Arguing a position is an important skill for lawyers, but it’s not enough to justify attending law school. Much of legal practice can involve attending to tedious details in an endless parade of documents. And if a student wants to change the world, she should know that a tiny percentage of lawyers are skillful enough to argue constitutional issues before the U.S. Supreme Court – or any court for that matter. Also, paying for three years of graduate education is no small matter – many law students graduate with well over $100,000 in debt.
So students should examine their alternatives carefully before deciding to attend law school. If they can find job satisfaction in another field without incurring debt, they may want to consider it. But if they are drawn to the law, which offers a wide array of career opportunities in a multitude of fields, they should consider making the leap.
Before making such an important decision, however, students should develop a deeper understanding of the legal profession:
- The essay, “Should You Go to Law School? How to Decide” from U.S. News & World Report, provides helpful background information, and so does CNBC’s “6 questions to ask yourself if you think you want to go to law school.”
- In “Should you go to law school?“, the American Bar Association (ABA) provides a good discussion about the salary differentials among lawyers, emphasizing that while the median attorneys’ salary is approximately $136,000, most lawyers make either substantially more or less than that. The National Association for Law Placement also discusses this salary distribution reality.
- Along those same lines, this essay from U.S. News provides an overview of what young lawyers think of their decision to go to law school. Not surprisingly, many lawyers base their conclusions on how much money they are making, and how much debt they have from law school.
- See “An open letter to potential law students: Know the truth” for a more detailed discussion of these issues.
Beyond these steps, students should try to gain experience with a law firm, a government agency, or any other entity that will give them a good idea of what lawyers do. An ABA Webinar on the topic will help students understand what a legal career entails. “What Do Lawyers Do?” is also helpful.
For students who want a law degree to protect the environment, attack racial discrimination, help the homeless, work with immigrants, or other goals, the legal profession does offer unique opportunities. Students should understand, however, that these kinds of jobs can be just as competitive as those at major law firms. For instance, the leadership of the American Civil Liberties Union is an accomplished group of individuals, and many graduated from top-tier law schools. The leadership of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and other organizations is similarly impressive.
Nevertheless, students who are committed to public policy goals should research their options at the federal, state, and local levels to determine their best options. And while money may not be a motivating factor for these students, they should investigate the salaries of public-interest lawyers. (AccessLex discusses that information at this link.) While public-interest and government salaries don’t match those offered in the private sector, pursuing a career based on compelling societal and personal goals can provide rewards far beyond monetary compensation.
Lawyers do need to excel in reading, research, and analytical thinking, but the content of law courses can be a far cry from Shakespeare, and at times it will not be nearly so entertaining. For instance, in Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh, an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case that is often taught in law school, the Court addressed whether Native American tribes could convey land to individuals. Chief Justice John Marshall began his analysis by noting the facts:
1st. That on 23 May, 1609, James I, King of England, by his letters patent of that date, under the great seal of England, did erect, form, and establish Robert, Earl of Salisbury, and others, his associates, in the letters patent named and their successors into a body corporate and politic by the name and style of “The Treasurer and Company of Adventurers and Planters of the City of London for the first Colony in Virginia,” with perpetual succession and power to make, have, and use a common seal, and did give, grant, and confirm unto this company, and their successors …
A tiny bit of this kind of writing can go a long way, but if you want to be a lawyer, you have to read page after page of often impenetrable prose, and then you have to make sense of it.
This is not to say that students will write in this archaic style. Instead the law is a writing-intensive profession that demands a clear, concise prose style. (This essay, “What is ‘Good Legal Writing’ and Why Does it Matter,” explains the importance of clarity and conciseness in the law.) Saying what you mean is as few words as possible is a quality prized by law professors. Indeed, a survey of law professors by the Northeast Association of Pre-Law Advisors found that the overwhelming majority preferred that college students learn writing skills above all else. These same qualities are also prized by judges, law firm partners, clients, and everyone else who will read your work.
