Law School Admissions Standards As Law
Harvard’s decision to end its early admission program was the big story early week. As President Bok explained, the university worried about the social consequences of its admissions process:
“Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries, and high schools with fewer resources miss out . . . . Others who apply early and gain admission to the college of their choice have less reason to work hard at their studies during their final year of high school.”
Harvard’s decision got me to thinking about the relationship between admissions standards at high-prestige universities and legal rules.
Both legal rules and admissions standards are conduct shaping regulations. When you set admissions standards to select for
trait behavior X, the prevalence of X in the applicant universe will increase. Such an increase will not be uniform, for the reasons that Bok gives, and there will be further distortions depending on individual (or mass) psychology. But there are reasons to believe that law school admissions address a particularly sophisticated and resource-rich audience, who are well suited to governance. Thus, law school admissions are ripe for evaluation as a form of law itself.
I thought about this after talking with a friend last night who told me about business schools’ strong emphasis on community service as a part of the application of a well-rounded applicant. This probably creates a class of business school students who are more likely to be civic-minded after graduation. But it also (and more simply) results in a great deal of public service by pre-MBA types in the world. The question is: why don’t law schools use the application process to improve the world too?
You might object: “this is paternalistic social engineering.” Yes, yes it is. But law schools, like HLS, already require onerous mandatory pro bono commitments during school. The problem with such programs is that the incentives are all wrong – toward clock management instead of results. But if you made pro bono service an important part of the admissions decision, and suggested that particularly effective public service would be highly weighted, then you’d set folks incentives well to achieve good. Elite schools might collude to create a list of potential law-related public work that candidates would be “well-advised” to perform in order to increase their chances of admission: volunteering for a public interest firm or tax law clinic; working for the PD or DA as a part-time investigator; assisting social security ALJs as a paralegal, etc.
To be clear, I don’t mean to say that admissions committees aren’t already considering public service. Surely, they are. But they aren’t communicating the idea that public service counts in a meaningful way. Check out HLS’ admissions FAQ, and note the silence on this point. The silence is shared by other top schools. The point is that law faculties (at least those I’ve seen) have traditionally seen the admissions committee as wearing a judicial, rather than legislative, hat. As a result, faculty might tend to think of admissions as a necessary chore accomplished by the folks who run the operations side of the school, instead of an extension of the pedagogical mission. [Update: Even the affirmative action debate, which is a policy choice effectuated through admissions, isn’t intended to shape the conduct of pre-law students.] Perhaps its time to rethink that model.