Getting Into Law School
Do you enjoy argument for argument’s sake? Do images of Sam Waterston flit through your dreams? Do you want to put off the working life for a few more years? Law school may be for you…or you may just be lazy, belligerent, and obsessed with TNT. Figure out how to
draw the distinction below, then learn about applying and making the most of law school once you’re there.
To Sue Or Not To Sue
Law school’s not for everyone. As a preliminary litmus test, keep in mind that you’ll only be successful in law school if you truly want to be there. Here are some other factors to consider before dropping $30 on that LSAT book.
No major preempts you from getting into law school, but the most common undergraduate majors for applicants are political science, history, and English. That said, a major that departs from the norm can help set an applicant apart. Majoring in science or engineering can be a big plus since patent and intellectual property law often requires some basic scientific knowledge.
What’s it really like?
The consensus: not super fun. The workload in your first year is heavier and more homogenous than undergrad, the atmosphere is much more competitive, and there’s less community. And while it’s possible to float through college without any real goals and still not feel completely worthless, law school is more of a means to an end—messing around is not really a viable option. On the flipside, much of the material is incredibly interesting, and when compared to many jobs (i.e., i-banking) the workload is not too insane. But, in the end, if you’re looking to prolong the salad days of college, law school isn’t the answer.
How much does it cost?
Tuition varies widely, with the top private schools charging between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, and the top public schools around $20,000. Financial aid is generally available, but you will probably have to take out loans to cover the rest. The good news is that top New York firms offer starting salaries of $180,000 a year plus bonus. However, keep in mind that the median starting income for law school grads is “only” $59,000.
What if I don’t want to be a lawyer?
A law degree can be useful for someone who doesn’t want to be a practicing lawyer. Interested in going into politics? Of the 535 members of Congress, 198 have a law degree. Legal academia appeals to those wanting a professor’s lifestyle but not a professor’s crummy pay. A law degree can also be very helpful in various business positions, such as management consulting. In general, it can increase the salary potential of jobs that don’t tacitly require a JD.
After deciding to take the plunge, it’s time to apply. Here’s a quick checklist:
1) LSAT score
2) Undergrad transcript
3) Personal statement
4) Letters of recommendation (2 or 3)
5) Dean’s letter (not always required)
LSAT Score + GPA: The Magic Formula
The LSAT evaluates reading comprehension, analytical/logical reasoning, and writing ability, resulting in a score between 120 and 180. Take a sample test here. The test is given four times a year and costs $123 (register here). Most people get tutored in some capacity. It’s best to take the test early—June or September of the year you plan to enroll—because it allows you to narrow down your list of schools and start submitting applications as soon as possible. While taking the test more than once is allowed, some schools will average your two scores, so it may not be to your advantage. If you think you completely whiffed on the test, you should cancel your score and retake.
LSAT scores and GPA are given the most weight by the admissions office. (Consult this chart to see what range of schools fits your scores). At top-tier Harvard Law, 75% of the class has above a 3.72 GPA and a 169 LSAT score, while at third-tier Florida A&M those numbers are 2.78 and 141 (but I hear the weather is much nicer). Put in requests for transcripts early, as dean’s offices often get swamped. When choosing where to apply, try for a mix of safeties, likelies, and reaches. Keep in mind where you want to be working after school, as recruitment and alumni connections will obviously be stronger at local firms. Although applying to five schools is the average, you should shoot for closer to ten—applications cost $60 a pop, but any school you don’t apply to is just one more to which you won’t get accepted.
As Tony Soprano is to northern New Jersey, so the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS) is to applications. Well, maybe not, but law schools require you to submit your applications through LSDAS, so joining the “service” is mandatory. Just cough up the $113 and be thankful that nobody’s pinky got run through a deli slicer.
The personal statement is crucial. It should be two pages long and is your best chance to present yourself as a real person, not an accumulation of numbers. This site gives examples of a good personal statement. Here are some personal essay do’s and don’ts.
Letters of recommendations
These should come from people who know you well. Even if your third cousin’s husband is Antonin Scalia—and, if so, my regrets—it’s better to ask a professor or boss with whom you’ve worked closely. Again, the earlier you ask for a recommendation, the better.
A Dean’s letter, which is not always required, basically states that the applicant is in good standing with the college, and has not lied, cheated, etc. Just one more reason not to plagiarize in college… Don’t worry if you never schmoozed Dean Woodcock as an undergrad—the dean does not need to personally know you to write this recommendation.
Once You’re In
Whether you end up at Stanford Law or Stan Ford’s Discount Law School and Pancake Emporium (go Fightin’ Flapjacks!), there’s a lot of work ahead of you. Most law school classes are graded on a curve set around a fixed average; half the class must be graded below the set mean, so competition is fierce. Your first-year grades are by far the most important because they’re the only ones available when top firms recruit for summer associates during the fall semester of 2L. If you score a sweet summer position and impress your employer, they’ll likely offer you a job upon graduation. Additionally, membership on the Law Review, which makes you a marquee corporate hire and is instrumental in landing such desired positions as judicial clerkships, depends on first-year grades.
Not everyone can be on Law Review, though—at least 90% of each class won’t. What to do if you aren’t kicking ass and/or taking names? Remember that from a top 25 or 30 school, you can still land a premier job at a large or medium-sized firm, so long as you’re in the top third or occasionally even half of your class. Furthermore, having a law degree is a boon in many careers outside of the law. But for now, let’s think positively: check out the Princeton’s Reviews first year overview and tips for classroom success, and log on to 4lawschool.com for advice from current and past students.