Note: This is for the United States only. Do not apply this information elsewhere. Skip to the bottom if you're curious how it works in the UK.
- Deciding On Going to Law School
By now you've probably entertained the thought of going to law school. Maybe you've been fooled by the glamorous portrayal of lawyers on TV, maybe you think you'd like to make a difference or something. Now is a good time to get your cards all out on the table and stare at them really hard.
First of all, law school is an expensive undertaking. We're talking approximately $30k a year on tuition alone. And if you don't live near the school and plan on dorming/renting? That's another $15k per year. Law school is, at minimum, approximately $90k total and can run you up to $200k.
You'll work, you say! You'll get grants, you say! Here's the hard reality, folks. Unless you are a) dirt poor or b) really incredibly smart, most law school's financial aid packages will consist of loans. They won't really foot the bills; rather, they're just delaying it. As for the work excuse, if you go to school full time, ABA regulations has it that you cannot work more than 20 hours per week (and some schools will make you waive that right).
There are forgiveness programs for these loans, but typically they are only if you work in public interest (which has abysmal pay): approximately half your loan is forgiven if you work in PI for five years, 75% at ten, and all of it at fifteen or twenty. So if you are young, naive, and really well-meaning, law school will be free! Now, it takes a strong-minded soul to be lured by this, because of benefits (mentioned a little later below).
Becoming a lawyer is not as cracked up as it is on TV. You'll spend more time proof-reading than anything else, jockeying for power to become a partner, and yelling at your secretary for being so incompetent. You will work 80-100 hour weeks and you'll bill for half of it because the other half is for non-billable stuff (like above said proof-reading). Your vacations will suck. If you're a new lawyer and you work in a hotshot big firm (Weil, Sullivan & Cromwell, Skadden Arps), then you'll be spending your Christmas at work because some partner called you in the night before to do work while they're out vacating in the Bahamas or in Florida or whatever warm place it is that you're not currently at. And you won't refuse, because...
The dream of turning partner is strong in everyone. Partners are the gods of law firms. In big enough firms, lowly peons like secretaries and paralegals can be fired or hired on their whims. Since their salaries are based directly from the profits of the firm, partners can easily make in the millions, especially if the said firm divvies up goods based on client billing and you're head of, say, some form of litigation or bankruptcy (hello, Enron!) Said salary is only if you work in the big shot law firms. Medium size law firms will pay half that (half a million or so). This is still not small money. Many people will pick medium size law firms to partner in, rather than large, if only because the smaller the law firm, the less likely you're going to be pulling those 100 hour work weeks.
All law schools will want these. It's really very simple, when you think about it.
- Four Year Degree
You either already a) have a bachelors or b) will be getting one some time soon, preferably before you start law school. There are some very few programs that will let some dedicated juniors in early, but you will need that diploma, and you will need that bachelors of arts, or science, or engineering...
This is where all your failures come back to haunt you. Every school wants a transcript, and every school will want that transcript sent to LSAC, who will reorder your GPA into some arbitrary number based on the phases of the moon. For those who transferred from one college to another to restart their GPA (since old grades don't transfer, just in general), you will hate this part the most. A transcript is required from every single school you attended for that four-year degree mentioned above. Basically, any school you got credits from. And yes, your old grades do get factored into your LSAC GPA for your new GPA. Got a 4.0 at a community college before transferring into a bigger school? This works in your favor. Failed out of an engineering major and then got a 4.0 in your second school as an English major? This will work against your favor. Typically, your GPA will be a bit lower than what it says on your current school record.
This is also best done early. Schools are notoriously slow about this sort of thing. Slow as in "Oh! I'm sorry, I put that underneath the table and the janitor swept it up three months ago; I'll send it out today!" Remember to check back on this repeatedly. Woe be to you if the said school you're trying to extract your transcript from is far away. This will suck.
P.S. Don't fail classes in your major, particularly those that you need to take again in order to graduate. Getting a F in a 3 credit course and then an A in the same said course will be factored into your LSAC GPA like this: 3 credits of F, 3 credits of A. Do the math and you'll realize this is very harmful towards your overall GPA.
