Thinking About Law School? Think Again …
THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE of advice that can possibly be given to you, the prospective law student, is simple. Surprisingly, perhaps, it has nothing to do with how to study or how to write a good exam. It is not about how to glean wisdom from the dusty pages of the U.S. Supreme Court opinions that shaped our country, or how to make the law review, or how to impress an employer in a job interview. Those things are important, but they’re all secondary.
The most important advice that you can get as a prospective law student isn’t even about law school. It’s about you—and it can be summed up succinctly but completely with a single word.
That’s it. “To carry into action deliberately.” Commit.
Show up for your first day of law school with only a vague notion of why you’re there—without a clear set of reasons for putting yourself through the punishment you’re about to endure—and you’ll be setting yourself up for a miserable and unfulfilling three years. Show up committed, with a well thought-out set of goals supported by reasons for attaining them, and the experience can be exhilarating.
The choice is yours. You picked up this book looking for answers, or maybe a “quick fix” that will put you ahead of your competitors in the rough-and-tumble world of law school. You have it in one word: commit. That’s it. Don’t “decide” to go to law school. Don’t “try” law school. Commit to law school. That is the pure axiom of law school success. Commit, or forget it—for in law school, to quote the ancient Jedi master Yoda, “there is no try.”
Still with me?
Now … about the cocky guy next to you who just put this book back on the shelf with a “Hrumph” after reading these first few paragraphs—don’t worry about him. That’s the overconfident guy who will spend the first weeks of law school casually reading cases, partying in the bars, and teasing you about studying too much. Learn to love that guy because he’s someone you’re going to flog on your first-semester finals. Trust me on that because I used to know that guy.
He was me.
Step number one on the road to your commitment to law school is to ask yourself one critical question. Why do you want to go to law school?
No really. Think about it. What’s driving you? Force yourself to come up with an answer. Now be honest. Does your answer, or something like it, appear on this list?
• because my mom/dad/sibling/relative/friend is a lawyer
• because I took the LSAT and got a good score
• because I’m not good at science and wouldn’t be able to get into med school
• because lawyers make good salaries and have financial and/or job security
• because most of the people at my school are applying to law/med school
• because I watch Law & Order reruns and think they’re interesting
• because I’ve read all of John Grisham’s novels and find them fascinating
• because I don’t know what else to do and law is a respectable profession
• because my parents/relatives/teachers/friends think I’m a “born lawyer”
Okay. So if your rationale for going to law school appears above, all is not lost. It just means that you need to rethink your motivations because these just aren’t going to cut it for you. Let’s dispel some illusions.
My relative the lawyer made me do it
First of all, what is it about your parent/sibling/friend the lawyer that makes you want to follow him into his profession? Is it the money? The prestige? Do you even know whether this person is happy practicing law? Have you asked him lately? More important, have you ever followed this person through a typical day—or even better, a typical week? Ever ask this person what he likes least about the law, or about how much time he spends in court compared to how much time he spends with his nose buried in the books? Ever ask how long it took him to make partner, or how many hours a week he had to work to become partner? Ever ask him how much time he gets to spend with his kids, on his hobbies, or exercising? How her relationships are with her family and friends? These are revealing questions that may help you explore a career in law more realistically. Ask them before you romanticize your relative the lawyer.
I can’t ignore this amazing LSAT score, can I?
Why not? The LSAT is allegedly an aptitude test that predicts how well you’ll do in law school, but the accuracy of this correlation is controversial and much debated. A good LSAT score is a tremendous asset when applying to law schools. A whole chapter in this book is devoted to teaching you how to get the best possible score. However, the test bears almost no resemblance to what you’ll be doing in law school, and even less to the actual practice of law. Both law school and law practice require well-developed research and writing skills, and to a lesser extent, oral advocacy proficiency, none of which is tested on the LSAT. No legal concepts are tested on the LSAT, which is basically a souped-up, trickier SAT. Yet some would use a good LSAT score to justify law as a career choice. A good LSAT score may bring you to the dance, but it’s no guarantee that you’ll be happy to be there.
