Charles Lipson
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E-mail: c-lipson@uchicago.edu

 

Charles Lipson

Peter B. Ritzma Professor

Political Science Department

University of Chicago

5828 S. University Ave.

Chicago, IL 60637

   

Law School Advice: A Few Thoughts about about Applying to Law School

by

Charles Lipson
University of Chicago

 

As a political science professor, I speak with lots of students applying to law school and lots of alumni now practicing.  I want to pass along what I have learned to help students now applying or considering whether to do so.  I am not making the case for or against going to law school.  Only you can make that call.  I simply want to pass along some information that might help you with the decision.

I have three main pieces of advice:

  1. Apply to law school only if you want to become a lawyer, not because “you can do anything with the degree.”
  2. Remember that law school is very different from law practice.  Try to find out what practicing lawyers actually do everyday so you can decide whether it's right for you.
  3. Attend a good school where you want to live and practice. The only exception is if you are accepted to an elite law school, one of the top 15 or 25 in the country.

Now, let’s fill in the details. I'll explain the reasons behind my advice and offer a few more suggestions.

"You can do lots of things with the degree." Students say that all the time, and it’s true.  But it ignores several crucial points:

  • It is very expensive to attend law school.  If you need to borrow heavily to finance your education, the debt burden will sharply limit the jobs you can afford to take after graduation.
  • Law school takes three years, which could be devoted to other pursuits.
  • You also have flexibility with other degrees, such as an MBA or Public Policy degree, which take two years.

None of this is meant to discourage you, only to give you a realistic sense of the costs.
Bottom line: nearly all law school graduates actually practice law for several years after school, and most practice for decades. 
My advice: Attend law school only if you intend to practice for at least several years.

Law school is not the same as law practice. Before attending law school, be sure you actually want to practice.

  • If you like school, you’ll probably like law school, more or less.  If you do well in school, you’ll probably do well in law school, more or less.  But law school is not like practicing law any more than social work school is like being a case-worker in a poor neighborhood or business school is like being a corporate marketing executive.  A class in contract law is very different from spending all day drafting documents for corporate clients.  Debating great cases in criminal law is very different from visiting an alleged rapist in jail and devising an effective defense. What you need to think about, then, is not whether you would enjoy and succeed at law school, but whether you want to work as a practicing attorney, drafting documents, reviewing tax compliance, or defending alleged criminals.  
  • How can you tell if you will actually enjoy practicing law?  The best way is to spend some time watching lawyers do their daily work.  Since defending criminals is different from planning trusts and estates, you should try to watch lawyers who actually do the kind of work you are most interested in.   Unfortunately, it is hard to get this kind of hands-on experience.  But any kind of internship or summer research in a law firm would help.  Anything that gets your foot in the door will give you valuable information about the working world of lawyers.

Law Schools beyond the top 15-20 top national schools:
     Unless you attend an elite, national school, go to school where you want to live and practice. Apply where you want to live.

  • There are some fifteen to twenty-five elite, "national" law schools, such as Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Stanford, Columbia, NYU, University of Michigan, Penn, Northwestern, Cal-Berkeley, University of Virginia, Georgetown, UCLA, Texas-Austin, and several more.  Some are private; some are public. These schools, and only these, are part of a true national job market.  That means the big law firms from New York, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles visit these schools regularly to hire new associates. So, if you do well at Harvard Law, you can get a good job in San Francisco.  If you do well at Stanford or Berkeley, you can get a good job in Boston.
  • Just below this elite level are some very fine law schools, private and public, whose graduates are recruited mainly by top firms in their city or region. Their best students and faculty are equal to those at elite schools, but their new graduates are usually recruited by local or regional firms, not the big national ones in NY, LA, Chicago, and Washington.
  • This regional pattern of job recruitment affects where you should apply.  Unless you are accepted by an elite, national school, you should go to school where you want to live and practice. That's where local and regional law firms do their hiring (in addition to hiring from national schools).
  • How can you find out more about this regional legal market? Which law schools, for instance, are visited by top firms in the city where you want to live? Easy. Go the the Websites for several good law firms in that city and see where their new associates went to law school. That will give you a good sense of where those firms recruit.
  • If you want to live in Atlanta, that means you should definitely apply to the University of Georgia, and perhaps to Emory, Duke, and Vanderbilt (which are considered national schools but have a very strong local presence). You may also want to check out the flagship law schools in neighboring states such as Florida and Alabama. Don’t worry about whether the University of Georgia is “better” than the University of Washington or the University of Colorado in some ranking.   Worry about whether you want to work in Atlanta, Seattle, or Denver. 
  • Whichever location and school you choose, it's important to do good academic work if you want to be hired by a top firm. That's even more important if your school is not a national one.

Practical tip: Admission to top law schools has increasingly become a numbers game, with a heavy emphasis on LSAT scores. Be sure to prepare extensively for that test.

Practical tip: Will you like law school? Talk with some law students and attend a class session or two.  That's wise advice from a professor who has taught both undergraduates and law students: "Talk to current law students and perhaps sit in on a class or two," he says. "Most law school classes are business-oriented and lack the political/historical/cultural approaches [you] may have come across in college." His point is that law school is professional training, not liberal arts, and you will get a better sense of that when you talk with students and see how classes are conducted. You should also remember that these legal classes are very different from everyday legal practice.  

Practical tip: Recommendations for nearly all law schools must be submitted through a clearinghouse called the Law School Admission Council.  LSAC has finally set up a website where faculty can submit electronic recommendations.  You can contact them at http://www.lsac.org/ to set up an account for your recommendation letters and other files.

Law School Admission Council
661 Penn Street
P. O. Box 8508
Newtown, PA 18940-8508

Practical tip: Be sure to get your recommendations from faculty before you graduate. It is much easier for professors to write a letter shortly after they worked with you than to write that letter two years later. It's easy for them to update the old letter in a couple of years to reflect your additional experience or education. Believe me, it is much easier to update a letter for a former student than to write one from scratch several years after graduation.

Checklist of items to include in a packet for professors writing recommendations. Put everything in the packet. On the outside, please put your name, email address, and purpose of the recommendation ("Applying to Law School"). The packet should include:

• Cover Sheet with your name, address, phone, e-mail, picture, and purpose of the recommendation (law schoo, job, MA program, doctoral program, etc.)
           recommendations requested from Prof. Lipson must include his custom cover sheet. You can download it here for undergraduates or here for current MA students
• List of grades and courses by academic year; including course title and professor
• Grade Point Average, both overall and in your major
• Candid explanation of strong and weak points in your record (if you explain them, then your recommenders can deal with them in the letter)
• Research papers and exams; please include them in the packet if they would be helpful to the recommender
• Personal statement and other statements, if any; if you do not have a finished statement, include a draft version
• Extracurricular activities and work history
• Special skills such as languages, math, study abroad, etc.
• Scores on LSATs with percentile ranking
• Date when recommendations are due
• Photograph of yourself; a photocopy is fine

• LSAC form with bar code for your recommendation (LSAC will not accept recommendations without this form)
• Stamped envelope addressed to the Law School Admission Council in Newtown, PA

For detailed advice on getting supportive letters, see my Web page on Getting a Good Recommendation.  It explains exactly what you should give a professor, attorney, or boss who will write for you.

Thanks to Debbie Chizewer and Gerald Rosenberg for their advice on this page. Debbie is pre-law adviser at the University of Chicago. She holds a JD and has practiced and taught environmental law. Gerry holds both a JD and PhD and teaches in the law school and political science department at the University of Chicago. He specializes in civil rights issues and the political impact of courts.

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(c) Charles Lipson, 2012