5 Harsh Truths About Getting Into Law School

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cautionIt’s time for a dish of cold, harsh reality. Why? Because you are considering law school now. This is no game. This isn’t something where you are walking by an LSAT testing center and think, “hey, why not.” We are talking about the direction of your future here. That’s why we want you to view the process of getting into law school with your eyes fully open.

Here a law school veteran, U Chicago grad Evan Jones, will help you see the law school admissions process for what it really is, and give some advice on how to approach it. A warning to old hands: much of this is addressed to those just getting acquainted with the world of law school admissions.

1. The LSAT is The Entrance Exam That Determines Where You Get In

Stop thinking about the LSAT as a piece of your application. While it is a piece, it’s a gargantuan piece that almost eclipses every other consideration. To illustrate it’s singular importance, let’s say you have a GPA that is acceptable to any law school, a 3.75. From there your LSAT score is going to predict where you get in something close to 100% of the time, and a lot of the time, moving it up or down by just a couple points will make the difference.

Yes, law schools do use a holistic process of reviewing applications. However, that only affects people on the margins. What I really mean to say is, chances are close to 100% that you’ll be judged entirely on your numbers, mostly the LSAT. If you have truly outstanding soft factors, it is possible they’ll come into play. Likewise, if you have very detrimental soft factors, they might hurt you (think an extensive criminal record). Other than that, you are generally going into either the accept or reject pile based on your numbers alone.

Again, of the two numbers, LSAT is by far the more important. Most law schools use an admissions index to make an initial determination regarding acceptance. From just that index score, you are going in one of two piles: presumptive reject, or presumptive admit. The typical index puts something close to 70% weight on LSAT vs. 30% weight on GPA.

Now, they will use other factors to pull a few files from the presumptive rejects into the admit pile and vice versa, but again, that’s just on the margins. You’ll have to have something outstanding either way to flip the script on them. 95% or more of applicants don’t have anything that compelling. They’ll stay in the pile they landed in. That means if you want to survive the initial sorting you’ve got to have the numbers, mostly the right LSAT number.

GPA is better thought of as kind of a pass/fail sort of thing. A bad GPA might keep you out, but a good GPA won’t get you in, not without a good LSAT. However, a great LSAT score can and frequently does eclipse a low GPA. For more on this, see our post on getting in with a low GPA.

Now that’s a simplification of the process, but this is one of those times where the simplification gives you a clearer picture than the details. It’s harsh, but try to think of it as a positive: you can erase a lot of weak points with your LSAT score.

2. Scholarship Money Goes To Students That Raise The Medians

While some schools do give need based aid, the overwhelming majority of money going to law students exists for one purpose: to attract highly qualified applicants to the school. If you think the issue of whether you get in or not is almost all numbers, well, scholarship assistance is really, really only about the numbers.

Schools want students who help raise or help maintain their LSAT and GPA medians. They do this for two reasons. The first is not so noble: high student numbers help them in the US News law school rankings. The second reason is more legitimate: students with high numbers tend to perform better in law school. However, really, we can ignore reason number two when it comes to discussing scholarship money. Really, schools use scholarships to attract high LSAT/GPA candidates so they can jockey for position in the rankings.

An alternative way to explain this is by yield. Schools have a harder time attracting high scoring students, who will tend to enroll in more prestigious programs. These students are low-yield, meaning they’ll accept offers at a lower rate.  Schools then use money to tempt them to come to their school instead of X slightly more prestigious school. They don’t do this with students whose numbers are lower because those students are likely to attend without the additional incentives. Those students are much higher yield.

What this means for you is that if you need a scholarship, you should be aiming for school where one or both of your numbers are above the school’s medians (measured by the stats for the prior years enrolling class). Preferably, you want your numbers at the 75th percentile or higher. However, do not forgo applying to higher ranked schools just because you think it’s likely you won’t get a scholarship. Those offers might help you get a bigger scholarship when you negotiate down the road. We talk a little more about that here.

This advice doesn’t quite hold true for URM applicants. Generally a wider range of scores might draw scholarships for a URM applicant. The best way to research scores that have drawn scholarship money for other applicants in the past is by sifting through the data on the website Law School Numbers. They have data for both URM and non-URM applicants.

3. Only Your Highest LSAT Score Matters

Only HarvardYale, and Stanford care if you have a lower score on the books. Anyone else who says differently is full of it. Myself and others have poured over admissions data, and there is no discernible disadvantage to having multiple LSAT scores so long as your highest score is good enough.

Why is this a harsh truth? Because you have no excuse not to take the LSAT again if you know or even have good reason to think you can do better. Often this means you have to wait a year to apply. Yet, most of the time anyways, that is exactly what you should do.

