Alright, this is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while but haven’t had the time. Honestly, I still don’t entirely have the time but I’m going to write it anyways because its an important post. What I’m going to attempt to do here is answer some questions I’m regularly asked as well as attempt to clear up some ongoing confusion about law school and the legal profession, at least as much as I can from my current position. My hope is that this initial post will serve as a good reference post and springboard for future law school related postings.
I am a law student. True, I haven’t started school yet, but its pretty close [Actually by the time this is posted I will have started school, and then some]. More importantly I’ve been billed by the law school, so that makes me a student by default. How I got to this point is quite the long story that I won’t be sharing in detail here. The reasons for that are twofold. First, its a personal story with person motifs and honestly its not the blockbuster adventure you might think it to be. Second, it would take too long to type and I really start to burn out the longer a post dredges on. What I will share is a very nutshell version of the overall process that has gotten me to this point as well as look towards the future.
In order to get to law school, you have to go through undergraduate school. Now, this part is pretty straightforward for a law school bound individual. You simply go to undergrad, for whatever you want to study, and maximize your GPA. That’s pretty much it. There is no required path, no set schedule, just graduate with a GPA as close to 4.0 (or above) as possible. This differs from other professional schools such as medicine which require a more specific group of classes. Law school is not that way. Sure, majors such as Political Science and Criminal Justice tend to disproportionately sway towards law school (and interestingly enough CJ majors tend to do the worst on the LSAT), but there are no hard requirements. While its good to get lots of writing experience, a high GPA trumps most things. Sounds simple enough right? Well, it should be, except for that thing we call life. I ended up with a decent GPA, enough for institutional honors, but it was still pretty bad by top law school standards. This was compounded by the fact the LSAC (Law School Admissions Council) computes your GPA in a different manner, which ended up lowering mine beyond what my undergrad had calculated. So I had my GPA, which was not great by top school standards. This meant I needed a great, if not amazing LSAT score to go to a top school. But before we get to the beast that is the LSAT, lets first discuss why I cared so much about the rankings of a law school.
Why Most Law Schools Suck
Law schools are not all on level footing. While some are solid educational institutions, others provide less opportunity than jumping off of a bridge. You might think I’m joking with that statement, but I’m really not. In the good ole’ US of A, there exist 203 law schools which have been accredited by the ABA (American Bar Association). Which, is probably in the vicinity of 150 too many. Beyond these 203 accredited schools are few unaccredited schools which aren’t even worth discussing. While 203 schools might not seem too bad if you are thinking about what kind of intentions they have (such as serving a small, specific community, for example) that is leaving out a huge portion of the picture. Namely the INSANE cost of law school.
The average total cost of attendance (factoring in tuition, living expenses, etc.) for a law school in 2014 is somewhere between 210,000 – 250,00$. Yes, you read that correctly. Plus, you have to keep in mind that this is student debt, so you are only getting rid of it by dying, becoming seriously disabled, or paying it off. Now here is the kicker, that cost is fairly static across all schools. So, the number one ranked school might cost you 250,000$, but so too will the school ranked 203rd. Now, lots of people get scholarships in some form, such as myself. But large numbers of people are stuck at “sticker” debt. Even if you factor in a larger scholarship at the 203rd ranked school (which often isn’t even the case) your chances of a good outcome from that school are infinitely lower. Since law school is a professional school, you go to get a job. Sure the J.D. is there, but really you are just sitting yourself up for the bar and then a job. So, you want to go to a school that will actually lead to employment. Unfortunately the sorry state of our law schools means that for a large chunk of law students, this will never happen. A really good website for tracking employment information is Law School Transparency. Now, Law School Transparency (LST) is good, but it still has its flaws. That being said, its about as good as it gets for the public eye as far as law school stats go.
So, using LST lets compare a few employment percentiles. You may think that even the bad schools employ at least a good chunk of their class, I mean these are lawyers right? Bling, bling, models and bottles. Nope. Some schools only employ 21.9% of their entire class 9 months after graduation. Yes, you too can pay 250,000$ to get a 21.9% chance to have another chance to get a decent job or more likely end up in a horrible bottom level legal job that will never, ever, pay off your debt. Of course even in the upper echelons of law schools not everyone makes it. The highest class employment percentages are around 95%. Which means that even students who go to the best schools in the world are not guaranteed a job, let alone a good one. However, you can clearly see the difference here. If you wanted to be Joe. Lawyer, would you rather pay 250,000$ and have a 21.9% chance of getting a job, or pay 250,000$ and have a 95% chance of getting a job. You don’t need to be a gambler to understand those odds.