The problem many students encounter is that college writing is often based upon page-length requirements, so they develop verbose prose styles. That is, if you’ve said everything you have to say in eight pages, but the professor has asked for a twelve-page paper, then you have to fill up the white space. This approach to learning begin for most students in high school. Indeed, an MIT professor, Les Perelman, studied the Scholastic Aptitude Test’s writing section and found an extremely strong correlation between the length of an essay and the grade – the longer the essay, the higher the grade. An essay “didn’t have to make any sense at all,” Perelman said, so long as it was long. This New York Times story provides the grisly details of Perelman’s findings.
Once you are in law school, rest assured that you have to dispense with much of what learned about writing in high school and college, and you must begin learning how to cut pointless verbiage from your prose.
Your best option is to take courses with legal content. The Schar School has several excellent teachers and many offerings, among them:
- GOVT 301: Public Law and the Judicial Process
- GOVT 407: Law and Society
- GOVT 422: Constitutional Interpretation
- GOVT 423: Constitutional Law: Civil Rights and Liberties
- GOVT 443: Law and Ethics of War
- GOVT 446: International Law and Organization
- GOVT 452: Administrative Law and Procedures
You will also find these and other courses in Schar’s Legal Studies Minor. Students should make a special effort to enroll in classes taught by Laura Walker and James Burroughs, two of Mason’s finest teachers.
The Philosophy Department offers several options for students interested in the law:
- Philosophy and Law Minor,
- BA in Philosophy with a concentration in Philosophy and Law,
- Philosophy of Law (PHIL311).
- PHIL 173, Logic and Critical Thinking, is the only course on campus that is explicitly geared toward helping students prepare for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).
Beyond legal content, students should develop their writing skills as much as possible. All Mason students will take ENGH 302, Advanced Composition, but they should consider Shakespeare, poetry, creating writing, literature courses, or anything else that will help them understand the English Language. Many courses in the Schar School also are writing intensive.
The American Bar Association (ABA) has issued a definitive statement on this topic:
The ABA does not recommend any undergraduate majors or group of courses to prepare for a legal education.… You may choose to major in subjects that are considered to be traditional preparation for law school, such as history, English, philosophy, political science, economics or business, or you may focus your undergraduate studies in areas as diverse as art, music, science and mathematics, computer science, engineering, nursing or education. Whatever major you select, you are encouraged to pursue an area of study that interests and challenges you, while taking advantage of opportunities to develop your research and writing skills.
U.S. News says that law school hopefuls should
focus on rigorous undergraduate majors they find fascinating and where they have a strong academic aptitude. It is a mistake, experts warn, to choose a major simply because it seems easy, since law school admissions officers consider the difficulty of your courses when evaluating your grades…. Experts say liberal arts disciplines teach aspiring lawyers the abstract thinking skills they will need to excel both on law school entrance exams and in law school courses. Disciplines like linguistics and the classics emphasize thoughtful interpretation of language, which aids prospective law school students with reading comprehension, experts say. And disciplines like math and science help them hone their reasoning abilities.”
See this link for more detail and this link for a discussion of how a particular major can help a prospective law student. This link provides the numbers on how many students are admitted to law school by major, and it discusses some of the more unusual majors that undergraduates bring to law school.
One of Mason’s strongest options for pre-law students is the concentration in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. This program’s rigorous coursework provides students with analytical skills in several disciplines, and it is explicitly focused on helping students prepare for law school. In addition, students majoring in Philosophy and Economics tend to score higher on the LSAT than students in other majors.
Whatever your major, you should learn how to analyze complicated information concisely and clearly. The Schar School’s law-related courses will help you develop these skills. Traditional majors such as history, philosophy, English, business, and economics can also help.
Finally, keep in mind that you may consider art, music, math, computer science, engineering, or any other field you love. These disciplines will present no problem for law-school admissions so long as you understand what sort of content you will encounter in law school. And remember, the way to do that is to take courses that have legal content.
Prepare yourself for long, complex reading assignments. As the quote in question #2 indicates, the readings in law school can be beyond challenging. Indeed, the language is often incomprehensible at first blush.
