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You must have given some thought to the question of going to law school, or someone you know is thinking about going to law school. Each year, more than 40,000 students in the United States begin the long and arduous journey associated with attending law school. There was a time when large numbers of attorneys received their legal training by studying law books at home until they were knowledgeable enough to pass an oral examination to become a lawyer. Today, almost all lawyers attend a law school before taking a standardized written bar exam. The educational process takes three or four years, depending on whether the curriculum is full or part time, and whether it is obtained at one of the law schools approved by the American Bar Association, or a handful of other law schools approved in the state where they are located.
Law school is not for everyone. Some individuals cannot cope with the intellectual demands, while others find the psychological stress associated with the study and practice of law to be suffocating. Many bright and ambitious people do not succeed at law because they find other activities more rewarding and challenging. However, many college graduates will find law school to be the most stimulating experience of their lives.
There is a great deal of popular mythology about law school and the legal profession. Here is an attempt to get past much of the confusing rhetoric facing individuals contemplating legal education. Barron's is full of factual information about law schools and no nonsense devices on the application process, the LSAT, and the decision-making process.
A Complex Decision
The process of choosing a law school is a complex one, and there are no easy answers along the way. The best choice for one person may be the very worst choice for another. A road map may help you find your way, but it cannot replace the experience of getting there yourself.
The focus here is on the choices that each law school applicant must make during the admission process. While considering whether and where to attend law school you will spend considerable energy weighing various options. The fact that you will feel confused (and at times overwhelmed) is normal. Regardless of your background, you cannot escape facing tough decisions that will affect the rest of your life. If you struggle with the choices, it is a sign that you appreciate the importance of the process.
This basic problem (Which school is best for you?) is the same for every applicant. Whether you have many choices or a single acceptance, so much rests on your decision that it is impossible not to feel the pressure.
The aim of this effort is to provide objective information that will help you make an informed choice about a tough decision. We encourage you to listen to other voices that have opinions on this subject. There certainly is room for divergence of viewpoints on many of the subjects addressed here. One person will tell you that you have to be a lawyer, and the next person will tell you that nobody should be a lawyer. In the end, only you can decide on the best course of action. The best way to assure that your final decision will be the right one for you is to become fully informed on all the issues.
Why Go to Law School?
You might choose to go to law school for a number of reasons. In fact, many lawyers were influenced by a variety of factors: They wanted the prestige, power, and panache that a degree in law provides; they wanted a professional career in which they could make enough money to establish and maintain a comfortable lifestyle; they wanted to change the world in order to make it a little better than it was when they arrived; they wanted to pursue a long family tradition; they wanted to do something different from anyone else in their family; they took an aptitude test during college and the career counselor said that they should become a lawyer; or (my personal reason for attending law school) they went to a prelaw association meeting as a favor to a roommate, got elected president, and couldn't back out. Everyone arrives at the law school door for different reasons. Some of these are valid; some are not. Here are a few of the wrong reasons to go to law school:
Don't go to law school because other people expect you to. Spouses, family, friends, and advisors seem perpetually willing to push their loved one, associate, or advisee in this direction. While these people almost always want what is best for you, their personal motives are inevitably more complex. Look at the source and weigh the advice accordingly.
Don't go to law school because of what you see on television or read in the newspapers about lawyers. Media coverage of high profile cases such as the O.J. Simpson trial or President Clinton's impeachment tend to glamorize or demonize lawyers and the law. Popular television shows such as The Practice or Ally McBeal, inevitably portray the law practice in a very different light than most lawyers experience in their daily lives. Lawyers are neither as rich, good-looking, and fast-talking, nor as manipulative, and grasping as the stereotypes suggest. Most practicing lawyers will tell you that these images have little in common with their real lives. The fictional world of Ally McBeal has about as much in common with the way real lawyers spend their time as WWF wrestling does with war in Afghanistan. We smile bemusedly at the antics of the characters on the popular television series, but in our hearts we know that Ally and her associates could never exist in the flesh. If you want to discover how real-life lawyers work and live, ask them. Visit a law firm, or better yet, get a job in one. Look for lawyers outside the world of work; find out about lawyers in their neighborhoods and communities. Investigate how they live and play when they go home at night. You will probably discover that lawyers are a well-educated and intense (but diverse) lot, who give as much to the community as they do to their jobs.
Don't go to law school because you can't figure out what to do with your life, or because you couldn't find anything else that interested you in four years of college, or you just couldn't find a job. Law school is not the place to go to find yourself. Legal education is no place to buy more time to make a decision because you just can't bear to face the real world.
Whatever other motives may influence your decision to attend law school, make certain that a major consideration is your genuine desire to study law. If you have doubts about whether you want to study law (as opposed to practice law), do something else for a year or two. Work in a law firm, or join the Peace Corps. If you find you can't get the idea of law school out of your mind, that should be a sign to you. If, on the other hand, you forget about it, forget about it.
These admonitions may fall on deaf ears, but at least you've been warned. Many people find law school to be the most interesting, intellectually stimulating, and challenging experience of their educational lives (despite its many aggravations); others hate it almost more than they can bear. If you find that you fit into the latter group and not the former, don't put yourself through the misery of sitting through three years or more of law school classes.
Which Law School?
