Tips About Law School – Part 1
Published on Jan. 5, 2018 by Pamela S. Evers, Attorney, The Evers Law Firm, PLLC, and Assoc Professor at UNC Wilmington
The following tips in this three-part series are from my own experience in pursuing legal studies and data provided by the various organizations referenced in the article.
Do You Want to Study Law?
The reason I didn’t ask if you want to be a lawyer (but asked if you want to study law) is that law school will teach you how to study law, not how to be a lawyer. In law school, you will learn how to analyze a case, find the legal precedent, and engage in critical thinking; but unless you take the clinical coursework, you won’t learn how to BE a lawyer. Instead, you will learn how to be a lawyer by practicing law. If you decide you don’t want to practice law, there are LOTS of jobs available to those with a law degree besides becoming a licensed attorney.
If you’re considering law school, then you’ve probably discovered that you enjoy analyzing an issue and the critical thought that is required when reading a case or about a particular dispute. Perhaps you have a family member or friend that has been involved in a lawsuit or had to hire a lawyer to resolve a situation. Whatever the inspiration, I can guarantee that you must have a passion for the study of law. If you don’t, the first year of law school will cure you of your desire. Why? Because law school is intended to – and does – weed out in the first year those who don’t have the passion.
Law school stinks, plain and simple (more on this later). I went to law school hoping to learn The Law and then go out and save the world. HA! During the first semester, I realized that the professors didn’t know The Answer. I was shocked and disappointed, and felt betrayed by the law school marketing brochures. How could I be a lawyer and advocate for those in need when the professors didn’t know anything? But I plodded on through the second semester and by the end of the first year, I had learned that The Answer does not exist. More importantly, the fact there is no “answer” is exactly the point! If everybody knew The Answer, there would be no disputes, no courts, and no need for lawyers or judges. After all, you can’t have a dispute unless there are (at least) two sides with differing opinions.
After being enlightened about The Law, I became thrilled that law is neither black nor white, but full of color and shades of gray. I thoroughly enjoyed the next two years of law school. The study of law is a miraculous journey through and beyond law school that will take you into the past, forward into the future, and all around the globe. You will study history, art, science, math, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and medicine, all while analyzing, preparing for, or resolving a case. There are opportunities for philosophical discussions and practical applications, the exhilaration of the courtroom and detailed transactional or appellate work. Everything you’ve ever learned will come into play in your journey and you’ll step onto new paths to explore and engage, discern and divine. One thing for sure, you’ll never be bored.
Preparation for Law School
Despite what you may have heard, there is no single undergraduate major that will prepare you for or guarantee admission into law school. You do not need to be in a pre-law program or be a political science or business major. My undergraduate degree was in theatre and speech, which I found to be excellent preparation for being a lawyer since I agree with Shakespeare that all the world is a stage and we are merely players upon it.
There are special skills you need to learn, whether through formal education, self-education, or just being cognizant of the world around you. These skills include critical thinking, oral communication skills, problem-solving skills, and the abilities to research and write well. Most undergraduate programs today work hard to teach these essential skills, but you can augment your learning by taking relevant courses (e.g., logic) and taking the opportunity to write as many papers as possible during your undergraduate education. For a more fun way to learn these skills, try the Mensa Select® games and puzzle books published for Mensa.
The Law School Application Process
First, you need to view and read everything available on the Law School Admissions Council website at www.lsac.org, where there are links to resources, prep materials, and law schools. Warning: most states will not admit a person to the state’s bar unless they have graduated from a law school approved by the American Bar Association. A list of the 205 ABA-approved law schools may be found at: http://www.abanet.org/legaled/approvedlawschools/approved.html. Please do not waste your time and money attending a law school not approved by the ABA. There have been a number of lawsuits by students who attended non-approved, even provisionally-approved, law schools and were not allowed to sit for the bar exam upon graduation.
Second, you need to prepare for and take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Take the LSAT during the year before the Fall semester you want to begin law school because most top schools have already chosen their entering class by the first week of January. The LSAT is a half-day standardized exam consisting of multiple-choice questions testing reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning, plus a writing sample. The test is administered four times per year in designated testing centers. The testing fee was $180 as of January 2017 and the Credential Assembly Service (CAS) was $175. There are other possible fees as well, including late fees, test center change fees, etc. You DO want to use the Credential Assembly Service despite the cost because your life will be easier for it and some schools require its use. The CAS service simplifies the application process by assembling your documents in one place.
