Jeff Thomas is the executive director of pre-law programs for Kaplan Test Prep, managing the company’s LSAT business, including...
With Harvard following Arizona’s lead and accepting GRE scores in the admissions process, more schools are starting to warm to the exam. But is the GRE really as good as the LSAT? Are schools just doing this as a cash grab at the expense of the profession? Elie thinks the GRE is basically filled out in crayon. Joe thinks it’s a perfectly acceptable alternative test. Jeff Thomas of Kaplan Test Prep joins the show to say they’re both a little right.
Above the Law – Thinking Like a Lawyer
Harvard’s Accepting The GRE – How Much Should You Freak Out
Intro: Welcome to Thinking Like a Lawyer with your hosts Elie Mystal and Joe Patrice, talking about legal news and pop culture, all while Thinking Like a Lawyer, here on Legal Talk Network.
Joe Patrice: Hello. Welcome to another edition of Thinking Like a Lawyer. This is Joe Patrice from Above the Law and with me as per usual is my colleague Elie Mystal.
Elie Mystal: What kind of world are we living in today Joe?
Joe Patrice: Well I mean I understand the so – of course we’re referring to the big news which is the shocking announcement that Bob Stoops is resigning from coaching, oh was that not what you were talking about.
Elie Mystal: No I was talking about the fact that the former director of the FBI just admitted under oath in the Senate confirmation hearing that the President obstructed justice or at least tried to. Yet the Republicans all they’ve got is oh well the President wasn’t under personal investigation.
One of the things, I’m just going to go right into my grind because it’s just — I know you’re listening to this later guys we just got through with the Comey testimony in front of the Senate. And one of the things that’s just crashing my brain is that President Trump is so myopically concerned about whether or not people think that he gets pissed on by Russian prostitutes; that he is so concerned about that, that all of the information and evidence that he is obstructing justice, that his campaign colluded potentially with the Russians to influence in America, all of that is tertiary to this myopic concern about do people think that I get pissed on by Russian hookers. That’s our world Joe; that is the world in which we inhabit.
Joe Patrice: I mean well sure but I mean getting pissed on by Russian hooker is not that I don’t want to knock it having not tried it but I would imagine that that’s something that people view as sufficiently embarrassing, they don’t want to get out. The hearings, yes I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Comey said anything about like that obstruction of justice happened.
He’s certainly and he I think — my takeaway was he’s the world’s greatest witness. I would have killed for any of the various people that I prepared for interviews with the government or depositions to be as unflappable and as unwilling to take the bait on questions like shouldn’t you have done something else when that happened and they always, always want to please who’s asking the question say, well I tried but and he just like yeah, I mean I guess I might have been cowardly there, that was a mistake and he is just unbelievable.
Elie Mystal: Comey’s testimony should be like witness prep 101.
Joe Patrice: Yeah.
Elie Mystal: And you said the exact right word there was a point, the part of the Republican defense of Donald Trump is that well James Comey couldn’t have really felt like Trump was expecting justice because if he had felt like he was, he would have gone to somebody, he would have talked to somebody, he would have complained, he would have resigned, he would have done all these other things.
And Comey’s response to that has not been well, I did this and I did this and I did that, his response as you exactly put it was like yeah, maybe I could have handled that better. He literally says in testimony look I’m not captain courageous like boom, like you just don’t get witnesses on the stand under harsh questioning who are willing to admit their own personal failures.
Joe Patrice: Yeah.
Elie Mystal: And thus be able to show how their personal failures have nothing to do with the testimony that they are giving.
Joe Patrice: And that’s a tactic right, if you’re a prosecutor you want to put people on the defensive like that, you want them to try and explain what they did. Part of it is there’s a natural myopia to use a term, you’ve already used, on the part of the prosecutors to think that everybody has 20/20 hindsight, they should be 20/20 foresight and that they like to think.
But it’s also even beyond that they will ask those sorts of questions because people have this natural reaction to flounder and try to say oh no, no, no, I did, I did this, I did that, they use that to get stuff out of folks and to make them feel like they’re under the gun and potentially want to give more to make up for things.
