Frequently Asked Questions About Law School and Law School Applications
Jason E. Whitehead, J.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor & Pre-Law Advisor
CSULB Dept. of Political Science
THINKING ABOUT LAW SCHOOL
Do I really want to go to law school? People go to law school for many different reasons. However, the best reason to go to law school is because you want to work as a lawyer. Law schools do NOT train you to be a social activist or a policy maker. They train you to learn the law and to develop analytical skills that will help you use the law to represent clients. If you haven’t already, spend some time with lawyers through a job or internship. This will give you a feel for what it is like to be a lawyer so you know what you are getting yourself into.
How long does it take to get a law degree? Three years, unless you go to a part-time program.
Can I go to law school part time? Yes, some law schools offer part-time programs. However, there are very few good part-time programs, and they are mostly designed for those who already have a full-time career. So make sure to do a lot of research and investigation before you decide to go this route.
Do law schools offer financial aid? Yes, many law schools offer both merit-based scholarships, need-based grants, and loans. However, scholarships and grants tend to be less common than at the undergraduate level. Most students who need to finance a legal education do so through public or private loans.
Can I work while I go to law school? Most good law schools will either forbid or strongly discourage you from working during the first year. During the summer and during the second and third years, however, most students work part-time in law firms, government agencies, or other types of law-related jobs.
What courses will I take in law school? The first year courses are the same no matter what law school you attend: Contracts, Property, Criminal Law, Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, and a practical seminar on legal research & writing. During the second and third years, there are a few other required courses, such as Torts, Evidence, and Criminal Procedure, but most are electives. In these last two years, many students take electives covering material that will appear on the bar exam. There is usually also time in the second and third years to take courses that suit your own particular interests.
How is law taught in law school? Good law schools still use the tried and true “Case Method” of teaching law, at least for first-year courses. The reading assignments will consist almost exclusively of Supreme Court and a few lower court opinions. The professors question students directly about the facts, issues, and reasoning contained in these opinions. They will call on particular students and engage them in discussion and debate about the cases. In good law schools, there is usually only one exam in each class at the end of the semester, which will constitute the overwhelming majority of your grade. The exam will be a multiple-hour essay exam requiring you to apply the law you have learned to a new set of facts.
How Competitive is Law School? Very, very competitive. It’s probably the most competitive thing you will do in your life. Grades and class rankings are a huge factor in obtaining your first legal job. They are also a huge factor in determining who participates in prestigious extra-curricular activities such as law review (the law school’s student-edited journal). But good grades are very hard to earn in law school. This makes for a very stressful environment. It can be quite exciting if you are prepared to work hard, but quite scary if you’re not.
What is the difference between an accredited and an unaccredited law school? An accredited law school has had its overall program and curriculum approved by a federal and/or state bar association. In general, this means that you can trust accredited schools to provide you with a better-quality legal education than unaccredited schools.
There are two types of accreditation, accreditation by the American Bar Association (ABA) and accreditation by a state bar association, such as the California Bar Association. If you graduate from an ABA-accredited school, you may take the bar exam and become a lawyer in any state. However, if you graduate from a law school that only has state accreditation, or that has no accreditation at all, you may only be able to take the bar exam in that state.
What are law school rankings, and do they really matter? A law school ranking is an attempt to put law schools in order from best to worst. There is no official ranking produced by any accrediting institution, but there are numerous unofficial ones. The most famous and significant is the one produced by U.S. News & World Report. Here is the link to the most recent such rankings:
These rankings are a good general measurement of the reputation and prestige of various accredited law schools. Going to a highly-ranked school offers some wonderful opportunities, such as increased opportunities to clerk for a judge or work for a large, national law firm. It also means that the name of your school will be instantly recognized on the job market no matter where you go, making it easier for you to be geographically flexible when looking for a job. However, going to a low-ranked, or even a non-ranked, law school does not mean that you will have to forego these kinds of opportunities or that you will not be a successful lawyer. There are thousands and thousands of successful lawyers in the country who graduated from lesser-known schools. In the end, your reputation for hard work and good character will matter more than the ranking of your school.
Do law schools have different specializations? Yes, although these specializations matter less than you might think. The first-year classes are exactly the same no matter where you go. During the second and third years, different law schools offer different electives, depending on the specialties of the faculty and the curriculum chosen by the school. Many schools actually offer certificate programs in particular areas of law. Many law schools also offer clinical programs, where you can earn course credit for working on actual cases under faculty supervision. These programs usually focus on a particular area of law, such as criminal law, immigration law, family law, elder law, etc. Finally, law schools offer various extra-curricular activities, which may specialize in a particular area of law, such as a law journal or a moot court program devoted to a particular area of law. However, these curricular and extra-curricular specializations will usually only give you a partial perspective on whatever area of law you are interested in. The only way to really develop a specialty in a particular area of law is to work in that area and develop connections with others who are already specialists.
