Law School Admissions

When should I upload my documents to LSAC?

A question from a student who just started my LSAT class in San Francisco: Hey Nathan- I have some questions about the application process. I have already asked some of my professors if they would write me recommendation letters and they agreed, and I'm still polishing my personal statement. Do I need to wait until everything is done, or can I add stuff little by little? Or do I wait until after the test to upload everything on LSAC? Thank you!

This one is a no-brainer. Once you've registered for the LSAC's credential assembly service, you should definitely start uploading bits and pieces as soon as possible. For example, there's no reason not to upload your resume almost immediately. Once you've uploaded it, look at it through the LSAC's website and make sure you're not missing any typos, formatting problems, etcetera. The sooner you start with this stuff, the sooner you'll finish.

The two worst sticking points, for most students, are the letters of recommendation and the transcripts. These can easily delay your application because they are out of your hands. Literally. For letters of recommendation, you must print out the LSAC's form and send the form to your recommenders, who must then send their recommendations directly to the LSAC... you're not allowed to touch them. Same with transcripts: You'll have to request a transcript from every college you've ever attended, and the college(s) must then send the transcript(s) directly to LSAC.

Many, many pitfalls await your letters of recommendation and your transcripts. Here are a few:

--The nutty professor who agrees to write your letter, but then leaves for a sabbatical before getting around to it. You keep checking the LSAC website every day, waiting for the letter to be posted, without even knowing that the professor is in Ghana and your letter doesn't exist.

--The harried professor's assistant, who is tasked with putting the professor's beautifully crafted letter in the mail. The assistant puts the letter down in the university mailroom just for a second, and never picks it back up. Your letter is dumped in the recycling.

--The stoner college kids who have work-study jobs in the university registrar's office. Your law school application is nowhere near as important as the Ren and Stimpy marathon that awaits them when they get back to the dorm.  Plus they ran out of Zig-Zags, and your transcript request form will do in a pinch.

--The US Postal Service. Self-explanatory.

--The LSAC itself. For $155, you'd like to think that the Credential Assembly Service would be infallible. It's not. When your letters and transcripts arrive at LSAC, there is a "processing period" that can stretch out for weeks. Furthermore, the LSAC has also been known to make outrageous mistakes. When I was applying, the LSAC sent two copies of the SAME letter of recommendation to UC Hastings, instead of one letter from each of my two recommenders.

In conclusion... don't wait! The credential assembly service is good for five years, once you register. If you're interested in starting law school next year, you should get cracking. There are a million hoops to jump through, and the failure of any one of them can delay an otherwise flawless application.

Let me know how I can help!

--nathan

"The Law School Decision Game"

“If given the opportunity to do it all over again, would they?” That's the key issue in Ann Levine's second book, The Law School Decision Game.  For many lawyers, the answer is yes.  But for many others””myself included””the answer is a resounding no. If I had read this book before attending law school, I wouldn't currently be $150,000 in debt.

Levine provides a disclaimer on the first page:  “It may talk you out of law school.”  This echoes the disclaimer I give on the first night of my LSAT classes:  “If I can talk you out of law school, then you shouldn't be there in the first place.”

The point isn't that law school is evil, or an inherent waste of money.  The point is to make a smart decision.  Before The Law School Decision Game, making a smart decision required working your personal and professional networks, making a lot of phone calls, inviting lawyers for coffee, shadowing them at work, and a lot of other hassles that many prospective law school students are too lazy for.  But Ann Levine and her staff have done all this legwork for you, interviewing 300 lawyers across the country.  The findings are distilled into 240 little pages, which is the equivalent of your first week's reading in law school.  (Except nothing you read in school will be nearly as interesting or useful.)

So let me put it this way:  Without knowing you, I can't know whether or not law school is right for you.  But if you're not willing to do your due diligence, then you should absolutely not attend law school.  As Levine advises the “is law school right for me?” crowd at the end of Chapter 1, “If you're unwilling to [interview three lawyers], then you've made your career decision.”

The findings vary as widely as lawyers do””some couldn't be happier, and some think law school was an incredible waste of time and money.  I'll just hit a few bullet points:

