Professor Kellye Testy, the President and CEO of LSAC was in India recently, and I am glad that I got the chance to speak with her on the sidelines of a conference on the future of legal education.
I was particularly interested in two aspects of Prof. Kellye’s career thus far: one, her ability to increase faculty and student diversity at the University of Washington’s College of Law, and two, she was Dean of UW Law when the university raised more than $500 million from private contributions.
Both of these factors are, in my view, going to become increasingly relevant for Indian law schools, and I think there is a fair bit that we can learn from the likes Prof. Kellye. And of course, as head of the LSAC (which oversees the LSAT India entrance examination), I was quite curious to know her views on gauging one’s aptitude for a legal education.
How do you think the LSAT is better than, say the Common Law Admission Test?
I think there are a number of advantages to the LSAT. The first one is that it is a very reliable test. It has been around for 70 years and we continually improve it. So, we have the advantage of making sure that every question has been tested before it is released, that all the questions are well designed etc.
I think the most significant thing about the LSAT is that it tests aptitude and basic skills. It looks at things like reading comprehension, reasoning etc. So, it is not asking a young person to already know the law, because that is going to be learnt in law school. [The LSAT] is about making sure that you have that fundamental core of skill to make sure you really thrive once you are in law school.
The other thing I would say is that it is administered by an independent organization. We are non-profit, we are not associated with any institution – there is just a very high degree of transparency and fairness.
Are you in favour of the three-year model or the five-year model of studying law in India?
Well, I actually am in favour of both models in the sense that there is nothing wrong with the ability to take an undergraduate degree that is focused on law. [This degree] can help people decide if they want to study law more thoroughly. It is also good for the world generally if more people understand law, because law is so important to democracy and the rule of law.
But law is complex. And the ability for someone to have a 3-year degree is also really appropriate because then the student might be a little more mature, and have the ability to think about what the [law degree] might mean for their career. I am not someone who thinks there is only one model; there can be multiple ways to study law.
At the University of Washington’s College of Law, you managed to increase diversity in students and faculty.
[Educational equality] is a serious problem, and it is one that I have spent my life trying to figure out. Really starting from the youngest of ages, there is inequality based on race, economics, gender and all kinds of things that doesn’t let everyone have a level playing field. What that means if when you start admitting students to law school, you are going to see that inequality.
And unless you really address it, you are going to have everyone be the same in your law school class. I have always believed that diversity of all kinds makes the educational experience a lot stronger.
The way we encourage [diversity] is that, first of all, we really reach out broadly. We try and hold forums so that people who may not have lawyers in their family hear about law, and we explain the process of applying to law school.
We also do scholarship programs so that there is more of a level playing field [with respect to] economic class.
And then the other thing that is so important is that when you are conducting admissions, you look at the whole person. So, you use the test scores as part of the file, but it shouldn’t be the only thing. You also ought to look at what the personal statement says, what does the person want to do, what are their leadership capabilities. I think you can admit a diverse class when you take more factors into account.
“So, you use the test scores as part of the file, but it shouldn’t be the only thing. You also ought to look at what the personal statement says, what does the person want to do, what are their leadership capabilities.”
The other interesting bit during your previous tenure is the funding that UW managed to raise.
We talked a lot about costs in the conference, and it is a good subject because good education is expensive. You are paying people – faculty and staff. These payments have to come from either the state or [federal] government or student fees. And you don’t want to have students bear the whole burden.
I have found that looking at alumni, at the friends of the law school can really help. It is a very reciprocal relationship. Because once an alum graduates, his or her reputation is linked with that of the law school. So, [alumni] have every interest in wanting the law school to thrive.
“Once an alum graduates, his or her reputation is linked with that of the law school. So, [alumni] have every interest in wanting the law school to thrive.”
But how do you build this reciprocal relationship?
It needs to start when the person is a student – you make sure that the students know that as alums, they are going to be asked to give back. That they are going to be privileged by having that law degree and that once they are out, they should help students.
So, early on you start to help your students understand that this is not just a transaction – it is not that they are there and gone. It is their law school for a lifetime. And that is what I help them understand – once you are with me as a law student, then we are together. The fate of the law school, and your reputation are interwoven. So, you can help future generations by going out and being successful, and then giving back to the law school.
We are involved with the alumni from day one. We do continuing legal education for alumni, we keep them informed about what is happening. We invite them to come back and be judges in moot court competitions. We cheer them on when they are doing well in their careers. We help them when they are not doing so well.
“It really is about helping the alumni understand that they may be students for three years, but they are part of the law school family their whole life.”
It really is about helping the alumni understand that they may be students for three years, but they are part of the law school family their whole life.
I know US law schools are facing their own troubles of increasing costs and lower number of applicants.
Law schools did have a decline in applications after the great recession. The good news is that it has recently started going the other way – there has been an 8% increase in the number of students applying in the US, and some people think it is because what they call “Trump Bump” – people are mad about what the government is doing and thinking, “I have got to be a lawyer to help push back on the government, and make sure that the world is fair”
Now when it comes to international LLM students, the US law schools have seen a decline in numbers because of [US] immigration policy. And I think some of what motivated the JD students to apply is making the LLM students reticent to come.
Final question – what got you into law, and would you recommend it to others?
I had a bit of of a non-traditional way into law. I am a first-generation college graduate in my family. I grew up in a really small town, and I didn’t know any lawyers. But I happened to grow up in a town that happened to have a university in it – Indiana University.
And even though I was very disconnected with that, I used to sneak into the gymnasium to play basketball. That is what motivated me to first go to college – sports. And I became a journalist because I was a sports writer. I went to Indiana University to play basketball, and then I realized that I actually like academics.
I was studying journalism, and one day in communications class, a professor told us to go to the law library, find the “New York Times v Sullivan” case – it is a very famous libel case. So, I went to the library, found the case, read it, and fell in love. I realized that I would have to go to law school someday.
But because my family could not help me economically, I worked for almost five years. And then I went back to law school, applied to only one law school (Indiana) because I was so fond of it!
I have never been sorry I went. I think students should study law because it helps you be a better citizen, it helps you be a better person. I also think that there is just so many things you can do with a law degree. You might want to be a traditional lawyer, you might want to be in business, you might want to be a journalist who writes about law or what have you.