Do I need to know what kind of law I want to practice before I go to law school? No. In fact, unless you already have some specialized training and experience which would lend itself well to a particular area of law, most lawyers and law professors will tell you that it is better not to try to make up your mind before your first year of law school. No matter what your preference, you will still need to do well in your general first-year courses in order to obtain a good position in your chosen field. Also, the first year of law school is a transformative experience, which often changes the way you look at the world. You want to give yourself the advantage of going through that experience before you make such a momentous decision.
What are the main things law schools look for in prospective students? First and foremost, law schools look for analytical ability. This includes the ability to read and understand complex material, and to think and argue in a logical way. They also look for good writing ability, which means the ability to present complex ideas in simple, easy-to-understand prose. They also look for students with the ability to succeed academically under tough circumstances. Finally, law schools often look for some evidence competitive drive , leadership ability, and problem-solving skills.
Do I need to have a pre-law or some other kind of major to get into law school? No. Unlike other professional schools, law schools do not require any preexisting knowledge of the subject matter. Indeed, many prefer that you do not have any knowledge of law before you go to law school. (They want to be the ones to teach you the law, rather than correcting your prior misconceptions). The main thing is to make sure that your academic record reflects the development of the kinds of intellectual skills that will help you succeed in law school.
Do extra-curricular activities improve my chances of getting into law school? Yes, but the mere fact of your participation matters less than your long-term commitment to the activity and any leadership position you have attained. Especially helpful are activities that demonstrate some combination of analytic skill and competitive drive, such as debate team, Moot Court, or Model United Nations.
Are there any specific courses that might help me when I get to law school? Yes, undergraduate courses that require you to read and understand Supreme Court cases can help you prepare for law school. These courses may include Constitutional Law, Business Law, or any other case-driven course offered in any department.
Should I take some time off between college and law school? Only if you have a good reason for doing so and a good plan for what you will do with the time off. Taking time off just to travel, relax, or re-take the LSAT is generally seen as a negative. On the other hand, taking the time to study abroad, intern in Washington, or volunteer at a local legal aid clinic would normally be seen as a positive.
APPLYING TO LAW SCHOOL
When should I apply to law school? In the fall of your senior year. Most schools begin to accept applications in the early fall and stop accepting them in the early spring. However, waiting until the final deadline is never wise. Law school admissions decisions are usually made on a “rolling” basis, which means that the earlier your application comes in, the more chances you will have to be considered. A good general rule is to have your applications complete by Thanksgiving at the latest.
What documents are necessary in order to complete a law school application? Usually, (1) the application itself (which is usually submitted on-line); (2) transcripts from every college you have attended (including community colleges); (3) LSAT score; (4) personal statement; (5) letters of recommendation; and (6) resume and/or list of honors and awards (sometimes optional).
How high do my GPA and LSAT score need to be in order to get accepted to law school? It depends on where you are applying. No law school has a minimum GPA or a minimum LSAT score required for admission. However, as a general rule, the higher the law school’s ranking, the higher your grades and scores need to be in order to have a realistic chance of admission. For a top-tier school, for example, the median GPA is usually somewhere between 3.7 and 4.0 and the median LSAT score is usually in the high 160s to low 170s. For a mid-tier school, the median GPA is usually somewhere between 3.2 and 3.6, and the median LSAT score is usually in the 160s. For bottom-tier and unaccredited schools, the median GPA is somewhere between the high 2.0 to low 3.0 range, and the median LSAT score can be as low as the 140s or 150s. You can look at the historical GPA and LSAT numbers for every accredited school by logging on to the lsac.org web-site and using the “Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools. You can even figure out the percentage of likelihood that you will be accepted at a particular school, using the “UGPA/LSAT Search Tool.”
Which GPA will the law schools consider – My overall GPA? My major GPA? My upper-division GPA? Officially, the only GPA that matters is your overall undergraduate GPA, which is a combination of all your GPAs at every college you have ever attended. However, you have the opportunity to put this GPA in context, using your personal statement and resume. For example, in these documents, you can focus more on your upper-division courses, your university-level courses, or your graduate courses.