I took the LSAT after buying a Princeton Review LSAT preparation book and studying it thoroughly for two weeks. I also studied all the materials available on the LSAC webpage, but did not take one of the commercial LSAT preparation courses. However, after law school, I taught the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) preparation course for Kaplan and think that a course is a good idea if you can afford it – not simply because it prepares you to take the LSAT, but because it will help you to think critically and better understand and answer the questions the law professors will ask you in class and on exams. While I don’t believe I would have done any better on the LSAT, I do believe I might have done better on my first semester’s essay exams had I taken the LSAT preparation course.
I believe there are two keys to success on the LSAT. First, know how the test is structured and what types of questions are on the exam so that you don’t waste time reading the instructions when you actually take the exam. You don’t have time to read the instructions! You need to know what the test section is looking for and to begin answering questions the second the test time begins. Second, be well- rested and calm when you sit down for the exam. Eat a decent, but not too heavy, breakfast before your exam. Take a bottle of water with you. Take a protein bar to eat during the break. Do not stay up late studying the night before the exam because it won’t help in the least.
As part of taking the LSAT, you’ll need to register and pay the fee for the Credential Assembly Service provided through the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC). The service includes law school report preparation, transcript processing, access to electronic applications for all law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, and (as an option) processing of recommendation letters. Once you register, you’ll need to send your transcripts and recommendation letters to the LSAC. Make sure to have your prior schools send your official transcript directly to the LSAC. Be aware that most schools require a fee to process and send official transcripts and most schools take several weeks to complete the process.
The LSAC also offers Letter of Recommendation (LOR) and Evaluation services as an optional part of the Credential Assembly Service. This is a great option and you should use it, but you’ll need to pay attention to details to make sure that the right recommendation letters are sent to the particular school of your choice. You can request your recommenders to write targeted letters or letters of general recommendation. I strongly recommend setting up a chart so you know which person(s) wrote which letter and to which school(s) the letter is directed.
As a final note, the law school application process is expensive, but worth it and your LSAC account remains active for five years. If you don’t get into law school the first time, try again. Each year is a new year for admissions, so don’t give up if you want to study or practice law.
In Part 2, I’ll discuss how to choose a law school and a bit about the debt you’ll probably incur.
Tips About Law School – Part 2
Where Shall I Apply?
Now, the Really Confusing Thing #1: where do I apply? I recommend applying to at least five (5) law schools, choosing a mix of public and private, small and large. However, applying to law school costs money, so be thoughtful about your choices. Not only are there the fees for the LSAT and CAS, but each school typically requires a separate application fee in the $50 – $250 range. Apply to schools at which you would enjoy studying and which are well-suited to your interests. If you want to study a particular type of law, look for a law school that has a focused programs, such as business, environmental, or intellectual property law. Many schools have research centers or clinical programs. You might also look for those law schools that offer joint degree programs, such as a JD/MBA or JD with PhD in political science or psychology.
Apply to schools in a location where you would enjoy (or don’t mind) living for three years. On the other hand, don’t apply to the top ten law schools if you didn’t achieve a top 10% LSAT score and don’t apply to the most expensive private schools if you cannot possibly afford it even with the maximum in loans or a scholarship. For example, I applied and was accepted into a famous East coast law school, but once I looked at the costs and how much student loans would cover, I realized I could attend the school only if I lived on the street. Bottom line: be realistic in your application process.
Most law schools require online application forms and most require supplemental materials, such as a personal statement. Pay attention to details in the law school application process. Some schools set requirements for supplemental materials with regard to word count, font, margins, and other minute details. Most schools require two recommendation letters, but some suggest a third recommendation letter sent directly to the school. You will need to purchase ($30) from the LSAC a law school report for each school to which you are applying. You purchase the report once you apply to the law school, then the law school requests the report from the LSAC. Once a law school receives your application, the school will contact the LSAC for your information.
