DO NOT APPLY TO LAW SCHOOL UNTIL YOU KNOW ALL OF THE FACTS!
The main purpose of this article is to help people make an informed decision as to whether or not they should go to law school. The major factors that should be considered by potential law students in making this decision are listed below in their order of importance:
- The Costs of a Law School Education
- The Importance of LSAT Scores
- Law School Rankings
- First Year Grades, Class Rank, and Journal Experience
- Part-time Day and Evening Programs
The advice contained in this article applies to all persons interested in a pursuing a legal education. It does not matter if you are someone who is looking to go to law school for purely altruistic reasons or if you are looking for a career with a big payday. The following information exposes the elitist culture of the legal profession and it's effects on those who pass through its caste-like educational system.
The article was also written to show how difficult it is to secure a desirable legal job after graduation. In the very tight market for legal employment, unless you go to the very best schools or unless you are a highly ranked student, you will be competing with thousands of other people for a limited number of jobs that might not be very interesting and probably don't pay a lucrative salary. The relationship between the law school that you attend, how well you perform as a student, and post graduate employment can be summarized as follows:
- LSAT scores are the single most important factor that law schools consider when deciding whether or not to admit an applicant.
- Your class rank, especially after the first year, will dictate the breadth of job opportunities that will be available to you.
- Law school rankings influence potential employers and have a major bearing on the types of jobs that you will be able to compete for.
Before proceeding, and in the interest of full disclosure, I would like to share with you various aspects of my personal experience so that you may see what has motivated me to write this article. Please note that although your individual situations may be significantly different from mine, there are certain universal and objective standards that are applied to all potential law students. While you may certainly navigate to other portions of the article, there might be information in this section that would benefit you.
At 28 years old and after a six year career with a Wall Street investment firm, I left that business in order to go to law school because the stock market was in a freefall and my paychecks were steadily declining. I was already married by this time and had the full support of my wife concerning my decision to apply to law school. The flawed logic that I employed in making this decision included the following reasons:
- "I've always thought about going to law school."
- "I was always better at English & History, so I should become a lawyer."
- "I'm more of a 'right-brained' type of person so I should become a lawyer."
- "My sister and cousin went to law school, I can do it too."
- "Lawyers make a lot of money."
None of these reasons, or any derivative of them, should be part of your decision making process.
My first step toward law school consisted of registering with the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS) on the Law School Admission Council's website. Basically, an account with the LSDAS will serve as a clearinghouse for all of your electronic law school applications, letters of recommendation, LSAT scores, and undergraduate transcripts.
The next step was signing up for the Kaplan LSAT test prep class, which cost me over $1100. If you do not have the money on hand, then you can start going into debt early in your law school career by borrowing funds from Sallie Mae to pay for the Kaplan class. I took the LSATs in December 2001.
Finally, once I had collected all of the materials necessary for a complete application package, I began applying to local New York law schools for two reasons. First, I did not want to move anywhere else. Second, I wanted to work in the city after graduation and I mistakenly believed that these schools would give me the best opportunity to do that. Out of the five law schools that I applied to, Hofstra University was the best school that accepted me and so that was where I went.
In May of 2005, I graduated from Hofstra and bar review classes started about a week or so later. (If I have skipped too far ahead and you were hoping to find out what law school is like, especially the first year, read the book "One L" by Scott Turow.) This opened the door for a new round of law school industry parasites ready to take more money from me. In case you were curious, it does not matter which bar exam prep class you attend. Any one of them is going to charge you thousands of dollars to teach you things that you should have learned in law school.
I took the bar in July 2005, but I did not pass it. However, the saddest part of this story is that after graduation and the bar exam, many of my fellow graduates who received much better grades than I did, and even passed the bar exam, remained unemployed and were struggling to find jobs.
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, "This person was a mediocre student and he did not pass the bar exam, why should I listen to him?" The best answer that I can give you is that my lack of academic accomplishments has no bearing whatsoever on the real costs of going to law school or on your potential to get a job after graduation.
The government and the banks don't care about grades or bar exam results. Additionally, to some extent your school isn't too concerned about these things either. They all want only one thing: your money. The question you should really be asking yourself is this: "What type of return will I get on my investment in a law school education?"