I don’t have a mind for science, so …
Otherwise known as the old “I can’t be a doctor because I couldn’t hack orgo, so I might as well be a lawyer” rationale. Trust me, I get it … I took orgo twice myself, but seriously, where’s the logic in that argument? We’re not playing the game of Life here—this is the real thing. Contrary to the beliefs of many, there are other career choices besides law, medicine, and investment banking. Maybe you should explore some of them. Take a year off to travel, learn a language, teach, write, or work for a nonprofit or volunteer organization. Start your own business. Think a little and figure out what it is that you like to do. Don’t just fall into this ridiculous mind trap and go straight for the law school applications because all your friends are doing it. To quote your mom, “If all your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge…”
It’s the economy, stupid
This is one of the biggest misconceptions of all. If you’re going into law because you think it’s your road to riches, stop and go directly to business school or ignore the advice in the last section and become an I-banker. That’s where the real money is. While associates in big-city law firms do make six-figure salaries right out of law school, in a good year I-bankers at comparably large investment firms commonly make that much in their holiday bonus. Similarly, a successful business idea can bring you a partner-level salary two or three years after start-up, not to mention stock options, a flexible work schedule, and the pleasure of being your own boss.
Remember this—the average lawyer’s salary in the United States is still only about $40,000 per year. Sure, partners at big-city firms may pull down over a million a year … but those big salaries generally belong only to the real rainmakers, and it may have taken even them fifteen to twenty years of eighty-hour weeks, two failed marriages, and a heart attack to get there. Clients don’t just grow on trees or fall out of the sky. You have to earn the right to represent clients, and that takes serious time and effort. Meanwhile, the prosecutors you’ve romanticized from television or the novels you’ve read may make as little as $25,000 a year while working the same hours. So don’t kid yourself. A career in law does provide some job security and a good assurance that you and your family won’t starve on the streets, but if money is your primary motivator, there are much easier ways to make your millions.
This ain’t Hollywood, son
That brings us to the unspoken reason why many people go to law school—the secret longing to be Tom Cruise in The Firm, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Sam Waterston in Law & Order. Unfortunately, this too is a romanticized notion of the law. Most lawyers never make guest appearances on CNN or get to parade secret, star witnesses into court to the gasps of the gallery. The vast majority of cases settle before trial, and the work between intake and settlement is a long, private grind of discovery battles, document review, motion practice, and many hours spent reading, writing, and thinking far from the limelight. If your aspirations about law school center on supercharged days before a jury and invitations to appear on national television after your latest victory, it’s time to wake up to the reality of what the practice of law is really like.
Most lawyers, even the really good ones, typically toil in the state and lower federal courts, often on mundane legal issues. Most lawyers will never argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, and an appearance before a circuit court of appeals or a chance to break new legal ground may only occur once or twice in a career. That’s not to say that your days as a lawyer won’t be interesting or intellectually challenging. Many of them will be. But they won’t be like what you see in the movies.
Finally, remember that even what you see on Law & Order is the culmination of hundreds of hours of hard work in the library reading cases, developing theories, drafting court briefs and memoranda, and taking depositions from unwilling witnesses in law firm conference rooms—things the producers will never show you on television. For every hour of court time you log, you may spend hundreds of hours reading, researching, and writing. If you become a civil or criminal litigator or a prosecutor, you’ll have your days in court before a judge and jury—but if you go to work for a big-city firm, it may take you five to ten years to even see the inside of a courtroom, and even longer to try your own cases. In the meantime, you’ll be a researcher—analyzing issues, finding applicable cases, and writing memoranda to the more senior associates and partners in the firm. You’ll typically be asked to work sixty-to-eighty-hour weeks, late nights, and at least some weekends.
Your fate is typically better in a smaller firm, or working for a state or federal prosecutor. Doing so can bring these opportunities much more rapidly—often within the first year or two, but these positions typically pay much less.
On the corporate side, it is much the same story. If you want to become a dealmaker in a large city, you’ll need to get in line. For the first few years, you’ll be paid handsomely to draft boilerplate agreements and spend late nights at the printer arguing over the placement of commas in merger agreements and initial public offerings. Remember that at a big firm, there may be sixty to eighty starry-eyed associates in your “class,” all of whom want the same plum assignments that you do. Someone has to do the scut work, though, and for the first few years, that will be you. While smaller firms again offer more rapid opportunity, the deals are also smaller. Further, someone still has to proofread these agreements—and that someone is still going to be you. Oh—and if you’re thinking of going the in-house route, remember that most corporations won’t even consider hiring someone right out of law school. You’ll need some years of firm experience first, unless you hook up with your friend’s start-up company, and if you do, remember that 95 percent of these “start-up” companies never actually get anywhere.