This, occurring approximately 4 times a year (typically February, June, October, and December), is also lovingly known as the Hell-SAT. Rather like the SAT, this determines where you can go, regardless of what glorious leader of community/street bum you were before. It's also very expensive, and unlike the SAT, law schools would prefer you take this once. Not twice, not zero, but once. And if you should screw up the first time (say 150) and do wonderfully the second time (180)? A lot of law schools will take the mean (165). It is a cruel world, folks. Deal with it.
People, in their fruitless attempt to score very well on it, pay big bucks for Princeton Review, Kaplan, or whatever test prep course is the flavor of the month. The LSAT, from personal experience, cannot be "studied" for, as there is nothing you need to study (unlike, say, cramming useless vocabulary definitions in your head for the SAT). Your best bet is to buy the old test exams from LSAC and do them over and over and over again until you cry when you see another critical reasoning section or logic games section. (And if you think I'm not qualified to give this piece of advice and you're one of those score whores, I broke 170 by doing what I just advised above. So there.)
There is also a 30-minute writing section on the LSAT. This does not get graded, nor read. It is sent to the law schools when they request your score from LSAC. Admissions officers usually just give this a once over to make sure that a) you can write proper English and b) you're somewhat mildly coherent. Do not, do not, under any circumstances joke around with this bit. There have been perfectly intelligent people who made the idiotic mistake of writing about how pointless the writing section is for their writing piece. Admissions officers are not humorous people. Expect a big fat rejection if you do something as stupid as that.
Some schools ask for none. Most will ask for one or two, and some very few crazy places will ask for three. They will all prefer that you get it from a professor, though if you've been out of school for a few years, it's A-OK to get it from your boss/supervisor.
A word of caution: It is best to overdo it on this. If you catch your professor early and he/she is nice and punctual, this will work out very well for you. If you happen to be unfortunately gifted with a lazy, tardy professor, ask as early as possible (as a late recommendation will screw you over, since applications are not considered until they're complete, and they're not complete until every piece of information has come in). If a law school needs 2 recommendations, ask 3 people. If they need one, ask for 2. You get the picture. LSAC will hold up to 3 recommendations, so take advantage of that.
For those with lazy/slow professors: streamline it as much as possible. Don't spare the expense. Give them your recommendation form with a prepaid express envelope (granted, it's $13.65 for flat rate Express mail, but the peace of mind you get will be worth far more than that). Be explicit about when you need the recommendation. If you need it by, say, January 1st, then say that it's due December 1st (that way you can cover your butt when things go all pear-shaped). Professors are much more likely to get things done if you've laid it out clearly for them.
- LSAC Registration
LSAC is the administrator of the LSAT exams. They are a cartel, a monopoly... you have no way out of this one. Just about every school will require you to register with them, because you do not send your transcripts directly to the law school themselves, but instead through a proxy known as LSAC. Registration is also an expensive process; as of March 2004 it is $99.
Since every school you apply to will ask for a report from LSAC to get your transcript/LSAT score/recommendations, this will cost you a pretty penny. Reports are not free. In fact, as of March 2004, this is $12 per report (note: if you register for the LSAC, they have a "special" in that you can buy reports for $10 each, but usually when you register, you honestly don't know how many schools you're going to apply to). This adds up. You will cry when your credit card bill comes in.
Ah. The ~500 word personal statement. Do you remember, a long time ago, how 500 words used to be a lot? Well, it's not. In fact, it is so crippling that you will resort to some creative formatting, especially if the requirements are "approximately 2 pages" instead of "approximately 500 words" (which is supposed to work out the same but really doesn't). How else are you going to tell your life story in a lousy 500 word paper?
To immortalize the words of a friend: "Write the essay you intend to write. Then do a director's cut of it and hand that in." This may work for you. It certainly did for him.
