LSAT For Dummies, 2nd Edition (2014)
Part I. Getting Started with the LSAT
Chapter 3. The Lowdown on Law School Admissions
In This Chapter
Selecting a law school
Applying to law school
If you're reading a book about the LSAT, you're probably considering applying to law school. Well, get ready for a great adventure. Applying to law school can be a rough ride, not to be attempted by the lazy or ambivalent. If you're truly committed to acquiring a legal education, though, the application process can be challenging and even sort of exciting. And if you get into law school, you'll get to live someplace new, meet new friends, and broaden your horizons in ways you never considered.
In this chapter, we discuss the ins and outs of choosing schools and applying for admission, as well as the importance of the LSAT in this process.
Choosing a Law School
Not all law schools are created equal. You may still be able to get a fine legal education at most of them, but understand that different law schools have different characteristics. Some are extremely competitive, while others are easier to get into. Some have excellent practical legal programs, while others take a more theoretical approach to the law. Some offer better financial aid packages than others. You need to decide what you want in a school before you let schools decide whether they want you.
Where to go for information
Sifting through the vast amount of often conflicting information about law school can be a daunting task. Finding that information in the first place, though, doesn't have to be hard. Tons of sources are available, some more subjective than others. Here are a few places to look for info:
· Bookstores and libraries: Plenty of books are available about law school, legal practice, and similar topics. (Check out Law School For Dummies by Rebecca Fae Greene [Wiley].)
· Career placement or guidance offices at colleges and universities: Not only do these offices have lots of information on various schools and career options, but they also may even have real people who can give you sensible advice.
· Friends and acquaintances who've gone to law school: Don't neglect your personal network! If you know someone who's gone through this process, pump her brain.
· The Internet: If you're interested in a particular law school, check out its website. You can also find numerous websites devoted to legal issues, including law school.
· Law school forums: The Law School Admission Council (LSAC; www.lsac.org) holds several law school forums in major cities each fall. At a forum, you can speak with real people about selecting a law school, the admissions process, whether law school is right for you, and other concerns.
A wealth of information is out there, so you don't have to apply to law school in the dark. Read the next section to help you decide which law school is right for you.
Keep these important considerations in mind when choosing law schools to which you want to apply:
· Cost: This is a biggie. Some law schools are expensive; others are extremely expensive. You need to decide how much money you want to spend (or are able to spend) on your education, bearing in mind that law school debts can stick with you for much of your working life. (Note: Cost often goes hand in hand with exclusivity and prestige, which may mean that spending more on a prestigious school results in a better payoff after graduation.)
· Location: Where do you want to live? Do you want to be near your family? Do you want to be able to drive to the beach or the mountains (when you're supposed to be in class)? Do you hate harsh winters? Do you consider yourself an East Coast, West Coast, or Midwestern person? You're going to live near your law school for nearly three years, so liking the location is important. Location also plays a role in cost considerations; living in New York City is more expensive than living in Baton Rouge.
· Public or private: Some law schools are affiliated with state university systems, while others are part of private universities. Some public schools are cheaper than private ones, especially for in-state residents. On the other hand, public schools tend to suffer more at the whim of state legislators, who can cut their budgets at the drop of a hat. As for prestige, some public institutions regularly appear in the top of the law school rankings, so you can't assume that a private school is more prestigious than a public one.
· Selectivity: Does getting into a school with a minute acceptance rate matter to you? Some schools accept a large proportion of applicants, while others skim the thin layer of cream off a giant vat of applications. This point goes with school rank (see the next section); if selectivity matters to you, then keep it in mind. If you have ambitions of working in the nation's top firms or climbing the judicial ladder all the way to the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court, you should attend an exclusive, highly ranked school. If you want a JD so you can make a better living in your hometown, an exclusive school may not be worth the money it will cost you.
· Reputation: Reputation is such a nebulous concept; the American Bar Association (ABA) especially hates this aspect of the U. S. News & World Report ranking scheme. Still, reputation can matter. Consider where you plan to practice law; you want to attend a school that people in that area respect.
· Attrition rate: At some law schools, if you can get in, you're virtually certain to graduate (barring extreme circumstances). Other schools let in a wider variety of applicants but get rid of many of them before graduation by failing a number of students in their first year. No one wants to get weeded out. On the other hand, schools with high attrition rates can be easier to get into in the first place. If your scores are a bit low but you plan to work like crazy in law school, a law school with a high attrition rate may work well for you.