The Costs a Law School Education
Attending law school is a very expensive endeavor. That is why a careful consideration of the costs involved in going to law school should come before anything else. You must plan for such expenses as tuition, fees, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, and any other expenses that you might have. Ideally, either you or someone you know, e.g. parents or other family members, has the financial wherewithal to pay for your entire education without having to resort to taking out loans.
In the alternative, you may have earned yourself one or more scholarships and/or grants that can be applied to your expenses, which naturally, will not have to be repaid. This should bear heavily upon the decision as to where you would ultimately choose to go. For example, suppose you are accepted to both Cardozo and Brooklyn Law, which are pretty much evenly ranked schools. The prudent choice would be to attend the school that is willing to shoulder more of the financial burden.
If you cannot pay for the cost of a law school education on your own and you did not secure any scholarships or grants, then you will have to borrow money from either the government or private sources, perhaps both, in order to pay for tuition and other expenses. Throughout the three years that I went to law school, I secured the maximum amount of money possible available to me through federal financial aid, which at the time was $18,000.00 per year. Since Hofstra's tuition was about $30,000.00 per year, I needed to secure additional funds from a private lender to make up the difference. Moreover, I stopped working after my first year in order to focus on school and as a result, I borrowed even more money to pay for my cost of living expenses. By the way, do the quick math and see that three years of tuition fees alone at Hofstra totaled about $90,000.00!
Citibank was the lender I chose to secure my government loans from and Access Group was the private lender that I secured the bulk of my tuition and cost of living funds though. I also borrowed an additional $5000 from Citibank as a private lender. The loans you secure from the government will have a much lower interest rate when compared to the loans from private lenders. In my case, at the time of this writing, the government was charging me an interest rate of 2.875% whereas my private lender was charging me 8.170%. You also need to know that these rates can go up from time to time as specified in the loan agreements.
Initially, I had planned to upload my loan documents so that you may see what the final, total cost of my law school education is. However, due to limitations imposed by blogger.com, it is not possible for me to do so. (If you are seriously interested in seeing them, write me an email and I will send you copies of them in .pdf format.) For that reason, I have summarized the pertinent information contained in the loan documents in the following manner:
Total Loan Amounts Due Upon Graduation
Citibank (private) $5,745.15
Total Amount Borrowed: $134,219.17
Citibank (private) $50.11
Total Monthly Pmt: $1,022.72
Amount Borrowed + Total Finance Charges over the life of the loans
Citibank (private) $8,771.14
Total Amount to be Repaid
Plus Finance Charges: $233,497.78
Do you need to finance 100% of your law school education? Look at these figures again, study them, and see what you will be getting yourself into. It is only going to get worse for you in this time of rising interest rates and increasing tuition costs. If someone had shown me these numbers before I took the LSAT, I simply wouldn't have bothered to take the test.
I cannot emphasize enough that borrowing 100% of the costs to attend law school is a bad idea. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and you will be in deep debt for many years. The numbers stand starkly, in black and white. There is no debating their significance.
This article was not meant to be a primer on financial aid. However, you should fully educate yourself on what is involved before you decide to borrow money in order to pay for law school. The government has a website concerning federal student aid which is quite comprehensive, can answer many of your questions, and also point you in the direction of other sources of information.
The Importance of LSAT Scores
For all intents and purposes, your LSAT score is truly the beginning (or end) of your law school career. The LSAT is graded on a curve with weighted scores ranging from 120 (the lowest) to 180 (the highest). At this point, there is no reason to discuss the subject matter of what is tested on the LSAT. Instead, the only thing that a potential law school applicant really needs to know is that their LSAT score is the single most important factor considered by admissions committees.
Most schools apply a sliding scale between your LSAT score and your grades as an undergraduate. For example, suppose you graduated from college with a 2.50 grade point average (GPA) and you scored a 160 on the LSAT. Your chances of getting admitted to a law school are better than those of another student who might have a 3.00 GPA, but only scored a 155 on the LSAT.
Have you ever seen the movie "Legally Blonde?" Reese Witherspoon plays a ditzy college student who majored in fashion design. She goes to a guidance counselor and asks what it would take for her to get into Harvard Law School. The guidance counselor told her that she would need at least a 175 on her LSATs. Although this is a fictional movie, the writers understood that the LSAT score is the most important piece of data in a law school application. In a follow up scene, Harvard's admissions committee is incredulously watching Reese's off-the-wall video admissions 'essay' when one of them comments that "she got a 179 on her LSATs..."