- As a starting point, students should take a look at “Learn to Read, Write Like a Law Students Before Classes Start.” The essay mentions several books that can offer students advice on how to approach the first year of law school. “How to Survive and Thrive First Year of Law School” is also helpful, and students should check the information at this link and also this one.
- In the classroom, most law schools use the case-method approach. Students read related cases in a given area of the law, such as contracts, property, and torts. Students and their professors then discuss them in class, often using the Socratic method, “which involves cold-calling on students and interrogating them about the facts and decisions in various court cases. Professors will ask questions of random students, whose answers will show whether they understand the cases.” See this link. This method is similar to cross-examination, and it helps students understand the flaws in their own thinking and that of others, and ultimately it helps guide them to more defensible conclusions. The process can be harrowing in the classroom, but students need to understand the argumentative style that dominates legal debates.
- Students take only one test in many of these courses, and it often involves a hypothetical scenario crammed with possible issues from the course. Students must then must write a timed essay analyzing those issues. These high-stakes tests are extremely challenging and demand high-level analytical and writing skills, so you must be prepared both psychologically and intellectually. You will find more information here and here.
- Finally, most law schools require a year-long writing class that explains how to write memos, advocacy briefs, and other types of legal writing. See, for example, NYU, Yale, GWU, Georgetown, and Maryland. Several schools, such as Scalia Law, require a second year of writing.
You should open an account with the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) – see this link for more details, and check here for a detailed description of the application process. LSAC creates and administers the LSAT, and it processes students’ applications through its Credential Assembly Service (CAS). The LSAC website provides a wide array of information about related topics: discovering the law, the LSAT, and others.
Several universities have created pre-law timelines for students: George Washington University, Boston University, Fordham, and Harvard. While these timelines can be helpful, the reality is that students simply need to study hard, make good grades from their first semester onward, and begin preparing for the LSAT as soon as possible. More on that topic is below.
Law schools focus primarily on GPA and the LSAT in the first round of the admissions process. That’s because U.S. News considers those two metrics in its all-important rankings – see the discussions here and here. If a school admits students with lower LSATs or grades, its ranking can drop, and with it the school’s ability to attract more qualified students and faculty.
Other factors are also important – see the personal statement discussion below. In addition, students should seek compelling extracurricular activities while an undergraduate, and it’s important to reach for leadership positions. See this link for a broad discussion of how to build a strong application. Keep in mind, however, that without strong metrics, a student can do little to improve her prospects for admission.
The numbers are crucial. If the LSAT scores are the same, an Art History major with a 4.0 GPA may fare better than a Chemical Engineering major with a 3.3. If you can make it past the first round, however, a rigorous major may help you when an admissions committee is reviewing your complete application. In addition, law schools need STEM majors because several areas of the law, such as intellectual property, require scientific expertise. More information is available here and here.
If you plan to apply to law school as a science major, it would behoove you to take at least some courses with heavy reading and writing components. You may need a science background to become a successful intellectual property attorney, but to get through law school you will need superb reading and writing skills.
Law schools considers thousands of applications during an admissions cycle. To manage this load, schools use GPA and LSAT as rough proxies to place you in the middle 50th percentile of applicants.
A brief primer on percentiles may help clarify this issue:
- Percentiles are a way of comparing test takers. If you score at the 60th percentile on the LSAT, for instance, you will have scored better than 60 percent of test takers.
- The middle 50th percentile is the range from the 25th percentile to the 75th.
- If your numbers are below the 25th percentile for a school, your chances of getting in are not good.
- If your numbers are above the 75th percentile, your chances are very good.
- If your LSAT and GPA place you in the middle 50th percentile, you have a reasonable chance of getting in.
- You can find a discussion of this topic here, here, and here.
- All ABA-accredited law schools must provide information on these percentiles in what are called “Standard 509 Information Reports.” This information will help you determine whether you have a realistic chance of admission at a given law school.