Of course, there are exceptions to all these scenarios. Partners in big firms will occasionally take promising young associates under their wings, channel them interesting and important work, or provide them with uncommon opportunities to sit “third chair” in a trial, or to help “put the deal together.” Be clear, though: These are the exceptions, not the rule. The road to partnership is paved with disillusioned associates who became bored and disenchanted with the work they were given and left voluntarily, or who, after seven years spent toiling in the mines, were told that they were not on the partner track and should look elsewhere for employment. In a typical large firm, of an entering class of forty to eighty associates, only a small handful, maybe three to five, will survive to make partner eight or ten years later.
Hey, you! Yeah, you—the one with the distressed look on your face about to reach for that copy of Med School Confidential instead. Relax. It’s not all bad. It’s just that there are so many people out there with misconceptions about law practice that we need to clear away the delusions up front to approach this experience with more realistic expectations. Now that we’ve done this, it’s time for more introspection. Let’s explore whether you have an accurate picture of what your law school experience will entail. As you read the questions that follow, carefully consider the answers that come from within. Pay particular attention if a “Yeah, but…” comes up. Trust me—it’s better to deal with this crisis now than to experience it a month into your first semester.
A REALISTIC EVALUATION OF YOUR FITNESS FOR LAW SCHOOL
Go somewhere where you can be undisturbed for the next thirty minutes or so and force yourself to answer the following questions honestly. What follows is a realistic picture of the day-to-day grind of law school. In many ways, it’s also an accurate picture of the day-to-day life of a young lawyer. So forget the glamorous pictures of law practice you’ve seen on television and in the movies and be honest with yourself. While few people will find themselves completely in love with the thought of spending their next three years holed up in a library, if what you see below is too far out of sync with what drives you, your misery may last much longer than the three years you’ll be in school.
• How comfortable are you with the idea of spending the majority of each day in silence, reading difficult material?
• Do you or could you have the stamina to read dry, complicated material for four to six hours a day, every day?
• Are you self-reliant, or do you depend on others for constant encouragement, evaluation, and/or affirmation?
• Can you seize the main points of an assignment and move on, or do you typically get hopelessly bogged down in detail?
• Are you disciplined enough to get up and attend classes every day?
• Are you comfortable speaking out in class and arguing in front of others?
• Have you been able to “will” yourself through difficult periods in your life?
• When you don’t understand something, are you capable of teaching yourself?
• Do you enjoy doing research, searching through books in a library or online databases, for pieces to a puzzle or “the answer” to a problem?
• Do you like to write critically and analytically?
• Is your personality more proactive than reactive?
• When you’ve given your best effort, will you be able to sleep at night knowing that you’ve done the best you could, or are you more likely to beat yourself up wondering if there was more you could have done?
• Are you ready to make the law your life for the next three years by subverting most of your hobbies, other interests, and your social life to serious academic dedication?
It’s probably obvious from the way these questions were worded, but you’re looking for mostly yes responses—or at least the probability that you’ll be able to work up to yes responses on each of these questions. If you’ve had too many “oh-ohs” during this evaluation, you should take that as a warning. For example, if you don’t like to read, you’re making a big mistake applying to law school.
“If you are reading this while you are still an undergrad, I would strongly encourage you to take any law classes or classes on the legal process that your school may have to offer,” Shruti suggested. “That is a very good way to determine whether legal concepts really interest you. I also think it is very beneficial to have some conversations with actual, practicing lawyers. Find out what they do on a day-to-day basis. What are their hours like? How do they maintain their work-life balance—or do they? Having this sort of conversation with several lawyers, preferably from a broad range of practice areas, can help to illuminate the life and work of a lawyer, which in turn will help you determine whether that is a life you want.”
To help you examine your readiness for law school, let’s develop these areas more completely.
