In an earlier blog post regarding the best prelaw majors, I wrote that students should at least consider a "more marketable" degree than the traditional prelaw majors. Conventional wisdom has been that students contemplating law school should earn undergraduate degrees in Philosophy, History, Literature and other similar liberal arts programs. Advisors reason that reading and writing skills are critical in law school and so these degrees will better prepare students for law school.
I suggested in my blog post that prelaw students should consider degrees such as accounting, marketing, engineering and others that can actually be used in a career. I reasoned that if someone really wants to go to law school, they can develop the skills necessary to succeed through these programs, and supplement if necessary through additional reading, writing and other activities. I further reasoned that having a "more marketable" degree was also good insurance, just in case the legal thing didn't work out.
Needless to say, I was lambasted by at least a few readers. Indignant Literature majors wrote, claiming that this was the worst advice they had ever read. After all, they claimed, everyone should choose a major that met their interests. That was the whole point of college, right? You go to college to grow, develop and self-actualize. You go to college to find out who you are and who you want to be.
If there is one thing that this economy has taught an entire generation of college students, it's that jobs are not a certainty. And the truth is that present economy aside, it's always been that way. And the sadder truth is that educational institutions, unlike the rest of the business world, are not required to include a disclaimer on your degree. Something like: "Warning: this History degree is not guaranteed to get you a real job. You may be able to find employment in the fast-food industry, however, this degree will have very little, if anything, to do with it."
Abraham Maslow, the noted psychologoist, taught us a long time ago that we all seek to self-actualize. In fact, he described this process as a pyramidal hierarchy, called the "hierarchy of needs." The pyramid describes the human process of emotional and intellectual development. And at the very top of this pyramid is the gold ring, nirvana, the climax of life- self-actualization. Maslow explained that we all ultimately seek to self-actualize. And self-actualization will result in happiness.
People who tell college students to follow their dreams are, in reality, quoting this self-actualization philosophy. And on the surface, it makes sense. However, when you dig a little deeper, you realize that this advice is flawed.
To understand why, all you have to do is refer to the bottom of Mr. Maslow's hierarchy. At the very, very bottom of the hierarchy are things like food, shelter and security. Without these, one cannot ascend to "self-actualization." So to tell a young college student to "find yourself" is good advice if that student is assured of food, shelter and security for the rest of his or her life. But if they are like most of us, they are probably going to need to find a job. And if they can't find a job, they will never move beyond basic need satisfaction. And they will likely never self-actualize.
So, I stand by my earlier advice regarding the best prelaw majors. To be clear, I'm not recommending that you study accounting if you absolutely hate accounting. But to learn to hate something you have to do it for a while. Further, most likely, there will always be at least something about a job that you are not going to like. That's why someone has to pay you to do it. We have a term for doing something that you absolutely love, it's called "vacation."
And by the way, that's why I believe there are so many disaffected young lawyers. They simply haven't given it enough of a chance. There are so many different types of lawyer jobs- big firms, small firms, non-profits, educational institutions, corporations, goverment, etc. If you cannot find a lawyer job that you like a lot, if not downright love, then you probably haven't either looked hard enough or given the one you have a chance. And that is also the beauty of a law degree- you can do a wide variety of things with one.
But the next time you find yourself thinking about self-actualizing, remember that Maslow himself said that before you go there, you need to take care of the basic stuff first. Like finding a good job and eating on a regular basis.
If you want to go to law school, there's simply no way around it. You will have to draft a personal statement for submission along with your law school application. If you've looked into the matter at all, you realize that this is arguably your first step into the Law School Labyrinth. As with everything law school, most law school applications include only minimal instructions as to what you should cover in the personal statement. Instead, they tell you, in essence, to "tell us about yourself."
This, by the way, is the essence of law student discomfort. In your undergraduate studies, you were probably given very specific instructions, and at exam-time generally memorized and regurgitated information. In law school, you actually have to think, and with very little, if any, direction from faculty.
And although grades and LSAT scores are the major determinants in the law school admissions process, a bad personal statement can keep you out of your "dream" law school. And a good one could be the tiebreaker between you and someone with similar numerical credentials. And because no one at the law school will tell you what to write about, you are basically on your own. So the personal statement is, in reality, your first law school exam.
There are all kinds of folks who will purport to give you and edge in the process and help you write the perfect personal statement. But I would argue that if you are a law school candidate, you probably already have many of the basic skills required to write an effective personal statement.
