Sorting legal wheat from the uni chaff

Collette Paterson

EVER heard of the LNAT? I have become intrigued by it, but fear it might be operating under most of the legal profession's radar. For the avoidance of doubt, I'm talking about the National Admissions Test for Law.

More than 200 first-year LLB students flooded through the law-school gates at Glasgow University in September, each having sat the LNAT. But Glasgow is the only LLB provider out of ten in Scotland using LNAT as a tool to help determine who is offered a place. It is used by ten universities in England and Wales (including Oxford and Cambridge) and, back in Glasgow, session 2007-8 will see the third cohort of students who secured a law school place having sat the LNAT. Setting the bar at "AAAAB" is evidently not cutting it these days, with so many applicants having secured/surpassed minimum entry requirements. So what exactly does the test do?

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The LNAT website says the first part of the test, the multiple-choice element, tests "powers of comprehension, interpretation, analysis, synthesis, induction and deduction". The second part, the essay element, is meant to "test the ability of the candidate to argue economically to a conclusion with a good command of written English".

A good LNAT performance can be persuasive evidence that a candidate is likely to be suited to the study of law, which could save a student making a false start at university. Surely this is also good news for the profession? What interests me is whether LNAT students are more spurred on than others to overcome all of the challenges of legal education to follow. Might we start to see a link between LNAT students understanding more than other law students about competitive entry to the legal profession in Scotland, and the importance of "hitting the ground" running from first year? The LNAT Consortium is researching the exam performance of LNAT students in first and second year compared with other students. I await the results eagerly, as the timescale is tied, more or less, to when students sit the "professional subjects" for entry in Scotland.

Of course the stark consequence of the LNAT is there is potentially no room at the inn for those who achieve a poorer result in the test, possibly despite having attained good Higher grades. This is surely the raison d'tre of the LNAT. Helping people, many of whom are young, to gain that priceless insight into their suitability to study law benefits student, university and profession.

With universities more focused on "widening participation" in their recruitment procedures, the LNAT Consortium also says: "The LNAT is intended to improve the selection process and to make it fairer to all candidates, whatever their educational background, by providing objective evaluations of candidates from a wide range of social and educational backgrounds by assessing essential general intellectual skills of comprehension, analysis, logic and judgment."

In many respects, LNAT is going some way to helping people suited to the study of law to get into law school, including addressing issues surrounding widening participation. A fair guess would be those not suited, or indifferent, probably do not do that well in the test. This is great news for our profession in attracting trainee solicitors who are competent and come from diverse groups.

As the profession has debated at length, an ability to swallow Gloag & Henderson's The Law of Scotland whole, and regurgitate paragraph by painstaking paragraph in the exam, does not a good practising lawyer make. Perhaps that's where the LNAT is trying to make a difference (at least in the dear green place). Might we finally be acknowledging that to succeed as a law student and in the profession, being a clever bod is good, but it's not good enough?

• Collette Paterson is the new lawyers coordinator at the Law Society of Scotland.