Here’s an expense summary of the law school application process thus far:
The law school ranking system3 might be of interest to you in making your selection, but there is much controversy surrounding the ranking process. In fact, both the American Bar Association and the LSAC refuse to support the ranking system. Therefore, the ABA and LSAC publish their own law school guides that provide more useful criteria. I’ve graduated from public and private universities and I don’t think the quality of education was any different. Nevertheless, there are vital differences. Some private universities offer a brand reputation that is worth something in the initial job search or in the academic marketplace. However, there are many public universities that have worked hard to achieve a brand image and solid reputation.
Some schools, whether public or private, have special programs in particular fields of law, such as intellectual property, environmental law, or taxation. If you have a particular interest, these schools should receive greater weight in your selection process. Other important considerations include location, size of the student body, housing opportunities, the job market, and cost. Most law students take the bar exam in the state where their law school is located. If you do well enough on that state bar exam, you may be able to waive into other jurisdictions within a year after taking your first bar exam. So a key question you should ask yourself is where you want to practice law?
Warning: some schools have created a brand image, but really haven’t backed that up with a quality education or the job placement assistance. Applying to law school is where you should learn an essential legal tool: due diligence! Due diligence is acting with a certain level of care or, in this case, you should conduct the background investigation necessary to make a good decision about your career.
Going Into Debt
The Really Confusing Thing #2: how do I pay for law school? Unless you are in the proverbial 1%, you’re going to incur some debt. After attending a private law school that cost $30,000 / year and graduating in 1991, I had a debt of $110,000 (including some living expenses) and paid it off in ten (10) years. That same school now costs $53,000 / year, so for private law schools, you can expect to incur about $250,000 of debt for tuition, books, and dirt cheap living expenses. State schools generally cost 50% of what the private schools cost. Normally, I don’t recommend that a person go deep in debt, but you must remember that you are buying your professional training and a credentialed career. If you were planning to open a restaurant or auto-body repair shop, you would need financing to obtain the requisite training to do the job and buy equipment and pay operating expenses for at least a couple years until your business is profitable. You want to be a lawyer, so you’ll need to fund the required training and professional credentials just like any other person in business. You will be able to pay off your debt, but with the heavy debt load that comes with an out-of-state or private law school, you will feel the pinch of the loan repayment process.
Every law school offers scholarships, but they are rare. Most students fund their law school with public or private loans, or a combination of both. The opportunities for scholarship and the ability to fund your schooling is one of the most important considerations in selecting the law schools to which you will apply. I realized too late in my law school application process that I simply could not afford some schools even if I accepted the maximum loan financing available. Consequently, even though I’d been accepted to a few top-tier schools, I’d wasted money by applying to something I could not have afforded.
During the Obama administration, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (P.L. 110-84) was enacted to make it easier for law school graduates to pursue public interest and public service careers. Reduced monthly loan repayments and loan forgiveness are benefits of the program if the person incurring the debt stays in public service.
One option to consider is joining the military after your undergraduate studies and letting the US government pay for your law school in return for your military service. While this commitment frightens some, it’s a great opportunity to do interesting work and get paid while going to law school. I was in the US Navy Reserve all through law school and the one weekend per month reserve duty was a wonderful respite from studying. Moreover, the reserve duty pay covered most of my room and board expenses during law school.
The First Year of Law School
Once you’re accepted into law school, your life will change dramatically. Say goodbye to the old you, because you’re about to enter the world of torts, property, contracts, criminal law, and legal procedure. You will never again look at an accident, argument, or contract in the way you did before law school. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, it simply IS.
The old adage is, “The first year, they scare you to death; the second year, they work you to death; the third year, they bore you to death.” This isn’t far from the truth. The first year of law school begins with the orientation where, just like in the movies, they tell you to look at your classmates left and right and know that at least one of you will be gone at the end of the semester. The first year is intended to challenge – and scare – you. You’ll eat, sleep and breathe law. If you had a Life before law school, it will end until you graduate…at least if you want good grades and a good job after graduation.