As for a suitable topic, well, I can't give you advice. Just don't write about how your dad/mom/relative/brother/sister/cat/dog was a lawyer and you want to be one too because they told you to. Also don't mention your poor LSAT skills or grades; that's best left up to an addendum of some sort. Don't try to be funny. I think admissions officers are rather dour people and will not look at your attempt at humor all that well. You plan on being a lawyer, remember? That means you are the butt of jokes, not the propagator.
If you feel like it, leave about a paragraph empty at the bottom of the essay and do some research on the university you are applying to so you can write about why you want to go there: "I would like to go to fill in blank because they are #1 in Intellectual Property blah blah blah". You don't have to be all that creative.
- Dean's Certification (optional)
Some schools will want this during applications, some will want it after you've been accepted. Regardless of when they want it, they will want it eventually, since it's required (ABA regulations). A dean's certification is basically a sheet of paper that the dean of your undergraduate school signs off on and sends to the law school that basically informs the law school of a) your existence in said school; b) whatever misdemeanors you committed while in said school (going on probation because of crappy grades counts, too) and c) your potential in law school. C is not likely ever to come into effect, as few people rarely get to know their dean, much less get a good recommendation from them. Really, it's just to reassure the law school you're not lying about who you are.
If you are so unlucky that the law school wants it beforehand, a word of advice. Hand the dean's certficiation as early as possible. I belive all colleges and universities have a crappy bureacracy thing going, and there are always, always people who will conveniently "forget" to send your dean's certification. As this is part of your application, your application will not be complete if they don't send it in on time. Do this part as early as you can with your school and make sure you follow up on this (i.e., ask if they sent it after a week or two). Better safe than sorry. Nothing will irritate you more than receiving a letter from a law school saying that your application is complete EXCEPT for this one itty bitty thing.
Since most law schools usually only have seats open for the fall semester, most of your preparation will be done in the fall beforehand. Due dates for applications are usually very late; February 1st at earliest. There are quite a few schools that do not have a due date at all, as long as you hand it in before the start of the fall semester.
Why is this, you ask? Well, most schools employ rolling admissions, which means that they will evaluate your application as soon as it comes in (and is complete). This means that those people who apply early and have mediocre grades/LSAT scores have a better chance than those people with similar stats later in the game.
How does this affect you? Several ways.
- Take the LSAT as early as possible. It takes over a month to get your score back, and that could have been a month spent better in the hands of law school admissions. Ideally, the best month to take it would be the June before the fall semester you apply, but October and even December is feasible. Taking it in February either means you a) screwed up on an earlier exam or b) you are surefire cocky about what kind of score you'll get or c) you don't really care what kind of school you get into (as the big name law schools generally have smaller application window times and are done by the time the February LSAT rolls around).
There is a bonus on this. If you take the LSAT really early, and do very well, you will save yourself hundreds of dollars come Fall semester of your application, especially if you leave your score open to all law schools. A good score will mean hundreds of fee waivers being sent to you, from schools you've never heard of to the big, prestigious schools like the University of Chicago. Trust me, you want this. Applying to 7 law schools without fee waivers will kill half a grand of cash right there. If you are funding this little law school endeavor by yourself, take advantage of this.
- Apply as early as possible. If you can make it on time to do early admissions, by all means, I encourage you. However, even early admissions has a rolling admission window that most people don't really notice (i.e., it's better to be early in the early admission game, too, than it is to be late; those late in the early admission game may want to simply send it in and be early for regular consideration instead).
Once you mailed off the last of the application, the waiting period begins. Expect replies in approximately 5-6 weeks. Remember not to bite your nails. There is more to this waiting period than just merely waiting, however.
While you're waiting for the schools to reply to you, this is the best time to get your butt moving about financial aid (because, unless your daddy is as rich as Bill Gates, you will need to apply for financial aid. There's an online website for this sort of thing, called fafsa.org.
As a corollary to this, please fill out your income tax return as soon as possible. This makes this whole process easier. While you're at it, convince your parents to do the same.
