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SYTYWL: So You Think You Want to Lawyer, Part 2

July 7, 2011

Yesterday, I discussed the first step of the law school application process: considering whether it makes sense to go at all.

If a prospective law student convinces me s/he’s still serious about law school—i.e., has formulated informed, concrete expectations and goals—then the hard work begins. I usually like to have a dynamic conversation in person or by phone with the prospect, but recently I exchanged emails with the college-aged sister of a close friend. Because I think my advice to her is broadly applicable, I have adapted what I wrote for general consumption:

1) Not going directly to law school is usually a good idea. (There’s no rush.)

Most people who apply and go to law school, even those that research and mull the decision, have only a hazily defined idea of what law study and practice entails, much less what goals they hope to achieve in the process. This is a problem because merely applying to law school is very time-consuming and expensive (taking dozens if not hundreds of hours, as well as hundreds if not thousands of dollars). Going to law school, meanwhile, is a whole other level of expensive and time-consuming (three years of your life/career plus as much as $150,000 (or more) in costs).

Law school can be very worthwhile, but only with a clearly defined sense of perspective and purpose. For that reason, I strongly recommend taking some time after college to work in a law-related field. You can use that time not only to refine your career goals but also to better define your personal values and lifestyle preferences. There is absolutely no rush and you have much to gain by living a little after spending basically your whole life in school. Also, law school is time-consuming and stressful, so some time off can also guard against study fatigue. Even the highly motivated students that are typical of law school classes can simply burn out. Most of the best  young attorneys I know took at least a couple of years before going to law school. (I took three.)

2) Take your undergraduate coursework seriously and form meaningful relationships with professors.

Law schools are unlike other professional graduate schools in that that they emphasize academics and scholarly ability much, much more than other types of abilities and backgrounds. For that reason, your GPA is a crucial factor in law school admissions. Likewise, you will need at least one (and preferably two) professor recommenders for law school. But most college students don’t actively seek to form bonds with college professors (I know I didn’t), and mostly see them as people who lecture and give grades. Sometimes, students get to know professors naturally through outstanding class participation or writing (that happened to me to some degree) or by other means (I had some classmates that babysat for professors, for example). But it’s best not to leave that to chance.

If you think a professor is interesting or a good teacher, or if you think a professor thinks highly of your work, take the time to attend office hours and delve deeper into the course material. Consider asking for more detailed input on your work from the professor, including on initial drafts of papers or other class assignments. Ask the professor about his or her areas of expertise and research. Even chatting about current events or family or other common interests is good. It’s nerdy, and you shouldn’t do it just for the sake of a possible future recommendation. But if it’s rooted in genuine enthusiasm, it can be both interesting and foster a closer, more memorable relationship with that professor, which can be enjoyable at the time and helpful later on a number of levels, including with your career.

I also recommend saving copies of your best academic work. If you end up seeking the recommendation of a professor a while down the road and need to refresh his or her memory of your academic performance, a few examples of excellent work you did for that professor can help a lot.

3) Applying to law school is a long process, so once you think you’re ready give yourself plenty of time.

You will have to study for and take the LSAT, which should take a minimum of two months of intensive study. And you should take the June test, just in case something goes awry and you have to postpone to (or re-take in) October. You will also have to solicit recommendations, which can require repeated communication with recommenders, who often receive many recommendation requests. You will have to draft and do multiple revisions of at least one personal statement, which can take weeks, if not months. You will have to submit an official transcript from your school’s registrar. You may also have other application requirements.

And you have to decide where you want to go to law school. This is complicated: it requires consideration of a number factors, including what type of curriculum and subject-area strengths you favor, what geographical areas you would like to practice in (most law school brands are largely regional), and (especially in a tight job market) what opportunities you will have outside the classroom via clinics, externships, mock trial/moot court, and so on.

Finally, law schools usually have rolling admissions, which means that it is generally favorable to apply early in the application process–i.e., October or November. For that reason, once you’re ready to apply, it generally makes sense to get started on your application in the early spring preceding the opening of that year’s admissions cycle in the fall. So, people who want to start law school in Fall 2013  would ideally get rolling in February or March of 2012, about 18 months in advance.

Good luck!
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