And he’s just not going to – he knows the game as evidenced by the fact that he was a lawyer for many, many years and a law enforcement official. He knew exactly what was going on and he didn’t take any of it. It was great.
Elie Mystal: It reminds me – honestly, it reminded me of how I talk to my wife. I’ve just no, no, no I didn’t do that, you’re right honey.
Joe Patrice: Yeah.
Elie Mystal: I didn’t wash dishes, I’m bad at that. You try to explain like oh but I actually did, I worked here and I took out that trash no I didn’t, I’m bad at that.
Joe Patrice: That’s right.
Elie Mystal: Sorry.
Joe Patrice: That’s right. For the record after we just described James Comey, the director of the FBI asked the greatest at something, Elie found a way to say that that was exactly how he is.
Elie Mystal: At being a husband, but right, James Comey as to testimony in front of the Senate Oversight Committee as I am to being a husband.
Joe Patrice: You’re the James Comey of husbands.
Elie Mystal: Yeah.
Joe Patrice: Actually, that was the best part of the hearing, the revelation that Trump’s inviting him to dinner apparently required Comey to break a date with his wife, and it’s like dude Trump cancelled Comey sex night, that, now, now it’s on. Now it’s time to impeach. So yeah, so we had that discussion. That is a thing that we just did up. This, maybe it’s time that we transition into something we know.
Elie Mystal: We need a guest.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. So let’s set up the guest a little bit before we get there. So in recent days there has been some, some changes in the world which is University of Arizona while back decided to start accepting the GRE along with the LSAT as a way of getting into the school. That caught the firestorm.
Elie Mystal: Well, I would say nobody care who goes to Arizona but –
Joe Patrice: But that’s not true. LSAT decided to make a big deal out of it and most of the other schools in the country came to Arizona’s defense. Since then it spiraled up, but it really hit the fan when Harvard announced that they were going to go down that road too.
You and I have — I think it’s fair to say different opinions on this. So we wanted to talk about the GRE versus the LSAT and what it means for the future of law schools, is this future of law schools, is this a good test, what all can we talk about with this.
And so our guest is Jeff Thomas, he is the executive director of Kaplan’s Pre-Law Services or programs, I am not an expert on the titles over there, but J you’re joining us because you deal a lot with — I mean it’s TestPrep, you deal a lot with both the LSAT and now I assume starting to get into the GRE now that it actually intersects with your life.
Jeff Thomas: Yeah.
Joe Patrice: So talk to us a little bit about the two tests and the differences?
Jeff Thomas: First question how much referee that I am going to have to do between you guys, quite a bit or just a little.
Elie Mystal: A little, a little. You’re going to be more president of the Senate Judiciary here.
Jeff Thomas: Fair enough. The GRE, it’s interesting, the GRE versus LSAT debates, what’s right for students, what’s right for law schools, lots of folks have different sides of this. The GRE is the most versatile of the graduate school admissions exams if you will. It used to be just the catch-all test that students would take to go into basically any program that was not law school or business school or medical school or some sub pre-health programs.
And then a couple of years ago the business schools across the country started saying, hey, you know what, there’s a lot of overlap between what was tested on the GMAT and the GRE, both have quantitative reasoning, there is a lot of logical reasoning thought in there. There’s a analytical writing components.
So maybe the skills test in the GRE are as applicable in the business school piece as the skills are that are tested on the GMAT, and so we saw a lot of business schools, in fact, we have now most of them across the country will accept either the GMAT or the GRE for the purposes of business school admissions.
And now we have a university right now that you guys know all too well where law schools are clamoring to find more applicants. We have been in historic declines in the number of students applying to law school and law schools are grasping at straws to try to find ways to make the admissions process simpler for students and attract more candidates.
And so the LSAT has historically been one of the great barriers of entry to law school. It’s only given four times a year, it’s a very difficult examination and has these things called logic games that are the puzzling, no pun intended per se for students, whereas the GRE is more accessible, it’s got math, it’s got read comprehension, sentence completions. The things that are like traditionally seen on standardized tests that students have grown up with.