If you are struggling with where to begin, you might want to start by thinking about the following:
1. Think Like the Admissions Committee: What do you think it is that the committee is looking for? (Hint: it is probably not someone who "loves the law" or wants to "fight for truth and justice. Although both may be true in your case, neither tells the committee anything that would distinguish you from thousands of other applicants.). The committee wants to know who you are. They want to know if you your character. They want to know how you think about things. They want to know your interests. They want to know what experiences have made you what you are. They want to know how you deal with adversity and problems.
The good news is that you probably already know you pretty well. Hold that thought for a minute.
2. Don't Let Your Writing Style Prevent You From Telling the Committee Who You Are: The single biggest mistake law school applicants make with personal statements is crafting something lacking in authenticity. They do this because they write about what they believe the committee wants to hear, rather than about what they actually believe. This is inauthentic. Don't write about lofty, esoteric concepts. Stick to what you know.
Second, don't let your writing style or mechanics misrepresent who you are. Don't make gramatical or spelling errors or other typos. This makes you look less than you are. These errors are distractors; sort of like a typo in a resume. You may be the most fastidious and detail-oriented person in the world, but if your personal statement is sloppy, then you will look sloppy.
3. Tell A Story: Narrative is almost always more interesting than a dry recitation of facts. Besides being more interesting, narrative is an acceptable way to use your creative skills to their utmost in the applications process.
4. Talk About How You Have Grown: In my opinion, the single biggest determinant in law school sucess is, believe it or not, your ability to learn. Most people learn from their mistakes. Dogged determination until you finally figure something out is critical. Being able to identify a problem and then solve it is a core skill in learning. However you learn and whatever you have learned is likely going to be of interest to the committee. If you can through narrative, tell a story of how you have grown and learned and developed as a person, and do it in an authentic (which is the opposite of "self-serving") way, you are probably well on your way to an effective personal statement.
5. If, In the Process of Doing All of the Above, You Happen to Directly or Indirectly Describe Your Brilliance, Success and Achievements, Then Great: The point here is that subtlety is a good thing. If you had a 4.0 at and Ivy League, then great. But the committee already knows that. If you blatantly remind them of how smart you are, it is probably going to be a turn-off. You are much better served by letting your writing show your brilliance. If, on the other hand, one of your great character qualities is ancillary to the narrative, then tell the story. But do it with humility and modesty.
6. Avoid the "War and Peace" Syndrome: Hard-hitting prose, characterized by word efficiency and economy is infinitely more interesting than telling and retelling the same thing. The committee is probably composed of some pretty smart people. Smart people typically will get it. You don't have to hit them over the head. In fact, they will likely prefer subtlety.
7. Subtlety to the Point of "Cute" Should Be Avoided: Chances are, the committee takes their admissions responsibilities very seriously. Many look at themselves as the gatekeepers of the profession. There is a very fine line between subtlety and cuteness. Your personal statement should be written in a thoughtful and respectful way. Some potential law students make the mistake of trying to differentiate themselves from the competition, for the sake of being different. And although variety is certainly the spice of life, the law school admissions process is not the place to show your hipness or that"rebel" lurking in all of us.
In sum, if you are a serious law school candidate, chance are you have read a bit and know how to write. The personal statement fleshes our for the admissions committee who you are, in addition to what your LSAT score and your grades over four or so years of college will tell them. The personal statement is generally speaking, weighed signficantly less than your GPA and LSAT. A well-written one may not get you into a school if you don't otherwise meet their objective criteria. But a poorly-written one could preclude you from admissions to a school where you would otherwise quality.
If you are just beginning your journey through the Law School Labyrinth, hang in there. It will be an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience for you. And if you want to become a lawyer bad enough, you will. I know it. You just will.
Political Science. Philosphy. Any liberal arts undergraduate major. These are the best undergraduate majors for prelaws, right? As with anything law school (and the practice of law), the answer is "it depends." But the truth is that there are all kinds of equally good paths to help you get into and succeed in law school.
At the outset, you should understand that the ABA, which accredits law schools doesn't really care. If you doubt me, read the ABA article "Preparing for Law School" at http://www.abanet.org/legaled/prelaw/prep.html. Instead, the ABA suggests a core skill-building approach to your education that includes eight basic areas: Analytic / Problem Solving Skills, Critical Reading, Writing Skills, Oral Communication / Listening Abilities, General Research Skills, and Task Organization / Management Skills. The last area, Public Service and Promotion of Justice, in my opinion, are really closer to personal character and values, which one develops as a result of life experiences and maturation.