  • Chapter 2 is a discussion of the wide range of lawyers Levine surveyed for the book. But the highlight of Chapter 2 is a figure 2.6, which I now recreate on the whiteboard for all of my incoming LSAT classes””it deals with the bimodal distribution of lawyer salaries.  The question is “Assuming the median salary of lawyers is $105,000, how much do you currently make?”  The results are shocking:  Less than 10 percent of respondents answered “about the same.”  So if you're attracted to law school by the $105,000 “average” salary earned by lawyers, you need to realize that almost nobody makes that amount.  True, over a third of Levine's respondents said they make “significantly more.”  That's great, right?  I'm glad you're excited.  But here comes the bucket of ice water in your lap:  Almost a third of respondents said “significantly less.”  How would you feel about making a $40,000 salary to go along with your $2,000/month law school loan payments?  That's the reality for many, many law school grads.
  • Chapter 3 is an in-depth discussion on “Reasons to Go to Law School.”  My favorite is figure 3.1, which shows that law school applicants and actual lawyers tend to cite different reasons for going.  The differences are illuminating.  Law school applicants, for example, heavily cite “making a lot of money,” “wanting a prestigious career,” and “job security.”  Real lawyers (who know the reality of the job market) rarely cite those things.  Instead, they think good reasons to go to law school are “enjoying researching and writing” and “learning to think like a lawyer.”  Whose opinion do you value more?
  • Chapter 4 compares lawyers on TV to lawyers in reality.  I like figure 4.1, which cites “willingness to work hard,” and “attention to detail” as the top two requirements actual lawyers cite when asked what traits are important in their field.  Wait, what?  Willingness to work hard?  I also quite like this line:  “[Lawyers] work 9 to 10 hours a day, see their children at night, and enjoy weekends with their families (even if they have to work a few hours on a Sunday afternoon).”  That adds up to a 50+ hour week.  Is that how you want to spend your life? If you think the point of investing $150,000 and three years of your life is so that you can graduate and not work hard, you're in for a big surprise.  Plumbers also work hard””but at least they make triple-time on Sundays.
  • On that same note, from Chapter 4, from a real lawyer:  “It's a way to make a good living, but it's not a good way to make a living.”  Think about it.
  • Chapter 5 is about money””some lawyers are definitely making it!  Find out who they are, where they are, and what it takes to get on their career track.
  • Chapter 6 addresses the recent media backlash against law schools amidst a bad economy and tough job market for lawyers.  How bad is the market, really?

If you're not sold now, you'll never be sold.  I'll let you explore Chapter Seven (“Hindsight:  Would Lawyers Make Different Choices”?) and all of Part Three (“A Life in Law”) on your own.  Like Levine's first book, this book is a gem--and more than worth its modest $15.95 list price.  If you don't read it, I don't think you're serious about being a lawyer.

 

Winning "The Law School Admission Game"

My LSAT classes and private seminars are heavily question-driven. Students can ask whatever they want, and I do my best to answer. I've always gotten a ton of questions that range away from the LSAT and toward the broader law school application process. (After all, the only reason to take the LSAT is to go to law school.) So I realized early on that my job wasn't just LSAT preparation. It's also to help people make good decisions about where to apply, when to apply, what to include in the application, and what offers to accept. To that end, I just added a new book to my class curriculum. It's called The Law School Admission Game, written by Ann Levine, former Director of Admissions at two law schools. I blew through it over the past two days--it's a great read--and I decided immediately to give it to all my students from this point forward. It fills a huge hole in what's offered by most LSAT prep programs, and I'm proud to offer it as part of my classes. In this post, I'll give my thoughts (overwhelmingly positive, with a couple quibbles) about the book. But if you're applying to law school you really should just buy yourself a copy, which you can do here:

I promise you'll be very happy you did.

Levine is a law school admission consultant and owner of LawSchoolExpert.com. Why is she the law school expert? Well, she was Director of Student Services at the University of Denver College of Law, Director of Admissions for California Western School of Law, and Director of Admissions for Loyola Law School. That's a good start. She's also a lawyer, of course (University of Miami School of Law). But despite all that, I didn't believe she was an expert until I started reading. Inside the first 10 pages, I was a believer. It's written like an expert would write. No bullshit, no filler. This isn't a 500-page encyclopedia that you're never going to read. Instead, it's 168 pages of facts, real-world anecdotes to illustrate those facts, a ton of inside perspective from the world of law school applications committees, and a hell of a lot of common sense.

I'm really excited about this thing--I wish I would have discovered it sooner. To avoid writing a book myself, in this blog post, I'm going to bulletize my thoughts. Here we go:

PROS:

  • Levine's perspective matches mine. Unlike a lot of the big test prep companies (Blueprint, I'm looking at you) she doesn't bullshit the reader with promises of BMWs and mansions. Instead, she talks about how the law profession is serious, demanding, and very unlikely to immediately pay you six figures. She doesn't try to talk you out of law school, exactly, but she's very honest that law isn't something to jump into without serious consideration. And it's definitely not the thing to do if you simply want to get rich.
  • If you have some time off before starting law school, she advises you to "explore your passion" (skydiving instructor? viola teacher?) instead of working as a legal assistant or file clerk, where you'll bust your ass without really learning anything about legal practice or making any meaningful connections. I couldn't agree more.
  • If you're still an undergrad, she advises you to "find meaning in what you are doing. Don't pick a major because it 'looks good'... you'll do better with a subject that interests and inspires you." I suppose I must have heard that when I was an undergrad, but I never really believed it until I was well out of college. Trust me, as someone who did three graduate degrees and held a succession of jobs I hated before finding nirvana in Fox Test Prep: Just do what you love, and you'll find happiness eventually.
  • She says that working at The Gap, if it was necessary to pay your bills, is just as good or better on a law school application than an internship where you answered phones for some politician who probably didn't know your name. This absolutely matches my own perspective from the law school classroom. The kids who had obviously never worked a day in their lives always seemed to have their hands up in class, but never said anything worth listening to. (Listen douchebag, I don't give a shit what you think the law should be. Don't you realize the professor is an international expert? Why are we listening to you instead of her?) If you've been paying your own bills since you were in your teens, say so in your application.
  • She advises you, when picking an LSAT class, to talk to people who had the same instructor as you'll have. It's self-serving of me to bring this up, since I teach all my own classes. But holy shit yes do I agree on this point. Powerscore hired me over the telephone to teach an LSAT class that people were paying thousands of dollars for. I think I was probably decent on my first day, but I could have been absolute crap. Ask how long your teacher has been teaching, ask what they got on the LSAT, and ask to talk to other students in your area who had that same teacher.
  • Levine says "clients who struggle with standardized testing really suffer in the big courses like Kaplan and Princeton Review." This is true, but I think EVERYONE suffers in the big courses like Kaplan and Princeton Review. The teachers make $20 per hour, for Chrissakes. Nobody who is very good at the LSAT, and/or very good at teaching, would ever work for Kaplan or Princeton LSAT long-term. They'll either go make $50 or $100 per hour working for Powerscore or Blueprint, or they'll start their own business and make far more than $100 per hour working for themselves.
  • She advises to look into the requirements for redeeming any "guarantee" the test prep company might offer. I've heard that Kaplan requires perfect attendance and 100% completion of all homework, plus documentation of non-improvement on the test. These requirements are almost impossible to achieve. Personally, I think a "guarantee" like this is a gimmick at best, and a scam at worst. If you don't like my product, you can just tell me and I'll always make it right for you. Good or bad, you can tell your story on Yelp. (My customers have been happy so far. Check out the reviews for Kaplan LSAT and see how they compare.)
  • I love this point: She advises you to practice the LSAT in distracting conditions. This is a terrific idea. Go to Starbucks and do a 35-minute section amidst all the hustle and bustle. I've heard horror story after horror story about bad conditions on test day. You've gotta learn to ignore whatever the test might throw at you. I've heard everything from proctors with very loud shoes to jackhammering directly outside the testing room. Get over it by practicing in tough conditions.
  • She offers terrific advice on letters of recommendation. One gem: "A teaching assistant may be better able to write you a detailed letter of recommendation. This is completely appropriate and the professor may even be willing to sign the letter in addition to the T.A." I never would have thought of that, but that's a great move.
  • Another gem: "The only time a LOR makes or breaks a file is when it breaks a file." What she means here is that the LOR is not a sufficient condition--it's a necessary condition. A terrific one won't get you in, but a terrible one will keep you out. Plan accordingly.
  • I'm raving here, but it's just so good that I have to share it: She offers tips for how to write your OWN letter of recommendation, in the supremely likely circumstance that one of your proposed recommenders asks YOU to write the first draft of the letter. This is incredibly hard (I'm speaking from experience here) and Ann does a terrific job of laying out a formula for drafting this letter. Wow.
  • The book includes brief but solid advice for transcripts and resumes. You'll have to read the book to find out.
  • It's got terrific personal statement advice. One tip: Do "be likeable and impressive." Don't display "arrogance and elitism." I've read many personal statements over the years. (Not as many as Ann, but still a lot.) Arrogance is the number one failing I have seen.
  • And again I'm raving here, but Levine says the personal statement is "not there to show how many big words you know." This runs a close second to arrogance on my own list of common personal statement failures. If you're looking in a dictionary or thesaurus to find a fancy word to use, use the simpler word instead. Big words show insecurity. Be conversational.

There's a LOT more than that in the book. I'm censoring myself here.