And so some law schools have done the required investigation that the ABA requires that says you know what, the GRE can be as predictable of first-year success as law school and since they have done their homework and made their case, now they are able to use it.
And enter Harvard sort of a really putting themselves at the forefront of the debate and saying we’re going to be the Trailblazers here, we are going to be the guys to deal with, and I suspect we’re going to see a lot of schools following suit in the coming months.
Elie Mystal: J, I don’t want to gloss over something that you said because I think it’s important to think about how we got here in the first place, and I think you eloquently pointed out that when Business Schools started to take the GRE there was an assessment and an understanding that the skills that were being tested on the GMAT were largely overlapped with skills that were being tested on the GRE, and so there’s a logic there to why both were considered.
Now this sounds like law schools went through the same kind of thought process, right? It sounds more like law schools were thinking how do we get more students. They weren’t thinking how do we — is the GRE an overlap for what’s currently on the LSAT, which everybody agrees and is actually the harder test of the three. It sounds like they were just trying to get some more applicants.
Jeff Thomas: Let’s put it this way. There is undefined rigor required to prove out the validity of the standardized test that is not the LSAT and absent the ABA coming out and saying here the new standards by which new tests have to be accredited if you will, law schools are sort of free to say we got the data, boom ABA, and of they go.
Joe Patrice: But I mean so I’m much more fine with the GRE being a test than Elie seems to be. I just..
Elie Mystal: I’m fine with you being a test
Joe Patrice: Yeah I just don’t understand what the argument is. We’re talking about overlap, it’s like they both have reading comprehension sections. It’s not like the GRE is reading comprehension section is written in crayon or anything I mean it’s the same thing. You read something and answer some questions about it.
Yes it has math which the LSAT does not but you know are we really losing anything as far as predictability of somebody’s ability to do well in law school by not forcing them to answer Peter is bigger than Richard and Willie is half the size of Johnny, please arrange what porn movies they would be in.
Whatever those analytic games things what does that have to do with law school success that can’t be dealt with, with another standardized test especially one that has a logical essay question which is thing that the GRE brings?
Elie Mystal: What does LSAT have to do with law school success?
Jeff Thomas: Nothing’s a perfect measure here right and there are just no other factors in law school admissions process that are as predictive as LSAT and that’s one of the reasons it’s risen to such prominence in the application process so the LSAT is not perfect. It’s the best that we got.
The GRE is also not perfect. I think the real question here is not really which is most predictable of success in law school I think the question that’s going to not be answered unfortunately for another three or four years is what happens if the swath of applicants who were able to earn entrance to law school based on a GRE score rather than a more rigorous LSAT score what happens when they go take the bar?
Are we actually going to be seeing less qualified candidates three or four years from now and frankly only time will tell and that’s the big question is does the LSAT and its difficulty stand as a barrier to enter, if you will, that really helps us weed out some of the less qualified applicants and will the GRE be able do the same thing we won’t know for a while.
Elie Mystal: Well one data point that we have to suggest what’s going to happen is that we’ve already seen a brain drain from law school in terms of LSAT scores in law schools’ kind of greed to get as many students as possible through the doors the median LSAT score of people admitted to law school has been steadily dropping over this last almost decade now but certainly over the past four or five years and now we have started to see the effects when it comes to bar exam passage rates which are cratering all across the country.
Joe Patrice: Right and how does this have any bearing on that. I don’t see the connection. The GRE opens up the capacity to bring in more students but in a different way. A lot of schools now are lowering their standards for LSAT by saying we can take people who aren’t as good at the LSAT that has that effect.
The GRE option though is just saying to people who might be contemplating going to grad school and becoming a PhD in history that the same test could potentially be used for law school if anything it only to my mind increases the — there’s a only a risk that is bringing people smart people back into law school who might not have been doing it before.
Elie Mystal: Hence my second objection to the GRE. We already live in a world where people end up in law school not because they really want to be lawyers or have thought through the rigor required by the legal practice but we end up with people in law school because they don’t want to get a real job, they want to be in school for a little bit more and law school seems like a thing to do.