Since you are applying to graduate school, you can conceivably apply as an independent student, and my advice will be to do so. Including your parent's income on your graduate loan FAFSA is a foolish thing to do, because they will consider your parent's income in addition to your own, and this is not a Good Thing when you need to milk as much money out of law school as possible. The only time it is acceptable to put your parent's income in your form is if your parents are poorer than you are (i.e., people like me).
(If you would like to know a more precise reason not to include your parent's income information, here it is. First of all, your parents are not expected to support your graduate school tuition, though lately this seems to be a dying trend. Secondly, law schools will take into consideration that since you cannot or can barely work during the next three years, you are, in effect, very broke. Regardless of how much money you make this year, it will be close to 0 the next year. They know this. So including your parent's income, which will NOT turn 0 the year you attend law school, is just a stupid thing to do.)
However, don't throw away your parent's tax return! Many schools will ask for a copy when determining how much financial aid they'll give you. However, unless they ask, don't give it to them (because you want to be considered as an independent). Typically, only big name schools (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, NYU) will ask (possibly because wealthy straight-from-college kids attend those).
- Need Access
Need Access is the other financial aid form that some law schools use. Your mileage will vary with this one, as approximately thirty law schools use it. Before applying to Need Access, please have a) your income tax return; b) your parent's income tax return and c) your credit card in front of you. Oh, and an hour or two as well.
This particular form is best done as late in the game as possible, either late February or early March, when possibly some rejection letters might have made their way back to you. Why is that, you ask? It's because Need Access costs cold, hard cash. $15 for every school you apply to - and this adds up if you've applied to six, seven, or possibly eight schools that all use it. Best to get rejected from some places and not have to pay for a Need Access application for them, yes?
A word of warning: it is a long application. It will not only ask every bit of information from those tax returns that I asked you to have, but also what kind of car you have, how much your car is worth, what kind of house you live in, what kind of house you plan on living in, how much money you think you'll be making two years from now, what the name of your puppy is... you get the idea. It's so nitpicky that it's almost insulting to your personal privacy. But hey, you need to milk money for law school, right?
So you've gotten your acceptance letters, eh? Bask in them, frame them, throw them away. After you get your acceptances back, you will be writing plenty of checks, mostly as seat deposits. Seat deposits are typically due in April, with the 2nd seat deposit due in May or even June. Because financial aid rewards/merit scholarships are not given until then, you may or may not be in the pickle of wanting to go to a school, but not being sure you can afford said school (read above for brutal tuition rates).
There are really only two ways around this. You can either a) choke it up and pay the nonrefundable seat deposit to several schools (typically anywhere from $200 - $1000) and wait it out, or b) call the schools and ask for an estimate. The latter choice may or may not work, as I've come to notice that financial aid is determined by a combination of your circumstances, how well you did in school, and what color the financial aid officer was wearing that day. What you are promised can be radically different from what you get.
If, however, you do have some financial aid rewards but you are considering a school that hasn't sent you one or has given a particularly crappy award, you can play a little game!
- Round 1: Round up those Financial Aid Letters
Take a good look at those financial aid letters, folks! Is there a school that has given you a particularly good award? Then you are ready for:
- Round 2: Do Your Comparisons
Round up all those schools that you are waiting awards for or feel is particularly crappy. This method works best if these schools are ranked the same, or lower than the school that you were given the particularly good award.
- Round 3: Call!
Call the financial aid offices of schools that you want awards from. Hold up your big award letter and say to financial aid officer, "Hi, I'm So-and-So and was accepted into So-and-So law school. I've received/have not received an award letter, but I would like to re-negotiate/get an estimate. I've received fill-in-the-blank amount of money from So-and-So law school and..." You get the picture.
Sit back and wait for your reward.
The Dreaded Wait List
Due to the rising number of applications and the static number of actual seats in any given law school, more and more people will be given over to the dreaded wait list. This is essentially a polite rejection, especially from a school as lofty as Harvard and Yale. There have been mysterious tales of people being taken off the wait list, but if there is any truth to it, you have a bigger chance of winning the lottery than getting off the wait list. Typically one or two people get taken off, unless a massive plague happens and somehow kills off all the law school hopefuls who were accepted into said law school.
