Dr. Richard Price
Weber State University
Department of Political Science & Philosophy
I. INTRODUCTION: WHY THE LAW?
No one should be cavalier about the decision to attend law school. To earn a Juris Doctor degree you must commit to three additional years of arduous and intensely competitive graduate study (beyond the Bachelor's degree). Furthermore, recent data indicates that a great many law school graduates will accumulate between $75,000 and $140,000 of personal debt and about 40% will not find fulltime employment as an attorney within ten months after graduation. Those who secure employment might well work 60-70 hours a week (roughly 10-12 hour days, six days a week).
In light of this sobering evidence, everyone who would even consider attending law school should ask himself or herself "Why do I want to be a lawyer?" Typically, there are several reasons given: "As a lawyer, I will get rich," "Being a lawyer will give me an opportunity for power and prestige," "I'll have an opportunity to help people," "I think that being a lawyer would be an exciting career," and "I think practicing law would be intellectually rewarding."
This information is intended to provide some basic facts to those who are considering the possibility of admission to law school. Please note that this site adapts information originally written by a former professor at Weber who apparently drew upon a variety of sources including Charles Fimian's "Advising Guide For Pre-Law Students." Professor Fimian was the Pre-Law Advisor for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University. I have also borrowed very heavily from Gerald Wilson's "Basic Information For Senior Pre-Law Students," Frank X.J. Homer's "The Law School Admission Test," Keely James' "Law School Application Checklist," and her pamphlet, "Preparing For Law School: Advice For the Pre-Law Student." Dean Wilson is the Pre-Law Advisor at Duke University. Professor Homer is Pre-Law Advisor at the University of Scranton. Keely James is Pre-Law Advisor for the College of Arts & Sciences, Oklahoma State University. The Official Guide to U.S. Law Schools, The Princeton Review Student Access Guide to the Best Law Schools, and the LSAT/LSDAS Registration and Information Book.
II. GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE ADMISSION PROCESS
A. PRE-LAW STATUS
There is no "pre-law" major at Weber State University. This is not at all unusual or something that works to the disadvantage of those students who plan to attend law school. Ask yourself, "If I don't go to law school, what am I going to do with a pre-law major?" Moreover, what courses would make up a pre-law major? In other words, what would you be majoring in? Unlike "pre-med", "pre-dental" and certain other pre-professional programs, there are no specific courses of study required of pre-law students. Law schools do not prescribe particular courses to be taken nor do they specify undergraduate majors. Law is a broad and diverse profession. Lawyers are called upon to work with and represent individuals and organizations in every aspect of society. Because the careers of those trained in law are so widely varied, and, therefore, call for widely differing skills, law schools do not generally recommend any particular major. Law school admissions policies typically do not favor one major over another provided both contain equally substantive courses.
That raises the question: If there is no formal "pre-law" major, then what should I study? You might want to consider several things. First, set aside, for a moment, your interest in law. Ask yourself, "What subjects do I most enjoy studying? Are these subjects academically challenging? If, over time, my life plans or interest in law fades, would these courses have prepared me to go on to another type of graduate or professional school of interest? Will I leave Weber State University intellectually equipped for citizenship or the other challenges of life?" Once you've considered these questions, you will likely arrive at a very short list of potential majors. Second, keep in mind that undergraduate grade point average is one of the factors that weigh heavily in the law school admission process. You should consider a major that will motivate you to do your best work. A solid record in a major that is intellectually rigorous will serve you well both in the admissions process, and as you train to become an attorney. Law schools do not care about how much “law” you think you know. It is their job to teach you that. Instead, they want to see evidence that you are intellectually adept and able to handle challenging material. This will require you to take a challenging course load; in other words do not load up on an unnecessary number of 2000 level courses and expect law schools to be impressed with your GPA achieved in a relatively easier set of courses.
We do offer a "Legal Studies" minor at Weber State that many students find useful in supplemented their major course of study. For information about the Legal Studies minor, please contact Dr. Price.
B. LAW SCHOOL ADMISSIONS
There are four major elements that every law school considers when determining which applicants to admit. These are the applicant's cumulative grade point average (GPA), the score that the applicant achieves on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), the applicant's personal statement, and letters endorsing the applicant's candidacy for admission. These four items, however, are not equal in importance. Overwhelmingly, admissions decisions, and scholarship offers, are focused on GPA and LSAT. The personal statement and letters of recommendation are important but only on the margins. They should not be ignored, but they also are not going to “save” your application.