We already have those people. Never we’re going to add in people who maybe I want to get a history PhD, maybe I want to get a political science PhD, maybe I want to go to law school, let me take all the tests in the world how does that help people succeed in the legal profession if you’re opening up a whole another avenue for people to get into law school who perhaps haven’t fully thought through the kind of commitment required to be a successful attorney?
Jeff Thomas: Yet the fact that matter is you’re both right here. I mean there are going to be some well-qualified candidates who would not have otherwise considered law school because of the rigors required in the application process who are folks that we want in seats in first year classes who are now going to earn them because they are well qualified and will be there even though they’re late to the game deciding it’s a good thing to do.
But Ellie is absolutely right as well that on the flip side it’s going to make those fly-by-nighters those folks who really don’t know what to do with their lives this is going to make this option even that more attractive to them.
Elie Mystal: Let’s talk about it on the ground in terms of pre-law students because I know that’s your focus at Kaplan, that’s one of our focus is here on the site and on the podcast what are we advising a 22 year old student who is thinking about is thinking about this what are we advising them to take? Are we advising them to just take the GRE and roll the dice or are we advising them to take both, what’s the plan here?
Jeff Thomas: Listen as a general notion freedom of choice is a good thing for students, anything that allows them to have more ability to put their best foot forward in the way that they define it, but generally speaking that’s a good thing.
But from a practical perspective as it stands today there are two schools and only two schools that are accepting the GRE for the purpose of admitting first-year law students, that’s Arizona and that’s Harvard. So if a student is considering applying anywhere else in the country and I’m hard-pressed to find a student who thinks that Harvard is the singular place to which they choose to apply that’s a rich school and my dream school for virtually every applicant, they are going to apply elsewhere they’re going to want to apply elsewhere and that means they got a prep form they got to take the LSAT.
So why students would bother to layer in additional GRE preparation, there’s time and expense, different content to worry about I think we’re a little ways away from suggesting students take both tests and figure out what’s best based on the schools they are applying to.
The advice as it stands today does not change, take the LSAT, take it once, prepare for it once, get an awesome score, and leave no doubt about your candidacy at all the law schools what you choose to apply that hasn’t changed yet.
Joe Patrice: Yeah I mean I think you’re right based on where we are right now today in 2017 but I do think that once Harvard does it the chances I mean Northwestern is already –
Jeff Thomas: Northwestern is investigating –
Joe Patrice: Yeah, yeah like other schools are going to do this I think in pretty short order so I think you know 2019 we’re going to see maybe half, would you say half Joe of the schools that accept the GRE within the next two three years?
Jeff Thomas: I think that’s probably true.
Joe Patrice: And then that calculus is going to change I think for students. I think at that point people will be trying to figure out which test they think they can get a better score on?
Jeff Thomas: I mean maybe it’s the true answer to question. In fact I don’t know if you guys have read this but the ABA is considering a new measure that they are opening up to comment right now that would statement of paraphrases really but right now basically the ABA requirements say that all schools have to use admissions test, you must use the LSAT unless you school X can prove that some other standardized test is as predictive as the LSAT.
The ABA is considering a fairly substantial rule change that would say law schools must use the LSAT unless the ABA has in and of itself determined that a different test is as reliable as the LSAT for purpose of predicting the first year of law school performance by a process that is yet to be defined by the ABA.
If that passes, that will essentially cut Harvard, Arizona, Northwestern any other schools off the knees if they’re considering making this change unilaterally.
So a lot remains to be seen in the space to see you know with all the politicing between ETS, the testing for the GRE, LSA, see the testing for the LSAT like there’s still a lot of question marks imply here that could drastically change the outcome to three years from now
Elie Mystal: I mean I think it’s an open question. I mean it’s a great point I think it’s an open question from the ABA perspective as to what do they want to do? Do they want to keep and raise a high barrier to entry to the legal profession? The ABA clearly benefits from having some barriers to entry into the legal profession.
The ABA wouldn’t exist but for barriers to entry into legal profession. Do they want to continue to raise a high barrier or because their member schools are suffering, do they want to lower the barriers to entry so their member schools can get more students in?