The following are examples from D.C. area schools for 2020:
George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School
- 50th percentile LSAT – 164. The 25th to 75th percentile range is 157-165.
- 50th percentile GPA – 3.77. The 25th to 75th percentile is 3.42-3.87.
The George Washington University Law School
- 50th percentile LSAT – 166. The 25th to 75th percentile is 159-167.
- 50th percentile GPA – 3.76. The 25th to 75th percentile is 3.45-3.85.
- 50th percentile LSAT – 156. The 25th to 75th percentile is 154-158.
- 50th percentile GPA – 3.40. The 25th to 75th percentile is 3.25-3.56.
American University Washington College of Law
The University of Virginia
- 50th percentile LSAT – 170. The 25th to 75th percentile is 164-172.
- 50th percentile GPA – 3.9. The 25th to 75th percentile is 3.49-3.96.
These numbers aren’t absolute barriers, but if you want to attend The University of Virginia, a 153 LSAT and a 2.9 GPA will likely end your chances.
The higher a school’s ranking, the higher the LSAT and GPA requirements. At Harvard, the 50th percentile GPA is 3.88, and the 50th percentile LSAT is 173, which is higher than 99 percent of those who took the test. These numbers are extremely difficult to reach – the average LSAT at Mason is about 152. So be realistic when considering your options.
When you’re studying for the LSAT, you should have a pretty good idea where you stand going into the actual test. With that and your cumulative GPA, you can create a list of schools where you should apply. When your official score arrives, you can apply to schools were you have a realistic chance of getting in. You can also apply to several reach schools, but keep in mind that they’re called reach schools for a reason.
This LSAC link provides an easy way of assessing your likelihood of admission at many schools.
U.S. News weighs the LSAT score more heavily than grades – 55 percent to 45 percent. See this link for a discussion of the U.S. News methodology. This link also explains the issue in more concrete terms.
As noted in question #9, the ABA requires schools to provide this data in 509 Reports. Click on “509 Required Disclosures,” and you will see a search tool that allows you to find any school’s LSAT and GPA numbers.
You can also google the name of the school and “median LSAT and GPA.” If we do that for the University of Virginia, for instance, you will find this link.
The LSAT is a challenging 3.5 hour test that is written and administered by LSAC. Prior to the pandemic, the test consisted of four sections: one reading comprehension, one analytical reasoning, and two logical reasoning. LSAC provides an overview of the test here, and it explains the types of questions at this link.
Since the pandemic began, LSAC is administering the LSAT-Flex, which is and “online, remotely proctored version of the LSAT.” This test contains one section each of the three parts of the tests. More information is available here, here, here, and here.
As of this writing – January 2020 – LSAC has scheduled the LSAT-Flex through April 2020. At some point LSAC may return to the original format, but that is unlikely to happen until the pandemic abates.
Regardless of the test format, students should focus on the types of test questions. Much of this material is unlike anything they will see in college, so a rigorous study schedule is crucial. Keep in mind the following:
- Before you start working, you should get a sense of what the test will demand. LSAC offers some excellent information on preparing for the LSAT here. U.S. News has an overview of the effectiveness of the various preparation options here, and it offers its own approaches here and here.
- One of the more demanding plans is a four-month study option. The private prep companies also suggest lengthy study hours. See, for instance, Kaplan, Princeton Review, PowerScore, 7Sage, and LSAT Demon. Spending several months to study for a test may seem like a lot, but it can take that long or more to master the material. And since the test will affect which schools you can attend, which can affect your success in the job market and hence in your career, it is worth the investment. Whatever your approach, you cannot buy a prep book a few weeks before the test and expect to do well.
- GMU has a contract for LSAT prep with Kaplan, and the terms are attractive – half-price for a variety of Kaplan options. See this link (or this one) for details.
- Private prep companies offer classes and private tutors. See the links above for the companies’ pricing details. LSAC lists all of the prep companies that have licensed official LSAT content material here.