Full-time programs at law schools not only discourage, but frown upon, working students. Working during law school will take away from your study time and that time is precious, especially during the first year. If you are in class 6 hours a day and need to study 2-3 hours per hour of class, there isn’t time for anything else, not even sleep. Unfortunately, I had to work about 15-20 hours a week during law school and it did affect my grades; I didn’t do badly, but I didn’t excel. Take out the loans necessary to avoid work and ask that every birthday present or holiday gift from every relative be in the form of cash, clothes, or food. Law school isn’t the time to worry about your debt load.
During the first year, the professors will tell you that the best way to study is to read the cases and text, brief the cases you read, come to class prepared with your brief, take notes during class, go home and compile all of your notes and create a study outline, then study the outline. They discourage buying the “canned” outlines and study aids available from Gilbert (West), Emanuel (Aspen Publishers), and other publishers. The suggested method of study is a great way to study – if that’s the process that helps you learn. Before you begin law school, you should know, or at least think about, how you learn best. If you need a text to underline or highlight and need to write notes in class in order to learn, then the professor-suggested method will probably work for you.
I tried the suggested method the first two months of the first semester, but soon realized that I was spending so much time typing, compiling, and organizing; I was focusing on the actual process of underlining and writing instead of the substantive content. I bought the canned outlines, read the cases, read the relevant outlines, went to class and listened, and then went home and studied the outlines. I also used flashcards, whether purchased (hard copy or online) or created. With these canned study aids, I could focus on the material rather than the process of outlining. You may have a different learning process, so do what is best for you. If you need a study team, find one quickly. If you need quiet and privacy to learn, find a place that works for you and wear sound-cancelling headphones if necessary.
There are study apps available for your smartphone or tablet that are really useful and painless and UCLA Law School has a convenient list. In addition, with the technology available to record live lectures (if the professor will allow that4), I highly recommend it. During law school and for the bar exam, I recorded myself lecturing about the subject I was to learn, then I listened to my own lectures every time I was driving, cooking dinner, walking, and even sleeping. I did fine in law school and easily passed the bar exam. Some of my classmates formed teams and they lectured each other. Interestingly, one pedagogical method is called “power teaching” in which students, loudly and often simultaneously, teach each other the subject matter. The point of this method is that the act of teaching the subject matter is what gets the student to learn (embed) the subject matter in his/her own brain. Note: The professor’s lectures are their intellectual property, so don’t record them unless you receive permission from the professor! More importantly, post recorded lectures, PowerPoint slides, or class notes on Course Hero or other study website at your peril since these materials are not your property and you probably do not have the right to post these!
One aggravating part of law school is that some students think that law school is a life-or-death competition. These students will sabotage other students and give misdirection when asked a question by their classmates. These are the students that, I suspect, will eventually end up hiring lawyers to defend them in criminal cases. You may not recognize these students at first because, like most white collar criminals (e.g., Bernie Madoff, Jack Abramoff), they are outwardly likeable. Fortunately, I didn’t run into a problem with this situation because (a) I did most of my work alone due to my work schedule, and (b) I’d already been through a competitive MBA program and knew to fact-check everything I was told with at least two other sources. Unfortunately, some of my classmates did run into this sort of thing. My advice is to be careful. In other words, if a student tells you that a case turns on the issue of “bailment,” do not be naïve and simply believe; do the work yourself.
Law school exams are unpleasant at best. In most schools and for most courses, especially the first year, you have one final exam worth 100% of your course grade. If that isn’t enough to make you shake and sweat, then think about the fact that these probably will be essay questions and will take you the entire test period to complete, if you finish at all. Finally, these exams are all within one week. You should plan on notifying your family and non-classmate friends that you will be unavailable during the week before and during final exams. Also, you should plan on sleeping solidly for at least a couple days after your last exam. This sounds absurd, but I’m quite serious. Some of my classmates even rented hotel rooms during final exam week to get needed quiet and privacy away from family and roommates. This practice will come in handy for the bar exam, when you not only will go into hiding, but may begin talking in Latin. Okay, not as serious here, but quisquam est possible.
Every first year law student studies legal research, writing and advocacy. At most law schools, included within the advocacy course is the Moot Court Competition, in which first year students write appellate briefs and argue before a mock court made up of local practitioners and members of the law faculty. I thoroughly enjoyed Moot Court, but this is where those communication skills you learned in your undergraduate education will come in handy. The other courses you’ll take are torts, contracts, criminal law, property, and civil procedure. Southern Methodist University has a great “look” at the First Day of Law School covering these basic courses.