1. UNDERGRADUATE RECORD
Law school admissions committees understand that undergraduate performance is an important indicator of how someone is likely to perform in law school. Thus, many law schools look carefully at college grades. Additionally, course selection can make a difference in admission evaluation. Students who have taken difficult or more advanced courses often are evaluated differently than are students who have concentrated on easier courses. Many law schools look closely at undergraduate performance trends along with one's numerical average. They may discount a slow start in a student's undergraduate career if he or she performs exceptionally well in the later school years. Similarly, they may look less favorably upon a student who starts strongly, but then starts to plateau or fizzle out toward the end of his or her undergraduate program. It is always best, however, to work hard on keeping your grades up throughout your undergraduate studies as it is easier to maintain a good GPA then improve a bad one later. Thus, don’t blow off general education classes simply because you don’t love the material.
2. THE LSAT
The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a standardized test required for admission to all Law School Admission Council (LSAC) member schools. It consists of five 35-minute sections of multiple-choice questions. Four of the five sections contribute to the test taker's score. These sections include one reading comprehension section, one analytical reasoning section, and two logical reasoning sections. The fifth section, the "dummy section," typically is used as a pre-test to generate new test questions. A 30-minute writing sample is administered at the end of the test.
This section consists of four sets, each containing a reading passage of approximately 450 words in length followed by between five and eight questions. Individual questions deal with the main idea, primary purpose, or tone of passages as a whole; the meaning or function of individual words and phrases; information or ideas either explicitly stated or inferred from a passage; or the application of information in a passage to a new context.
Often called "games," this section consists of four sets each containing a problem/game involving the grouping, assignment, or ordering of certain items, or possibly their spatial relationship.
This section consists of approximately 24 to 26 questions that are not grouped into sets unless two questions are based upon a common stimulus. Each question begins with an argument contained in a few sentences, a very brief paragraph, or a short piece of dialogue. Individual questions deal with identifying the point of an argument, assumptions or premises upon which it is based, inferences that follow from the premises or evidences given, the overall structure of the reasoning used in an argument, errors or fallacies contained in an argument, the application of the principle in an argument given a new context, or whether an additional piece of evidence strengthens or weakens an argument.
Students tend to ask several questions about LSAT:
-When should I take the LSAT?
Dean Wilson of Duke suggests that the LSATs should be taken either in June, after your Junior year, or in October of your Senior year. You should select the date that allows you to devote a few months of intense study to the LSAT. Thus many students like to wait until October to have a summer in which to practice and prepare.
-Should I take the LSAT once for practice?
No. You should plan to take the LSAT only once. If you do poorly, however, then take the test a second time. Remember: All scores are reported and schools have the option of taking the highest score or the average of all your scores. It is better to be prepared and do well once.
-Should I take a commercial LSAT preparation course?
There are several options available. For instance, Law Services, the organization that administers and scores the LSAT, produces the Official LSAT Prep Series with each test available for under $10. In fact, Law Services has bundled several old tests into series of 10 tests each (we call "the 10 packs"). There are many commercial test prep companies that can be quite expensive. My advice is to buy a test book or more than one from different companies. Work your way through the book and then start taking practice tests and based upon your practice performance return to the books to improve. The LSAT tests reading comprehension and logical reasoning, skills that should be strong by your senior year anyway. Most of the test prep then is learning the structure and nature of the sections rather than refreshing skills. I recommend that students spend 2-3 months engaged in fairly intensive test prep, at least a few hours a day, five days a week. If this self-study is not working out perfectly, then it may be time to explore commercial test preparation options. Weber State does not offer any test prep services and does not recommend or endorse any one program over another.
-What college courses should I take to prepare for the LSATs?
Charles Fimian, of Arizona State University, notes that one can prepare for the LSAT by taking courses in college in the following three skill areas:
a. English Communication Skills. The pre-law student should endeavor to take, in addition to the required English composition courses, other courses that will provide practice in writing and speaking. This includes (but is in no way limited to) courses in creative and professional writing, courses requiring term papers, courses that require essay examinations, and public speaking courses.
b. Reading Comprehension Skills. The pre-law student should endeavor to take courses that require him or her to read and comprehend complex passages involving theories, organization and processes. The student will be aided in this endeavor by developing insight into human institutions and experience broadly.
c. Logic Skills. The pre-law student would be wise to seek out courses that will allow the development of skills in both mathematical and symbolic logic. In addition to fulfilling the University minimum requirement in mathematics, the pre-law student is advised to take other courses in mathematics and the physical sciences that will hone his/her mathematical skills. A knowledge of symbolic logic such as that obtained in various philosophy courses will also be of significant value to the pre-law student. I would strongly urge you to take the courses in logic and critical thinking offered in the Department of Political Science/Philosophy.