But the point is this: the ABA believes (and what they think about this subject is pretty important) that the student should focus on skills that prepares him/her for law school and law practice. And clearly, the core skills involve your ability to read, analyze, communicate (both orally and in writing), listen and manage your workload. And as a practicing lawyer who has been out of law school for a while, I absolutely agree that these skills are critical to the practice of law. Further, I continue to develop and hone these skills every day I go to work.
So, instead of defining yourself as a prelaw by the major you choose, I suggest that you choose an academic curriculum that will help you to develop the above core skills. Certainly, political science, philosophy and other liberal arts majors can do this. But so can engineering, accounting, marketing and many other undergraduate majors. It all depends on what you do with the major. More importantly, it depends on what you do with your available time during your four years or so of undergraduate education
Most undergraduate majors have a fairly large percentage of electives in terms of the overall curriculum. After you finish your basic required courses, you have all kinds of opportunities to select courses that will help you develop the core skills necessary to succeed in law school and law practice.
You probably already know that most law schools begin their acceptance decision with a student's grades and LSAT score. These two criteria are simply the most important when it comes to getting into law school. So, any undergraduate major that helps you get the highest GPA and LSAT score would probably be your best bet. At the same time, before you jump into that degree in "Basketweaving", you should also understand that law school admissions committees tend to equalize the "easier" majors with the "harder" majors. In other words, a 3.2 GPA in Mechanical Engineering may be just as acceptable as a 4.0 in English.
As I have written in other blog posts, you should also consider the possiblity that you won't actually end up going to law school. Therefore, you would probably be better served with an undergraduate major that can help you find a job, just in case. Further, there are certain majors that are extremely complimentary to a law degree. For example, an accounting degree can be a great compliment to a law degree if you want to practice corporate law. An engineering degree can be very useful to future patent attorneys.
But the bottom line is that instead of focusing on the major, focus on the above core skills. The following are some suggestions to help you do just that (I've organized them a bit differently than than the ABA has, because I see the skills more along the lines of a continuum than as discrete skills):
Reading, Writing and Researching: As part of your law school preparation, you should read, read and read some more. Read the most dense, incomprehensible books that you can find. Practice reading until you can navigate almost anything. I suggest that you add the ABA website to your browser favorites. It includes great information on current events in the practice of law.
I also suggest that you periodically visit a law school library and browse (you will need to get permission to do that, but I found that most law school librarians are more than willing to help). Begin to read cases, in order to both learn to navigate them, and to get a feel for how legal writing is organized. It will also help you see some of the available research materials. And it will help you to prepare yourself for law school. I descrbe tjos "due diligence" in my book, Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education (Kaplan Publishing, March 31, 2009).
Read op-ed pieces and read legal articles, such as those found in law journals. This will help you to begin to understand the substantive information but will also help you see how and what lawyers write.
Reading a great deal will also help you to begin to develop your writing skills. Simply, most writers learn to write by reading voluminously. Start writing every day; a journal is a great way to accomplish this. Or, consider blogging. It doesn't have to be about the law, it only needs to be about something you are interested in and that requires some thought and analysis. It may also help you to develop your research skills.
Analytical, Logical and Problem Solving Skills: Analysis is simply the skill of skill of rationally and logically thinking your way through a problem. Certainly, there are formal logic courses available- consider taking one. But reading through a book on logic ("Logic for Lawyers" is a good one) can give you the basic foundation. And chances are, you probably already understand intuitively a great deal about how to logically analyze something or construct a logical argument (most of us learn about logic when dealing with an illogical opponent in an argument). A key skill in logic is the ability to identify hidden assumptions.
In my book "Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education (Kaplan Publishing, April 2009), I describe how assumptions work in arguments and how to analyze the basic structure of logical arguments. Another good book, which may help you understand the process is "Getting to Maybe". I suggest you read a number of different "law school" books well before you start law school. They will help you get an overview of the often labyrinthian maze that law school can become, especially because in most cases, no one really explains the process to you.
Finally, exercise your logical skills through recreation. Do crossword puzzles and other puzzles in order to sharpen your mind. Engage in friendly debate (you might want to preface it by explaining that it's law school prep- but get used to the idea that many people won't get it or you, especially after you become a law student; if the process works on you, you will begin to think and analyze in a dramatically different way that most people won't understand). Consider visiting a courtroom to see lawyers in action. If your school has a debate team, consider joining.