Joe Patrice: That’s exactly right
Jeff Thomas: I just — I still balk at this whole way in which Ellie chooses to talk about this is though the GRE is like the little drawing that you do to get into the art school on the back of something like it’s actually a test with hard questions. It is not…
Elie Mystal: Hard
Jeff Thomas: Yes
Elie Mystal: Hard
Jeff Thomas: Yes.
Elie Mystal: Okay.
Jeff Thomas: I mean did you take this test,
Elie Mystal: Yeah.
Jeff Thomas: Yeah and how did you do,
Elie Mystal: I did that.
Jeff Thomas: Just about as well as you did on the LSAT it’s my guess within contest
Elie Mystal: Only because I worked the math
Jeff Thomas: Because that well okay well so yes so the issue is actually you’re kind of going the other way because you’re bad at math you think that we shouldn’t have this test if anything that means this test is a better barrier to entry because people have to do math but that’s what gets me is these tests to my mind the role of tests in the admissions process is because grades at different schools mean different things.
You can’t say somebody got a 4.0 here versus there what does that mean the standardization is the key and to the extent you have a standardized test that is of some level of difficulty that’s all that really matters. I don’t understand why we have given a monopoly to LSAT to create this one test when a lot of the key skills that a lawyer would need reading comprehension, the ability to write arguments, the ability to write, period, which the GRE has which the LSAT you know certainly didn’t in my day those skills are there and so I don’t see why it’s a bad test.
Elie Mystal: But then again you just said the standardization is the key and so how is a school supposed to really choose between an applicant with a 3.5 from an Ivy League school with a good LSAT score versus an applicant with a 3.8 from a good state school with a high GRE? How do we choose between now non-standard standardized tests and obviously the non-standard GPIs?
Joe Patrice: Percentiles.
Jeff Thomas: And remember keep in mind to the LSAT was a test that was purpose-built for the purpose of law school admission use. It was a test whose questions largely unchanged since 1991 was designed to test the skills that law students do on a daily basis but the GRE was not right and so law schools are looking at a bunch of candidates from a bunch of different schools and by the way there is no particular major that is more advantageous admissions process than another?
And so you got students from different schools different backgrounds different majors different age ranges and this LSAT was not just designed to be a number on a piece of paper that levels the playing field but really to say there is a baseline of skill that we want every student have coming in the door, do they have or do they don’t and we’re going to purpose-built the test that actually tests the things that lawyers do and that was the original of the LSA. The GRE doesn’t do that as deliberately.
Elie Mystal: I think when you say it wasn’t designed just to be a number that levels the playing field. I think one of the reasons why it has become that number is not actually because of anything that the ABA or law schools or LSAT can do, it’s because of US news. US News then becomes the strain through which all of this is shoved into.
So you get the results of this school is number one, this school is number 30, the school is number 212 looking at the LSAT scores of admitted applicants becomes a huge factor in how US News ranks its law schools which is why doing well on the LSAT has become so important to getting admitted into law schools.
In a world where the G and this is I guess I’m going to slightly agree in a way with Joe because of this factor.
Joe Patrice: Alright that we have a sound effect for that, it’s like a klaxon goes off.
Elie Mystal: It’s hard but to the extent that the GRE makes it more difficult for US News to standardize that input factor, it probably makes all standardized testing a little bit less important to the admissions process as a whole which I would argue is not a bad thing.
Jeff Thomas: You’re not wrong. I mean in a brilliant PR move I think you know Elie is a former grad, Harvard law dropped a bit in the US rankings this year from one position to the next, the very next day they announced that they will be utilizing GRE for law school missions and so it was a beautiful way to change the narrative in the face of what could have otherwise blown up as a potential negative story for Harvard Law.
Joe Patrice: Yeah because you know going from two to three for Harvard Law
Jeff Thomas: I know it’s really it’s quite, quite a draw…
Joe Patrice: It’s hurtful for them, right? Anyway this is how you with the GRE is potentially how you get lower LSAT scoring students into your law school who are otherwise really deserving candidates without napalming your US News rank.
Jeff Thomas: That’s correct.
Joe Patrice: I mean that’s got to be part of the of the thought process here.
