727).

Bar Passage

Page 727 includes the following are percentages of American law students who begin law school and eventually pass the bar exam (I am not clear whether those who do not graduate are included in these percentages).

White – 83%

African American -57%

Asian American – 77%

Mexican American – 69%

Native American – 62%

“Other” Latino American – 76%

Puerto Rican – 62%

On page 727, Clydesdale states that 86% of Puerto Rican law students graduate law school; a percentage higher than Native American (80%) yet these groups share the same percentage of bar passage.  Though Clydesdale finds that law school grades are a predictor of bar passage success, it seems this must not be true for Puerto Rican test takers.  However, “while race may have a direct effect on bar passage initially, its final effect is indirect – through law school GPA primarily.  This is a very important finding, because it confirms an important finding of prior research: That is, if one wants to understand race differences in bar passage, one must understand race differences in law school grades.  Law school grades, in other words, measure essentially the same set of skills and knowledge as the bar examination” (Clydesdale 2004, 747).

Impact of Law School (Tier/Rank/Category)

Elite (i.e., first-tier mostly private) law schools:           2.4% first year dropout rate; 95.9% degree completion rate; 88.8% bar examination passage rate.  “Yet, while these students report the highest quality of first-year instruction and the fewest life events, they report the highest level of gender discrimination and high levels of race discrimination” (Clydesdale 2004, 734). Further, “those who attended more competitive law schools have higher probabilities of sitting for a bar examination (and thus, higher probabilities of law school graduation)” (Clydesdale 2004, 746).

Public Ivy (public, first-tier law schools): 5% first year dropout rate; 93.8% degree completion rate; 82.2% bar examination passage rate.  “Public ivy law students resemble elite law students, just a notch lower” . . .yet have “relatively low levels of race or gender discrimination during law school” (Clydesdale 2004, 734).

Second-tier Law Schools (both public and private):  8% first year dropout rate; 90% degree completion rate; 80% bar examination passage rate.  Private second-tier law schools have greater gender diversity and lower reports of racial discrimination than public second-tier schools however, public second-tier law school students have generally better undergraduate GPAs and LSAT scores than their private-second tier peers.  Clydesdale believes this is a reasonable result given the grater admission competition for these more affordable law schools (Clydesdale 2004, 734).

Historically Minority Law Schools: 12.6% first year dropout rate; 84.2% degree completion rate; 62.2% bar examination passage rate.  This may be a partial function of high student impairment rate (about two times higher than all other types of law schools), the higher-level of family responsibilities, the high incidence of racial discrimination prior to law school entry (more than two times higher), and the low socioeconomic status origins (at least 10% lower).  Further, students at these law schools have the lowest undergraduate GPAs and lowest LSAT scores and are the least likely to pass the bar examination  (Clydesdale 2004, 751).

However, it is important to note that individual factors (race, gender, socioeconomic status) play a more influential role in predicting success than the law school itself.  “All members of minority groups, regardless of instructional quality, faculty diversity, or law school type, have weaker outcomes than their white classmates.  Outcome differences among impaired law students and less affluent law students are also not explained by instructional quality, faculty diversity, or law school type.  While efforts to improve instructional quality, increase faculty diversity, or imitate elite law schools may be laudable in their own right, the evidence herein suggests such efforts will at most make but a small reduction in the systematic differences in outcomes across law students” (Clydesdale 2004, 755).

In sum of his findings, Clydesdale finds that “no single river carries law students of varying ages, races, personal caracteristics, and social origins from start to finish . . . a better analogy is a forked river, one side swift but smooth; the ther side, challenging and oten dangerous.  Moreover, an entry gate unevenly restricts access to the river” (Clydesdale 2004, 752). In light of his research, he makes several suggestions for easing the entry process and smooting (rather than agitating) he river:

  1. Law schools should reduce their reliance on the LSAT for admission because it underpredicts the overall law school performance of women and overreliance on these scores hinders women applicant’s access to legal education.  According to Clydesdale, “overreliance on the LSAT also impacts applicants in general, as the small fraction of first-year academic performance variation it explains does not support its large role in admission decisions” (Clydesdale 2004, 762).
  2. “Law schools must do more to support students during their critical first year of law school – especially minority, older, and other atypical law students” (Clydesdale 2004, 762).  The fact that law school is an abrupt change in one’s life is actually highlighted by Clydesdale’s finding that part-time students actually graduated with better GPAs than their full-time student classmates.  According to Clydesdale, school’s efforts to support students not just academically but also personally will be beneficial not only for the individual student but also for its students as a whole.  Clydesdale also recommends expanding part-time law school opportunities. 
  3. Law students must pay attention to all forms of diversity (not just race and gender).  Clydesdale writes that he was surprised to find, for example, the impact age had on all steps of the process to become a lawyer and the fact that older students are disadvantaged at an equal rate as those who are minorities demands closer attention to all individuals (not just those who can be categorized in certain historically-disadvantaged groups). 
  4. Clydesdale reports that though the impact of an increased faculty diversity is on better academic performances is small, it is very-much associated and its impact is felt by all students.  Therefore, schools should do more to increase the diversity of their faculty (Clydesdale 2004, 762).
  5. Fifth, historically minority law schools need to re-examine passing-grade standards; Clydesdale’s research reveals that grading scales and standards at these schools is far more lenient than all others and this only disserves students of historically minority law schools when it comes time to sit for the bar exam (Clydesdale 2004, 763).
  6. Schools should do more to support groups that will help women, minority, older, and other atypical students, faculty, and alumni to stimulate and encourage each other (Clydesdale 2004, 763).

Source Citation: Clydesdale, Timothy T. A Forked River Runs Through Law School: Toward Understanding Race, Gender, Age, and Related Gaps in Law School Performance and Bar Passage. Chicago: American Bar Foundation Law and Social Inquiry, 2004.


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