Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here. This is the second of five posts I offer about law school.
My previous post likely failed to talk you out of your ambition to go to law school. Undeterred by my warning, you shall press on. To gain admission to law school in the United States, in almost every case you will need an undergraduate degree from a credible four-year university backed by grades demonstrating at least the potential for academic excellence.
The big question, of course, is how good a law school you can get into in the first place. Sorry to put the pressure on you so early, but the quality of law school you attend is the single most important thing about your career because so much spins off from it. And while a great deal of what will happen is functionally out of your control, there are things you can do as an undergraduate to affect your trajectory.
First of all, be aware that law schools fall into tiers of prestige. The U.S. News and World Report rankings are subject to very incisive criticism, mine being that they purport to offer a higher degree of precision in ranking the schools than is real, but they do a reasonably good job of giving a sense of the tiers.
If you look back over history, you’ll notice that Harvard, Yale, and Stanford have been the top three forever. There’s a reason for that, and the reason is “prestige.” Sorry, Michigan, Chicago, Columbia, and so on, the top three are the top three. Positions #4 – #30 (or so) shuffle around a bit from year to year. But it’s the same schools jockeying for position with one another and only rarely does one rise or fall out of that tier.
In part 4 of this series, I’ll demonstrate just how important this is. For now, suffice to say that if you want all the cool stuff you hear about that attracted you to law in the first place — the potential for political or business leadership positions, the high salaries at prestigious firms, the chance to Really Change Things For The Better, you need to get into as high-prestige a school as you can.
The odds of which are, for the most part, determined by a very simple exercise in arithmetic. Here’s the math: take your college GPA. Multiply it by your LSAT. Boom. That’s your number. From there, well, they grade on a curve in law school. Admissions officers will tell you there’s more to it than this. Admissions officers sometimes lie, in this case by misdirection. Nothing is so important as this number.
Now, to get into a good law school, you don’t need a 4.0. By “good” I mean ABA-accredited, reasonably likely to get you a full-time job as a lawyer, and one which will teach you enough law that you won’t make a complete fool out of yourself when you go to court the first few times. For this, you do need something better than 3.0, and the closer to the 4.0 you can get, the better. If your undergraduate grades are lower than that, then a first- or second-tier law school may be unrealistic and you may want to have a long think with a guidance counselor about proceeding further down this path.
If only Yale, Stanford, or Harvard are acceptable to you, then I take it back: yes, you do need a 4.0 and a perfect score on the LSAT and even that may not be enough on its own.
Second, what should you major in? There might be some undergraduate colleges out there that still offer “pre-law” degrees but it’s become unusual. I’m told that law schools don’t look with all that much greater favor on any particular undergraduate course of study. Here, I think I believe the admissions officers because the evidence supports this claim. For instance, my law school class had a very diverse set of majors; most were from the humanities but relatively few were political science or government or other obvious “pre-law” majors. The plurality major was English, not political science as I had expected. There were more than a handful of STEM majors, many of whom focused on intellectual property in school and early practice, and some of whom can now buy and sell tens of me as a result.
Law Schools admissions people are looking for perseverance to complete the major, academic rigor within the program, and writing requirements. Consequently, my advice for the prospective law student is to select a major based on:
- How much you enjoy studying it, and thus the degree to which you will generate high grades from studying it,
- How much it relates to what you think you want to do professionally,
- How much writing is involved (more writing being better), and
- The diversity and quality of romantic and/or sexual opportunities available to you within the major.
Why that last one? Because this is college we’re talking about. Frankly, I’m not necessarily talking about marriage. After all, if my law school class’ experience is any compass, if you’re married before law school or get married in law school, you have about a three out of four chance of being divorced from that person within five years of graduation. So if you’re looking at law school, it may be best to defer marriage.
No, I say pick your college major based on the fact that classmates are your likeliest source of dates in college. You probably won’t be dating as much in law school. You certainly won’t have the time or mental stamina for falling in love. Which means fewer social opportunities, and therefore probably less romance and less sex. (There is, however, ample consumption of alcohol and tobacco.) So get as much dating in as an undergraduate.
Third, of course, you must take the LSAT, which is the other major component for admissions. Law school admissions officers will tell you that they consider grades, LSATs, and personal background on a roughly equal basis. They lie. Between your grades and your LSATs, your path is laid out for you. Those determine the tier of law schools that will do more than politely reject your applications.
Register well in advance for the LSAT with its administering entity, the Law School Admissions Council. You will need to give fingerprints, ostensibly to verify your identity. Typically, the test is given four times a year, although not on a strict quarterly schedule. The test in the cycle that you want to take if you’re going straight from college to law school is given in October, and you must register for the test by early September. Make it a point to sign up for the test with LSAC before Labor Day. Then take one fewer class at college than you ordinarily would have, so that you can free up some time to take as many practice LSAT’s as you can stand so as to prepare.
While there is some controversy over what exactly the test truly measures other than your ability to come up with $160 and some sharpened #2 pencils, the modern permutation of the test consists of five components, one of which is not used (and they’re not going to tell you which one it is because that would ruin everything). The ostensible subject matters upon which you will be tested will be logical reasoning, reading comprehension, and “analytical reasoning,” which is the much-feared “logic games” section of the test.