This brings me back to my statement about why I care about the law school rankings. While the rankings are horrendously flawed in and of themselves, they tend to reflect the ability of a school to place graduates into jobs. Whether this is a bidirectional relationship is up in the air and a matter of much debate. Regardless, love them or despise them, the rankings matter. So of the 203 schools which are worth going to? Well the answer is not as clear cut as you might imagine. Traditionally schools were divided into four tiers, T1 (1-50), T2 (51-100), T3 (101-150), T4 (151+). Of course these are really arbitrary for a variety of reasons. Namely that a school ranked 50th might be way worse in a multitude of things than a school ranked 60th, despite the former being in a higher tier than the latter. Furthermore, simply looking at tiers misses a big portion of the picture. If you want go work in say, Chicago, if you went purely on the rankings it might make more sense to go to a school ranked 30th in Georgia than a school ranked 90th in Chicago. However, this would be absolutely stupid. While the school in Chicago is ranked lower, it has local ties and networks. No one, at all, is going to care that you went to a 30th ranked school in Georgia, it will be largely worthless to you in the Chicago market. This is largely true for all the schools, with the exception of a few schools towards the top, which have “national” rather than strictly “regional” networks.
These schools are illustriously (and sometimes mockingly) referred to as the “Top Fourteen” (T14). These schools, unsurprisingly, are the top fourteen ranking schools out of the 203 accredited schools. And, because we like to rank things, even the T14 is further broken down into its own series of ranks. While these inner ranks are hotly contested, at least one fairly generally agreed on divided is that you have the “Top 3” and then the “rest” of the T14 (but even this is contested). Much like the macro rankings, you can’t break the T14 down to a purely linear equation. The school ranked 12th might be a far better fit for your goals than the school ranked 6th. It depends on personal paths and scholarships. The closer you get to the top the more defined choices become, but they are never concrete. In a nutshell, these top schools give you a better chance to do everything, everywhere, especially the Top 3. Because I am not entirely sure what I want to do, or where I want to do it, a higher ranked school was the best bet.
[A big decision many students have to make is between a higher ranked school with a higher price tag, or a lower ranked school for a lower price tag due to a scholarship. Its a very difficult decision with a massive number of factors in play. My situation worked out in such a way that the higher ranked schools were clearly favored both for potential and cost, but even then choosing between them was extremely difficult]
So, my big point for this section is that not all schools are created equal, some are so bad they’ve been sued for their practices (which include flat out lying) while others have done fairly well even in the economic downturn.
The Law School Admissions Test (aka Puppy Killer 2000)
Now that I’ve discussed why choosing a school is a big freaking deal, lets backtrack for a second to the LSAT. This test, which is required for all but a few law schools (so its required unless you love unemployment), is one of the steps to getting into law school. Like I mentioned earlier, you need a GPA. Once you’ve gotten your GPA, you need the LSAT. In addition to those two things you need what are referred to as “softs” which are things like life experiences, employment histories, awards, etc. They are hard to quantify and I won’t discuss them here, just remember that they are the third component and they are important, especially the closer to the top of the rankings you get. The LSAT is much more concrete. It is the first major gatekeeper to the legal profession (the second being the Bar Exam, or law school itself, depending on how you look at it).
At its core, the LSAT is a standardized graduate admissions exam, like the GRE, MCAT, GMAT, etc. What is different, or at least exaggerated for the LSAT is how many questions most people miss. The average student will miss around 55-56 questions, out of 100-101. Yes, that means the average LSAT score is an F if you were to grade it in a traditional manner. It is a hard test, learnable, but hard. Yes, yes, Joe Schmoe has a friend who scored a 180 (highest score) after studying for 2 hours beforehand, I know and yes, yes I know you can’t prove he exists. But for most of us mere mortals, the LSAT involves a shit-ton of studying, or you could not study and do bad (again, if you love unemployment). Its hard to guess how many hours I studied for the LSAT in total, but lets just say it was a lot. Of course it paid off for me in the end, in that I scored above the 99th percentile (twice), but it was a long road.
