With the wide range of student interests, almost every college independent educational consultant (IEC) is going to advise prospective pre-laws. Given this, we should all know some basics about law school admission—and legal careers—that will help us serve this population better.
Some 2,300 years ago, the medical profession came up with a principle that is just as valuable for guiding prospective law students as it is for young doctors: “First, do no harm.” Going to law school does cause harm to a lot of students. Six-figure debt is very common. A student who invests three years and the price of a house who then can’t pass the bar exam, or who can only find legal work that pays too little to service the loans, is far worse off than if they had never gone to law school. You may have heard the truism: “You can do anything with a law degree!” There’s some truth to that; I’m one of many IECs with a JD, and there are lots of us in journalism, in Hollywood, etc. But I went to Harvard Law, and my parents paid. A student with those privileges can afford to go to law school just for the intellectual adventure. Most students need to do a cold, mathematical cost-benefit analysis.
Brand Names Matter
The essential insight we need to provide in order for them to make that analysis is this: law is a hierarchical profession. We rank everything, from fields of practice to law firms to judicial circuits.
Many IECs have read Frank Bruni’s outstanding book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. It’s a great tool for helping parents understand how little a college’s brand name matters in comparison to the importance of a student’s work during college.
When it comes to law school, though, where you go kind of is who you’ll be. Yes, every law school can point to alumni who are financially successful, widely respected, saving the world, or all three. My father, valedictorian of his bottom-tier law school in 1964, did just fine. But unlike a college degree, or even a medical degree, the prestige of your law degree follows you throughout your legal career. Some fields of practice are primarily available to graduates of elite law schools, or to the straight-A students at mid-ranked law schools. On the flip side, at some law schools, barely half of graduates are able to find jobs practicing law at all. So it’s wise to pay a lot of attention to law school rank.
Numbers Come First
How do you get into elite law schools with outstanding career outcomes? College GPA and LSAT score, together, account for about 90 percent of variance in admission outcomes. While there can be a fair amount of leeway for underrepresented minority and first-generation students who present their stories well, this is a numbers-driven process. All other qualifications—work experience, undergraduate major, essays, recommendations, even a PhD—operate in the margins. Legally Blonde got this right: Elle Woods, with a 4.0 GPA and +99th percentile LSAT, is going to get into Harvard Law, even if she majored in fashion merchandising at East Nowhere State instead of “CULA.” Given the same LSAT score, Elle has better odds of getting into Harvard Law than a student with a 3.5 in chemical engineering from MIT. Why? Because US News rankings factor in the GPA and LSAT of each law school’s incoming class, with no weighting based on college or major. And US News rankings are life and death for law schools.
You may have seen statistics showing that a disproportionate number of students at top law schools went to fancy colleges. That’s true, but it’s mostly because those fancy colleges are full of terrific test-takers with lots of ambition…in other words, ideal future law students. There are also many political science majors in law school, but there too, the pattern is driven by the choices students make, not by law schools preferring to admit those students. There are no majors, or even courses, that law schools favor. A course in formal logic will help students get ready for the LSAT, and writing-intensive courses prepare them to excel in law school, but these are neither required nor even recommended for admission purposes.
Just as numbers drive law school admission, they also drive merit scholarships. Need-based aid is less available at law schools than we are used to seeing at the college level; there is no law school equivalent to the list of 20-plus colleges that guarantee to meet demonstrated need for every admitted student. Furthermore, even at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford Law, the best need-based aid packages still require loans. On the other hand, merit money is plentiful at almost every law school outside of those three. It serves the exact same role it does in the undergraduate world: helping to pull in better-qualified students than the school believes it could attract at full price. A student with strong numbers and savvy advising should be able to generate a range of options, including highly ranked law schools at full price, somewhat lower-ranked schools at a discount, or schools a tier or two below for free, possibly including a stipend for living expenses.
What About Academics?
One bright spot in this grim picture is that the intrinsic quality of the education at US law schools is outstanding across the board and varies little from tier to tier. It’s extremely competitive to get a teaching job at any law school, so the faculty members are well qualified everywhere, and the rigor and content of the curriculum are largely similar at all law schools. Outside of the 14 or so schools with truly national name brands, geography is an important factor. If a student wants to become a public defender in Kentucky, going to law school at the University of Kentucky is likely a better bet than a higher-ranked (but not top-10) law school.
Some schools attempt to distinguish themselves from their peers by hyping the depth of their offerings in fields like intellectual property or environmental law. We’re all familiar with this type of branding, and at the undergraduate level, a student with strong career goals might wisely forgo an Ivy to study petroleum engineering at LSU or hospitality management at UNLV. But at the law school level, these specialties don’t justify choosing a much lower-ranked law school. It’s only a reasonable criterion to consider when a student is deciding between otherwise similar law schools. For law school, ranking matters; location matters; price matters. Academic variations mostly don’t.
Much of what I’ve said runs counter to our instincts as IECs. Most of us believe in the liberal arts ideal and have experienced the personal and intellectual growth that comes through challenging yourself in college. We don’t think education can or should be reduced to an ROI calculation. We don’t want to encourage students to choose a college for its low academic pressure or a major because of its easy As. But we have to find a balance between expressing these values and enabling pre-law students to make informed decisions that will impact their future. A lot of would-be pre-laws should not go to law school. Facing the truth about which fights are winnable is a critical lawyering skill.
By Hanna Stotland, JD, IECA (IL)