Nearly a year after being appointed president and CEO of the Law School Admission Council — better known as LSAC — Kellye Testy is a woman on a mission.
It’s no secret that law school applications are down, struggling to recover from a decline sparked by the Great Recession. Now, after taking the helm in July 2017 and surveying the landscape, Testy has come to a conclusion: she’s not sure whether a full bounce-back is even possible.
“I think we are on an upward trend, but I don’t expect it to get as high,” says Testy, no stranger to high-profile leadership positions after having held two long-term dean positions at Seattle University School of Law and University of Washington School of Law. “The practice of law is changing because of technology and globalization. Also, many law jobs don’t require a JD. JD enrollments are about 10% higher, but I don’t think we’ll see the historic highs of the past.”
Testy’s focus, instead, is on building what she calls the “justice pipeline” — getting people, particularly young people, interested in law again and guiding them from the point of interest to the point of actually pursuing an education in law.
THE ‘TRUMP BUMP’ AND SOCIAL MEDIA
A couple of things are working in Testy’s favor. First, the Trump Bump. According to a recent survey of law school applicants, Donald Trump’s election to Commander-In-Chief was a key factor in their decision to pursue law.
“People have woken up a little bit and they’re re-understanding the role of law, government, and the role of law in making those institutions work,” Testy tells Tipping the Scales. “I want to fan that flame. I want people to understand that law is a pathway to justice. They’re welcome in it and they’re needed.”
Another aspect she hopes will work to LSAC’s advantage: tapping into the power of social media and digital marketing.
“It’s so much of how people get their information. I think we’ve been a bit behind on that. We have to find ways to reach them. Not wait on people to come to us, but to reach young people where they are.” As she embarks on the crusade for building a justice pipeline, Testy says it’s about helping young people open the door. “We want to ask them, ‘Have you thought about law?’ and be able to say to them, ‘Here’s some of what lawyers do. Here’s where you can go to learn more.’”
GOALS: MORE TALENT AND A SMOOTHER PATH TO LAW SCHOOL EDUCATION
Testy, who started her new role in the fall of 2017, says her excitement for the job stems from the fact it sits right at the entryway of the law profession. “I really want to use that position effectively; as an outstretched hand to encourage young people to pursue this education. I want our organization to be the one to not only open those doors, but reaches out to help people through them. That’s my main goal: to position us as prospective students’ best friend.”
“One of the changes we made is that it’s important to first understand who’s interested in law school and why.” To do so, LSAC did a survey of LSAT takers in order to find out what’s motivating them. “By far the highest number of people say they want to work for justice to help make the world better through law.”
The second objective related to gaining a better understanding of prospects is broadening people’s perspective of law. “I think the world generally thinks about law too narrowly. It’s usually just police, courts, or dispute resolution. But lawyers function in every area of society,” Testy says. “There are as many peace builders as there are litigators and there are many ways that lawyers serve our world.”
Next, Testy aims for LSAC to be as supportive of prospective candidates as possible. That means zeroing in on some of the known barriers to getting a law education. The council has completed a partnership with Khan Academy — an educational organization with a mission to provide free, world-class education — to provide free LSAT prep. Testy wants to offer free LSAT courses and education, “So people see it more as a skill development opportunity,” she says. “As you study for it, it gets you ready for law school and you think like a lawyer. It isn’t just the test, it’s part of your education — an onramp. But I want to make the onramp not as steep.”
Secondly, she believes what’s needed is more preparation for students. “Especially communities underrepresented in law,” says Testy, a first generation college graduate who says while growing up she didn’t know any lawyers or what they did so the education pathway was a vital one for her. “Like me, I had no idea how to think about that opportunity. So we’re also using pipeline building programs to enhance diversity and access.”
There’s also accessibility of the test itself. “For many years, we gave it only four times a year, we’re now moving to giving it almost every month. Also, giving it in computerized format. A lot of young people are more used to computers and taking tests that way. We want to make it available in broader formats and more places so it’s never a barrier to someone.”
Finally, Testy says her mission involves a whole new way of thinking about the candidate. “We’re having customer service reconfigured to include much more personalized attention to each candidate. Our team will help them all the way through the process.”
‘MY FAVORITE THING IS TO TAKE AN INSTITUTION WHERE IT IS AND MAKE IT BETTER’
With all that said, there’s a lot of ground to cover. As a self-described ambitious dean, Testy says her favorite thing to do is take an institution where it is and make it better. Though, she acknowledges that being a woman in power isn’t easy.
Reflecting on her two previous deanships, roles in which she was the first-ever female overseer at both law schools, she remembers episodes of unconscious bias.
“In leadership, I think women have less room than their male counterparts to be innovative and ambitious and forward-thinking. It’s seen as more than your supposed to do. Women are viewed more as caretaker, not the innovator. Since I’m more of a big picture change leader than a manager, sometimes they thought, ‘Is she too big for her britches?’”
“‘She’s really smart or clearly a great lawyer, but she doesn’t seem like a dean’ they’d say. People have images in their heads they don’t realize they have,” reflects Testy.
As a leader who is female, Testy says she deals with it by reading a lot about leadership and keeping her focus on the task at hand. “I could make a choice to be safer and not rock any boats, but if I wanted to be true to who I was and what the institution needed, I just needed to remind myself that I may have these encounters.”
“As long as I was doing what I thought was best for the institution and for the students, my job was to push through if there was push back and not take it personally. Sometimes you still feel it — and it’s frustrating — but I must keep in mind the purpose of my leadership if I’m going to do what needs to be done.”