Here’s an example of a logic game:
Facts For Questions 1-7: A troop of seven howler monkeys sits in a row. Some are male, some are female. Each monkey is doing something: eating a banana, masturbating, or screeching loudly at an intolerably high pitch. More males than females are in this troop. Only male monkeys are masturbating. No female monkey is screeching.
Question 4: If two and only two female monkeys are doing the same thing, which of the following must be true?
(A) One of the seven monkeys is screeching.
(B) Two of the seven monkeys are masturbating.
(C) Three of the seven monkeys are female.
(D) Four of the seven monkeys are eating bananas.
(E) Five of the seven monkeys are male.
It is on the basis of correctly answering questions like this that your future livelihood depends. Remember, the test is timed.
You also will be asked to produce a writing sample as part of the LSAT. The writing sample requires that you make and justify a forced-choice selection between two roughly equal alternatives in a short essay spontaneously composed during the test.
At a party, you are required to give a toast that will conclude with you drinking a glass of a beverage. The only beverage choices available are mineral water to which has been added a small amount of pasteurized urine harvested from a gravid alpaca, or a Coors Light. Both are served at the same temperature and both will have the same health effects upon you after consumption. You must drink after giving the toast. Explain in an essay of approximately 500 words which of these two beverages you will select, and why.
The result of all of this is a score that will vary from 120 to 180, 180 being the best. When I took it, there were only three sections (reading comprehension, inductive reasoning, and logic games) and the scoring regime was different. Wikipedia offers an interesting data set of how typical scores correlate with college majors, giving some non-intuitive results. There are classes available to prepare for this test. Having taken one, I think I would have been better-served just buying a book and practicing the old tests in it. This despite the fact that my LSAT instructor was a postdoctorate instructor from my undergraduate university and he and I cemented what has become a lifelong friendship in that class.
Fourth, you will need to gather and submit recommendations, typically from employers and professors with whom you have cultivated good relationships during your soon-to-be-former life. They must attest to your good moral character, keen intelligence, and eager personality. You, um, have cultivated relationships with some of your professors during your undergraduate education, haven’t you? If so, those professors will generally be happy to write letters of recommendation in exchange for aught but a thank-you note and your tolerance while they dispense life and career advice and explain why you would be better off in academia rather than the legal profession, advice which they know full well you are all but certain to ignore. If not, now is the time to start cultivating.
You will be submitting applications from November to February of your last year in college, so you need to start asking about recommendations earlier than that.
Finally, you will be asked to give a writing sample as part of your law school application. This will be an essay of the specified length (usually about 1,000 words) on a topic of your choice. You will be evaluated on your technical use of the English language, your ability to communicate your idea in writing, and the ability of that writing to convey your personality.
Unlike the LSAT essay, you have time to write this on your own, so it needs to be dead solid perfect. Have friends and professors help you edit it. Again, this will be part of your admissions process, so you need to have it ready to go along with the rest of your admissions packet. Start writing it not long after completing the LSAT and don’t be shy about asking for help with editing and proofreading.
Of course, you’re going to write one and use it over and over again for each application. This is pattern of self-plagiarism will become familiar to you over the course of your career.
As I’ve noted before, whether the school will even consider you at all is determined through a mathematical formula weighing your grades and your LSAT score. But if you make the cut, your writing sample may influence where on the list of potential admitees your application will fall. The writing sample is also the place where you will explain why your extracurricular activities or work experience round you out as a person and make you a good choice for law school: if you can extract some sort of academic value out of the fact that the only thing you did in college outside of class was drink a lot of beer at ski club “meetings,” go for it.
When I applied to law school it was not customary to attach a photograph of yourself to your application. I was kind of shocked to learn that was customary for medical school. I don’t know what the custom is these days.
Having assembled these five key ingredients, and more money for application fees, you now may begin soliciting applications and filling out the forms. About half of the ABA-accredited law schools out there have agreed on a common form of application, which does streamline things quite a bit compared to when I was trying to get in to law school. However, each school also has its own “supplements” which makes each application just different enough from the others that you’re really doing a custom job for each school.
By all means, aim for the top. I applied to Harvard, Stanford, and Yale too. Didn’t get in, didn’t really expect to — but if I hadn’t applied, then I’d have been kicking myself for not applying for the rest of my life. But don’t aim only at the top. A strategic pick of law schools to apply to includes some “shoot the moon” schools in the top tier, some “realistic” options in the middle tier, and some “backup” options that you’re positive you can get in to.
Prepare your applications, pay the several hundred dollars in fees, and then you wait by the mailbox. Just like applying to college, you’re hoping for thick envelopes back with the admissions package, not thin rejection letters. Don’t worry, you’ll get in somewhere. Oh, and you need to actually finish your undergraduate degree, but hopefully that was already in the cards for you anyway. At this point, you will have a few options available to you in the spring of your last year of college — pick the most prestigious school that has made you an offer.
Next up, we’ll talk about what you’ll actually be doing in law school.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.