The decision as to which law school to attend can be even more complicated than the decision whether to attend law school. Beware of law school admissions and recruitment people. They want you-actually they want your seat deposit. Most of them are personable, well-informed, and genuine. They are, however, selling a product: their school. The best defense against the hard sell is comparison shopping. Listen to a number of different pitches before you make a choice. Finally, check out the various claims and promises relying on your own independent investigation rather than stock promotional materials. Barron's is particularly suited to help you accomplish this objective. Beware of family, friends, and prelaw advisors, who push you to attend a particular law school. Utilize impartial advice, particularly guidance from professional counselors and advisors, in making your decision. Their experience and knowledge can be invaluable. But remember! Your prelaw advisor may like a certain school because she graduated from it. Your career counselor may have been particularly impressed by the speech he heard at an open house for a certain law school. Your lawyer friend may or may not be privy to accurate information. Sometimes, opinions masked by objectivity are far from objective. And most important of all, remember that no single school is the right choice for everyone.
Beware of letting your procrastination make decisions for you. There are many critical dates in the law school admission process. Don't be foreclosed from applying to schools, seeking financial aid, or pursuing any alternative because you didn't do it in time. If you want to make the best choice, you should seek to maximize your options, and the best way to maximize your options is to stay on top of the process. Start early. Develop a tickler file to remind you in advance about critical dates. Most calendar programs for personal computers allow you to save important dates. Set aside sufficient time to meet deadlines and accomplish your objectives. Remember that the easiest decision is not always the best one.
Barron's contains chapters on the LSAT (Chapters 10 and 11), the job outlook for graduates, including starting salaries (Chapter 8), financial aid (Chapter 6), and profiles of law schools themselves (Chapters 13 and 14).
The checklist below may help you to clarify your objectives and focus your research efforts as you think about law school. It lists the primary questions you should address as you evaluate law schools. If you can determine what choices are best for you, you not only will increase your chances of being accepted, but also improve the likelihood that law school will be a rewarding experience.
Geographical considerations inevitably come into play. A majority of law school graduates accept positions in the region where they went to law school. Those who do not stay in the same geographic area tend to return to the region where they grew up or where they have family. This is true not only for so-called local and regional law schools, but for national law schools as well. It is easier to find a job if you are physically located in the area where your job search occurs. Thus, if you know where you want to settle after graduation, you may want to consider limiting your applications to law schools in that geographic area.
Although most law school graduates settle in the largest metropolitan areas, both law schools and legal employment are found in a variety of settings. You may want to consider, as an alternative to pursuing a legal education at a school in a big city, attending school or working in a smaller city or town, a suburban area within a larger metropolitan population, or a rural area. You may have business, political, or personal ties to a community that would make it advantageous to target that place for postgraduate employment. You or your family may have ties to a university or law school that would lead you to go to school there.
You may want to give thought to what substantive areas of practice interest you. Although many entering law students do not have a clue about what areas of law they wish to pursue, sometime during the tenure of their legal education, they will have to make those choices. Other law students know before they begin law school that they are interested in a particular type of practice, and may choose a law school because of its curricular concentration in that field. Although the first year curriculum and many core upper-level electives are common in most law schools, different law schools will have different upper-level course offerings and concentrations. You should look carefully at law school catalogs and talk to school representatives about these differences as part of the decision-making process.
What kind of school can you afford? State law schools are usually less expensive for residents than for nonresidents, or than private schools. Among private schools, tuition may differ considerably depending on the prestige of the institution and other considerations. Schools also differ considerably as to the amount of financial aid and scholarship funds that are available to incoming students. Additionally, schools with part-time or evening programs provide an opportunity for students to attend law school while continuing to work full time.
You should look carefully for information about the school's institutional culture. Although it is hard to discern sometimes, every school has a unique personality. Its geographic location and student body demographic makeup will affect the school's atmosphere. The back-ground of the faculty members will, too. Do most of them have experience practicing law? Or did most come directly into teaching from postgraduate appellate clerkships? What is the size of the student body, the faculty, and average classes? In some ways, a larger law school may seem more vibrant and diverse, while a smaller law school will feel more intimate and supportive. Look at the competitiveness of the institution. Do you want to see how you fare in the most highly charged competitive environment? Do you want to be a big fish in a little pond? Will you be happy just to get accepted? Take a look at the physical plant, the library, and other resources available to the law school. Consider what benefits accrue to the law school from affiliation with its parent university. Think about the history of the university and the law school, and how the institutional roots have molded the law school culture today.
Observe whether current students are satisfied with services, such as financial aid and career services. Consider the availability of co-curricular and extracurricular groups, such as law review, moot court, law school student government, and other student organizations. Ask about the educational philosophy of the institution, whether it is highly theoretical, or practical and skills-oriented. Find out whether the curriculum focuses on the law of a particular jurisdiction, or is concentrated in some other way. All of these factors are important in choosing a law school, and you can learn about many of them through careful research.
Finally, look at which law schools will accept you. If your LSAT and GPA are both very strong, you will have significantly more opportunities than people with less impressive credentials. If either your LSAT or GPA is less stellar, the number of law schools interested in you will inevitably drop. You may need to demonstrate your aptitude through other activities and experiences. If your LSAT and GPA are both low, you may find it challenging to find a single law school that will accept you. A few law schools offer programs that permit applicants to compete for slots during the summer prior to admission.
Some law schools may be located in a geographic area that does not draw as many applications as more populous ones. Some states accredit law schools not approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Graduates of non- ABA-approved schools usually can only take the bar in the state in which the school is accredited. These schools usually have fewer and less competitive applications, and for some people this may be the only way to go to law school. Before committing to a law school not approved by the ABA you should look carefully at all the factors.