That said, you do have a fighting chance in getting off if you persevere. How far you are willing to go is up to you. Here are some tactics:
Send Back the Postcard/Letter. Yes, folks, this is the first step of many. You must say that you are still interested in being on the waitlist.
Take a Look at Your Application. Again. Take a good long look at it. Many schools, when putting you on a waitlist, say that you are allowed to add to your application. Write another essay. Get another recommendation. If you are a senior at college, send in your fall/spring semester grades that you could not send in earlier (this tactic is only if your grades are phenomenal. Don't hurt your application!).
Visit the School. This is a total suck up tactic, but it works. If you are close enough to the said school, go and call them and say you'd like to tour the place. Go and look around. Take the self-guided tour, if they have any. Talk to the admissions officers. This a) puts a face to your application and b) shows that you really are interested. When they rank that waitlist, you are sure to move up a few spots because of this.
Write A Letter Expressing Intent. This works best after you do the Visit the School part. Write a nice letter about how you liked the campus, the teachers, the curriculem. Write how it's your number one choice of school. Be a goddamn suckup. Say that you will accept a seat if it is offered to you. If the waitlist should ever open up, admissions officers only want people who'll say yes, I'll jump if you say hop, and I'll go to your school gladly, regardless of how much financial aid I get. This letter will clearly say yes for them, and this bumps you up a few places on the waitlist.
Hold Out. This means hanging onto the waitlist until September. You never know.
Where to Angst
The waiting period for answers is possibly the longest five or six weeks (or even longer) that you've sat through. If you need to angst, there are plenty of message boards you can angst on, Princeton Review being the most popular. There, you will find like-minded babbling fools to share your joy and pain of being accepted/rejected/waitlisted.
Now that all is said and done, I wish you good luck on your journey on becoming a soul-less, money-sucking fee-earner.
The United Kingdom
The UK does it a bit differently. The study of law is primarily an undergraduate endeavor for most, occupying students for three years during the university levels (rather like a "pre-law" major in the United States). This is not actually required to become an attorney in the UK, but it does shorten the amount of study required in the long run (not by much, only a year at most).
After graduation from the university, the student can choose to become either a solicitor or barrister; the latter is much more difficult to achieve, as I understand that receiving a pupillage is very limited and the UK puts strict limits on the number of barristers created every year. Some choose to become a solicitor first as a stepping stone as a barrister; it really depends, I suppose. The primary difference between the two is that a barrister is a trial room lawyer, and a solicitor is more along the lines of legal advice (in litigation cases, both are hired, though). Either way, the student must spend an additional year studying, or approximately two years if he or she did not graduate with a law degree. (In terms of cost, I understand that certain law firms are willing to pay for this bit - I know the Magic Circle firms certainly do.)
For solicitors, after those one or two years of study, pupillage is also required, a two year training contract as a trainee solicitor with a law firm. Rather like an apprentice/master relationship, since a student must find the a law firm willing to sponsor them. Trainee solicitors get shitty pay (~20k first year, ~30k second year) and work basically as very junior lawyers (or very senior paralegals). Training contracts are usually split up into 6 month stints - "seats" - where the trainee is then shuffled into a new area of law to learn - e.g., bankruptcy, litigation, intellectual property, etc; each law firm has their own requirement about seats; depending on the firm's specialties, there may be some mandatory requirements on what seats you must take. (Note: If you can, get a seat abroad! Particularly somewhere interesting.) A particularly single-minded student would probably become a full-fledged solicitor (NQ - "newly qualified") at the age of 25, which is about a year ahead of a single-minded law student in the United States. Given a superficial glance, a single-minded solicitor probably comes out with a more specialized knowledge and hands-on experience than a lawyer in the US but at the same time isn't given quite as much opportunity to choose the field of law they want to work in. This of course, is different with everyone.
The route to become barrister is different and I have no idea how that works. Sorry.
Corrections are most welcomed, especially the bits about the UK. I only learned all that because I was stuck working with an insufferable trainee solicitor in a semi-but-not-quite-Magic-Circle firm.