This is also a great time to consider giving something back to your community. Volunteer in one or more of the many outstanding public service organizations, including your church. Don't do something because it will look good on your law school application; do it because you believe in it.
When I was beginning my preparation for the Texas bar exam a number of years ago, one of my classmates made a comment that became the genesis of the idea for my book "Law School Labyrinth." She said, "You know, all it really takes to become a lawyer is patience." Naturally, I was curious about her comment and asked her what she meant. She replied, "From law school applications to passing the bar and everything in between, if you're willing to just keep at it, you can become a lawyer. There are so many gateposts to the process if you just hang in there, you eventually will cross the goal."
That simple conversation really does sum up the process of becoming a lawyer.
I certainly don't want to take anything away from anyone who has gone through this process. There is no question that law school is one of the most demanding programs, the bar exam is one of the most difficult tests, and the practice of law is one of the most challenging professions. And some of the lawyers I have encountered along the way are simply some of the smartest people I have ever met. I deal frequently with outside counsel (I am the general counsel of a corporation) and I am often amazed with their creativity and insight, and especially with their expertise in a particular field of law.
But there are different kinds of intelligence. I believe that just about everyone has brilliance. Maybe yours is rocket science. Maybe it's cooking. Or perhaps you can work Sudoku puzzles in record time. I used to think that in order to become a lawyer, you had to be brilliant. Starting with the percentile rankings of the LSAT, we are conditioned to rank ourselves in terms of performance against our peers. In law school, the grading curve can be brutal, forcing law professors to make marginal distinctions between "A" exams and "C" exams.
And intelligence, without action is pretty much worthless. Brilliant people who do not apply themselves can end up homeless. And less than brilliant students can make "A"s if they work hard enough.
The irony of law school is that hard work may or may not result in "A"s. Intelligence also does not ensure top grades. As I discuss in "Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education" (Kaplan Publishing, 2009), success in law school certainly requires hard work. It also requires at least a certain degree of intelligence. But really successful students either intutively (or perhaps with some good guidance from Lawyer Mom or Dad) understand that law school simulates the practice of law. So the succeed, the student has to be able to solve legal problems in a lawyerly way- through cogent analysis, identifying and discussing all sides of the issue and law, and doing it in a clear and effective way.
But law school is only the beginning of the labyrinth. You must also obtain your license to practice law- from the character and fitness requirement, the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, and what will probably be the most demanding test you well ever take, the bar exam.
Which brings me to the point. If you are facing the LSAT and struggling with Logic Games, the following applies to you. If you are in your second semester following a mediocre performance in your first year of law school, the following applies to you. If you are facing what appears to be the Herculean task of the bar exam, it applies to you. And if you are a first year associate, intimidated by the thought of actually practicing law, listen up.
The study and practice of law are simply a labyrinth of sorts. They are a winding journey of opening and closing passages, full of intimidation and discouragement. But don't be discouraged. In this labyrinth, if you want to find the Minotaur, simply look in the mirror. You are your own worst enemy.
If you had a bad LSAT, you have two choices. You can either pick yourself up and go at it again, or you can give up on your dream of becoming a lawyer.
If you don't get into Dream Law School, you have two choices. You can go to Local U, or you can give up on your dream of becoming a lawyer.
If you just graduated and can't find a job, you have two choices. You can give up and go home, or you can keep sending out resumes, searching the net, and making calls to law firms.
Wherever you are in your journey through the Labyrinth, you have a choice. You can keep pushing or give up. But I am here to tell you that if you want to become a lawyer, you can. A door closes, two windows open. Climb through one. But if you want to become a lawyer badly enough, you will. You just will.
The Law School Admissions Council, or "LSAC", is the organization which develops and administers the LSAT.As the developer and administrator of the LSAT, it only makes good sense that the LSAC’s website, at www.lsac.org ought to be your first stop in the law school admissions quest. In addition, it is likely that the schools that you are applying to will be LSAC members.
I suggest that you learn as much as possible about the LSAC procedures and protocols. Review the information carefully contained in the LSAC website carefully.Make sure that you understand the procedure and timing of the LSAT.In addition the website will give you a good overview of the law school admissions process itself.
The LSAC calls the LSAT “a strong predictor of first-year law school grades” and as you have probably gathered, is a critical factor in your law school acceptance success.It is most likely that at this point in your academic career, the only variable you can control is your performance on the LSAT.As a result, you would be wise to dedicate a substantial portion of your efforts toward doing well on this test.
