The following overview offers general advice to help you decide whether you want to pursue a law degree and to help you become an effective candidate for law school. Each section presents an overview of a topic with links to more comprehensive information on the website. Be sure to meet with advisors to review your career decisions and your specific application strategy.
Preparing for Law School
Applying to Law School
Determine why you want to go to law school.
It is not necessary to know what kind of law you want to practice or even that you want to practice law to choose to go to law school. Go because you want to become a lawyer, because you want to do what lawyers do. Some law school graduates will enter careers that will lead away from traditional work as a practicing attorney. Lawyers are administrators, teachers, librarians and business managers as well as advocates, judges and politicians. Spend time with lawyers. Contact alumni who are lawyers who have volunteered to talk to you about what they do, how they do it and how they got to their positions. During your time at JMU, the Pre-Law program will sponsor programs to help you discover your options.
A law degree might not be necessary to do what you want to do. Speak to alumni who are professionals in the fields you are considering to see if there are options you might pursue without a law degree.
There are significant differences in the career choices lawyers make. The work and the resources invested in public interest law, government work, corporate law and work in a firm vary considerably. The range in starting salaries alone can exceed $100,000. The need to pay back school loans can affect the career choices of a new law graduate. Moreover, there will be competition in every area.
Prepare academically and through extracurricular activities
The American Bar Association offers an overview of the skills and values important to preparing for a legal education and a career in law.
The Juris Doctor is a generalist’s degree. The admission offices and especially the law professors that make the decisions on the admission committees are not particularly interested in your major (or majors). They are interested in how well you did in something you chose to do well, so study a subject that interests you. Lawyers come from all academic and professional backgrounds including science, education, nursing and management.
Law schools are interested in your ability to do rigorous analytical research, to write well, to present and to persuade. Take courses that will develop these skills. If you have done well in a class, consider taking more than one course with that professor; this will help them get to know your work and can strengthen a recommendation. Consider electives in the liberal arts if they are not part of your course of studies. If you are pursuing a libearl arts major, consider electives in business and economics. Consult this list of course possibilities.
Activities, internships and work experience are important, but they do not have to be directly related to law. Sample broadly then choose a few areas to focus your commitments. Take initiatives and responsibilities; work toward leadership positions in the areas you choose. Research projects, public interest programs, and business experiences are all valuable in helping you make your decision, as well as developing your skills and reflecting an engaged, problem-solving attitude sought after by employers and law schools alike.
Applying to law school
There are key elements and strategies in creating an effective law school application. The Law School Application Schedule offers a detailed timeline with additional links to resources, programs and LSAT test preparation:
The LSAT This is a skills-based test where focused practice over time makes a difference. Familiarity with the format and techniques increases confidence, competence and decreases the time you will need on individual questions. Plan to take the test once preferably in June of the year you apply. Do not take the test until you are prepared.
Retaking the LSAT Two thirds of the re-testers do improve their scores. While most schools do average scores, they will see your highest score, since all scores are reported. If you believe you can improve your score significantly (three or more points), consider studying and retaking the test. Use LSAC.org to see the difference a score could make in your choice of schools.
The Personal Statement Your essay should be a positive image of who you are. It should be interesting, taking the place of an interview. In clear, concise language, on about two pages, relate what you have learned from your experiences and what you are motivated to do next. Any low grades or scores should be explained in a separate letter. If there are specific programs or reasons why you chose a school, include them in your essay. It will take several drafts to complete. Show your essay to friends, professors and advisors to see if you are conveying the impression you want to make.
Letters of Recommendation Most law schools ask for two recommendations. Two strong academic letters from people who recognize your strengths and understand your goals are the most effective. Recommendations that include information and perspectives not included elsewhere in your application are particularly valuable. Make an appointment to meet with your recommenders to talk about their letter. Give them the option to decline by asking the question, “I will be applying to competitive schools; do you feel you could write a strong recommendation for me?” Bring copies of your resume and work that you have done in their classes. Let them know why you are asking them to write for you and review the points you would like them to cover. In addition, some schools may now ask for evaluations from recommenders.
A Resume A resume should be included in addition to an official application. It does not take the place of the application form. Be sure to complete all sections of the application for each law school. The resume is an opportunity to present your experience with the detail and emphasis you want. Include a section on related coursework and research papers. If necessary, it is OK to use a second page as long as the information is relevant to an effective application.
The Dean’s Certification The Dean’s Certification is not a personal letter of recommendation. It is a formal review of your undergraduate record and transcript. It can be helpful if you need someone in authority to explain or confirm any aspect of your work or confirm the strength of your program. Submit your request to the JMU Registrar’s Office as early as possible.
Send your transcripts and letters of recommendation to the Law School Credential Assembly Service. Send your application, personal statement, and resume directly to the law schools.
Choosing law schools
The two goals are to get into a school that is best for you and to start a career when you get out.
The Boston College Law School Locator maps out a strategy for deciding which law schools to explore. The website offers a database to search by GPA and LSAT scores and by state so that you can determine the schools in any location where you would be most competitive based on those numbers alone.
While it is a good strategy to have one or two “reach schools” and one or two “safety schools”, focus on the range of schools where your GPA and LSAT gives you at least a fifty-fifty chance of admission. These are the schools where your essay, resume and recommendations will make the difference.
The reputation of the school and the job placement of the graduates are more important than any published ranking. Speak to BC alumni who practice law about the schools you are considering. Ask for placement information about graduates with similar backgrounds as yours and career fields that interest to you. Ask where their graduates work geographically.
Check for special programs, summer clerkships and law clinics offered through the school for opportunities to gain experience. Look at the requirements to write for a law review. Consider schools where you can take electives in other graduate programs such as business or social work. Use the NAPLA/SAPLA Book of Law School Lists to check for joint degrees and specific academic programs.
The size of the school and the number of alumni actively involved with the school matter. Class size, campus environment and location matter. Attend the Law Forums and visit the schools you are finally considering if possible. You will be living and studying at that school for three years. While your work will speak for itself over time, when you apply for jobs, you will be from that school. Be sure each school you choose is a place you want to attend and plan to stay at the school you enter.
How law schools choose you
While a higher GPA and LSAT test score increase your chances to get in to any specific law school, the admission committees will not select individuals based on the numbers alone. For every school, the admissions process comes down to a choice among applicants with similar LSAT scores and GPA’s. Law schools will select individuals in a given range that have presented purposeful and interesting personal essays, resumes that project active leadership and positive results, and recommendations that are unique and perceptive. The more focused each of your applications are on your reasons for attending each school the more effective it becomes. The process is designed to create the most academically accomplished, diverse, and promising class the law school can assemble. Self-advocacy is part of that process. They want to know your potential and your situation. They also want to know any mitigating circumstances such as illness or family issues that would explain lower grades. Let each school know the reasons they should accept you.
Adapted from The Boston College Law Brief http://www.bc.edu/offices/careers/gradschool/law/brief.html.