RELATED: 5 HARSH TRUTHS THAT WILL MAKE YOU BETTER AT THE LSAT

I argued recently that anyone getting an LSAT score in the 150s the first time around should retake. I stand firm in that opinion. Also check out the retake advice that admissions consultant Ann Levine gave our readers here.

4. Right Now, There Is Such A Thing As Too Low

I could equivocate here, but really, some LSAT/GPA combos are just too low. Pursuing law school with these scores is likely to land you in a terrible financial position, plain and simple.

You want at least an above average LSAT score, so something north of a 152, before you even begin to consider applying to law school. This is around the minimum score that will need to get you into a ranked school.

Apply with an LSAT south of the mid 150s and you likely end up in a dog eat dog program where few candidates go through to graduate and get legal jobs. I’m talking about this kind of school. Basically, you should hesitate to attend a school when there is a raging debate about whether that school should exist at all.

You might be surprised to find that I don’t think there is anything fundamentally wrong with attending a school where you have less than 50% odds of getting a job in the field you are seeking — what’s off nowadays is the price. In most cases it’s just too much to pay for a degree that might have limited value. Tuition and fees often run to about $40,000 even at 3rd and 4th tier schools. There is the possibility that this will change in the near future. Low cost alternatives are possible– CUNY law, which currently has in-state tuition set at $6,715, is an existing example, one of the very few.

Likewise, a 2.5 or lower GPA is typically just too much ballast to overcome. Even if you do get a great LSAT score, say a 175, you’ll likely be kept out of the top 10 schools. My feeling is that people capable of that score might better use their strengths in a field that isn’t quite so preclusive to students with low GPAs.

Everyone, no matter what their score, should exercise extreme caution when applying to law school. Don’t think about rankings much. Spend time researching the job prospects that different schools provide. The score reports on Law School Transparency are an excellent resource for quick comparisons and should form the starting point to your research.

If you need to boost your LSAT score, we can help with that too. Start with our free 3 month LSAT study schedule.

5. You Shouldn’t Feel 100% Committed To The Idea Of Law School

This isn’t a truth about law school admissions per se, but it’s a truth about how you should approach it if you want to get the best results. Let me clarify this advice: I don’t think anyone should ever approach law school admission with the mindset “I am going to law school next year.”

The biggest mistake (and perhaps the most common) that prospective law students make is to decide, absolutely, before even taking the LSAT, that they are going to law school. They get what I like to call “law school tunnel vision”. They commit to the idea, and nothing is going to stop them, even if the numbers clearly don’t make sense.

Here’s what to do instead: If you know you have a strong interest in going to law school do a ton of research on what school options would be acceptable to you. Then, if you are still interested, commit to doing your very best on the LSAT. It may take one or even two retakes. That’s just the nature of the game right now.

Throughout that process, evaluate whether you have the numbers to get into the right school at the right price. If you can’t hit your range of acceptable options, you are generally better off not going, period.

At no point until you put down your seat deposit should you feel unable to walk away. Even after that. I know a guy who bailed out on Northwestern Law during his orientation! He’s now happily studying the brain working towards a neuroscience PHD. Think of him if you are ever feeling trapped.

I’m not going to mince words here: It is bleak in the legal job market. Barely half of all 2012 students had full time jobs that required a J.D. nine months out from graduation (ABA Journal). Even though their is evidence that long term, J.D. holders significantly outperform those holding only a bachelor’s degree (get a taste of the debate over that here), law can be a serious struggle, especially at the outset of one’s career. That’s in large part because it’s highly competitive and starting salaries follow a bimodal distribution. The legal economy’s recent woes tend to actually obscure the fact that there has always been comparatively few winners at the top getting a big payout. Lately, it’s getting worse. Here’s a chart illustrating the pay divide between the top of the field and the bottom, 2007 vs. 2011:

bimodal distribution

While the recession sharpened the divide, it’s always been there. If you not at a top 20 school, you are overwhelmingly likely to land in the left most hump. Really, if you are planning on attending any school outside the T-14, that roughly $40k-60K hump should be the figure you are working with when you calculate if law school is right for you.

I apologize if this information is old hat, but I know it was sometime into my own path towards law school before I became aware of it. Knowing it may help sharpen your thinking about whether this is the career for you. Considerably older and wiser heads than me say that law as a path to comfortable upper-middle-class security has always been exaggerated. Now, what remains of the myth is totally eviscerated.

I don’t want to trample on anyone’s ambition. If you have a strong desire to be a lawyer, that is laudable, and maybe even necessary, to your long term success in the field. However, don’t let it blind you from the cool, rational calculations that must be made while you are deciding whether to attend a law school this year.

Go in with the able-to-walk-away attitude and you are far likelier to carve out a good situation for yourself. My main advice: don’t downgrade your preferences. If you went in saying, “T-14 or bust!”, then stick with that.

