Applying to a Law School

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Applying to law school is like preparing for an invasion; you must have strategy and foresight. You must get started early, selecting the schools you would like to attend (and backup schools that you would be willing to attend if you are rejected by your first choices), lining up financial aid for tuition and expenses, starting the application process, arranging for living quarters, and so on.
Applying to a Law School

You're Not Alone

Although the number of students applying to law school has stabilized over the past several years, there are still many more applicants than there are spots in first-year classes, especially at the best schools. In 1990, more than a half-million applications were submitted to U.S. law schools. When you consider that there are only about 200 law schools in the country (combining ABA-approved and non-approved schools) you can see that the sheer volume of applications is staggering. Applicants are considered on the basis of many factors, undergraduate performance and scores on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT)' being the two main criteria. Sometimes "soft" factors like work experience and the impression made during personal interviews may be taken into consideration.

Plan Early

It is vital that you contact the schools you are interested in attending to find out their requirements as soon as possible. Many schools have deadlines that are earlier than you might expect. Also the LSAT is offered only four times a year. Early planning is necessary to make sure schools have all the data they need by their deadlines.

A not-for-profit organization known as the Law School Admission Council, an association of American and Canadian schools, facilitates and standardizes the law school admission process. An affiliate of the council, the Law School Admission Services (LSAS), provides several services you should know about.

1. LSAS administers the LSAT examination.

2. LSAS assembles and provides schools with each student's undergraduate transcripts and other data through the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS). Nearly all law schools require their applicants to use the LSDAS, which summarizes, standardizes, and compiles various types of information: LSAT scores, academic records at other schools (including law schools), biographical information, and special material (such as correspondence regarding handicaps or conditions under which tests were taken). This report is then sent to the law schools the applicant has specified. The report may also include an admissions index — a mathematical formula that combines the LSAT score and grade point into a single number.

3. LSAS operates the Candidate Referral Service (CRS), which allows—with your permission—a law school to search the LSAS files for applicants who might have certain criteria sought by that school for its student makeup. For instance, a school may wish to recruit students with certain geographic backgrounds, grade point averages, or economic backgrounds. The LSAS reports that schools sometimes contact applicants with such characteristics directly even if the students themselves had not considered applying to that school.

4. LSAS administers a loan program for students, the Law Access program. Under this plan, students who are attending ABA-approved law schools that are members of the Law School Admission Council may apply for one of several loans to meet the cost of attending law school.

5. LSAS provides a number of helpful publications for current law students and those thinking of applying to law school.
Details of the LSAT Exam

Of the more than 200 ABA-approved and non-approved law schools in the United States, virtually every one requires that its applicants take the LSAT. According to the Law School Admission Council, 150,000 LSATs were administered in 1990. The council goes on to explain the reasoning behind the test:

The LSAT is designed to measure skills that are considered essential for success in law school: the ability to read and comprehend complex texts with accuracy and insight, organize and manage information and draw reasonable inferences from it, reason critically, and analyze and evaluate the reasoning and argument of others.

This standardized test was changed several years ago. It is now made up of five sections (each 35 minutes long) of multiple-choice questions and one writing sample (30 minutes long). The multiple-choice questions have been limited to three categories: reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. Generally only four of the five sections are used in computing the applicant's score; the fifth section is used to sample new types of test questions that might be used in future LSAT exams.

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Traditionally, the test is offered in June, October, December, and February at selected locations around the country. When the test falls on a Saturday, the LSAS has in the past offered an alternative day for those applicants who observe Saturday sabbaths. In addition, special test-taking arrangements are available for handicapped students and those who must take the test at a location other than one of those normally scheduled.

If, after taking the exam, you believe you tested poorly, you may cancel the score by contacting the LSAS immediately (they must receive the cancellation notice no later than five working days after the test date). The LSAS reports, however, that—barring some major catastrophe in taking the test the first time—retaking the test will usually result at best in only a slight improvement in your score. But if for some reason your mind goes blank or you are hit with a bout of flu or amnesia midway through the exam, you have a mechanism by which to void the results of that particular test.

The LSAT application booklet details in depth the procedure for preparing for and taking the exam. This booklet contains sample questions and answers and a sample test. In addition, the LSAS offers several publications to assist you in preparing for the test. Preparation guides (including complete sample tests) and preparation courses are offered by companies not affiliated with the LSAS or the council. They are similar to the commercial bar exam review services and publications. We don't have the space here to offer a sample exam (total pretest, test, and post-test time is estimated by the LSAS to be about seven hours!), but I will mention briefly the categories of questions that have been used in the past.

