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It’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 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 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 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 same pile they landed in initially. 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 high 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 the 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, we can ignore reason number two when it comes to discussing scholarship money. 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 a 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. In general, 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

Law Schools no longer care if you have a lower score on the books. Anyone else who says differently is full of it. I’ve 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 retake the LSAT 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. Most of the time anyway, that is precisely what you should do.

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

I recently argued that anyone getting an LSAT score in the 150s the first time around should retake. While it may be somewhat controversial, stand firm in that opinion.

For more on this topic, I recommend checking 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. 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 shortly. Low-cost alternatives are possible– CUNY law, which currently has in-state tuition set at $7,331.45 per semester ($14,662.90 per year), 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 an excellent LSAT score, say a 175, you might still have a tough time getting into 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 for your research.

If you need to boost your LSAT score, we can help with that too. Start with our free three 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 most significant 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 don’t make sense.

Here’s what to do instead: If you know you have a keen 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 frequently 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 Ph.D. 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 there 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), being a lawyer 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 obscure the fact that there have 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:

While the recession sharpened the divide, it has always been there. If you not at a top 20 school, you are overwhelmingly likely to land in the leftmost hump. If you are planning on attending any school outside the Top 20 or so, that big hump in the $40k-60K range 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 some time 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 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 cold, 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 positive 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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42 Comments

  1. Lauren Ridolph on

    Hi Evan,

    I’ve been an RN for over 20 years and have been working as a legal nurse consultant assisting attorneys with medical malpractice cases in the last 6 years. I’m very much considering applying to law school in 2021 and I’ve Been spending the time studying for the LSATS. I do keep one foot on the ground about it for precisely the reasons you have given us about “the law” and school etc..In your bleak outlook on the job market, do you think I have a better chance of getting a decent job, if a job at all, as a lawyer based on my background if I choose this path? I’ve heard from past attorneys that it could put me at a bit of an advantage but I’m just wondering if they are just blowing smoke up my chimney. What do you say? Also, one of my best friends is a med mal defense attorney and she’s been pushing me to go to law school. She says I’d be good at what she currently does and that there aren’t enough attorneys to do all the cases sent out by the insurance companies… as in plenty of that kind of work. Obviously, this is the type of law I would want to stick with.

  2. I’m expecting a 3.54-3.56 gpa by the end of this spring semester, that is when I’ll be graduating. I just took my LSAT and I and I’d probably be in the 150s but I’m retaking it and trying to aim for the mid 160s. Do you think I have a shot at Northwestern or UT Law? I’m a minority and a first generation student. Thank you anything helps!

  3. Hi!
    Currently I am taking a logic course, however, I might need to withdraw from it. I was wondering what looks worse on a transcript for law school having a W in a logic course or having a potential C or even worse in a logic course?

    Thanks

  4. Hi, I am currently enrolled to take the June LSAT. I feel as though I have prepared to the best of my ability given my circumstances (enrolled in school and working full-time) and I have been scoring at about 156/157. However, I plan on taking time off of work to study everyday for this next month… Do you think getting a score in the 161-165 range is still attainable with some more studying and prep work over the next month? I’m really aiming to get into a Top 20 school…. thanks for your help.

  5. If I were to major in something completely unrelated to law, get a 3.5+ GPA, and score 150+ on the LSAT, would my lack of law related courses hinder my ability to get into a T14? I do better studying alone than when in a class, and wanted to know if this was possible.

  6. Hello, thanks for the great discussion! I am currently studying at a foreign university (t-20 worldwide) with a gpa that translates roughly to a 3.4. I recently took the LSAT dry and scored in the low 160s. Since I will have an LSAC report rather than a GPA, will my LSAT carry more weight than usual?

  7. Thank you for the great discussion! I am studying at at a British university (t-20 in the world) and just took the LSAT dry and landed in the low 160s. My school does not use a GPA scale (my grades convert roughly to a 3.4). Since I will receive an LSAC report rather than a GPA, will my LSAT score carry more weight than normal in my application? Thanks!

  8. Hi,

    I got a 164 on my LSAT after 6 months of studying. Was practice testing at an average of about a 165. I really am leaning towards not taking it again, however my law school goals were schools like Vanderbilt, Emory, Georgetown and Texas. I have a 3.74 in the Honors Program at a top 25 public university, with two majors in the business school, a Spanish minor and a certificate in Business Law.

    In addition I have held an internship at a Fortune 500 company, studied abroad for a summer and have been extremely active in school, holding leadership and ambassador roles with Admissions and the Honors Program and being an editor for an official university publication. In addition I have held a job as a student adviser to campus administration.

    Despite my LSAT score, do you think this will be enough to push me over the edge at some of these top 20 schools?

  9. Hello Evan,
    I have taken the LSAT twice now, the first score being 5 points higher than the second but both not over 140. My GPA is a 3.8, I graduated Magna Cum Laude. Should I take the LSAT again because I am not prepping with a different company than I did before. What are my chance after taking the LSAT 3 times? How likely is it to jump 20-30 points? Sense I’m prepping with a tutor and actually learning.

  10. Hi, I come from a family of doctors and Pharmacists. I did my undergrad in science with 2.7 GPA. I am good at public speaking, personable and like to be among people. I ran for the student association and was elected President for that association. I successfully raised funds for different natural disasters around the world and for political causes. In line with my family background I went to pursue medicine in one of the best known medical school in the Caribbeans. I finished all basic sciences in 2 years. Last 2 years gave me ample time time to think whether Medicine was for me. I withdrew from the medical school just before clinical rotations and plan to pursue my career in Law. I got 162 on my practice LSAT that I took cold last month. I am preparing for LSAT and hope to score between 165-170. What are my chances of getting into a good Law school? Can you also comment whether my extensive background in Live Sciences will be of any benefit to me?

    • Hi,

      I’m curious to know what information you have found. Your situation is similar to mine. I graduated undergrad with a 2.6 in Neuroscience and Physiology. I planned my whole life around becoming a physician one day. I was actually miserable and I didn’t even realize it until half way through undergrad. It didn’t help that I was also very sick throughout undergrad too. It all obviously messed up my gpa, and my grades do not reflect my capabilities. I have recently been considering law school after finally overcoming the guilt (most of it anyway) of deciding not to pursue science and medicine. Law and international relations seems like a better fit for me. Any information and advice you have come across will be useful. By the way, you were still able to get into med school with a 2.7?! Thank you and good luck to you!