During the first year of law school, you need to do two things: get a thick skin and become a duck. The professors still use the Socratic methodology for most large lectures, requiring students to stand up and brief a case in front of the classroom. Then the professor will grill the student on the legal reasoning and lesson of the case. One of my professors made a couple of my classmates cry! Another professor chastised students loudly if they missed even the tiniest detail or misunderstood the legal reasoning. These professors aren’t just being malicious; they are toughening you up for law practice. Arguing a case in front of your classmates doesn’t begin to compare to arguing a case in front of a judge and jury where your client’s livelihood – or life – depends on your skill as a lawyer. Even if you only do transactional work (e.g., drafting contracts), you’ll need a thick skin to ward off the slings and arrows of those who may criticize or alter what you’ve done. You need to know what you are doing and be confident about it. If you are wrong, admit it and don’t make the mistake again. If you are right, you’ll want that same feeling again and strive to do as well or better the next time.
As for being a duck, the first year of law school is like a constant storm that tries to make you succumb to the elements. You’ll start seeing tort and breach of contract lawsuits everywhere. You’ll feel as if your world turned upside down. Moreover, you may think, “I don’t even want to be a lawyer now, but I have to go on because I’m $50,000 in debt.” Don’t succumb to the storm! Let the whole craziness of the first year slide off like water off a duck’s back. Get a grip and plough on through. The second year is much better.
The Second and Third Years of Law School
You can tell the difference between the first and second year law students by the way they walk. First year students tend to look like they are about to be hit with a bat – they are. Second year students look like they can walk through a wall and not be fazed – they can. The second year curriculum gives you more insight into what law is all about. The classes become more interesting, the craziness is gone. The workload, though, has increased. If you thought the first year was a lot of work, second year law school has it beat. The upside? This year is far more interesting!
The second year of law school gives you your first opportunity to take courses in the subject matter that brought you to law school: trial practice, criminal law, business law, international law, environmental law, family law, or any number of exciting subjects. Just don’t believe that the courses you take in law school will be what you’ll do the rest of your life. I took mostly international law and litigation courses, hoping to go into international business law, but my first job took me into product liability and real estate law! Subsequent jobs and education took me into environmental law, federal Indian law, entertainment law, and intellectual property. All of these special fields related to earlier education and work experience. Each law student seems to find his or her unique path and since law is lifelong learning, the path is a long one with lots of things to do.
During the second and third years of law school, you can take a leadership role in the Moot Court Competition, travel overseas for part of your schooling, and participate in a number of organizations (e.g., Inns of Court, Trial Lawyers’ Association, Law Review Staff, Phi Alpha Delta, Student Bar Association). You may compete in trial advocacy, client counseling, mediation, or legal writing competitions. Most law schools also require some level of public service as part of the curriculum and this is a most rewarding opportunity. If you have the opportunity, make sure to take a clinic course. These are the courses in which you actually learn to BE a lawyer because you are practicing law. You may also have the opportunity to study abroad during the summer(s) between school years.
The last year of law school is focused on honing your legal analysis skills and obtaining employment. You’ll be interviewing throughout the Fall and Spring semesters of your third year. This year is also when the law you’ve been learning begins to finally fall into place; this is an exciting discovery, young Jedi Apprentice.
Most students are trying to get the coveted spots with the large law firms. If you got an internship during your first or second summer of law school or you’ve been on law review staff, you’re probably destined for the large law firms. Good for you. You get the great salary, pretty office, and paid bar review course. My classmates at the large firms did lots of case preparation and research and received fine opportunities to progress and make partner. For those that do not take an internship or have the opportunity to be on law review, don’t worry. First, you might still have whatever the large law firms are looking for. Second, there are many medium-sized or small firms that offer fine salaries and decent offices and, more importantly, hands-on law practice. I didn’t have an internship because I worked for my parents’ restaurants one summer and studied abroad the other summer. I didn’t do law review because I wasn’t a stellar student. By choice or by destiny, I went with a small law firm, but I was in court arguing a pre-trial motion the very day I was sworn in – by the judge presiding over the motion I was supposed to argue!