A FEW POINTS OF MILD DISAGREEMENT:

  • Levine says the best times to take the LSAT "are either in June after your junior year or in the fall of your senior year, and start preparing approximately three months before the exam."  I think this is a good schedule if you're really good at standardized tests, or if you are planning on taking a year off before law school. This schedule will work for some, but many, many students will end up retaking the exam, which will force delaying law school for a year if you get caught on the wrong end of the LSAT cycle. As I've written, you should take a class and take the test much earlier than you probably think.
  • Levine says "plan to take the test once and only once." While I agree that this is optimal, I think it's a tad unrealistic. You definitely shouldn't take the test unprepared--that's just a waste of time and money. So make sure you plan ahead, and are prepared on test day. But everybody has some natural variation in their practice test scores, and this variation occurs on test day as well. So a huge chunk of students, necessarily, are going to score less than their practice-test average on test day. These students should retake the test. Because this is the reality, I think everyone should PLAN on retaking the test, just in case they need to. One reason she advises to take the test only once is that it is expensive to prepare and to take. It's true that the test costs $100-whatever dollars every time you take it, but retaking the test does not require re-taking an LSAT class. A bad day on the test is like a bike crash--it's painful, and requires that you dust yourself off and try again, but it does not require that you relearn how to ride a bike. I have a feeling this is a point that Ann will revise in subsequent editions of the book, as more and more schools now say they only consider an applicant's highest LSAT score.
  • She says "the February LSAT is not a good idea"--if you read her explanation, I agree with her. But the headline is misleading if that's all you read. The February LSAT is perfect for people who don't want to start law school until the following year. As a matter of fact, I think it's a perfect first test date for those who want to go to law school in year +1, because it allows for a backup test date in June of year 0, which will still allow time to take full advantage of rolling admissions. She's right that "taking the February LSAT for fall admission reeks of desperation." But the February LSAT one year in advance smells sweetly of good planning.
  • A quibble about how to prepare for the LSAT: I disagree with Levine's tip that you should review EVERY answer, even those that you got right. The reason for my disagreement is I want you to do a LOT of practice questions. If you haven't done at least 10 full tests (that's 1000 questions) then you're not prepared to get your best score. I think it takes way too long to review all the ones that you knew you got right while you were taking the test. Instead, you should review all the questions you got wrong, and all the questions you GUESSED RIGHT. (Say you narrowed it down to a 50-50 and then blindly picked one... if you get it right, you definitely need to figure out WHY the correct answer is correct and the other answer is wrong.) I advise you to circle the questions you guess on while taking practice tests, so that you'll be able to review your areas of uncertainty in addition to reviewing the ones you missed.
  • Levine quotes Steve Schwartz of LSAT Blog as advising students not to "let more than a couple of days go by without using your LSAT books." I basically agree, but I'd actually amend this to say don't let ANY days go by without using your LSAT books. It's like exercise. If you miss one day, you risk missing two, then three, then a week. Even if you just do one logic game, or a couple LR questions, I think you should do something every single day to get a tiny bit better at the LSAT.

Yeah... just go ahead and buy it. I'm probably the most critical person in the world, and I absolutely loved the book. Worth every penny.

Why you shouldn't apply to law school now

(Note: To make this post evergreen, I should add a note that makes the timeframe specific. This post applies to anyone thinking of submitting an application to law school any time between late November and the Spring of the following year. The time to apply to most law schools is very limited: September-October of the year before you want to start law school. If you're thinking of applying any other time, then this post applies.) It's mid-November, and lately I've found myself yelling a lot in class about how it's already too late for 2012 law school admissions. This shocks a lot of students, so I thought a clarifying blog post might be in order. If you haven't already put in your applications for 2012, you should probably wait a year--and it's not because the job market for lawyers is currently crap, although that's also very true. Really, it boils down to one reason:

Several of my former students have told me, some of them weeks ago, that they've already been admitted for the fall of 2012. Many of these students have also told me that they've gotten big scholarships--six-figure offers are not uncommon. They have one thing in common: they all applied at the beginning of the admissions cycle, in early fall. If you apply now, you wanna guess who's going to be paying the tuition for these students? That's right--YOU are.

My intention is not to be the bearer of bad news or to crush your law school dreams. My intention is simply to be realistic, and maximize the chances that you get 1) the best admission offers and 2) the best scholarship offers you can. (If mom and dad are footing the bill, and the money doesn't matter to any of you, then ignore #2--but #1 still applies.)

Of course, if you feel you really MUST apply now, then go ahead and ignore this post. There are exceptions to just about any rule, so maybe you will get great offers, both in terms of admissions and scholarships. I hope you do! Whatever path you choose, I wish you the best and I'm here to help. But I'm afraid that most people who haven't already applied are going to end up accepting a substandard offer, and I don't want this to be you. That's why this post exists.

As I've previously written, law schools use rolling admissions and the LSAT/law school admissions process takes a lot longer than most people think. Some spots for 2012 have already been filled, and many of the scholarship dollars for 2012 have already been given away. It's a feeding frenzy at the beginning of the admissions cycle. Schools are desperate to sell the seats they have available, and they're desperately competing for the candidates that will help them move up in the rankings. They're throwing around scholarship money, because they know that the students who apply late, and barely get in, will pay full freight. The schools aren't on the hook for all those scholarships. YOU ARE.