Our other advice: seek other advice. If you are new to the process, read a lot of the news coverage on changes in the legal field recently. The Wall Street Journal and the Times have been particularly active covering the legal beat.

One last thing: we are always here to help. Ask us your admissions and LSAT prep questions in the comments below and we will be happy to answer. Best of luck with the process and keep in touch.

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16 Comments

    • J Michael,

      Well, the advice in #4 (right now there is such a thing as too low) more or less applies to both URM and Non-URM applicants. Even though URM applicants might have a slightly wider range of school options with a low 150s score, it’s likely a much wider range of acceptable options open up when that score is boosted even to the high 150s. I’d still advocate that everyone should retake at least once to try to boost a low 150s or lower score.

      The scholarship advice applies less well to URM applicants. I’ll edit the post to add that. Generally, a wider range of scores might draw scholarships for a URM applicant.

  1. I have a GPA that is a 2.74, do I have a chance anywhere? I know not top tier, but are there any accredited schools that you know about in California that would take that? Or is casting a wider net better?

    • Rachel, when you are aiming for lower ranked schools, typically it’s important to stay in an area where you want to live. It tends to be difficult to get hired out of the school’s home market. For that reason, I would only look in California if that’s where you want to be. With a great LSAT score (165+) you’ll have a lot of options in California. However, you may find it difficult to draw scholarship money with your GPA. If cost is a big concern, I would really consider other paths besides law school for the time being. Right now, it’s just too expensive to go non top tier schools at full price. That may change in coming years.

  2. Hi guys, i have applied to law schools for the 2014 entering class and although my GPA was relatively high (3.75) my lsat was rather low after taking it twice. (i did not prepare well at all) If i do not get in to the schools i feel would give me the best employment prospects upon graduation, i would want to retake the lsat in june with better preperation and reapply next fall. How do admissions committees look at students who reapply as well as those who take the lsat a third time even if my score sees significant improvement?

  3. Hi Evan,

    I started college in 2000. I went for two and a half years, but I was suffering from depression and abusing alcohol. During this time I did significant damage to my GPA. I took seven years off from school, and I sought help for my issues. I started back in 2009 at a different school and just graduated summa cum laude. My cumulative GPA is 2.89, but my GPA from 2009 forward is 4.21. I just started my preparation for the June LSAT and have a realistic chance of getting a 170+. If I achieve a high enough LSAT, do you believe I have a chance at a T-14, or will my low cumulative likely preclude me from entrance?

    Thanks,

    Brian

    • Well, with a 170 plus you definitely have some chance of getting into a t14. Next year is certainly the time to try it if you are going to, because applications will still be way down.

      I think you definitely have the circumstances that will make them want to overlook your low GPA a bit. That said, don’t expect to do any better than other applicants with a low GPA (at t14s, that’s anything around 3.4ish and below).

      It’s too bad that law schools place so much weight on GPA number rather than the substance behind it, but that’s how it is. Prep hard and good luck!

      • Thanks for the encouraging take on my situation! I am following a preparation regimen very similar to the one that you have laid out, so I believe I will be well suited to attain my target score.

  4. Hello! I have a question about writing “why X school” essays. I know that these are optional, and I didn’t write them for most schools because I thought they would come off as too generic. I’m not yet sure what area or fields of law I’m interested in, so I didn’t want to mention programs in each school, without having something substantially relevant from my background to back it up. But now I’m starting to think I should have.. What do you guys think about ‘generic’ why X school essays? Is it better not to write one if they are going to be generic or less sincere? And if I’m still waiting on the decision, can I still write one?

    • Hi Ash. I admit this is one I don’t know the answer too. Generally you are allowed to supplement your application at any time, so you probably can add a “why X” essay. I will say that I don’t anticipate it making a difference whether you write one or not. You applied, which creates the presumption that you are interested in the school. If it’s going to be somewhat generic, I would just hold off unless you are waitlisted. The much better way to demonstrate interest in the school is with a visit if you haven’t done so yet. Make sure you meet someone in the office, ask to sit in on a class, and be friendly and professional. THAT can certainly make a difference.

      • Hi Evan, Peg Cheng here. :-)

        I agree with you that Ash could supplement her application. But I think it would be better if she emails or calls the admissions office first and see if she can send in her optional “Why Our School” essay (because the deadline for applying may have already passed). If they say yes, then do it! I disagree on the point that it won’t make a difference. It CAN make a difference (even a slight difference which is all some people need) if it is specific, relevant and well-written.

    • It’s a good question, Ash. I advise all my students that the “Why Our School” optional essay is only “optional,” if you don’t want to get into that school. If you can’t think of something relevant and specific to write for the “Why Our School” essay, you probably shouldn’t be applying to that school. I’m not trying to be harsh, just honest.

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