The reading load
The typical law student will read in excess of three thousand pages of case law, hornbooks, and outlines during a fifteen-week semester. In the typical semester of 105 days, that means roughly thirty pages of reading every day if you read seven days a week without ever taking a day off. At an average analytical reading rate of ten pages per hour, that means three hours of reading per day, every day, with no weekends, holidays, or excuses. Naturally, that’s an unrealistic expectation—but when you start taking days off, the missed reading starts backlogging and piling up on other days. In my own experience, in the first year of law school, I generally read for about four hours a day, six days a week. That, of course, is in addition to class time, and time spent outlining what you’ve read. But we’re not talking about the time commitment yet, just the reading. Recognize what you’re signing up for. If you can’t fathom yourself reading law for about four hours a day, six days a week, you might want to start reevaluating your career choice.
In law school, there is really no substitute for discipline. The problem is, unless you are coming to the law from the military, most of us have never had to exhibit the kind of discipline that law school requires, and many prospective law students underestimate just how much discipline that is. Whatever your practices were in college—skipping classes because they were too early in the morning, too boring, or because you were too tired from staying up too late playing poker online or too hungover from your bender—they must become a thing of the past when you get to law school. Missed classes mean missed notes, and even if you get the notes from someone else, chances are you won’t understand them. Since classes often build on the material introduced in prior classes, if you miss a critical class, you might fall off the wagon. Trust me when I say there is no greater discomfort than realizing that because you missed an important lecture, you are the only person in your section who still doesn’t understand a concept.
There is simply no substitute for putting in the time. You must go to class every day, struggle through the difficult material, take notes on the professor’s hypothetical scenarios (called hypos), and pay special attention to what parts of the material the professor stresses in class. The benefits will soon be obvious, as it is often these very things that show up on exams.
In your upper years, after you have a few semesters of law school under your belt, these rules will change somewhat, and we’ll get into these modifications in later chapters—but you, the prospective 1L, are looking at the need to string together two to three semesters of near-perfect attendance. Are you disciplined enough to force yourself through those tough days when pulling the covers over your head sounds a lot better than a 9:00 a.m. lecture on collateral estoppel?
Of course, just being there isn’t enough. You need to be there with the reading done and outlined, taking supplemental notes, and ready to respond when that fateful day arrives when you are called upon to be the Socratic crash-test dummy for the class. Given that we’ve established that you can’t afford to miss classes, “I didn’t do the reading, so I’ll just blow off the class” doesn’t work in law school. Knowing the importance of discipline and preparedness, the professors can be unforgiving if they catch you unprepared.
During my first year at Penn Law, the unthinkable happened in only one class, during the second-to-last week of the first semester. The unfortunate individual, a friend of mine, had already started studying for exams and had not read the case being discussed that hour. The class, Civil Procedure, was being taught by the acting dean of the law school—a younger but equally intimidating incarnation of Professor Kingsfield from The Paper Chase. The exchange went something like this:
“Mr. Brown [not his real name]—what happened in Hanna v. Plumer?”
A long silence, in which heads began to turn and stare at Mr. Brown.
Mr. Brown furiously scrambled to locate the proper page in his commercial outline. Members of the class, starting to realize what was about to happen, began to whisper to each other and giggle nervously.
“Is something wrong, Mr. Brown?”
More silence, then … “Uhh … I’m going to have to pass.”
“I don’t think so, Mr. Brown!”
More silence as the professor and the student stared each other down.
“Mr. Brown, are you trying to tell me that you are unprepared to discuss this case?”
Poor Mr. Brown didn’t manage to find anything sensible to say about Hanna v. Plumer and was badly humiliated before the entire section of almost eighty students. He was the first and last student caught unprepared by the professor that semester. He was also called on for two consecutive days after that day—and I’m happy to report, he gave good answers both times. However, even if your law school has blind grading, you really don’t want this to happen to you.
A couple of more practical thoughts to close this section on the requirements of discipline. The average yearly tuition in a private law school now tops $50,000. Assuming eight subjects per year, or four per semester, that breaks down to $6,250 per subject, and assuming three classes per week in each subject during a fifteen-week semester, nearly $150 per class. For every class you miss, you’re throwing away $150. Think about that.