In addition, many of the mid-tier schools make scholarship decisions based upon your LSAT performance.By using scholarship money to entice high-scoring LSAT examinees to their schools, they will increase their overall LSAT entering student numbers, which is one of the most important criteria in the U.S. News and World Report ranking.
The LSAC also provides numerous resources as you plan and prepare for law school.Periodically throughout the year, LSAC hosts the Law School Forum, which is basically a career fair for prospective law students and law school representatives.
The Forum is typically held in or near the major legal markets:Boston, Washington D.C., Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston.Admission is free, however, the LSAC recommends that you preregister, which can be done online.They are usually held in a large ballroom or convention center.Law School representatives, frequently admissions personnel and/or student representatives, have booths or tables, and provide you with information about their school and answer your questions.
In addition to the opportunity to meet with law school representatives, the Law School Forum also hosts seminars on topics such as the law school application process, financing your legal education and an overview of the practice of law.
If you can manage it, I would suggest that you attend one of these meetings.You will get a condensed overview into issues regarding law school admissions and a sense of the various law schools you are interested in.You will have the opportunity to interact with other prospective law students and law school admissions personnel.As previously discussed, law school is a huge investment.This event is a good early step in your due diligence process.
Candidly, law school admissions are based primarily on numbers.As you are likely aware, the numbers are your LSAT score, and your undergraduate GPA.Law schools don’t really look at much else.You will be required to write a personal statement, however, the truth is that your numbers are more important.
Ironically, the one skill you really need to succeed in law school really isn’t even evaluated by the LSAT.Your ability to write efficiently and cohesively, in a well-organized fashion is critical to your success as a law student and as a lawyer.The LSAT does not and cannot measure this skill.
However, the LSAT does include a “writing sample,” portion of the exam.The “writing sample” is derived from a 30-minute writing exercise that takes place at the end of the LSAT.You have this amount of time to read the fact pattern and develop an answer.
It is likely that no one, other than you, will ever actually read this writing sample.Although it is submitted along with your LSAT score to law schools, it is rarely, if ever, part of the screening process of law school acceptance committees.Law schools receive thousands of applications and are simply not staffed to rigorously consider applications.LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs as criteria mean that conceivably an administrative person can make at least the preliminary acceptance or rejection decision.
Arguably, a student’s writing skills are reflected in their undergraduate GPA.And certainly, a student’s undergraduate GPA is an indicator of that student’s ability to study and take exams.However, there is so much variation among undergraduate programs (and schools) that undergraduate GPA is not necessarily an equitablemeasure of a student’s aptitude for the study of law.As a result, schools also rely heavily on a student’s LSAT score to determine whether to admit the student.
In addition, keep in mind that each law school application will also include a personal statement.This personal statement, as discussed later in this chapter, is in reality your writing sample.The good news is that you can take as much time as you need to prepare an effective and persuasive personal statement.And a good statement may sway an admissions committee in your favor of acceptance.
In three words, "practice LSAT questions." This is because most likely, there is little you can do to improve your GPA. Additionally, with enough practice, almost anyone can do well on the LSAT. And your LSAT score typically represents about fifty percent of the admissions decision.
As a result, time invested in LSAT preparation is a highly-leveraging activity.
The LSAT is essentially a skills test. The skills it tests are the ability to read quickly and efficiently, the ability to reason logically, and the ability to analyze complicated problems.
Like an athlete using resistance training, you start slowly and carefully, and over time your skills in all three areas will increase. But you must work hundreds, if not thousands of authentic LSAT question.
My own experience was pretty amazing. I prepared for the LSAT on my own and scored a 166, which was the 95th percentile in 1997. This was after an almost twenty-year hiatus from academia.
I approached my LSAT "training" pretty much the same way I approach anything in life that is important to me- with a discipline and dedication to the task(s) at hand.
The point of it all is this- if you give yourself enough time to prepare solidly for the LSAT, you will do well. There are no real "tricks" or shortcuts; the simple secret to LSAT success is good, old-fashioned hard work and dedication.
Steve Sedberry's new book The Reasonable Person- Due Process of Law, Logic and Faith is available on Amazon. He also has a blog at www.reasonable-person.com
This blog is for the purpose of providing information about law school and legal careers for those interested and are the opinions of the author or those of its readers who may, from time to time, provide comments.
No information contained in this blog is intended as legal advice nor a solicitation for legal advice. If you have a legal problem, you should consult an attorney.
Copyright 2009-2011 Steven R. Sedberry All rights reserved