The test itself is composed of three basic parts: Logical Reasoning, Analytical Reasoning (Logic Games, but not “Games” in a fun way, trust me), and Reading Comprehension. You can read what LSAC has to say about them here. I’m not going to go into much detail about how the test is structured or how each section unfolds. If you are really interested, there are 90 billion pages on the internet discussing this test in depth. This is because the test eats into your core and tries so very hard to define and defeat you. Because rank matters so much with law school and because your LSAT score ties so closely into your future school, its easy to base your entire existence on your ability to do well on this test. In truth, its just a test. As soon as I realized that I kicked its ass (with ups and downs and countless hours of studying, of course). If nothing else, you can say studying for the LSAT is a much a lifestyle as it is an action. People obsess over the test to the most minor of details, even going so far as to wage heated and philosophical debates over which pencils are the best.
The LSAT is a curious, lovely, horrendous, and powerful beast. It literally destroys dreams as well as creates new ones. It is something that must be done, and I dun’ did it. That being said, I honestly would not do it again, seriously.
Law School Itself
Now, I can’t comment on this a whole lot just yet, but I have a few things to share. First, law school is hard. Statistically people do worse in law school on average than in any other graduate or professional school. This might be a sample issue, but this applies unilaterally across all schools. So even at the best of the best schools people do worse than their peers in other fields. This isn’t to say that the student bodies are ill-prepared either. At most law schools, especially the top ones, the entire study body is composed of the best students from their respective schools. So, when these students who are used to being the best get thrown into a grade-frenzied pit full of other people used to being the best, a massive shitstorm ensues. This is compounded by two factors.
The first is that classes are on forced curves. This means that if you have 80 students in a class, the number of people who will get an A is determined before class even starts. This means that you are in real, direct competition with your classmates, likely to a level like never before. This leads into the second factor, in that grades change your life. At any school, the top 10% of the class will be afforded opportunities that the bottom portion of the class will never have, ever. This normally translates into better jobs. So, in order get the good jobs, you need a good class rank, which means good grades, which means you are savagely competing against your classmates for your future. 90% of the incoming class will want to be in the top 10%, you do the math on that one. In addition to this environment being terrible, you have the difficulty of the material itself. So all in all, “havin’ fun.”
When you start this three year long hot mess, you are what is referred to as a 1L, then you go on to become a 2L, and finally a 3L, pretty straightforward. The adage that goes along with each year is as follows:
1L: The first year they scare you to death
2L: The second year they work you to death
3L: The third year they bore you to death
Now, each of these sayings has a plethora of reasons behind it, but rather than share them here, I’ll share them as I progress through the stages myself, it will be more natural that way. In a very basic way, 1L your grades are insanely important for jobs, 2L you are loaded with even more difficult work and activities, and 3L you might already have a job and just want to get the f*ck out of law school.
Beyond Law School, the Legal Path
While I’m still relatively early in the process, I’ve done a lot of reading of first hand accounts of what the legal path and profession entails. While entire books could be written (and have been) on the subject, I’ve broken it down into a simple flow chart made with over 9000 hours in MS Paint. Its pretty self explanatory (remember you can click photos to make them larger).
The basic gist of the flowchart is that things are, as a whole, not good in the legal field. For many people they would have been better off never starting law school in the first place. Additionally, many people who do start down the “core path” seen above, end up falling off at some point and are placed in a bad situation. For those who make it to the end, you still have a chance of ending up in a bad spot. For those who make it to the end and end up “neutral” the ultimate goal is often leaving law entirely. So why do it in the first place? Well, the answers are many, the good answers few. For some its power and “prefstige,” for others its money, for others its opening doors, and for some its simply because they had no idea what else to do.Many times the well paying jobs are horrible and eat your life, while the less stressful jobs pay you so little that you have to rely on loan repayment assistance programs to have any chance of ever breaking even. To say that the path inevitably leads to sunshine and happiness is a grave error. All in all, if you take anything away from the chart, it should be that once you are in law school, you’ve pretty much committed yourself to a long dangerous path. So if there is any true hesitation during undergrad or while taking the LSAT, its best to bail out then.
I’ve written a lot above. But it should have addressed several things that people have frequently asked me. Most importantly, it should have erased the notation that I’m on some glorious golden path that leads to boundless wealth. The sad fact is that even for people in my position, the chance of failure is still present. Granted, I’m situated much better than the vast majority of law students ever will be, but for all intents and purposes the battle has only just begun. So just remember, that when this image happens come up in your mind when you think of me and law school…
…it is important to remember that all I’ve really unlocked with my “golden ticket” is the opportunity to have a chance, nothing is a given, not even for students at top law schools. That being said, with a lot of hard work and a fair amount of luck, you can indeed end up much better than you started, so its not totally hopeless 😉
Until next time,