- A relatively new entry in the test-prep world is the free Khan Academy, which has partnered with LSAC in preparing for the LSAT. The company has a lengthy history of test prep, so you may want to start with its program. But since the platform is fairly new, it’s difficult to assess how it stacks up against companies that have been prepping students for decades.
- LSAC has its own prep materials available here.
You can retake the test, but keep in mind that scores often stay the same or even drop. So unless you study a great deal, it can be difficult to improve your number. See the discussions here and here. Moreover, taking the test a second time can exact a tremendous psychological, physical, and financial toll. With that in mind, treat the first time you take the test as if it will be your last.
Most schools accept your highest score, although some of the higher ranked schools claim to average scores. See this link for a list. But according to U.S. News, since 2006 the ABA has required schools to report students’ highest scores. Effectively, this means that while schools will see all of your scores, they “take your highest score no matter how many times you take the test.” See this link.
LSAC has imposed limits on how often individuals may retake the test:
- three times during the testing year – June 1st to May 31st
- five times during the current and past five testing years
- seven times over a lifetime.
LSAC provides a more detailed discussion at this link.
LSAC offers an excellent resource for determining your odds at a school. Just enter your GPA and LSAT at this website. If you enter a 3.5 GPA and 159 LSAT, for instance, your chances of getting into American University’s College of Law are 58 percent to 68 percent. The chances at George Mason’s Scalia Law School range from 18 percent to 31 percent.
7Sage also has an excellent predictor tool.
Once you’re in the middle 50th percentile, law schools turn to personal statements, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and other factors to decide on admissions and financial aid.
The personal statement may be the most crucial part of this process. Many law schools don’t interview, so you must present yourself favorably with your statement. In effect, you are writing a one-page autobiography with the goal of differentiating yourself from everyone else in the applicant pool.
These documents can be wide open as to content.
- Yale Law School: “The personal statement should help us learn about the personal, professional, and/or academic qualities an applicant would bring to the Law School community.”
- Georgetown Law: “You can write your personal statement on any subject that will enable the Admissions Committee to get to know you.”
- GWU Law: “An applicant must submit a personal statement on any subject of importance that he or she feels will assist the Admissions Committee in its decision.”
- Scalia Law: “This is the opportunity for the applicant to provide the Admissions Committee with insights into himself/herself as an individual, over and above what is reflected in the other parts of the application.”
Many other law school descriptions are available on the “Personal Statement: Part I” tab of this website.
As these descriptions indicate, schools aren’t necessarily trying to understand why you want to become a lawyer. They want to know what kind of person you are, what kind of narrative you can create about yourself, and how well you can write. Remember, law schools want to fill their classes with interesting individuals with distinctive histories. If you can offer compelling reasons for your desire to attend law school, all the better. But many students can’t describe in sufficient detail why they want to become lawyers. If you found your constitutional law class fascinating, for instance, you can write about that. The problem is that anyone who took that class might write a very similar statement. Similarly, a student may want to attend law school because her father and grandfather are attorneys. But that statement may be more about them than about the student, so the approach may falter.
A few pointers may help you refine your approach:
- Don’t restate your resume. Law schools already have that information, so they want to know who you are and what you will bring to the campus.
- Admissions committees consider thousands of statements during every admissions cycle, so you may have only a few seconds to catch their attention with well-crafted sentences and a fascinating story. Otherwise your statement may go into the trash heap.
- A statement filled with errors can destroy your chances, so proofread carefully. And if you’re not confident with your writing, seek help.
- U.S. News has posted several discussions about the personal statement here, here, here, here, here, and here. Spivey consulting has posted several sample statements here.
- The Patriot Pre-Law Program has posted a wide array of information on the personal statement here and here.
- Remember that “your grades may get you through the door, but your personal statement is what will seal the deal.” See this U.S. News link for more detail. In other words, ignore the statement at your peril.
Professor Mink has dozens of sample personal statements that students may use for guidance. The best book resource on the topic is 55 Successful Harvard Law School Applications, available on Amazon.
