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.
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.
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.