Information for Those Interested in Law School
What are the general requirements for becoming an attorney?
Some points to keep in mind when selecting a law school
What are the general requirements for becoming an attorney?
In general, the formal requirements for becoming a lawyer usually include
- possessing a 4-year degree from an accredited college or university,
- graduating from law school, and
- passing a written examination (the "bar exam") administered by the state in which the prospective attorney wishes to practice law.
What's the "best" major to prepare one for law school?
Law schools accept students from all majors and backgrounds, so there is no "best" major to pursue that guarantees your admission. Also, there is no such thing as a "pre-law major,"so do not be fooled by schools saying they offer one.
Instead, you should pursue a major in which you have an interest and then work to obtain the highest possible grade point average (GPA) that you can. Criminal Justice, Political Science, and History, among other majors, are especially popular among UAB students interested in attending law school.
While pursuing your undergraduate degree, you should take classes that prepare you to succeed in law school -- not just help get you admitted. For example, you should take classes that enhance your:
- reasoning (logic and analytical) abilities;
- writing and verbal skills;
- understanding of American political history; and
- the relationship between law and society.
Because lawyers must analyze sometimes complex and conflicting cases and statutes, they must possess logical and analytically sound thinking, and demonstrate the ability to express that thinking with clarity and precision in both written and verbal forms. Courses that accentuate writing and discussion, such as upper-division undergraduate seminars, contribute to developing these skills. Courses that are challenging to you and which require self-discipline to do well in are also important. Department or school-based Honors Programs are especially good at helping you develop these skills.
Are law school admissions really a numbers game?
Like it or not, the reality is that the two most important factors in determining your admission to the law school of your choice are your undergraduate GPA and your score on the Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT). All other considerations -- perceived strength of the undergraduate major, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, etc. -- are secondary.
Because doing well on the LSAT is so important, completing a commercially available "prep" course (such as those offered by The Princeton Review or Stanley Kaplan), or purchasing a "do-it-yourself" prep guide to the LSAT (available from your college bookstore, Barnes and Noble, or Books-a-Million), are excellent ideas. Taking multiple practice tests under conditions simulating those you'll face when taking the actual LSAT is a "must do." You should also keep in mind that should you not earn the score you had hoped, re-taking the LSAT is probably not a good idea. The level of test-retest reliability of the LSAT is such that scoring dramatically better the 2nd (or 3rd) time you take the test is unlikely. Further, many law schools continue the practice of averaging scores, should you take the test more than once. In such cases, you would need to substantially increase your score the 2nd time taking the LSAT to make enough of a difference to matter, which (as described above) is unlikely.
What else is important besides the "numbers?"
While progressing through your undergraduate career, don't neglect extracurricular activities, since these can help separate you from other applicants with similar LSAT scores and GPAs. Any responsible leadership position you have taken, such as serving in student government or an officer in a fraternity or sorority, shows members of law school admissions committees you have varied talents beyond those shown in your academic record. Studying abroad, honors you accumulate, work experiences, completing an Honors Program or internships -- in a law firm, with a judge, or in a law-related agency -- also enhance your application.
For students who have been out of undergraduate school for more than a year or two, your undergraduate GPA will generally be less important in the application process. Law school admissions committees will instead focus even more on your LSAT score and on your accomplishments since leaving school. While graduate or professional training and accomplishments are considerations, community activities, child-rearing, political involvement, etc., will also be considered as important by admissions committees. Note that pursuing an advanced degree in the hope of overcoming a poor undergraduate record will usually not be a successful strategy.
Some points to keep in mind when selecting a law school:
As you're thinking about to which school you should apply, keep in mind:
- Top-tier law schools such as Harvard, Yale, Chicago, or Michigan are incredibly competitive. Beyond the sheer number of applicants, which can often be 5-10 times greater than the number of available seats for an incoming 1st year class, the median LSAT scores among applicants to these schools are typically in the 85th+ percentile, combined with cumulative GPAs of 3.75 or higher.
- Law school can be very expensive, in terms of tuition, fees, and cost of living. It is not unusual for students graduating from top-tiered law schools to spend on the order of $150K-$200K on their legal educations. You need to start thinking now about how you intend to finance your legal education -- student loans? scholarships? some other method? (NOTE: Most law schools either strongly discourage or explicitly prohibit their 1st year students from working, so that may not be an option as a way to pay for school).
- You should always apply to multiple schools -- do not "put all your eggs in one basket." Engage in a realistic self-assessment of your GPA, LSAT score, extracurriculars, etc. For example, if you have a GPA of 2.0 and a score of 130 on the LSAT, applying to a top-tiered school like Harvard is not only a waste of your money (some application fees can run more than $100), but the admission committee's time as well.
- If you have an interest in a particular area of the law -- environmental, constitutional, litigation, public interest, or appellate advocacy -- you should apply to schools whose curricula and (by extension) faculty members focus on such areas; In general, most people who attend law school end up practicing either in the general region or specific city in which the school is located. Thus, if you are interested in practicing law in Atlanta, it would probably not be wise to apply to law schools outside the State of Georgia, unless there's a good reason for doing so (e.g., none of the schools in Georgia offer a particular area of specialization which you are interested in pursuing).
- Once you've settled on a set of schools, check out the placement rate of the schools' recent graduating classes. Ask the admissions people questions like "What sort of firms come to your campus to recruit graduates?" "How successful have been their graduates at finding jobs with these firms?" "Is there a full-time placement office at the school?" Schools that do not have a full-time placement office or which don't have many major firms recruiting their graduates should probably be avoided.
- You should also ask the school(s) in which you're interested in attending about how recent classes have fared on the state bar examination. Schools whose graduates have a record of doing poorly on the state bar exam should probably be avoided
- Believing that becoming a lawyer is an "excellent way to make a lot of money" is not a good reason to pursue a legal career. Salaries of attorneys vary dramatically according to the type, size, and location of their employer. Further, lawyers who own their own practices usually earn much less than those who are partners in large law firms. In fact, lawyers starting their own practice may need to work part-time in other occupations to supplement their income until their practice becomes established.
- Finally, if you apply to and graduate from a non-ABA-accredited law school, you will likely not be able to take the bar exam in another state until you fulfill various prerequisites, such as having practiced law for a set period.
Sources: University of Notre Dame School of Law; LSDAS; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; University of Michigan School of Law
Helpful Web Sites:
The American Bar Association: Information About Careers and Law School
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Analysis of the Legal Profession
American Bar Association Statistics on the Legal Profession
Online Guide to ABA Accredited Law Schools
Information About Law School Admissions Process
Information on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT)
Financing Law School
American Bar Foundation
Phi Alpha Delta (International Prelaw Fraternity)