If that doesn’t work for you, this—the ultimate example of why you need discipline in law school—probably will. As we’ve previously discussed, to accomplish your reading load for the semester, you need to read about thirty pages a day, every day. If you blow off Friday’s reading for whatever reason, that means you’ll need to read forty-five pages on Saturday and on Sunday to be ready for Monday. If you really goof off and don’t read on Saturday, you’ve left yourself ninety pages to read on Sunday, which is more than can realistically be handled in a day. Once you get that far behind, the stress and the worry start to build, hang over your head, and make your entire experience miserable. This is why there are no weekends off in law school, and this example clearly illustrates just how easy it is to get hopelessly behind in your reading load.
You must be disciplined!
The study of law is lonely. Yeah, there are study groups, but you don’t get to a study group until you’ve read the material for the week, and you won’t stay in one for long if you don’t keep up with the work. Can you sit alone in a library carrel and read for a few hours after class every day, then go home and outline the day’s reading alone under the midnight oil? Isolation is a reality of law school that many people have difficulty with. My group of friends made it a point to get together on Sunday nights for a few hours to play poker; but aside from that, during the first year, I often went the entire week without seeing them outside of class. You need to be ready for that. While some schools may tout softball leagues, intramural sports, and other activities, for your first two years of law school, those things will be much more the exception than the rule. For most people, the cappuccino after class, the hour at the gym, or the thirty-minute “library break” dinner you grab with a friend will be the extent of your social life. That takes some getting used to. Is it something you can handle?
Other people have substantial difficulty getting used to the competitiveness and contentiousness of everyday life in law school. If you dislike competitiveness, you have some options—such as applying to schools known for a more cooperative atmosphere—but this won’t completely eliminate your problem. Most schools still operate, at least during the first year, via the Socratic method. In other words, you’ll go to class, and a professor will ask a question related to the reading for that lecture and then call on someone to respond—perhaps even requiring the student to stand while responding. The interrogation rarely ends with one question, often stretching for fifteen minutes or more, while you’re up there, intellect exposed to the entire class, sweating out answers. In many cases, when you’re stumped, other students will eagerly volunteer the correct answers (though in chapter 10, we’ll suggest that you not do this), which can leave you feeling humiliated and incompetent, and questioning your fitness for the experience. Even the most intellectually confident people are not immune from these feelings of doubt.
Finally, at some of the most competitive law schools, the competition can get truly ugly. People hide books needed for common assignments or hoard the best outlines passed down by upperclassmen to give themselves an advantage in exams. Sometimes, people even intentionally play mind games with you to try to throw you off. Some schools are notorious for harboring atmospheres like this, and I encourage you to surf the various law school message boards and blogs, identify these places, and then avoid them like the plague. But the truth is, at any school where students are graded on an absolute curve, there is bound to be some nastiness as exams draw near. If you are easily rattled or respond badly to the stress of academic competition, you may want to reconsider how well your personality fits with the realities of the law school experience.
Words are the lawyer’s tools, and writing is the lawyer’s craft. If you don’t like to write, and if you’re not fully committed to becoming a master legal wordsmith, you’re in for a miserable three years and an even worse career. At a minimum, all lawyers draft letters to each other and to their clients. Corporate lawyers spend a lot of their time drafting or amending contracts and other agreements. Litigators can spend weeks crafting motions and memoranda of law to various courts.
Given the importance of writing in legal practice, you’ll have a first-year class that will teach you the finer points of legal research (where to find cases, statutes, legislative history, and the like in books and online) and writing (everything from how lawyers write, to proper legal citation form). You’ll do a lot of writing in this class, encompassing everything from an opinion letter to a client to a full-blown appellate brief to the U.S. Supreme Court. Your instructor will dismantle your current writing style and, hopefully, turn you into an economic, laser-sharp legal tactician. The conversion will likely be rough on you because legal writing emphasizes precision. Every word must be chosen carefully to convey the desired meaning—nothing more, and nothing less. There is no room for flowery prose. Many students find this Spartan style arduous and frustrating. Don’t make a critical mistake by taking this class lightly, because after graduation, your legal research and writing skills will define your aptitude as a lawyer more than anything else. How much real estate law you remember, however, may never matter to you again.
You’ll utilize your legal writing skills at almost every turn in law school—in writing essay exams, in the law review writing competition, in moot court competitions, in writing a law journal “Note” or “Comment,” and in any externship you may pursue. Every employer will require a writing sample as a prerequisite for a callback interview, and no judge will grant you a clerkship without first evaluating your ability to write.