· Quality of life: Some law schools are known for being happy places to get a legal education. Students are friendly to one another, social events are at least as important as classes, and the surrounding area is bucolic. Other places aren't as pleasant, with more competition among students and crowded, ill-equipped facilities. You can get a decent education at either type, but you'll have more fun at some schools than at others.
· Campus life: You want to spend your law school years among friends, if at all possible, which often means finding a school attended by people similar to you. Some schools attract younger students, those who have recently graduated from college and attend full time. Other programs may have a higher percentage of older students, many of whom may have day jobs and families and may prefer to attend law school part time. If any aspect of campus life is particularly important to you, take some time to research whether the schools that interest you are congenial places to spend three years of your life.
· Grading practices: Grades are extremely important to law students; some law firms base most of their hiring decisions on law school grades. Not all schools grade alike, though. Many schools grade on a mean, in which the majority of students get a particular grade (such as B) with only a few getting grades above or below. Other schools grade most classes pass-fail. Still others don't control grading at all, and grades depend on the professors’ whims.
· Curriculum: What do you want to study in law school? Do you like large lectures or small seminars? Some schools offer joint degrees, such as JD-MBA combinations. Some schools are known for specialties, such as international or environmental law. Some law schools are very liberal; others are extremely conservative. Bear these points in mind when choosing your school — and your future friends — for the next three years.
· Opportunities for practical experience: Clinical programs offer students the opportunity to put their legal skills in practice early on, which can be invaluable for finding jobs and working after graduation. Some schools emphasize this more than others, providing ample opportunity for students to get hands-on practice during the school year through clinics and internships.
· Bar pass rate: You can't practice law if you can't pass the bar exam. Some schools have a higher bar-pass rate than others. Don't think, though, that no one passes the bar from schools with low pass rates. All a lower bar-pass rate means is that the school's students overall aren't as well prepared for the bar exam. (Not that law school prepares you to pass the bar; that's what postgraduation bar review is for.)
· Where you want to live after law school: This point is more significant than you may realize. If you want to live on the East Coast, you'll have better luck finding a job there if you attend a nearby law school than if you go off to Washington State. If you want to practice in South Carolina, a degree from the University of South Carolina may be more useful than a degree from the University of Michigan, even though Michigan is ranked higher.
· Alumni network: You'll spend much more of your life as a law school graduate than as a law school student. Knowing that the friends you make in law school can help you down the road is great. A strong alumni network can be a valuable resource for the rest of your life.
Choosing a law school is a lot like choosing a college. A wide variety of choices is out there; try to find a selection of schools that really suits you.
Keeping ranking in mind
Nearly 200 law schools in the country are approved by the ABA. (Incidentally, you should go to an ABA-approved school; lots of state bars don't admit graduates of schools that aren't approved.) Naturally, people have tried to rank the nation's law schools. (See the nearby sidebar, “Law school rankings and accreditation,” for more about these organizations that rank law schools.)
In a field as competitive as law, are you really surprised to know that people are constantly trying to come up with ways to look superior to one another? Law firms like to know the relative rankings of the schools from which they recruit. Law students like to compare their school to others, usually in the hopes of bragging that their school is better than another one. Law school recruiters like to emphasize how attractive their graduates are to prospective employers.
What do you think is one of the main things that U. S. News & World Report looks at when ranking schools? You guessed it — LSAT scores! The higher the average LSAT score of admitted students, the higher the school's ranking. Other things count, but LSAT scores are very important. These schools are best because their students’ LSATs are best, which means the schools are best (wait, that's circular reasoning!).
The ABA and the LSAC (the folks who create and run the LSAT; see Chapter 1) disapprove of commercial rankings, which try to reduce every law school to a single numeric value, and they have a point. There's a lot more to an individual school than a number published in U. S. News & World Report. Rankings are random and don't reflect the true value of the education available at any given institution.
Unfortunately in the real world, rank sometimes matters. Certain law firms and other employers take their new hires from a specific group of schools, and they very rarely consider applications from anyone who didn't attend that select group, no matter how good the person's grades or outside experiences are. The rationale behind this practice is that top law schools have already selected the “best” law students — the ones with the highest grades and LSAT scores — and these people will naturally make the best lawyers. Although in practice that doesn't always turn out to be the case, you'll have a hard time convincing those employers otherwise.
