Your LSAT score and GPA are considered ‘hard’ factors due to the heavy emphasis that law school admissions offices puts on those numbers. All other factors that might play a smaller role in a law school’s admission decision are considered to be ‘soft’ factors.
These soft factors include things like work experience, volunteer work, extracurricular activities, your personal statement (and other essays), and student diversity.
Importance of ‘Soft’ Factors Relative To ‘Hard’ Factors
It’s really difficult to pin down how much soft factors matter because the mix is so different for each individual applicant. However, it’s important to emphasize that for most people they are going to play a relatively small role in whether you get into to X law school. With the exception of the top 5 law schools (Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, U Chicago), your GPA and LSAT alone can predict whether you get into a school around 90% of the time (the top 5 schools are a little different because they have more applicants with the numbers they want than they can admit, and thus have to rely more on soft factors in making their decisions).
Most people have at least something decent to put on their resume when applying to law school, so having these somewhat decent softs such as dabbling in club activities and doing some volunteer work doesn’t distinguish you very much from other candidates (though not having at least some of these regular soft factors can certainly hurt you).
The game changes when you’ve got something truly unique that you can put on your resume. There are a million possible great soft factors — stuff like being a former pro athlete, having been in a successful band, running a successful internet venture, having written a book, etc. It’s hard to say just how much these really unique soft factors can help, but they can push an applicant who was borderline or below into the accept pile or get an applicant with average numbers a big scholarship.
If you don’t have some crazy great soft factor, don’t worry at all! 99% of applicants to law school don’t. The most important thing is to show law schools that you have somethings that you are passionate about. Don’t go collecting soft factors just for the sake of doing it — find a couple things you are good at and love doing, and stick to that.
The same goes for work experience. If you are passionate about what you did at work that will show through on your application.
Your previous work experience may factor into your law school application in a number of ways. Some law schools like to see a couple of years of work experience after you complete your undergraduate degree. Others place less emphasis on post-graduate employment.
In either case, strong real-world work experience can help boost an application. A student with a high LSAT score and low GPA might catch a break if she had significant work obligations during undergraduate school. Also student with impressive internships might gain an edge over another student with similar LSAT/GPA numbers who spent their summers lounging at home.
While strong work experience can help give a law school application a boost, holes in a student’s resume might look suspicious to law school admissions offices. If you graduated two years ago and haven’t been employed in the interim, there is a possibility that this factor could weaken your application.
Given the current economic climate and high unemployment rates, I would imagine that it is increasingly common for students to apply to law school with holes in their resume. If you aren’t employed or doing much of anything right now, I would recommend that you a) begin doing something productive with your time off (e.g., volunteer work), and b) write an addendum to your application explaining your lapse in employment and the activities that kept you occupied during that time.
While this probably is not necessary for short (<3-6 month) lapses in employment, you might be better off giving admissions officers an honest explanation so they don’t have to wonder. In any case, volunteer work always looks good. Traveling and being active during time off is also fine. No one is going to think you are a slacker if you are doing the Appalachian Trail or checking out Europe.
Aside from conveying responsibility and work ethic, previously employed students are perceived to bring additional perspective to the class discussion. A student who has interned at an investment bank can usually add much to a class discussion on M&A law. A student who has worked for the EPA can bring useful insight into a discussion in an Environmental Law course. Likewise, a student who has significant experience volunteering at a homeless shelter brings those experiences with them to law school, and class discussions are informed by whatever knowledge and anecdotes they may have acquired in the process.
Basically, law schools like students from diverse backgrounds, so don’t worry at all if your work experience isn’t law related.
In general, law schools like to see applicants involved in extracurricular activities, particularly in leadership positions. Significant involvement in sports, clubs, and other activities can convey a positive image to admissions officers, and might even account for a slightly low GPA or lack of work experience.
In particular, law schools seem to prefer significant involvement (e.g., a leadership role or other significant commitment), rather than a passing interest in a wide variety of activities. Don’t join 20 different clubs that you meet with once a semester. Instead, join a few clubs, run as an officer or board member of a couple, and make an impact on those organizations.
Law schools like to have students from a variety of backgrounds. Law School classes composed of students from diverse backgrounds tend to yield fruitful discussions that the varying perspectives provide. The diversity soft factor can come in many forms: race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, dependent care, work experience, disabilities, etc.
If there is a (non-obvious) factor about you that is a deep part of your being and will add to the diversity of the incoming class at the law school to which you are applying, you might consider writing an addendum to your application addressing that soft factor. In the alternative, you may want to make it the subject of your personal statement.