Simply put, the later you apply the less seats and less dollars will be available. If you apply late, you're going to get admitted to lower quality schools, and get less or zero money from each school that admits you. At those schools, there will be scholarship students who are equally or less qualified than you are, but you'll be paying their tuition. If I were you, I would wait.

I know it feels like you MUST dive in now. I know you want to get on with your life. But law school, plus the bar, is already a three-and-a-half-year endeavor. Does it really matter whether you get sworn in to the bar in 2015 or 2016? Because that's what we're really talking about here. I started at Hastings in 2008. My class is getting sworn in later this year--that's late 2012. Would it really make a difference if I'd waited a year? I can't see how it would have mattered. I could have worked a real job for one more year, or waited tables, or traveled the world, or explored my passion for... anything... basically, I could have done whatever the hell I'd wanted with those 12 months. At the end of that time, I would have gotten a full ride to law school. A year makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. But $150,000 in student loans certainly does. So does going to an inferior school.

Speaking of loans, I got my first bill today. It's due in December, and it's double my rent. This could have been averted if I'd 1) applied early to 2) a LOT of schools (like 30 schools) and 3) renegotiated with those schools for the best possible scholarship offer. I was stupid to jump into law school after applying late, and I want you to avoid the same fate.

Law school is the most expensive purchase you'll ever make, besides possibly a house. Why on earth would you dive into it?

Until you write your first tuition check, you have all the bargaining power. Law schools are trying to sell you a very expensive product, and they have a lot of inventory at the beginning of a new model year--schools are desperate to put you in the driver's seat. As soon as you drive it off the lot, schools know they have you on the hook for the whole thing. But until you do so, you have the opportunity to kick the tires, negotiate, and shop around for the very best deal. Please do not give away that power. Get the best LSAT score you can, get your application materials on file with LSAC, and apply to at least 30 schools on September first of 2012, for fall of 2013 admission. You'll thank me when the offers come rolling in.

Please don't use this as an excuse to slack off on your LSAT studying or your applications for 2013. You're not early for 2013--in fact, you're right on time. You're allowed to take the LSAT three times in any two-year period. So take some combination of the December 2011 LSAT, the February 2012 LSAT, and the June 2012 LSAT--as soon as you get the score you know you're capable of, then you're done. And get your letters of recommendation in ASAP--it ALWAYS takes longer than you think. Send me a copy of your personal statement, I'd love to tell you if you're on the right track. September first of 2012 is going to be here before you know it, and the applicants who start NOW preparing for that date will be next year's admitted students and scholarship recipients. If you don't do it now, I'm afraid we'll be having this same discussion again in 12 months. Let me know how I can help.

Can't I just start at a shitty law school and then transfer to a better one?

Short answer:  No, not really. The problem is that everybody else has the exact same idea. It's true that the people who finish at the top of their 1L class (the top five percent, let's say) have a chance of transferring up to a better school. But that means the bottom 95 percent don't have a chance. And even though everybody thinks they're going to be in the top five percent, that's obviously impossible.

I think it basically works like this:  Let's say there are 100 1Ls at prestigious School X College of the Law. Out of those 100 people, not all of them are gonna make it. There's one guy who decides after two weeks that law school sucks, so he drops out. (Don't ask me why he was there in the first place, but good on him for quitting early if he hated it.) And there's the girl who does well in her classes, but decides she wants babies instead--so she's gone too. And there's the rich kid who goes insane during the first semester, fails every class, and ends up coming back two years later, after rehab or whatever, as a repeat 1L. That's three empty spots at School X.

School X wants as many tuition dollars as possible, so School X admits three incoming transfer students as 2Ls. Of course there are lots more people who WANT to transfer up than there are available seats, so School X gets to be selective. The students who get chosen tend to be the kids who kicked serious ass at some Lesser Law School.

In my section at Hastings, we lost a few of our stars after the first year. One of them, I think her name was Amy, got the single highest grade in not one but TWO of our three classes during the first semester. The odds of this happening, if all students were equally skilled, is 0.03%--that's three in 10,000. Yep, that girl was GONE after year one. I can't remember where she went, but it was somewhere a lot better than Hastings. She was smarter than we were. One other guy transferred to Berkeley. He was a badass, too.

The point is this: When you walk into your first 1L class, you are going to find yourself sitting alongside a hundred other people who are approximately as smart and as hardworking as you are. Yes, I know you've never gotten less than a 3.5 in your life. Neither have any of the other people next to you. And guess what: Law school has very little homework, and no extra credit. You can't force yourself to get A's like you did in undergrad. At Hastings, all of our 1L classes were graded via a single exam essay at the end of the semester. There was no way to tell how you were doing until the exam, and no way of making up for a bad performance on an early assignment because there were no early graded assignments. Just sit down at the end of the semester for three hours, write an essay about Tort law, wait four weeks, and see what you got. The curve was centered around a B+. Almost everyone got a B or B+ in every class. A-minuses were awesome. B-minuses were common, even for people who had never received a single B-minus as an undergrad.