In 2002, when I was applying to law schools, 160 and above would place you in the range needed for decent law schools. In today's highly competitive environment, due to the never ending and near parabolic influx of would-be lawyers, higher LSAT scores are more important than ever. Quite simply, if you receive lower than a 165 on the LSAT and did not receive excellent grades as an undergraduate, in all probability you will not get accepted into any of the really good law schools.
Law School Rankings
Every year when the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings come out, administrators, professors, students, and employers rush to see what the final standings look like. No matter what anyone else tells you, there is a tremendous amount of reliance placed on this ranking system within both the academic and professional communities when assessing a school's relative status. Schools strive to achieve the highest rank possible in order to attract better students and employers will use the rankings as a basis from which to determine what schools they will recruit new employees from.
A few years ago, the system was divided into a four tier structure with the first tier comprising the best schools and the fourth tier being made up of the worst schools. Now, the ranking system is structured in the following format: Tiers 3 and 4 still represent the lowest ranked schools while Tiers 1 and 2 have been combined together under a new designation, which is "The Top 100."
The "Top 100" benchmark's branding is deceiving because U.S. News & World Report only ranks the 188 American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law schools. Real briefly, most states only allow graduates of ABA accredited law schools to sit for the bar exam. It seems quite obvious then that going to a non-accredited law school is a complete waste of time and money, unless you plan on practicing law in California, which waives that requirement for bar exam takers. Outside of this one exception, comparing accredited schools to non-accredited schools is equivalent to comparing the efficacy of a soldier shooting at his enemies with live ammunition versus blanks.
Going back to the "Top 100" designation, consider this: if you were to quantify the rankings of the schools in a percentage format, in 2006 the 95th best law school in America, which happened to be Hofstra, was roughly in the 50th percentile. Put another way, Hofstra was barely in the top half of the ranking structure and yet it was labeled as one of the "Top 100" law schools in this country. Doesn't this sound like a marketing ploy in the making? "Come to Hofstra University, one of the top 100 law schools in the country!"
Study the U.S. News & World Report rankings carefully because there is a wealth of information there. Among other things, it can tell you what type of LSAT scores and GPA you will need in order to seriously consider applying to certain schools and it also contains information concerning the cost of attendance. However, you may still need a little bit more guidance when reading this table.
Focus your attention on the top 25 schools and make it your goal to get admitted to one them. Anything less than that and you will be increasing the odds against you concerning future employment. The lower you go down that list, the more difficult it becomes to get a job later. The reason for this is that the hiring attorneys know that the top ranked law schools provide the highest quality legal education. Furthermore, most of the world's largest law firms will try to limit their hiring practices to graduates of certain schools. As evidence of this trend, check out vault.com's rankings of the "The top 100 most prestigious firms." From that point, you can navigate to the firm's home pages and scan through the biographies of the partners and associates. Note how often you see that these people went to the top schools in the country. Also note how many of them were members of law review and graduated with top honors.
Some schools have strong local presences in their respective communities. For example, among Long Island employers, Hofstra tends to have a good reputation. I went to school with several people who were interested in working at the Nassau County District Attorney's Office. As Hofstra graduates, they had a decent chance of securing a job interview. However, if they were going to be competing against NYU graduates for the same job, guess who the hiring attorney was most likely going to pick? All other things being equal, 100 times out of 100 the NYU graduates will win the job.
If you do not have a personal situation similar to the one described above, it does not make any sense for you to go to a school where you will be seriously outclassed by the competition. Graduates from the better schools nearly always get the best and highest paid jobs. Graduates from the rest of the law schools are forced to battle among themselves for the leftovers. The legal profession is set up this way purposely to benefit the elite schools and the elite students. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that is in all likelihood, never going to change. The best you can hope to do for yourself is to break into the ranks of the top schools in order to secure a respectable place in the legal profession.
First Year Grades, Class Rank, and Journal Experience
All first year law students at all ABA accredited law schools take the same basic curriculum: Contracts, Torts, Criminal Law, Civil Procedure, Property, and possibly Constitutional Law. Most of these classes will take two semesters to complete.
The grades you receive in those classes are extremely important because only the top students from the first year will be invited to interviews with the best law firms during the fall semester of the second year. These interviews lead to offers for summer associate positions between the law student's second and third year. Ultimately, summer associate positions lead to offers for permanent employment with those firms after graduation. This is the chronology of events and time frame where you will have the best chance to secure a high paying legal job. If you miss this window of opportunity, the probability of your getting an excellent legal job after graduation significantly decreases.