What is the LSAT? The LSAT is the Law School Admission Test, which you are required to take in order to be admitted to law school. It is a standardized multiple-choice exam, consisting of three sections: Reading Comprehension, Logical Reasoning, and Analytic Reasoning. These sections do not test your knowledge of law or any other substantive knowledge. Rather, they test your ability to think and reason in certain ways that are predictive of success in law school. Scores on the LSAT range from 120-180. There is also a short writing sample, which is included with your exam, but it is not scored. You can find out more about the exam, and how to register to take it, at lsac.org.
When should I take the LSAT? The exam is offered four times a year, in February, June, September, and December. You can take the exam at any of these times, but it is recommended that you leave yourself enough time to finalize your applications after you take the exam. For example, taking the exam in June of the year you wish to start law school will not leave you with enough time to complete your applications. Most people take the exam in either June or September of the year before they want to start law school.
How soon will I know my score after taking the LSAT? Within three weeks.
Can I re-take the LSAT if I’m not happy with my score? Yes, but you should be very careful about this. Many law schools will accept your highest score on the LSAT, but only if you demonstrate that the higher score is more indicative of your abilities than the lower one(s). Also, some law schools will only accept a higher score if it is higher by a certain pre-determined number of points. Finally, there is no way to prevent any law school from seeing your lower score(s). Even schools that formally accept your higher score will always be able to see the scores from every LSAT you have ever taken. The bottom line is that you should not plan in advance on taking the exam more than once; you should prepare for and take the exam as if you are only going to take it once.
How should I prepare for the LSAT? It depends on many factors, such as how good you are at taking standardized tests, your level of self-motivation, and how much time and money you are able to devote to preparing for the exam. Many find LSAT prep courses helpful, such as those offered by Kaplan, Princeton Review, or Test-Masters. Good courses will offer concrete strategies for approaching different sections of the exam, giving you an opportunity to take practice exams under conditions that closely approximate the real thing, and providing feedback on areas where you might need to improve. Many also allow you to re-take the course for free if you do not raise your score by a certain amount. Taking a course, however, is not absolutely necessary. Some students have been known to score extremely well on the LSAT by preparing on their own with the aid of commercial prep books and old exams (both available through lsac.org).. The most important aspects of LSAT preparation, whether in a course or through self-study, are lots of practice and intensive focus on proven strategies for different sections of the exam.
What should I include in my personal statement? Your personal statement should consist of one single-spaced or two double-spaced pages of narrative, information, and argument designed to convince law schools of your ability to succeed and thrive as a law student and an attorney. This is your first (and maybe your only) chance to bring together all the various elements of your life that are relevant to law school and to discuss them in a way that will catch and hold the attention of law school admission committees. Thus, it is imperative that the statement be well-written, clear, and direct. The best resource to help you brainstorm and write your personal statement is the following web-site:
How many letters of recommendation should I have? You will need at least two, although some schools will allow you to submit more.
Who should I ask to write my letters? At least two professors who know your intellectual and academic abilities well. As a general rule, law schools will expect your letters of recommendation to be written by professors who have known you long enough to be able to write at length about your intellectual skill, analytic ability, writing ability, organizational ability, and work habits. Thus, it is a good idea to choose professors you have taken for multiple classes and have spoken with outside of class (for example in office hours or by e-mail).
If a law school to which you are applying allows you to submit more than two letters, it is still recommended that you ask another professor. Law school is above all an academic endeavor, so academic letters tend to be ore persuasive. However, for a third letter, it is not uncommon to ask an employer, internship supervisor or other non-professor who knows you very well. However, you should never ask someone for a letter of recommendation who is not familiar with your intellectual and academic abilities. Even if you happen to know a judge, a famous lawyer, or an alumnus of the school to which you are applying, a letter from them will do you no good unless they know you well.
How many schools should I apply to? There is no magic number, but you should include at least three different types of law schools: (1) a few “reach” schools where your chances of admission are low; (2) several schools where you have a moderate to good chance of admission; and (3) a few “fallback” schools where you have a great chance of admission. The quality of these schools will be different for everyone, depending on your particular GPA, LSAT score, and other factors.
Do I have to send copies of all my documents to the law schools myself? No. Most law schools require you to use the Credential Assembly Service (LSDAS), available through lsac.org. Once you sign up for the service, you will provide them with the names of all the schools to which you are applying. All of your application documents, including personal statement, transcripts, and letters of recommendation will eventually be sent to the LSDAS, who will then send out copies to all of your schools.
When will I find out whether or not I have been accepted? Early admission decisions may be made as early as winter break. However, most students receive admission, rejection, or wait-list letters during the spring semester, usually by spring break.