My own law school grades were almost completely disconnected from how hard I studied. In Contracts, one of the only classes I liked at Hastings, I did all the reading, went to every class, made my own outline, visited the professor at office hours, had a study partner, and even did multiple practice final exams. I was sure I'd get an A. Yep, I got a B (not even a B-plus). In Professional Responsibility, I didn't go to a single class. Nor did I do the assigned reading. Instead, I got the professor's hornbook, took the exam without studying, and got an accidental A.

Long story short, it's very naive to think that you're going to finish at the top of your class and transfer. Everyone is smart, and everyone is going to bust their ass trying to finish at the top. It's possible, but it will take brains, incredibly hard work, and also a lot of luck. If you want to go to Prestigious School X, the best way to get there is 1) crush the LSAT and 2) apply very early in the rolling admissions cycle. Let me know how I can help.

 

Law school personal statements--WTF?

I've been getting a lot of questions about law school personal statements lately: "What should I write about?" "Should I do a different one for each school?" "How do I even get started?" "What's the most important thing I should think about?" "Is it okay if I write about my dog/grandma/nationality/personal trauma/favorite TV show?" "This whole personal statement thing: WTF?" My short answer to all of these is "Relax. You're overthinking it. Get it done, and get back to studying for the far-more-important LSAT."

Much longer, much less sarcastic answers below.

Before I address the specific questions, let me tell you a little story:  At a certain large, mid-ranked law school a couple years ago, the director of admissions told me that they had a total of three admissions staff members evaluating all ~6,000 applications they had received that year for ~500 spots in the incoming 1L class.

Now let's do a little thought experiment: Do you seriously think they read all 6,000 of those personal statements? They'd never admit it, but I sure don't think they do. Actually, I think they'd be stupid if they did.

Assume you're a rational admissions committee with limited resources. You've got a huge mountain of applications--you've got one spot for every ten applicants. You know you're going to be ranked, every goddamned year, by goddamned US News & World Report. You know that you will be fucking fired if your goddamned US News & World Report ranking doesn't go up--and possibly worse than fired if it falls. You can't control a lot of the factors that goddamned US News is going to rank you on. But you CAN try to maximize a couple factors goddamned US News cares about: LSAT score and GPA. Fortunately for you--an overworked law school admissions staff member--both LSAT score and GPA fit nicely into a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets have a nifty "sort" feature.  So you put all 6,000 applicants into a spreadsheet and you sort them by LSAT and/or GPA. (Probably an index of both, actually.)

And what do you do next? Well, frankly, you might admit the very top 100 of your sorted LSAT/GPA list without even reading the personal statements. What's the point? If someone with a 178 and a 3.9 GPA applies to any school outside the top ten or so, any rational admissions committee would be forced to admit them. Actually, wouldn't they be derelict of duty if they didn't admit them? I don't see how you could possibly justify it to your boss: "I know she would have made our LSAT and GPA numbers look a lot better, but something about her personal statement just rubbed me the wrong way." Boss: "GODDAMNED US NEWS ISN'T GOING TO READ HER PERSONAL STATEMENT!"

Next, after admitting all the candidates you simply can't say no to, you're probably going to divide the 5,900 remaining applications into two piles: A small pile called "probably yes" and a bigger pile called "probably no." The "probably yes" pile is going to contain the next-highest chunk from your LSAT/GPA index. The "probably no" pile is going to include everyone else. If you're already in the "probably yes" pile, then you're probably going to get admitted. The job of your personal statement, then, is to keep you from getting put into the "probably no" pile. If you're in the "probably no" pile, then your personal statement probably isn't even going to get read. Why would they, if they've already filled their class with much higher LSATs and GPAs? How could you justify it to your boss? "I know his LSAT and GPA both suck, and he is going to kill our numbers and our ranking, but his personal statement was just so lovely--it brought a tear to my eye." Boss: "GODDAMNED US NEWS ISN'T GOING TO READ HIS PERSONAL STATEMENT!"

So there's my starting assumption: At most schools, for most students, if they are reading your personal statement then they have already decided they would like to admit you. Your job is simply to avoid fucking that up. In other words, it's a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. Does this apply to Harvard?  Um, no. But most of you are not applying to Harvard.

"It's necessary" means: If you don't do one, or if you do something very stupid, it can definitely keep you out. If you're disrespectful, or immature, or careless, they're going to think you're not serious and they're going to admit the next person in the "probably yes" pile, who might have slightly lower (but basically identical) numbers.

"It's not sufficient" means: If your LSAT and GPA don't put you in the "probably yes" pile, then your personal statement, no matter how wonderful, is not going to miraculously get you in.  They're probably not even going to read it.

