Does the LSAT Test Law?

    LSAT Prep | LSAT Logical Reasoning | LSAT Conditional Reasoning

    According to LSAC, the Logical Reasoning portion of the LSAT is designed to "evaluate the ability to analyze, critically evaluate, and complete arguments as they occur in ordinary language . . . These arguments mirror legal reasoning in the types of arguments presented and in their complexity, though few of the arguments actually have law as a subject matter."

    6685172487_3e3521da0d_m-2-1.jpgI frequently echo this final disclaimer at the start of my classes—the LSAT is a not a legal test per se, but rather a test of the kinds of reasoning skills that students will need to employ in law school. It is true that the law appears infrequently in Logical Reasoning questions generally. However, if you look narrowly at certain types of questions, it actually appears quite often.

    Principle questions are one area of the LSAT that frequently mirror the law and its application. These questions present you with a principle (or principles), and direct you to apply that principle to a certain factual situation. The principles themselves can cover a wide range of topics, and usually take the form of abstract rules. Sometimes they are prescriptive, directing what a person "should" or "should not" do in certain situations. Other times they level judgment as to what is "morally wrong" or "morally good." But this ethical and moralistic tone can shift to a distinct legal tone. Principles will often speak of "guilt," "evidence", and even "intent." In this regard, they are often written like laws and, on occasion, even mirror actual laws.

    Take one example from a very recent LSAT:

    A contract between two parties is valid only if one party accepts a legitimate offer from the other; an offer is not legitimate if someone in the position of the party to whom it was made would reasonably believe the offer to be made in jest.

    It is no secret that this principle deals with contract law. After all, the second word in the rule is "contract." In addition, the rule addresses some of the basic features of contract law such as "offer" and "acceptance." But this isn't just any principle of contract law—the refrain in this rule would sound hauntingly familiar to most current or former students of first year Contract Law. In fact, part of the opinion in the landmark case of Lucy v. Zehmer, 196 Va. 493; 84 S.E.2d 516 (1954)  reads:

    “…the law imputes to a person an intention corresponding to the reasonable meaning of his words and acts. If his words and acts, judged by a reasonable standard [emphasis added], manifest an intention to agree, it is immaterial what may be the real but unexpressed state of mind.”

    Not only is the Lucy case commonly taught during the first year of law school, for many students it is straight out of the first few weeks of law school. (I even referenced this case straight from my own Contracts textbook. Yes, I still have it.) Lucy is famous for introducing an objective standard for determining whether a legitimate offer exists for a contract. 

    But sure enough, the hook to the LSAT question cited above parallels the objective standard found in Lucy. It does not matter whether the person who made the offer is joking or not. It does not even necessarily matter whether the person to whom the offer was made believes it is a joke or not. What matters is whether a person in the shoes of the person to whom the offer was made would reasonably believe the offer was a joke. These are certainly subtle legal distinctions which pertain to the mindset of the parties to a contract; not exactly standard fare for the layperson.

    To see these distinctions, consider three slightly different hypothetical rules:

    1. An offer is not legitimate if it is made in jest.
    2. An offer is not legitimate if the person to whom it was made believed the offer to be made in jest.
    3. An offer is not legitimate if someone in the position of the party to whom it was made would reasonably believe the offer to be made in jest.

    Note that Rule #3 is simply our LSAT rule from above, restated. The italicized portions of each of these rules show the legal issue that needs to be addressed. In each of the first two cases, the issue is the mentality of one of the two parties to the supposed contract. In Rule #1, the only mental state that matters is the intent of the person making the offer. If they are joking, the offer is not legitimate. In Rule #2, the mindset of the person making the offer is no longer relevant. Here, the issue is whether the person to whom the offer was made actually believes the offer was serious or not. If they believed the offer was in jest, then the offer is not legitimate.

    Rule #3 (and thus our LSAT rule) introduces a hypothetical entity: the "reasonable person." This individual is not one of the two parties to the contract, but rather an imagined person stepping into the shoes of the person receiving the offer. The question now is whether that fictional person, if acting reasonably, would believe the offer was in jest or not. Regardless of whether the person making the offer was joking or whether the person receiving the offer believed they were joking, would a reasonable person have considered the offer in jest?

    The LSAT is fond of sneaking this important legal distinction into many principle questions: the idea that what matters is not just what is actually happening but what the actors believe is happening or even what they intend  to happen. Law students quickly become accustomed to this line of thinking as an individual's mental state factors into so many different areas of the law. However, to students sitting for the LSAT, the significance of one's mental state is not as readily apparent. Even if a detailed legal understanding of these issues is not required for success on Principle questions, the ability to recognize them is critical.

    One more thing worth noting: Principle questions have appeared about 5 times per test in recent years, representing approximately 10% of Logical Reasoning questions overall. This compares strongly to some of the other more common Logical Reasoning question types, as you can see here. So, as these legal concepts factor into many Principle questions, there is a fair chance of seeing them on any given LSAT.

    If you have felt the long arm of the law on Logical Reasoning questions, or if you have any questions about these ideas, please feel free to post those questions or comments below.

    Image "Atlantic Reporter" courtesy of Janet Lindenmuth