-When are the LSATs given?
Four times a year (February, June, October, December). Registration information can be found on the Law Services web page.
3. PERSONAL STATEMENTS
The personal statement is the one place where you can explain who you are and try and set yourself apart. While the GPA and LSAT determine most admissions, a good essay may help you if you are on the admissions bubble and the decision could go either way.
In addition to the obvious recommendations that your statement should be well written and adhere to the length suggested/required by the school, it should, while setting forth the applicant in the best possible light, also be candid. The folks at LSAC stress that their law schools want to recruit people who are qualified beyond test score and GPA, and who bring something special to their school. There is something special about you—something in your personal life, work experience, religious work, military experience, geography, family background, etc.—something that will attract law schools to you. The personal statement is the place in the application to tell the admissions committee why you are special. Let me emphasize, it is not the place to give a canned presentation about why you have always wanted to go to law school, or why you are smart and eager, or to present your resume in narrative form. You should write many drafts of this and have as many people as possible read it to ensure that the points you want to make are clear and precise.
4. LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
Like the personal statement, letters of recommendation matter mostly at the margins of an application. They can, however, be a good opportunity for the admissions panel to get a sense of who you are from a person who has had experience judging your work. You should ask professors who have had many opportunities to judge your work and that you believe will provide you a strong recommendation. Be prepared with some back up options if someone refuses to write a letter. You should start thinking about this early and work to distinguish yourself. Remember that we see hundreds of students over the years and often have trouble remembering individual students, even those who get As on all the papers. You want to demonstrate an excitement in class, that you are engaged with the material. This will help set you apart from the average student. I also suggest you save everything from your courses. When I agree to write a letter I always ask students to send me all of the work from the courses they took from me, along with any drafts of their application materials, so that I can write the strongest letter possible.
A strong suggestion: ask your letter writers early in the Fall semester, say September. We get a lot of requests for these and the more notice the better. Also, do not be shy about sending polite follow-up emails every few weeks or so to make sure it is going to be done by the deadline.
While most letters should come from professors, others could be acceptable. The people you ask should still be able to judge your work and be relevant to your academics. If you did an internship with a lawyer, court, or governmental office, getting a letter from whomever you served under can be useful. I would advise against getting a letter from just a general employer (say Starbucks) talking about your work ethic and the like, however.
C. PROCEDURES FOR APPLYING TO LAW SCHOOL
The LSAC has made admissions highly streamlined but it is still the individual student’s responsibility to research exactly what each school requires and when various applications are due. LSAC has provided a handy checklist that all students should pay attention to.
D. CHOOSING A LAW SCHOOL
The decision as to which law schools the student should apply to is a personal one and thus will vary considerably from applicant to applicant. For most students some combination of economic and academic factors will be key in making their decisions.
1. The Economic Factor
Increasingly, economic realities are becoming the biggest factor in attending law school. Put simply, law school is expensive, far more expensive than even 20 years ago. And most students are required to debt finance their education in total. In 2014, the American Bar Association has reported that average debt for a public law school graduate at $84,600 and for a private law school graduate at $122,158. These high numbers, however, ignore any undergraduate debt. Additionally, they ignore the interest accrued on all debts while in law school. Student loan programs no long provide any public subsidization for graduate school debt; this means that your interest accrues from the moment your receive your first loan on the first day of law school to the end. Some estimates suggest students may accrue as much as $10,000 in interest alone during the three years of law school.
There have been a variety of income based repayment plans put into place recently but you should know all of the terms before deciding to take on a loan (and make sure that the program hasn’t changed as many have recently). The most popular form of recent loan consolidation has been various Income Based Repayment plans that limit your repayment to a percentage of your income to make things manageable. And after a certain number of years (20 or 25 depending on the plan), your debt is forgiven. But what is less well know is that under current IRS rules the amount forgiven is treated as taxable income, meaning you would owe a significant amount of taxes on the amount the government forgave. The one plan that offers the most advantages is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Plan. It works like other Income Based plans but is only available to full-time employees of government or non-profit organizations. The biggest benefit is that after 10 years of payments as a full-time employee of a qualifying organization your loan balance is forgiven without any tax hit. In part because of this program, legal jobs that qualify have become intensely competitive. Also, it should be noted that many members of Congress have been critical of this program and pushed for changes, though of course we cannot predict what, if any, changes may occur in the future.