My classmates at the small firms were in court on a weekly basis and dealt with clients on a daily basis, some making partner or going solo sooner than those in the large law firms. My classmates that went the governmental route (district attorney, military, state or federal agencies) or joined corporate legal departments are still there or moved into teaching. Many classmates started their own businesses using their legal expertise. Whatever your path in the law profession, you will always be able to find work. After all, you will have “mad skills” as a law school graduate!
The Bar Exam
You just went through law school, what are you worried about? A great deal. Passing the bar exam means you get to practice law and all the rewards that come with being a licensed attorney. Not passing the bar exam means you begin the study process all over and try again later, earning the same pre-bar salary until you pass. Don’t give up the dream of being a lawyer if you don’t pass the bar exam the first time; just keep trying. I have colleagues who were stellar in law school, but didn’t pass the bar exam the first time. Sometimes life just throws you a curveball.
The bar exam is an experience you’ll never forget! Over the course of 2-3 days, you’ll answer essay and multiple choice questions over every law school subject. Make sure to check the National Conference of Bar Examiners webpage so you know which exam(s) to take. All U.S. jurisdictions except two (Louisiana and Puerto Rico) require for bar admission the six-hour, 200 question multiple choice Multistate Bar Examination covering the basic subjects of law. The Uniform Bar Examination has been adopted by 26 states and D.C. as of 2017. Each state may add a state-specific exam, which is usually a combination of essay and multiple-choice questions. All but three jurisdictions (Wisconsin, Maryland, and Puerto Rico) also require applicants for admission to the state bar to pass the MPRE, or Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, which is a 60 question, two-hour exam. As in law school, warn your family and friends that you will not be available to discuss anything but law during the bar exam period! Unless you are a genius or just plain crazy, don’t take the bar exam without taking a bar exam review course. These are horrifically expensive (approximately $2,000), but it’s part of the cost of becoming a lawyer.6 The review course will provide you with materials and resources that summarize the material you’ve spent learning the past three years, lectures (audio and/or video) hitting the highlights, and strategies on how to study, answer the questions, and pass the exam. If you have a job lined up by your last semester, your employer might pay for the bar review course. I received a free bar exam prep course because I worked for Kaplan selling the courses to more than a dozen of my colleagues.
Wouldn’t the bar exam prep course have been nice before law school? Yes. In fact, I know several people who purchased and studied the bar exam review course before law school and they did exceptionally well in school. BARBRI offers first year students the opportunity to lock in their bar review course price during their first year. In return for locking in, the company provides preparatory materials to first year students including course outlines, exam review lectures, and exam strategies. Kaplan offers a “1L Edge” course to improve your opportunity for success in law school.
Being a Lawyer
Oh, Joy! Oh, Rapture! You passed the bar and now you are a member of the law profession! Well, maybe not quite joy and rapture, but being a lawyer and practicing attorney is working in a great profession. You will join the ranks of famed colleagues such as Francis Bacon, Thomas More, William Penn, Alexander Hamilton, Francis Scott Key, John Marshall, Daniel Webster, Robert Louis Stephenson, Clarence Darrow, Gandhi, Benjamin Cardozo, Gerry Spence, Marian Wright Edelman, Robert F. Kennedy, and most of the U.S. presidents. For information on what you can do as a lawyer, check out the American Bar Association webpage or take a look at the jobs available on lawjobs.com.
Despite all the lawyer jokes, which sometimes are rather on target, the society of lawyers is a very fine fellowship to join. You learned the lawyer jokes in law school, so those won’t bother you by the time you’re practicing law. You know secrets that most people do not. You can speak legalese and understand contracts. You are able to advocate for the needy or move mountains with a lawsuit. You may earn piles of money or provide much-needed pro bono service. You will be the person others look to when they have a problem. You have the skills to alter the course of society through your oral and written advocacy or live a simple but rewarding life as the proverbial small town lawyer. You can practice law with a law firm, start your own law firm, become a judge, work as corporate counsel, teach college, work for the government or military, open a business and lead as the Chief Executive Officer, write legal novels like John Grisham or start a comedy group like John Cleese. The world is your oyster, Jedi Master, and we are depending on you.