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.
8. There Are Plenty of Examples of Personal Statements on the Internet: If you are struggling with how to begin, the Internet might be a good place to start. There are some excellent websites which deal with the subject, including http://www.top-law-schools.com/personal-statement-examples.html.
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.
Best wishes in your legal career.