All my answers below are going to be colored by this starting assumption. If the starting assumption doesn't apply to you (i.e., you're applying only to Harvard and the like) then what follows probably doesn't apply to you either. Okay, on to the questions:

1)  "What should I write about?"

Admissions officers will tell you "don't tell us what you think we want to hear," and "show us your personality," and "be creative." To all that, I say: Probably bullshit. I think you should tell them what you think they want to hear. They already want you, based on your numbers. So now they want to make sure you're not going to go crazy and drop out during the first year. They want to make sure that you're not lazy. They want to make sure, as much as they can, that you're going to be a success in law school and eventually donate a lot of money to the endowment. So a personal statement should, ideally, answer one or both of the following questions: First, why do you want to go to law school? And second, why are you going to do well once you get there? If you're able to convince me that you have thought it through and have good reasons for wanting to attend, and furthermore you're able to convince me that you'll kick ass once you get there, then I think you've written a terrific personal statement. If you're able to show some personality/creativity along the way, that's fantastic. But don't show me your personality by saying "My favorite TV show is 'The Wire' and being a lawyer looks awesome." That's a horrible reason for going to law school. It makes you look immature--like you'll wash out in your first semester. If you can't think of a theme, here's what it should be: "Law school is a perfect fit for me because of X, Y, and Z."

2)  "How do I even get started?"

Well, I've already given you a theme, above. So have a glass of wine and write as fast and shitty of a first draft as you can possibly muster. The key to good writing is quick, high-volume, shitty first drafts, followed by lots and lots of careful editing. Try to write three times as many words as you'll eventually need. When you boil it all down, it'll be perfect. Start with "I want to go to law school because _________" and see what comes out. Later on you can come up with a snappier lead sentence. For now, just generate the raw materials. Send me a draft, I'm happy to give it a glance and tell you if I think you're on the right track.

3)  "What's the most important thing I should think about?"

You should think about not wasting your entire life writing this thing, and you should think about polishing the shit out of it. Consider it a hoop that you have to jump through to get into law school. Keep it simple and get the stupid thing done. Believe me, I have seen a lot of these things and they are all basically fine. I promise I'll tell you if I think it's crap. The content is rarely the problem. The editing is almost always the problem. The sooner you get something on paper, the sooner you can start polishing it up. The final version can be boring, but it cannot have any typos. So stop wasting time, and get it done.

4)  "Is it okay if I write about my dog/grandma/nationality/personal trauma/favorite TV show"?

Sure, I don't care. Just remember that the essay should ultimately address the issues of why you want to go to law school and why you'll do good once you're there. If your dog legitimately connects to these issues, then by all means go for it. I'm not saying don't show them your personality, but I'm definitely saying don't show them too much personality. The cutesy essay you wrote for your creative writing assignment in freshman English is probably not going to be the best fit. Be confident but humble and respectful. Show them that you've done your research and you're going to be a solid member of their law school community.

5)  "How long should it be?"

No longer than necessary. Let's say two pages, typed and double spaced, maximum. If you can't say why you want to go to law school, and why you'll be an asset to your law school, in less than two pages then you probably can't say it in 20 pages either. Less is more here. Keep it simple.

6)  "Should I do a different one for each school?"

Hellllllllll no. I can hardly imagine a bigger waste of your time. Just write one solid, generic statement--super-well edited, with zero spelling/grammar/punctuation/formatting mistakes--and use that solid essay for every school you're applying to. If you have ONE dream school, and you know that your LSAT/GPA make you a stretch for that school, and you have the extra time, then maybe you could write one finely crafted special essay that targets that school. But it's not necessary. And 30 essays for 30 different schools? No fucking way. Spend that time on the LSAT instead, it will pay much bigger dividends.

A further cautionary note here: When I applied to Hastings in 2008, the LSAC sent Hastings two copies of the same one one of my letters of recommendation, rather than sending them one copy of each of two different letters, as they were obviously supposed to. So the LSAC definitely makes dumb mistakes. With that in mind, do you really want to have 30 different essays for 30 different schools, giving the LSAC copious chances to accidentally send the wrong statement to the wrong school? I didn't think so.

And one final thing: If you are planning on doing that thing in the last paragraph where you go "For the aforementioned reasons, I believe I am the perfect candidate for <INSERT SCHOOL NAME HERE> and your fabulous <INSERT CLINICAL/EXTRACURRICULAR PROGRAM I OBVIOUSLY PULLED FROM YOUR WEBSITE>," for God's sake, please don't do this. This type of "customization" is so incredibly transparent that I think it's actually worse than not customizing the essays at all.

Wow, okay, that's a lot for now. Please let me know what I'm missing!

--nathan

 

How can I afford to apply to so many law schools?