However, the law school rankings are far from perfect. Law school rankings change from year to year, sometimes dramatically. A school may be ranked 7th one year, fall to 14th the next year, and jump back to 6th the next. That fluidity alone should be a warning to you not to take rankings too seriously; there's no way a school's total quality can change that much that fast.
Are you wondering about how schools are ranked? The following list breaks down the law school rankings (which doesn't list specific schools):
· Top ten: These are the top of the pile.
· First tier: These are the top 50 schools.
· Second tier: Schools ranked 51 through 100.
· Third tier: Schools ranked 101 through 150.
· Fourth tier: Schools ranked 151 through 186 (or so).
Firms that care about these rankings restrict their recruiting to particular tiers. Other firms are more interested in the whole applicant — his grades, interests, commitment to living in a particular place, work ethic, and so on — and interview dedicated students from any school if they seem like good prospects.
Law school rankings and accreditation
Every year, U. S. News & World Report publishes rankings of colleges and universities; you may remember looking at these rankings when you applied to undergrad. Law schools don't escape this ranking system. When U. S. News sets out to rank law schools, it concocts a numerical score based on several criteria, including the school's assessment by lawyers and peer institutions (that is, the opinion that other law schools and legal professionals hold about the school), average LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs of the current entering class, percentage of applicants who are accepted, student-faculty ratios, employment rate of graduates at graduation and nine months after graduation, and the school's bar passage rate in its state.
ABA accreditation is a whole different ballgame. The ABA keeps tabs on law schools in an effort to make sure that all law school graduates receive a meaningful legal education; it has kept a list of accredited schools since 1921. It doesn't accredit schools where the average undergraduate GPA or LSAT score of the students is below a certain level (143 is the cutoff score for the average LSAT). After a law school applies for accreditation, the ABA evaluates it based on the school's admissions standards, its faculty, its facilities and library, and its program of instruction. ABA committee members actually visit the school for several days and attend classes. If a school passes the test, the ABA gives it provisional approval for three to five years, followed by full approval if it maintains its standards. (Read more about this on the ABA's website, www.abanet.org.) ABA accreditation is currently a touchy topic for several law schools that want accreditation but haven't yet received it, especially with the advent of online law schools in recent years.
Why do some firms rely on these rankings? Reading résumés takes a lot less time if they throw out all the ones from lower-ranking schools. They figure the law schools have already selected a good batch of future lawyers and find it easier to limit their recruiting to those elite schools.
Rank also affects future salaries and career possibilities. Graduates of the highest-ranked law schools tend to have the highest salaries. People who eventually become law professors and major judges also come more often from higher-ranked schools.
Okay, that's depressing. So let us give you some better news. People who barely scrape through the lowest-ranked school still get employed as lawyers, and plenty of them make good money, too. And plenty of folks who graduate from top-ten law schools don't end up practicing law at all.
What's the moral of all this? Rankings do matter, but not for everyone and not in every case. So take them seriously, but not too seriously. More important, look at what you want out of law school and what you want to do afterward.
Filling Out All the Forms — Applying to Law School
Applying to law school is an art all its own. You have to choose several schools, go through the expensive and complicated application rigmarole, scrounge around for financial aid, and then decide which one of the schools that accepts you is the one you want to attend. The whole process is daunting and really not much fun, but it's the only way to get where you want to go (assuming law school is, in fact, where you want to go).
Pick more than one
Back when you applied for undergrad, you probably picked out several schools that interested you and applied to them all (unless you got in somewhere early). You probably knew that you couldn't count on getting into them all, but if you applied to several places, you'd most likely get into at least one and wouldn't be stuck after high school with no college to attend. (If you were fortunate, several schools accepted you, and then you got to choose the one that best suited your needs.) The same principle holds true in law school.
Unless you're sure you'll get into a particular school or there's only one place you could feasibly attend, pick several schools that you think satisfy your craving for legal education. The prevailing wisdom is to apply to at least one or two safety schools, where you're pretty sure you'll be accepted; four or five schools where you have a reasonable chance of getting in; and one or two “reaches,” schools where you probably won't be accepted but still have a chance of getting in.
