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Navigating the Law School Application Process

By James J. Barney
Associate Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies

Every year, thousands of aspiring law students struggle with a rite of passage known as the law school application. For many of them, applying for law school requires navigating through a complex labyrinth that includes:

  • Drafting a personal essay
  • Collecting letters of recommendation
  • Preparing a resume
  • Taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

While applying to law school is similar to the college application process, it differs in several important respects. The law school application process includes self-reflection, research and long-term career planning as well.

Self-Reflection Is Vital before Applying to Law School

Before you begin the law school application process, you should engage in some self-reflection. In addition, conduct some preliminary research into law school and future job prospects.

First of all, you should ask yourself: Why do you want to attend law school? Going to law school is a long-term commitment that involves a tremendous investment of time, money and effort.

You need to engage in careful self-reflection and ascertain your true motivation for going to law school. You will also need to consider if you honestly possess the skills to succeed as a law student and a lawyer.

If you do not have a firm reason for attending law school, you should carefully consider whether embarking on a legal education makes sense. Also, if you conclude that you do not like reading, writing, public speaking and working in a high-stress, client-focused environment, you should look into alternative academic or professional pursuits.

Thousands of aspiring law students annually express a genuine interest in “saving the world” or engaging in worthwhile legal work. However, many law students are soon disappointed when they confront the realities of law school and the practice of law.

The Realities of Your First Year of Law School

The first year of law school is not a place for self-discovery. Law school requires a tremendous amount of reading and writing in a highly competitive and stressful environment.

The first year of law school asks you to master hundreds of complex legal concepts. At the same time, you will juggle four or five subjects, extracurricular activities and a cycle of job searches and interviews for summer internships and law firm positions.

Without a doubt, lawyers do plenty of good and valuable work. But you must understand that you will need to survive and navigate through three or four years of law school and pass an extremely difficult bar exam before you embark on a fulfilling legal career.

Where Do You Want to Practice Law?

You should also ask yourself where you would like to practice law. Because there is a very high correlation between where you go to law school and where you will eventually practice law, ask yourself where you would like to live and practice law for a significant portion, if not all, of your professional career.

While going to law school in an exotic or remote location might initially be tempting, you should consider the long-term implications of such a decision. Where you practice law could affect your long-term job prospects.

Attending Law School: Part-Time or Full-Time?

During the application process, weigh the pros and cons of attending law school as a full-time or a part-time law student. For many working adults, attending law school full-time is not a viable option for a host of reasons.

However, attending law school as a part-time student limits your application options, involves late night and weekend studying, restricts opportunities for extracurricular activities and might lead to strained family relations.

Whether you apply to law school as a part-time or full-term student, reach out to the admissions representatives at various law schools. It is often extremely beneficial to ask for their advice and guidance and, if possible, take a tour of the law school in person.

Finding a Good Law School to Attend

To create a list of potential law schools to attend, you should obtain a copy of the annual law school rankings by U.S. News and World Reports. This publication contains valuable information, including helpful articles about law schools and the admissions process, the average LSAT and GPA scores for every law school, and information related to the cost of every law school.

This information also provides a way for you to assess the probable success of your applications. For example, if you have a low grade point average and low scores on LSAT exams, you should not waste time and money applying to top-tier schools with very high entrance standards.

Preparing for the LSAT

Before you apply to law school, spend several months preparing for the LSAT because it contains several very tricky parts, including logical reasoning and logical game sections that require months of practice to master.

To succeed on the LSAT, strongly consider taking one of the many LSAT prep classes available online or in person. If you cannot afford these prep classes, then obtain several published LSAT prep books that include practice exams.

Achieving a high score on the LSAT requires mastering the logical games and logical reasoning sections of that exam. While these sections are initially intimidating, daily practice over a period of several months is apt to significantly improve your score.

Getting Your Letters of Recommendation

Every law school application includes submitting letters of recommendation written by a candidate’s personal and academic referee. While it may be tempting to collect letters from friends, family or famous people, the best letters of recommendation typically come from your employers and professors. They have a close personal relationship with you and can speak to your strengths and positive attributes.

Admissions officials use these letters to determine whether you have expressed a genuine interest in law school to your referees. The letters also indicate whether or not your referees have evaluated your potential for success as a law student and eventually as a lawyer.

Given the importance of these letters in your law school application process, you should carefully consider who you ask to write them. The letters are also used to evaluate law school candidates who have similar grade point averages and LSAT scores.

Writing Your Personal Essay for the Law School Application Process

Most law schools ask you to write a personal essay describing your motivation for attending law school. While most applicants struggle to craft their essays, these essays are easy to draft if you have carefully considered your motivations for attending law school.

In drafting your personal essay, aim for honesty. Law school admissions representatives can quickly detect manufactured motivations or fictional accounts of your life story. Given the importance of the essay, have your mentor or referees read it for content and style. Your referee can also help detect grammar and spelling errors in your essay.

Your essay will give the referee deeper insight into your motivations and life story, which will come in handy when the referee writes a letter of reference. Remember, your personal essay also serves as an opportunity to explain any issues like a weak grade point average or a non-traditional academic path. An essay can also emphasize how you can add to the diversity of the entering class.

Writing Your Resume for Law School

In addition to a personal essay, a law school application often requires a resume as part of your application packet. A resume offers you a way to demonstrate your legal experience if you have any. If you lack legal experience, the resume provides you with an opportunity to emphasize other skills or life experiences that might distinguish you from other law school applicants.

Be sure to closely proofread your resume for typos and make sure that the resume’s format is in accordance with the style used in the legal profession.

Taking Care with the Application Process Can Pay Off

Completing a law school application is often a stressful and time-consuming process. Rather than race to meet an application deadline, you should complete the law school application carefully over a six- to 12-month period after you explore your motivations and law school options.

Investing the time and effort during the application process often pays dividends in the form of a stack of acceptance letters from law schools. As the acceptance letters pile up, you then need to make a decision which law school to attend. A successful decision will shape your professional and personal life.

Suggested Reading

For more information on the law school application process, please review the following books:

  • Ann K. Levine, The Law School Admission Game: Play Like An Expert, Second Edition (Santa Barbara, CA: Abraham Publishing, 2013).
  • Richard Montauk, How To Get Into The Top Law Schools: Fifth Edition (New York: Prentice Hall, Press, 2011).
  • Ian E. Scott, Law School Lowdown: Secrets of Success From the Application Process to Landing the First Job (New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2013).

About the Author

James Barney is an associate professor of Legal Studies within the School of Security and Global Studies. He is also the co-faculty advisor of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity and teaches numerous undergraduate and graduate legal studies courses. James is a lawyer admitted to practice law in New York, New Jersey, Alabama and the District of Columbia.

With more than a dozen years of legal experience, he possesses expertise in numerous legal fields including constitutional, tort, criminal, evidence, sports, employment, civil rights and business law. Drawing on his legal experience, James also possesses a mastery of the mechanics of legal research and writing and civil procedure in the federal court system.

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