Jeff Thomas: Oh! In the short-term.
Joe Patrice: Right.
Jeff Thomas: I mean in the short-term, but I think I think that can’t be utilized as a long-term either one way or the other in this argument because your point which I agree with is that now that Harvard has done it more and more schools are going to do it at a certain point there’s a critical mass such that that doesn’t — that doesn’t matter.
Elie Mystal: Last question I already kind of referred to this but I want to hit it a little bit harder let’s talk about the math. One of my arguments for why the GRE will not sweep the nation is that lawyers and our lawyers in part because they are afraid of math. They shouldn’t be afraid of math. Math is important. It’s the language of the universe.
Jeff Thomas: Yeah I mean you’re going to have to take torts you should know math.
Elie Mystal: You know but lawyers are afraid of it and the LSAT — the LSAT is the one postgraduate standardized test that you can take and not have to add two fifths plus two fifths so do we think that it’s positive in a way that the GRE might force some students to actually learn some — and like the GRE math I mean I said I worked it but like it’s not it’s not hard, it’s not multivariable freaking calculus on that right.
Jeff Thomas: It’s 4/5ths by the way in case you’re — testing is where.
Elie Mystal: I was so aware that I constructed that so that the answer before fifth is opposed to three that’s how where I was of what the answer was going to be.
Jeff Thomas: I didn’t even do the math.
Elie Mystal: So J I mean you deal with pre-law students all the time at Kaplan when they come in, do they have any desire to learn math, or they scared of the math and part of the reason why they’re scared of the LSAT logic games is because it’s mathish like how do you how do you help pre-law students with that?
Jeff Thomas: Students are scared of anything that’s foreign to them and be it mathematics, be it logic games, I mean the beautiful thing about both is that there are very definable methods that you can teach students to implement regularly and they will see their scores drastically improve and quickly by virtue of implementing those methods.
So they’re the most susceptible sections of test preparation, but listen if your biggest hang-up on going to law school is whether or not you have to deal with math or logic games maybe you should be reexamining your priorities that’s just my point, right like that should not be the ultimate determinant factor here and whether or not you are a good law school candidate.
Joe Patrice: You’ll learn it you’ll learn to learn it you’ll learn to love it.
Elie Mystal: I couldn’t agree more and I’ve said on this podcast before but like the logic games honestly if you’re if you’re listening and you’re kid you’re thinking about going to law school the logic games are the only section of the LSAT where you can guarantee getting full credit for the entire section because the only section on the test where all the information you need to answer the question is in the goddamn question.
Jeff Thomas: Yeah once you learn how to go about them they become really easy.
Elie Mystal: Draw the damn picture and then you win. We need to build some answers at that point some other time but, I hear what you’re saying. That’s all I got man. That’s — I think your ABA point is so crucial because if the ABA allows schools to do this I think that within two three years all schools will do this and if the ABA doesn’t allow them to do this then, then this — this podcast will be resigned to the dustbin of history.
Joe Patrice: Yeah fair enough I think we’d still be able to look back on it and enjoy it, it won’t be the dustbin. So I think that’s right that thanks so much J for joining us and walking us through this disagreement that where Elie is just wrong oh and you have a Twitter handle too right?
Jeff Thomas: I do yes yeah it’s @J Thomas KTP real simple.
Joe Patrice: Great thank you and thanks you all for listening. If you are not already subscribed to the podcast you should that way you can get every episode when they come out or you can listen to it on the Legal Talk Network app. If you are listening to it through some sort of a podcasting service like I don’t know like iTunes or something be sure to review it be sure to write a review of those things matter they move you up in the rankings on the internal algorithm that Apple does that controls your podcasting destiny also just tell people about the show because there’s no reason not to just yell from a street corner like a crazy person about how many should be listening.
Elie Mystal: And read us on Above the Law where we do most of our work, my twitter handle is @Elie NYC and I’m doing the Lord’s work on Jeff Sessions just so y’all know.
Joe Patrice: Yeah sure. I am @ Joseph Patrice also writing at Above the Law and with those things said I think we’re done for another episode.
Elie Mystal: Peace out guys
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