I try to convince my students to apply to 30 law schools.  Those that follow my advice almost always end up with lots of offers of admission, and very frequently they end up with scholarship money as well.  Those that don't follow my advice get fewer offers of admission, and little to no scholarship money.  It's as simple as that. Applying to 30 law schools can be costly--on the order of $3,000.  But you must view this expense in light of the $150,000 bomb that you're about to drop on law school.  If three grand gets you a $150,000 scholarship, then that's obviously a good investment.  As a matter of fact, if three grand has even a slight chance of winning you a $150,000 scholarship, it's still a good bet.  So save your pennies, max out your credit cards if you have to, and apply broadly.  You can thank me later.

And if you really can't scrape up the money for those applications, you might have another route.  Welcome to the magical world of fee waivers.

Here's what I recommend:

1)  Whether or not you think you'll qualify, it doesn't hurt to apply for LSAC's fee waiver.  You can find information and an application for LSAC's waiver program here.  Many schools will automatically give you an application fee waiver if you qualify for LSAC's program, so this could be the golden ticket.  Throw in an app and see what happens.

2)  Check "yes, share my information" when you sign up for the LSAT.  If you let LSAC share your information, you'll immediately start getting "please apply to our school--for free!" solicitations from random schools.  Yes, it's junk mail.  But it's junk mail that can save you some serious cash.  You might not have been considering going to law school in Ohio, but if you get a solicitation to apply for free to some random school in Ohio, why wouldn't you give it a look?  What's the worst that could happen--they admit you and offer you a full ride?  That sounds like a good problem to have.

3)  Ask the schools individually.  The Pre-Law Advising Center at the University of Hawai'i Manoa has put together this bitchin' spreadsheet containing fee waiver information for 195 law schools.  Even if you didn't qualify for the LSAC fee waiver program, some of the schools you're intending to apply to might have their own waiver program.  Some schools probably give a waiver to anybody who asks for one--you'll never know until you try.

Whatever you do, get started now.  The law school admissions process always takes longer than you think.  The earlier you start, and the more broadly you cast your net, the better your chances for both admission and scholarships.

When should I take an LSAT class?

I get this one all the time.  "I'm taking the test next June... will you be offering a class next May?" Sometimes this question arises from procrastination.  But LSAT students are usually a pretty diligent bunch.  So more often, this question comes from students who are concerned that if they take a class too soon they'll forget what they've learned by the time their test rolls around.  Other times, students are concerned that they need to pre-prepare for their class in order to get the most out of it.  My answer is always the same.

The short answer is sooner, rather than later.  Take a class as soon as possible so that you'll have plenty of time to practice what you've learned.  The LSAT is a lot like riding a bike.  It's never too early to learn, and it's very rare that someone forgets this skill once they have learned it.

The longer answer has three parts:

1)  No prior preparation is required.  At least half of my typical students have never seen an LSAT before the first night of class.  This is fine!  There's nothing substantive on the test.  There's nothing to memorize.  All the information you need is right there in front of you.  It's a game, and you just need to learn how to play it.  You'll suck at first.  Everyone does.  The best way to learn is just to dive right in.

Students who self-study before the class tend to bang their heads against walls that I could have helped them avoid... they come in thinking the test is harder than it actually is.  Sometimes, they get bad materials (like Kaplan or Princeton books) that hurt them more than help them.  The process will be much more tolerable with a professional guide.

2)  Sometimes it takes a while.  It's true that some students take a four-week LSAT class and immediately kill the test--some people take to it more naturally than others.  But more frequently, I find that students study for 8 weeks, or 12 weeks, or even longer.  The LSAT is only offered four times per year, so waiting until the last minute can be a disaster.  I've seen countless students end up waiting an entire additional year to apply to law school because they didn't do their prep properly the first time.

My classes are built to be modular--you can take four weeks, or eight weeks, or twelve weeks, without repeating any tests.  You don't have to decide in advance--just sign up for the first four-week class that fits your schedule, and if you like the class you can upgrade from there.  Some students decide to stay with the class right up until the day of their test.  Other students self-study, after class is over, and continue improving their scores up until test day.  (I'm always accessible by phone and email to my former students.)

3)  It's not the kind of thing that people tend to forget.  Yes, if you stop practicing completely after your LSAT class is over, your skills will deteriorate.  But if you're serious about law school then you probably won't stop practicing.  And if you know you need the external motivation, then you should sign up for a longer class... one that starts soon, and runs all the way up to your test date.

You're probably not ready if you're currently taking 21 units in your final semester of college, or if you're currently working 80 hours a week.  A good class will require a minimum of 15-20 hours per week to study (including class time).  Make sure you've got the bandwidth to get the most out of your class.  But when you do have time, the sooner the better.  A good teacher will save you a lot of headaches, and it's never too soon to start.