I trust that you get the message here. If you don’t like to write precisely, and don’t think you can warm up to it, you might want to consider a different line of work.
At least for the first two years, law school is an all-encompassing task. Nights, weekends, and holidays will all be sacrificed to the cause. You’ll be eating, sleeping, and dreaming law. Most of your conversations will center on law, to the point where you may discover that you have difficulty talking about much else. There will be stretches during the first two years when you won’t have enough time to return phone calls. Letters will go unanswered, and bills will go unpaid. You’ll be forced to abandon most if not all of your most cherished hobbies. There simply won’t be enough time left in the day for most things. Not if you’re going to stay on schedule.
Sure—you can cut corners and turn in a lackluster performance now and then. It’s your future. But every grade you get, particularly the ones you get during your first year, counts.
Every stumble closes a door. In a great legal market when the economy is booming, you might survive a stumble or two. If the market tightens, however, or if you’re after one of the really plum jobs or a high-level federal clerkship, you can’t afford putting forth anything less than your best effort every day. In the rough-and-tumble world of law school, sometimes even your best effort won’t be good enough.
The law is a jealous mistress. Be forewarned.
Taking time off before you apply
Many people wonder about the merits of taking a year or two off after college prior to applying to law school. As Dean Geiger explains in his lengthy interview in chapter 3, law school admissions committees generally do not care whether an applicant has taken time off between college and law school. What is critical, though, both in Dean Geiger’s eyes, and in the opinion of your mentors, is that you not apply to law school until you feel certain that you actually want to go to law school—and further, that you have worked out your wanderlust and your urges to ski-bum, write a novel, teach, work in the Peace Corps, or live a bohemian lifestyle as a musician.
If you feel these competing urges as you approach graduation from college, indulge them.
Chase your dreams and make them happen. Just do it now—before you wake up when you’re forty years old and wish you had.
Law school is no place to try to find yourself. Law school is the kind of place that will force you to repress just about every other competing interest in your life as you struggle to stay afloat. There are no free summers and no vacations. Once you matriculate in law school and the train starts rolling, it is hard to get off. Inertia kicks in; before you know it, you’re ten years into a law career with a spouse and children, wondering how you never got to hike the Appalachian Trail, backpack through Europe, or write that novel.
For some, law school is the terminal dream—the thing they’ve been working toward since childhood. If this is you, fantastic. Get on with it.
If it isn’t, though … or if you’re not sure … or if you are haunted at night by a nagging wonder about whether you’d rather be a chef, for God’s sake stop and figure it out. If you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of miserable years until finally, at some point, you either give up your life’s dream and settle for something else or have a midlife meltdown to the detriment of your family.
The biggest mistake I made was not taking time off between college and law school. Once you start law school, you begin down the path to becoming an attorney, and once this process has begun, there is no looking back. The first year is very stressful, and after that, you become focused on getting a job.
“It was a mistake for me to attend law school directly out of college. I experienced a lot of personal growth in the years immediately after college,” Patrick noted. “While my friends were out learning how to work and support themselves in major cities around the country, I was still living in the utopia of a university campus as a first-year law student. As I was dealing with the pressures of being a first-year law student, I was also dealing with the emotional turmoil associated with ‘coming out of the closet.’ The latter experience would have been easier to handle if I didn’t have to read cases, prepare briefs, and make a new group of friends all at the same time.”
“I think some time away from studies is a great opportunity to explore the world and gain some insight into oneself,” John-Mark advised. “Keep in mind, though, that it is not necessarily an either/or proposition. You can usually apply, get in, and then defer admission for a year. That year out can be spent exploring other career possibilities, paying off undergraduate loans, traveling, or just plain relaxing.”
“I wasn’t ready for law school right after college,” Yvette admitted. “My grades were pretty average, so I had to raise my senior-year grades to better demonstrate my academic ability. Throughout college, I was more interested in partying than studying. By the time I got to law school, I had worked all of these things out, and all I wanted to do was study, and I was quite content.”
“I also noticed that at my law school, many of the top students took time off before returning to school, so I think there is something to say about the maturity, perspective, and time-management skills of returning students,” Lindsay added.