You will be presented with four passages, each about 450 words long (roughly equal to two double-spaced typed pages of information). Following each passage will be five to eight questions about each passage. Although this is a law school admissions test, the questions might or might not be about the law. The subject matter may be any topic at all, including science, philosophy, and the humanities. Remember, this portion of the exam does not test your knowledge of the various subjects (if you know something about the topics beforehand, you should still rely only on what is in the written passage before you); it measures your ability to comprehend what you have read and, according to the LSAS, "to draw reasonable inferences from the material in the passage."

Analytical Reasoning Problems

These multiple-choice questions test your ability to deduce certain facts about the relationship among people, things, places, and so on, from certain given information. These questions are also known as "games," and in fact are similar to the word problems found in books of games or magazines. They give some indication of your ability to analyze relationships among events and entities in practice, and to draw logical conclusions.

The analytical reasoning section is also timed at 35 minutes.

Logical Reasoning

The LSAT presents two sections on logical reasoning. The sections, also referred to as the "arguments" sections, present a short body of text and then ask you to perform one of several types of reasoning:
  • identify the central point of the passage
  • identify assumptions upon which an argument is based
  • draw a conclusion from premises
  • detect errors in reasoning

For instance, you may be asked to select the answer that is the closest to the author's main purpose, to describe the author's attitude toward a passage of text, to make inferences from the passage, or to resolve apparently conflicting statements.

The LSAS states that while applicants need not know the terminology of formal logic, they are expected to understand "widely used concepts such as 'argument,' 'premise,' 'assumption,' and 'conclusion.'"

There are two logical reasoning sections on the test, timed for a total of one hour and ten minutes (they are broken down into two 35-minute segments).

The Writing Sample

The final section of the LSAT requires you to write an essay on a preselected topic. It is not graded for the purposes of your LSAT score; the sample will be included in the information sent by the LSDAS to the schools of your choice.

The one word of advice is this: Do not start writing immediately! As with law school exams, you must first organize and do a brief outline of your essay (scratch paper should be provided by the proctors).

Think about what you are going to write before you put pen to paper. Organization and clarity are far more important than volume.

You will have 30 minutes to complete this portion of the test.

Choosing a Law School

As you fill out your application for the LSAT, you'll have to indicate which schools should receive test reports. Keep in mind, as you are leafing through catalogs and scheduling interviews, that choosing a law school is a fundamentally different process than choosing a school for undergraduate study. While you'll find that the subjects covered in one law school are—on paper, at least—identical to those taught in any other, it is also true that each school has a different slant and reputation. Some schools, for instance, boast a high percentage of graduates going on to local and state government office. Some produce craftsmanlike, business-oriented at attorneys, while others have a greater percentage of public- interest graduates than other schools. Some breed academicians who go on to become professors and legal philosophers, articulating, describing, and even creating the rights that other lawyers enforce. There is only one way for you to learn the flavor of the schools you are considering applying to: investigate them. Go to the campus, walk around, take tours, talk to students, talk to graduates, talk to faculty members. Read local directories of attorneys, judges, and politicians; see which law schools they went to. If your goal is to land a job in a big firm in a particular city, find out if a particular school has spawned a greater percentage of partners in the large firms around town than any other school.

Research about other schools

There is another reason to visit the schools; to observe the real (the good and the bad) characteristics of a school, traits that aren't evident on a tour or in an interview. While it's almost universally true that there are more applicants than openings at most law schools, there are far fewer perfect applicants than schools would like. A law school is a business. It succeeds when it produces hard-working, knowledgeable students, who in turn move successfully into the workplace.

Schools therefore engage in a fair amount of "selling" themselves to those individuals who seem as if they will be successful students, enhancing the school's own reputation. In short, a pretty catalog does not a good school make. Walk around the campus. See if you can sit in on a few classes. Grade the school on the following:
  • Are professors late for class or absent?
  • What resources are available?
  • Is there only one Lexis computer terminal for the entire school?
  • How many law reviews and other legal journals does the school publish? (The more the better.)
  • How many copies of each case reporter does the library have? (You can bet that if a professor suggests to his class of 200 that they take at look at Gnome v. Troll, and the case is reported in only one book, you're going to be standing in line a long, long time.)
  • Is the library a shambles? Or is it clean and orderly?
  • Are students complaining about missing books?
  • Are classrooms so crowded students must sit in the aisles, or so poorly attended that the professor is speaking to a handful of those registered for the course?

You will be spending a vast amount of time in the hallowed halls of your law school; you owe it to yourself to make sure it is the kind of place in which you will feel comfortable

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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