Guest Post — Kevin Washburn: The LSAT’s Key Role in Native Legal Education


By Kevin Washburn

In this morning’s post on Turtle talk, Mr. Jay Rosner asks what would it mean for Native Americans and law schools that seek to increase their numbers of Native students if the LSAT lost its leading role in legal education.

The answer: it could be bad. Very bad.

Indeed, it could kill the PreLaw Summer Institute (PLSI) at the American Indian Law Center located the University of New Mexico School of Law, which helps Native law students succeed in law school — and helps law schools recruit Native students.

The PLSI program, which is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary, began out of a desire to meet the federal trust responsibility to tribal nations in part by developing more Native lawyers.  It was supported originally with federal funding. It takes a couple of hundred thousand dollars each year provide travel and living stipends to the 25 to 35 students who attend the two-month PLSI program each summer and to pay the professors and staff who run the program. The professors are excellent and it can be a life changing experience for the students. Professors Matthew Fletcher and Wenona Singel have taught in the program, as have many of the other leading law professors in the field.

For years, the program existed at the whim of federal officials, some of whom were supportive, and some who were not. Its funding has tended to vacillate over the years and, indeed, for a couple of years in the 1980s, the program did not exist at all.

At least twice in the PLSI’s history, the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) has come to the rescue when the PLSI program lost federal funding. For decades, the LSAC has annually directed modest revenues from its reserves toward various pipeline programs for law schools, to help poor and minority students gain access to a legal education.

In times of crisis for the PLSI, funding from the LSAC has literally saved the program. In total, during the last three decades, the LSAC has provided more than $3 million in funding at various times to keep the PLSI program alive.

Most of us are ambivalent in legal education about standardized tests, especially the most important one of all, the bar exam. It is true that standardized tests can produce disparate outcomes in scores. No one who sees inequities in society will be surprised by these disparities. Psychometricians who design the LSAT work very hard to identify raw analytical ability and to minimize the advantages that “wealth” might contribute to test scores. But inequality in education surely exists in our society, and none of us are terribly surprised that it cannot be entirely eradicated from tests.

We should keep working on the perfect test that can find a way to eradicate any influence, even indirectly, that socioeconomic factors play. In the meantime, in light of the fact that the bar exam will always be an obstacle to be overcome for anyone seeking to become a lawyer, I am grateful for the pipeline programs supported by the LSAT, and I do not want to see them disappear.  Because of my own personal interest in pipeline programs, I have served within the volunteer board structure of the LSAC and am currently a member of the board. I also recently joined the board of the American Indian Law Center, which runs the PLSI. I am writing today not on behalf of either of these two organizations, but only myself.  From my perspective, the collaboration between the LSAC and the PLSI program has dramatically improved the number of Native American lawyers in the United States. Indeed, the PLSI program is sometimes called the single most successful program in Native American education. That program changed many lives, including my own.

I am glad that Mr. Rosner has asked what it might mean for Native American law school applicants and law schools seeking more Native Americans to lose the support of the LSAC as a leader in legal education. It is important that we all understand the answer: a program that has helped more than a thousand Native Americans succeed in law school in the last 50 years might be at risk. In sum, the answer is that it could be devastating for Native Americans seeking a legal education.

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