Keep in mind that admissions officers have stacks of applications to read, so the more concise and focused you are, the better. One single-spaced page should be plenty of room to say what you have to say, although your statement can be longer if you have a compelling story to tell.
Here is what a few law schools have said about length:
GWU Law: “The personal statement should be no more than two pages, double-spaced.”
Georgetown: “Georgetown Law does not have a minimum or maximum length for the personal statement, though we recommend around two pages double-spaced.”
Catholic: “The application clearly states that the personal statement should be no longer than two pages. We do not recommend exceeding the two page limit.”
Harvard Law School: “Please limit your statement to two pages using a minimum of 11-point font, 1-inch margins, and double spacing.”
Fordham: Personal statements should not exceed two double-spaced pages. (bold and italics in original)
In other words, students should resist the temptation to wax eloquent about themselves.
Most schools allow students to write a separate statement to discuss diversity, explain grades or an LSAT score, or anything else that would help an admissions committee make an informed decision. These documents can be just as important as the main statement, so don’t take them lightly.
- The diversity statement is particularly important for students who can bring a distinct perspective to a law school. You can find an excellent overview of this statement here, and additional discussions are here and here.
- You will find a good discussion of writing addendums to explain grades, low LSATs, and other issues here. The Law School Addendum Guide also provides a useful framework.
Professor Mink has several diversity statements and addenda that students may read for inspiration.
You will also need letters of recommendation. Many law schools require only one letter, but they will accept more. Several schools, like Georgetown, suggest the letter “should come from a professor who is able to speak to your academic work.” Students should read law schools’ websites carefully to be sure they’re complying with their requirements.
In college the best way to increase your chances of a good letter is to cultivate relationships with professors. You can do this by sitting in the front of the class and asking questions, visiting the professor during office hours, and doing well in the course. If you have the chance, take a second course with the professor so she will remember you when the time comes to write a letter.
Finally, be sure to notify the professor well before the letter is due. If you’re applying in the fall, for instance, ask the professor during the preceding spring semester. She doesn’t have to write it then, but she needs to know that she will be writing it.
You will find a good discussion of this topic here.
Letters of recommendation are submitted through the LSAC system. If a student names a professor as a recommender, LSAC reaches out with an email, and the professor uploads the letter to LSAC’s system. See this link for more detail.
LSAC assembles these and other components of your application through CAS. See this link for details.
Most schools provide some kind of financial assistance, but if you don’t quality, and if your family can’t help, then you will have to take out loans.
- The most helpful resource on this topic is provided by AccessLex. Please note the additional resources at the bottom of the web page.
- LSAC provides an overview of the subject at this link. U.S. News provides helpful information here and here. The U.S. Department of Education offers loans, and you can check that information at this site.
Remember that borrowing to pay for law school is perfectly acceptable, but before taking on debt, be absolutely certain that law school is what you want to do. You should also understand that your salary may be contingent in part on where you can get into law school, and once there how well you do.
According to U.S. News, “eloquent law school admissions essays and strong LSAT scores boost the odds of a full scholarship.” See this link for a good discussion of how to reduce law school costs.
Not everyone will have a strong LSAT, so that’s where the personal statement, letters of recommendations, and extracurricular activities can make a big difference. If your numbers are about the same as several other candidates, these three components of your application are the only way a school can differentiate among applicants.
- A school’s rank is very important, but you also should check a school’s employment record, which the ABA requires law schools to provide. You will find data for any school at this link. Click on “Employment Outcomes.”
- You can google the phrase “ABA required employment Data” and the name of the school. If you enter that search for Georgetown Law, for instance, you will find this link.
- You can also find employment data at this link, created by Transparency at U.S. Law Schools, and at the National Association for Law Placement’s website.
- Remember that the better a school’s employment record, the higher the likelihood that you will find a job when you graduate. But this has to be measured against cost, the region where you want to practice, and a host of other factors. See this link for a discussion. Also check here.
- AccessLex has an excellent tool for comparing law schools at this link.