Don’t rush the decision to go to law school. Take as much time as you need to be certain that the decision is right for you. The legal profession is littered with unhappy people who failed to properly consider the choice to go to law school—and who are now trapped in a career they don’t want. Don’t add yourself to their number.
PLAN YOUR APPLICATION PROCESS
Well, you’re still with us, which is a good sign. Although chapter 3 will take you step-by-step through the law school application process, we need to address some significant scheduling issues now, while you’re still thinking about law school. Most schools use “rolling” admissions, meaning that they admit, wait-list, or reject students as their applications arrive instead of commencing evaluation on a stated date. Some schools using rolling admissions will make offers to attractive candidates (or reject unqualified candidates) within a week to ten days of the completion of your application. This means you must have your applications complete, filed, and ready for evaluation as early as possible to give yourself the maximum opportunity for success.
If one of your top-choice schools admits you early on, your application stress will be greatly reduced, and you’ll be in a much better position to haggle over money and/or to secure loans at favorable rates. If you wait until the last minute, most of the slots at your top-choice schools may already be filled, leaving you to compete for whatever slots and whatever financial aid has not already been committed to other candidates.
Most law school applications require two or three recommendations. Unless you’re coming to the law from another career, two of these recommendations must be from college professors, and the third from the source of your choice. Obtaining recommendations takes time, particularly if the professors have to write them for many people, or if you need many versions personalized to each different school. Accordingly, a good benchmark is to disseminate your recommendation forms sixty days in advance of the date you hope to complete your applications. In chapter 3, we’ll address how to select and solicit your recommenders and provide several hints about how to keep the process running smoothly. For now, just remember to plan sixty days ahead for the receipt of your recommendations.
Most law school applications require two to five essays. Many or all may have word limits or space restrictions. You heard it when you applied to college and you’ll hear it again here—essays can make or break your application. Near-perfect grades and LSAT scores are commonplace in admissions offices at the best law schools, so in making the tough calls between numerically identical candidates, nothing is more impressive to an admissions committee than concise, well-crafted prose. Good writing takes time and considerable effort. Don’t expect to have the luxury of essay overlap that you enjoyed in college, where you could simply adapt the same essay to every school you applied to. For law school, you may have to craft at least one different essay for every application you file.
Request your law school applications in July so you’ll receive them as soon as they are published, typically in mid-August. Make a list of the different essay topics, determine how much overlap there is, and get started as early as possible.
Your criminal history
That’s right. Your criminal history. You are applying to law school, and most schools will be asking you to document any arrests and any court appearances you’ve made for anything other than routine traffic tickets—and they may even want to know about those if you’ve had too many of them. If you have any skeletons in your closet, assemble the documentation now so your applications won’t get held up.
If you’ve ever been arrested or been a defendant in a court proceeding, admissions committees will want to know the name of the court, its address and phone number, the date and docket number of your case, the disposition, and any fines or other punishment you received. For those of you considering a cover-up at this stage—don’t. You might get away with it, but most law schools won’t automatically disqualify individuals with checkered pasts. Three years down the road, however, an extensive character and fitness background check awaits you before you can sit for the bar exam. Investigators will find anything you’ve tried to cover up—and they won’t be as forgiving as the admissions office might be.
If you have a criminal history, contact your state bar association and inquire about the effect your past might have on your ability to pass the character and fitness investigation. Better to find out now than to spend the tuition and three years of your life only to find out that no state considers you fit to practice law.
Finally, you must determine when you will face the LSAT—the great law school gatekeeper. The LSAT is offered four times a year, in February, June, October, and December. Scores can take up to six weeks to be processed and sent to the schools, and your application will not even be looked at until your scores are in. Accordingly, most applicants will take the LSAT in June or October in order to complete their applications by November. Taking the exam in June is the wisest choice because it leaves room in case you are sick, have a family emergency, or experience one of the few circumstances that warrant canceling your scores. We’ll address the LSAT more fully in the next chapter.
The big picture
You should have penciled in (1) a June or October LSAT date, (2) compiled a final list of schools and written application-request letters to be sent out no later than August 1, and (3) made your recommendation requests no later than September 15.
Your applications should begin arriving at the beginning of September, and you should immediately dissect them. Make a list of all the essay requirements, figure out how how many separate essays you’ll need, and get busy writing.
Remember, your deadline is to have everything in the mail by November 1.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert H. Miller