Depressed Law & Order has been cancelled? Addicted to The Good Wife or The Deep End? Loved Legally Blonde? Law, lawyers, and law school are everywhere in pop culture. But I think we all know that you shouldn’t pull an Elle Woods and film an admissions video of yourself in a bikini in the hopes of getting into Harvard Law—just so you can get your boyfriend back. But if that was your plan, don’t worry, HC, in consultation with Susan Smith Blakely, attorney and author of Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know About a Career in Law, is here to help with advice from our guide to everything law school.
The cool thing about law school admissions is that, unlike for med school, there are absolutely no specific required undergraduate courses. And you don’t need any specific majors either, so feel free to major in whatever you’d like, even it’s totally unrelated to law—like music or chemistry.
But because there’s no official pre-reqs, you’ll need to find a way to make sure you really want to pursue law. “Choosing law as a profession needs to start as early as possible,” says Ms. Blakely. “Many students decide to go to law school as a default decision, because they can’t think of anything else to do.” But don’t do that! Law school can be great, but it’s a waste of your money and time if you don’t want to be there.
So how do you figure out if law school is right for you? You can take a few law classes to help figure it out. For instance, Jenny Paramanov, who will be starting Harvard Law School in fall 2011 after taking a gap year, took a course about the Supreme Court during undergraduate. And Katelin Schwartz, who’s deciding between law schools for next year, started taking philosophy courses to prepare herself the Socratic method that’s used in law schools. The Socratic method is essentially when a professor will cold-call on a student and asks them a whole series of questions.
But many students develop their interest in law outside the classroom. “I’ve had law school in the back of my mind as a post-graduation option since freshman year but I decided I definitely wanted to go after interning at an entertainment law firm over the summer. I really enjoyed working at the firm, and it made me realize that I want to be a lawyer,” says Jennifer Warne, who’s starting Columbia Law School in the fall.
And some are set on law school before reaching undergrad. “I decided I wanted to go to law school back in high school,” says Jason Sherman, who’s starting Harvard Law School in the fall. “My mother was an attorney and it seemed like a completely awesome job. I used to watch a lot of Law and Order and loved all the yelling and sneaky maneuvering of the lawyers. I also can’t say I was opposed to the cherry wood offices and expensive suits either. It seems like a profession that has a lot of variability too which helped my decision.”
If you’re not taking any law-related courses, it’s a good idea to check out law-related extracurriculars or internships. This isn’t because they’ll necessarily help you in the admissions process (though they might!), but because they’ll help you see if law is really right for you. For instance, Jason tutored at a local jail and Katelin interned at a local law firm. Public speaking activities such as mock trial or debate could also help you gauge your interest in law school.
Law school might be lax in terms of required coursework, but that certainly doesn’t mean you can slack off in your courses. GPA is one of the most important factors, if not the most important factor, that’s considered in law school admissions.
And GPA’s are not all treated the same; your major can make a difference, says Ms. Blakely. Majors like English, history, and philosophy are looked upon highly because they teach the same type of analysis expected in law school.
The other super important factor is your LSAT (Law School Admission Test) score, so six months advanced preparation is generally suggested for the LSATs. Still, LSAT experiences can vary widely, and because LSAT prep courses can be expensive, it’s a good idea to take a practice test to determine if you need a prep course or not. Don’t base your prep course decision on past standardized tests, because the LSAT is really an entirely different animal.
“I loved the LSAT,” says Katelin. “It’s completely different than any other standardized test. You don’t have to memorize countless formulas or definitions, it’s a way of thinking. You learn deductive reasoning and logic.”
But be warned: not everyone shares her enthusiasm for the test. “The LSATs are horrible,” says Jason. “I am serious. I spent 6 weeks trying to pry any sanity from my mind. I never took a class, but closely read a couple books and then spent 4 weeks taking at least one practice test every morning. I pretty much just thought about the LSAT all the time during that period. All my hard work paid off, but I am giving a big warning to anyone who really wants to get intense about it, it hurts.”
If you’re struggling with LSATs, “be aware that many students take it more than once,” says Ms. Blakely. So plan to take it your junior spring so you can retake it if necessary.
Teacher recommendations, extracurriculars, and personal statements all also play a role in the admissions process. But when it comes down to it, high numbers are the real key to getting in.
Not everyone applies to law school straight from college; in fact, the average age of a law school student is 26. Working first can sometimes give you an edge in admissions and lets you make sure you want really want to go before paying the $20,000 to $30,000/year tuition for law school.
Alternatively, you can apply and then defer for a year if you just need a break before hitting the books for another three years. But not every school lets you do this, so make sure to check your school’s policy. Jenny is deferring her admission for a year to work with underprivileged girls in London.
Once you’ve gotten in, law school itself is no piece of cake. “Law school is definitely a lot of work, says Matt Meltzer, who’s entering his third year at Boston College Law School. “Basically law school is based almost entirely on reading cases. You end up reading I would guess somewhere around 50 pages per week per class, multiplied by 4 classes, that’s 200 pages per week. It doesn’t sound terrible but it’s very detail oriented. It’s not like you’re reading a novel.”
But what really differentiates law school from undergrad isn’t the workload, but how you’re graded. Matt says law school classes don’t grade you throughout the semester; instead, your entire grade is based on one test or paper. So when it gets to the end of the semester, the pressure’s really on.
During the rest of the semester, the workload is intense, but can still be balanced with a social life. “That can vary, but there are definitely people who can balance it and go out,” says Matt.
Law school is not loved by all, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. “Some people love law school but hate being an attorney, and some people hate law school but love being an attorney,” says Matt. “Before committing to law school, think about if you want to become an attorney, what it is on a day-to-day basis that a lawyer actually does.”
And remember that the law profession is changing. “I think that for students considering law school, look at legal economy,” says Matt. Those corporate firms with huge bonuses and fancy furniture? Not hiring so much right now. So go because you want to be a lawyer no matter what, not because you want to buy a BMW after you graduate.
Know also that law can be a difficult place for women to get ahead. “When you’re sitting in law school, there’s not much difference between you and the guy sitting next to you,” says Ms. Blakely. But that changes when you get out into the law profession. “Less than 20% of partners are women, and that’s not changing,” she says. “It’s traditionally an old boys network… and it becomes an incredible work-life struggle.”
But don’t get discouraged! “I loved being a lawyer,” she says. You’ve just got to know how to work the system.
Want to know how to work the system, or still unsure if law is for you? Check out Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know About a Career in Law for advice on everything from which law school is right for you to how to dress at a law firm.
Jason Sherman, Harvard Law ‘13
Jenny Paramanov, Harvard Law ‘14
Jennifer Warne, Columbia Law ‘13
Katelin Schwartz, Law Student ‘13
Matt Meltzer, Boston College Law School, ‘11
Susan Smith Blakely, attorney and author of Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know About a Career in Law