This debt also has to be considered against outcomes for recent graduates. The single best source for tuition, fees, and job outcomes is Law School Transparency. LST reports job outcomes for full-time positions that require a JD (meaning lawyer jobs) that are in a firm of 2 or more people. By this definition, nationally new JDs ten months out of law school are employed at just a little more than 50%. Salary data is difficult to accurately judge because only about 1/3 of new graduates report their salaries, but estimates tend to hover at about $50-60,000 a year. While this is a strong income, it is difficult to repay student loans that exceed $90,000 with a salary at this level.
“What about scholarships?” so many students ask. It is true that law schools give out a lot of scholarships (or more honestly, breaks on tuition), especially with enrollments declining around the country. These are good but you have to make sure you understand the fine print. Most law school scholarships require you to maintain a given GPA, such as a 3.0. Now most undergraduate students ignore this because they have easily maintained a GPA higher than that for years. Law school, however, is a much different experience than undergraduate. It is far more difficult, requires a lot more work, and the first year at virtually every law school has a required curve to their grades. Some law schools may give as many as 50% of their first year students a scholarship but fail to tell those students that the required curve will only let 25% of them earn the GPA that they need to keep the scholarship no matter how well they do in courses. The key is to get as much information as possible so you can make an informed decision about the risks and rewards of a legal education.
2. The Academic Factor
At one level, legal education is amazingly standardized. With only a small number of exceptions, every law school teaches the same basic law in the same way by professors mostly from the same programs. The only hard and fast rule I stress with students is that any school you think about attending should be ABA accredited as this allows you to sit for the bar exam of any state. (I also warn against for-profit programs).
Other than that, what mostly distinguishes law schools is reputation. This is what the U.S. News and World Report’s list of “best” law schools is really capturing, the schools with the best reputation. While it is a debatable question on whether the number 13 law school offers a better quality education than a school at 52, what is clear is the effect this reputation has on graduate employment. Graduates of “top” programs do much better than graduates from lower ranked programs on average. The person finishing in the bottom 10% at Harvard is likely to still find strong employment much easier than a similarly placed graduate from a lower ranked school. So all other things (cost of attendance, family situation, etc.) being equal, going to a program that is more highly ranked is usually better.
In choosing schools to apply to you should gather as much information as possible about their recent application history. Luckily Law School Transparency has complied data on first year enrollment 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles for GPA and LSAT for the past few years of all ABA accredited schools. You will then have to compile a list of schools to finally apply to. I encourage students to consider applying to 8-10 schools. You will want to apply to a few “safety” schools where your numbers seem to suggest you will have a high chance of being admitted. And you will want to apply to at least a couple of “reach” schools where your numbers might be a little low but maybe you can get into the grey zone where your other attributes shine. The bulk of schools should be ones where you appear to be a reasonable candidate for admission (some might call this a 50/50 chance). The goal of applying to multiple places is to get multiple admissions offers to see the terms, if any, of scholarships and the like. It has even been possible in recent years to turn schools against each other and get one to up their scholarship offer to a competing school’s offer. Hopefully you will end up with a few good options to then weigh carefully.
E. FINANCING LAW SCHOOL
Frankly this is an area that changes so frequently, and is highly technical and outside my area of expertise, that I will only note a few issues to consider and urge you to read extensively the rules and options current when you are making the decision on whether to go to law school.
Nearly all law students are now able to completely debt-finance their law school education; usually only people who are in active default on existing student loans are denied. However, there are no longer any subsidized loans for law school (or any graduate school). This means that you accrue interest with the dispersal of each loan as you move through the three-year law school program. So in addition to average debt taken out for cost of attendance (including living expenses) of $80-125,000 you will have an additional amount of interest immediately tacked on upon beginning repayment, some see $10,000 or more in interest. (And this is all on top of any pre-existing debt).
There are many repayment plan options that should be researched. I just want to note the rising popularity of Income Driven Repayment (IDR) plans. There are a variety of these programs that all cap your monthly payments at 10-15% of your income (different programs use different numbers). This is nice as it allows you to adapt to poor economic times better. They also all forgive the balance of your debt after 20-25 years of repayments. However, currently this forgiven debt is considered taxable income. This means that if you have $100,000 in debt forgiven, the IRS will expect you to pay taxes on that as if it were regular income. That is a big figure.
The best current option is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. If you work fulltime for a non-profit or governmental agency and make 10 years of IDR payments, the government will forgive the balance after those 10 years and it is not treated as taxable income. Because this program is so generous, qualifying employers have seen a huge increase in applications so their jobs have become more competitive and thus harder to get.
Once you have some idea of the debt you are facing, you will want to consider that in comparison to incomes new graduates make. Currently, for the class of 2014, the best salary estimates for law school graduates ten months after graduation was a salary of $50-60,000. So you will need to decide if the reasonably likely income justifies the likely debt required to graduate.