At the end of the first year, two things are going to happen. First, after all of the final grades have been calculated, the law school will rank its students based upon their GPAs. Second, the journal writing competition begins after the last final of the spring semester is administered.
The writing competition sparks a feeding frenzy between students who are seeking to join one of the school's journals. All law schools have one or more student run journals that students can compete for membership in. The school's law review is always the most prestigious and desirable journal to be a part of because the best law firms and government employers generally will not consider applicants who were not on law review, even if their grades are very good.
In a way, the writing competition is a sham. The reason for this is that acceptance onto law review and class rank are intimately related. The highest ranked students are typically invited to join law review regardless of the quality of their submission to the writing competition. Therefore, someone who is an excellent legal draftsperson might potentially be excluded from a journal simply because another student received better grades.
Part-time Day and Evening Programs
Downturns in the economy and the stock market will inevitably lead people to reconsider their career paths. Since the 'dot-com' bubble burst several years ago, law schools have seen tremendous growth in the number of applications submitted to them. With this increase in applications, there is now greater demand than ever for the services that law schools can provide. What has been the law school community's response to a surge in applications? Admitting more students.
There are only so many slots that can be created for full-time day program students before the student-teacher ratio becomes problematic. Law schools circumvent this issue by creating part-time day and evening programs so that the school can maximize its usage of the professor's time and the physical resources of its campus, e.g. classroom sizes, library facilities, and computer labs. On the surface, it appears to be a win-win situation for all parties involved: The law school admits more students (and rakes in more money) and the student who would otherwise not have a chance to attend law school now has the opportunity. This picture is incomplete and misleading.
There are two things that an applicant should know about before attending law school in a part-time capacity. The first is that part-time programs often mean that the student is taking one less class than those attending full time. Can this honestly be called part-time? When you become a law student, it is difficult to convey how greatly the experience becomes all consuming. There are hours of class time coupled with many more hours of required reading and other forms of preparation. Thus, even part-time law school programs are basically a full time job. If you do not commit yourself 100% to the endeavor, you are setting yourself up to fail. In support of this notion, I will use myself as an example.
After I was accepted to Hofstra, I enrolled in the part-time day program because I was offered a high paying job with a former employer who was willing to accommodate my law school schedule. The money was indeed great, but while I was working, other students were studying. At the end of the year, most of the other students were far better prepared for their finals than I was. I never academically recovered from my mediocre first year grades.
The second problem with part-time programs is that these students do not have the same opportunities as those available to the full-time students. At Hofstra, when it came time to enter the writing competition to try and win a spot on one of the journals, part-time students learned for the first time that there would be about 20 spots available on law review for full-time students but only one spot available for part-time students. If you were not the singularly highest ranked part-time student in your class then you were not going to get onto law review, regardless of your writing ability.
In the end, part-time programs are simply one more way for law schools to increase their profits while the student who completes their education in this manner is greatly shortchanged.
Do not be foolishly optimistic about post graduate opportunities following law school. If you have not begun a law school career yet, then now is the time for you to be as realistic as possible. There are plenty of people out there who will sugar coat the negatives about going to law school while simultaneously over-accentuating the benefits. You need to be clear about the fact that there is tremendous competition among highly qualified people who are all looking for the same thing that you are. If there is one thing that I hope you will take away from this reading, it is that you will employ the following decision matrix as honestly as possible before committing to go to law school:
- I am comfortable and willing to either pay for the significant cost of a law school education out of pocket, or borrow a great deal of money from government and private sources, thus incurring massive long term debt at potentially high interest rates, a debt which will survive bankruptcy should that unfortunate event become a possibility down the road.
- My LSAT score was very high, I received excellent grades as an undergraduate, and I will get accepted to one of the top 25 law schools.
- I will be able to compete with the elite students and secure top honors in my class, including acceptance to a journal.
- I will absolutely pass the bar exam in the state where I want to practice law.
The person who agrees with at least three of these statements can make a valid case for going to law school. On the other hand, if you are at all uncomfortable or uncertain about any of the above statements, then you should seriously consider not going to law school. This advice has the potential to save you thousands and thousands of dollars and three and a half years of your life.