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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Advice on Applying to Law Schools

During my third year at UCLA Law, I have been a teaching assistant for the UCLA Department of Philosophy.  As my first quarter of being a TA draws to a close, I can report that it has been a busy, yet rewarding experience.

Because of my unique position as a TA and law student (rather than a philosophy graduate student), several students have approached me and asked about law school and the process of preparing for law school.  I have been happy to give this advice, and I have encouraged my students to ask me about my thoughts on law school.

In light of all of this, I thought that I would post some of my general thoughts and advice on the law school application process.  These pointers are a combination of things I learned from my own experience, and advice I was given while I was going through the application process myself.  As a general disclaimer: I am writing this list several years after the fact, so my memory of this process is a bit foggy and selective.  But I hope that these pointers can be a good supplement to advice that academic advisers and others are giving.

·         Should I go to law school?
While most students I have spoken with are pretty convinced that they want to go to law school, this question is the most important question that a student considering law school should answer – and is a question that students who are applying to law school should keep in mind.  Today’s law market is tough, and a law degree is not a guarantee of employment. Students who simply want to delay going from school to the real world should not default to law school as an alternative.  And students who are worried that their major is not applicable to the real world should not think that law school is necessary to obtaining employment, since being proactive and emphasizing universalizable skills like writing, analysis, and teamwork will probably help you find a job coming out of undergrad.

·         Then why should I even consider going to law school?
While today’s market for legal jobs is not excellent, it still exists, and there are plenty of opportunities in all areas of law for driven students.  And if you are particularly interested in legal issues, or in developing and applying your persuasive writing abilities and critical thinking skills, law may be an area where you will thrive.  And law itself is an incredibly diverse field, with many various areas you can pursue that involve different subject matter and types of work.  There are many good reasons to want to go to law school, and if you have an articulable reason to want to go to law school (rather than a reason “not to not go to law school”), you should give law school some serious consideration before writing it off.  And while the market for legal education is in a bit of a slump right now, this is causing some law schools to try to attract more students by giving out more generous financial aid packages – so now is a particularly good time to see how good of a deal you can get on legal education.

·         Where should I go to law school?
Apply to law school with an eye to what you want to do afterwards.  This will usually (but not always) make the law school’s ranking an important factor, since students who go to higher-ranked law schools have a better chance of getting jobs than students at lower-ranked schools.  But ranking is not everything.  You may be interested in a particular area of law or geographical region, and some law schools will be better than others at sending you in this direction.  For instance, if you are interested in a career in Washington DC, a law degree from UCLA might be helpful because of UCLA’s ranking, but going to George Washington University (a slightly lower-ranked law school) might be a better decision because you may end up with more DC contacts and you will be attending school in the DC area.  Or if you are interested into going into a niche area of law like tribal law, a school like UCLA might be better than other, higher ranked schools, because UCLA is known for having better teaching resources for those interested in pursuing tribal law (I have not experienced these resources firsthand, but have heard several anecdotes from fellow students to this effect).

·         What classes should I take to prepare for law school / the application process?
I recommend that students take at least one course in logic or reasoning before taking the LSAT.  The systematic reasoning skills that these courses teach – as well as the logical fallacies that these courses help students identify – are extremely helpful on the argument sections of the LSAT.  As far as courses to prepare for law school in general, law-centered undergraduate courses may give you a broad outline of the subject.  At the University of Iowa, I took one course on constitutional law and another on criminal procedure, and the cases and concepts we studied overlapped with some of my future law school courses (though the depth of coverage was far greater at the law school level).  Finally, I would recommend that students consider taking philosophy courses in order to gain experience wrestling with difficult and unresolvable questions.  Law school pedagogy (especially during the first year) tends to revolve around unclear and unresolved areas of law, and experience dealing with difficult questions will help prepare you for the law school classroom.

·         When should I take the LSAT?
While there is no “right” answer to this question, I can give advice based on my own experience.  I took the LSAT in February during my junior year.  This was earlier than most of my friends who were planning to go to law school, but I found this to be a good time to take the exam because it left me with plenty of extra time to retake the exam in the event that I was not satisfied with my first score.  I would recommend that students plan ahead for when they will take the exam, and consider giving themselves a lighter course / extracurricular schedule in the time leading up to the exam so that they have more time to study for the LSAT.

·         How should I study for the LSAT?
While the answer to this question is probably different for every student, one good general rule that I have been telling people is that they should take a full, proctored exam before beginning any sort of focused studying.  The score that you get on this exam will help you see how far you need to go to get the score that you want, and what areas of the LSAT you should focus on.  When I was an undergraduate student, Kaplan held several events each year where they would administer a practice exam in a proctored setting, and I recommend that students attend one or more of these events – or at least take the test themselves in as realistic an environment as possible.  Beyond this general strategy, I recommend that students take numerous practice exams.  This will help you to prepare for the questions you will need to answer, and taking practice exams in test-like conditions (e.g., timed, and taking all parts of the exam in a row) will help you build time-management and endurance skills that you will need on the actual exam.

·         What is the most important part of my application when I am applying for law school?
While law schools tend not to reveal how they weigh different parts of students’ applications, my understanding (based on conversations with professors and admissions personnel) is that the GPA and LSAT are the two most important components of the law school application.  Between those two, the LSAT generally is weighed more heavily because there is less of a concern with grade-inflation when it comes to the LSAT score.  As far as extracurricular activities and recommendation letters – my general impression on these is that they become important when applicants are in a category where their LSAT/GPA numbers do not guarantee them admission or denial of admission.  Many students end up in a middle category where it they are not guaranteed admission, and strong credentials beyond the LSAT and GPA can increase a student’s probability of getting admitted out of this middle category.

·         How should I go about getting letters of recommendation?

Law schools typically give you a lot of leeway in choosing who you pick for you letters of recommendation.  Based on some conversations I have had with admissions personnel in the past, you should opt for recommenders who have had the opportunity to evaluate your work.  Employers who evaluate your day-to-day performance, and professors who grade your academic work are the most ideal types of recommenders because they can speak directly to their experiences in evaluating your performance.  When it comes to getting a recommendation letter from a professor, I would recommend that you prefer professors with whom you have had multiple classes, and who have had the chance to evaluate your written work (rather than evaluating you based on performance in a multiple choice exam).  And when you approach a professor to request a letter of recommendation, always offer to provide that professor with additional writing samples and any other material that they may require in putting together a letter.  The more you give them to work with – the more they will be able to say about you.  Finally, while you may end up having a lot of recommenders in mind, don’t go overboard.  Three recommenders is usually enough – if you provide more, then the law schools might think that you are trying to make up for some other deficiency in your application.

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