Applying to law schools isn't cheap. At about $65 a pop, the cost can really add up if you apply to several schools. Spend your money wisely; only send applications to schools you'd seriously consider attending. If you already know that you can attend only your local law school, don't waste money applying anywhere else.
How admissions work
Law school admission offices run on a yearly cycle. In the fall, the admissions folks begin accepting applications. In the winter and spring, they read these applications and send out letters of acceptance. They spend the late spring and summer assembling the entering class — fielding letters of commitment, accepting students off the waiting list when spots open up, and getting ready for the next admission cycle. Most law schools promise to send out letters of admission by April 15, though many of them begin sending them out much sooner.
The early bird . . .
Most law schools stop accepting applications in January and give students until March to get in all their supporting materials. That doesn't necessarily mean you can wait until January with impunity. Many schools start reviewing applications in the fall and may begin sending out acceptance letters in November. As a result, students whose applications aren't complete until March are competing for fewer spaces in the entering class, which decreases their chances of acceptance.
Some law schools offer an early notification option. Students who get their applications in really early — during September, October, or November of the year before they want to matriculate — receive a decision by December. This option doesn't necessarily commit a student to that particular law school; make sure to check the rules at individual schools.
If you know you're going to apply to law school, take the LSAT in June or October of the year you want to apply. You can take it in December and still get in, but you risk losing a space to someone who gets her documents in earlier. Some law schools accept February LSAT results, but don't wait that late; most of the spaces in a class are gone by the time the results come in.
A complete application
Are you wondering what comprises a complete law school application? Don't worry. Check out this list for a complete inventory of what most law schools consider a complete application:
· Completed, signed application form
· LSAT score
· Transcripts of prior academic record, submitted through the Credential Assembly Service (CAS)
· Dean's certification forms from your prior institutions of higher education (to prove that you went there)
· Letters of recommendation, submitted through the CAS or independently
· Personal statement — an essay you write, usually explaining why you want to go to law school
· Application fee — $65 or so, though this number tends to creep upward year by year
You may also have to send in forms about your state residency, financial needs, or other relevant bits of information. Every school's admission form tells you exactly what to send.
If one single piece of your application isn't in place by the deadline (or whenever the admissions committee stops considering applications), no one will read any of it. So if the form for your dean's certification goes missing or one of your recommenders forgets to send in his letter, your application is no good and you've wasted your money.
Review of applications
Many law schools receive far more applicants than they have spaces in an entering class. Obviously, the first thing admissions committees look at is academic credentials and LSAT scores, but numbers definitely aren't everything. Every year, competitive law schools admit some students with fairly low scores and grades and reject some with stellar numbers.
Law schools are interested in more than mere academic ability. They hope to create law school classes that represent a diversity of backgrounds and interests and that have the potential to do great things. Nothing makes a law school look as good as an illustrious group of alumni. Here are a few of the factors that admissions committees consider:
· Geography (where students come from); schools like to get people from all over the place
· Ideological background
· Race and ethnicity
· Unique experiences and responses to hardships
Your personal statement is a good place to mention anything you want the admissions committee to know about you — anything that makes you unique.
Law schools take great pains to assure everyone that their admissions committees and faculty members really do read every single application, regardless of how low the applicant's numbers are. Usually at least two people review each file. Each reader makes a recommendation — whether to admit, deny, wait-list, or put on hold to reconsider later. If the two readers disagree about an application, it goes to a third reader. At the end of the admission cycle, the committee ranks everyone who is left; some get in, some don't, and some get wait-listed.
If you're wait-listed, don't despair. Every year, many students receive phone calls from law schools during the summer, often as late as the week before classes begin, informing them that they've been admitted. This doesn't give you much time to prepare or find housing, but it's not a bad deal if you're flexible.
Don't forget the money
Law school is expensive and seems to get pricier every year. The good news is that most people can get financial aid if they need it, from their law school or from other sources. The bad news is that the vast majority of this aid is in the form of loans, not scholarships or grants, which means you have to pay it back after you're done with law school. (The large loans are one of the factors that keep many recent and not-so-recent law school grads working outrageous hours for law firms.)
If you need financial aid, you have to fill out the correct paperwork fairly early, by March of the year in which you'll matriculate. The financial aid office at your future law school can tell you what you need to do.
Some law schools offer merit scholarships to applicants with very high LSAT scores. Some schools also waive application fees for high scorers, which is less lucrative than free tuition but still pleasant.