Law School Basics

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Law School Basics

The study of law is unique. The graduate degree in law, a juris doctor (J.D.), is typically awarded upon completion of a three-year program of full time study. While the law degree is a doctoral degree, a master’s degree is not a pre-requisite for admission to law school, and the vast majority of law students begin law school after earning their bachelor’s degree. Some law schools offer part-time programs which require four years of study. American law students come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Law school is extremely challenging and only the best prepared students will be successful. Law admissions is focused on identifying applicants who are well equipped to handle the academic rigor of law study. Undergraduate students should have at least a cumulative GPA of 3.0 in order to consider a future in law school. While there are exceptions to this rule, if a student has not earned at least a 3.0 GPA, they have not demonstrated that they have the academic skills necessary to succeed in law school.

Who is choosing law school has been evolving over the past 30 years. While law school and the practice of law was historically a field dominated by men, and where people of color were significantly underrepresented, the American Bar Association now reports that approximately 47% of all J.D. students are women and about 25% are racial/ethnic minorities.

Finally, law school is a huge financial investment. In 2012 average tuition in public law schools is $23,000 for residents and $36,000 for non-residents at public universities and over $40,000 per year for private law schools. In the last decade these costs have gone up astronomically. In comparison to current costs in 2002 public law school tuition averages were approximately $9,000 a year for residents and $18,000 a year for non-residents, and was $24,000 at private law schools. 1
Law School Courses

Unlike undergraduate study, a student will not choose a “major” or area of study in law school. The first year of legal study is generally focused on the “bar” courses – a series of six courses including contracts, torts, civil procedure, real property, criminal law and criminal procedure. Most first year law students also take a course in legal research and writing. It is common for first year law students to take their classes as a co-hort. They are often assigned to their courses, schedule, and professors without consultation. As students enter their second year of law study, they are often again assigned to required course work such as constitutional law, evidence, business associations and corporations, wills and trusts, and other “bar exam” subjects. The Law School Admission Council describes the typical first year curriculum as follows:

  • Civil procedure—the process of adjudication in the United States, i.e., jurisdiction and standing to sue, motions and pleadings, pretrial procedure, the structure of a lawsuit, and appellate review of trial results.

  • Constitutional law—the legislative powers of the federal and state governments, and questions of civil liberties and constitutional history, including detailed study of the Bill of Rights and constitutional freedoms.

  • Contracts—the nature of enforceable promises and rules for determining appropriate remedies in case of nonperformance.

  • Criminal law and criminal procedure—bases of criminal responsibility, the rules and policies for enforcing sanctions against individuals accused of committing offenses against the public order and well-being, and the rights guaranteed to those charged with criminal violations.

  • Legal method—students' introduction to the organization of the American legal system and its processes.

  • Legal writing—research and writing component of most first-year programs; requires students to research and write memoranda dealing with various legal problems.

  • Property law—concepts, uses, and historical developments in the treatment of land, buildings, natural resources, and personal objects.

  • Torts—private wrongs, such as acts of negligence, assault, and defamation, that violate obligations of the law.2

The Law School Environment

The environment in most American law schools is competitive and challenging. The workload will likely be like nothing the undergraduate student has experienced to date. The amount of reading nightly and required preparation time for courses skyrockets in comparison to their college experience. Many undergraduate students have worked part or even full time throughout college and such will not be the case in law school (unless the student chooses a part time program.) A full time first year law student is advised strongly not to work at all. Once students are in their second and third years, many of them take clerkships (internships) in law firms and offices and many of those are paid.

How Do I Get Into Law School?

The key components of a law school application are: (1) the student’s score on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), (2) the student’s cumulative undergraduate grade point average (GPA) – these first two components are used to calculate what is called an ‘index score’ which is unique to each individual law school (3) the individual school’s application for admission, (4) the student’s personal statement, (5) letters of recommendation (typically two), (6) the student’s resume (I recommend submitting it even when it is not called for in the application instructions) and (7) supplemental or diversity statements or addendums to the personal statement if necessary; these essays may relate to hardships a student has overcome, or may focus on a weakness in the application that the student believes merits explanation.

  1. The Law School Admission Test is the first component of the law school application, and is certainly one of the most significant factors leading to law school admission. Students need to appreciate the significance of their score on the LSAT. A student should never take the exam without preparation. Preparation can be formal such as classroom courses or workshops, or informal, such as self-preparation using books bought to study for the exam. Regardless of which form of study a student chooses they must do it! Students should spend 6-12 months preparing for the exam. Many students will have no idea how significant their time and energy investment should be in preparing for the exam. Some students may be thinking, “I’ll just take it and see how I do, I can always take it again.” This is a serious mistake. A student certainly can repeat the LSAT, but should never plan to do so, since both scores will be reported to each law school where they apply and while the ABA now recommends against “averaging” the scores of multiple tests, the school will see each test score. It is a major disadvantage to a student to have a poor LSAT score the first time around even when a student is able to score higher when repeating the exam – it’s not something they want to have to explain in their application materials.

  1. The second component of the application is the student’s cumulative undergraduate GPA. Many students have the misconception that law schools will only look at their GPA in their “major” or in their upper division course work. It is critical for students to learn early on that the grades they earn as freshmen and sophomores in college will impact their probability of admission to law school. A student may come in for advising for the first time as junior or senior in which case there is little an advisor can do to assist them in choosing courses or encouraging them to focus on excellent grades. Spending time with freshmen and sophomores talking about major selection, course selection, and the importance of excellent grades is time well spent. An advisor should never tell an underclassmen to “come back later,” instead the advisor should encourage the student to choose a major course of study that they really enjoy. Advisors in the major should consider the course work and encourage pre-law students to take courses where they will be challenged to write often and think critically. If those courses are not common in the student’s particular major the advisor can encourage the student to select those courses as part of their general education and elective studies. In sum the advisor should emphasize the important of great grades early and often. Also important to note, graduate GPA is not included in calculating the index score, only cumulative undergraduate GPA. A student should not plan to take courses after graduation in an effort to improve the GPA component of the application.

  1. Each law school where the student plans to apply will have their own individual application for admission. Along with the application for admission each school will charge a fee to process the application which can run from $40 to $75. This application may be completed in paper form, but law schools have moved to almost exclusively accepting them online. Some law schools may waive the application fee if the student applies online, attends a law fair or forum, or a waiver may be offered through the undergraduate pre-law advisor (law schools may leave waiver forms with the advisor to be given out to students on their behalf). While the main requirements for admission may be the same at most schools a student should check each individual application to ensure they are complying with all of the requirements to apply for admission. The LSAC makes available an online application service which enables a student to access all ABA accredited law school applications and fill out a majority of the information on multiple forms at one time. The program also enables the student to transmit the applications to law schools online.

  2. The next item on the applicant’s list is the personal statement. This is typically a 2-4 page essay where the student is given the opportunity to explain to the selection committee who they are and why they should be admitted to law school. It should not be an essay summarizing the student’s resume. It should be personal. It should tell a story about who the student is and should focus on one or two significant experiences or characteristics which will enable the student to familiarize the reader with him or herself. When the committee has finished reading the personal statement they should feel as though they know something important about what type of person the applicant is and how they feel equipped for the study of law. Above all else the personal statement should be well written and should communicate to the committee that the student is capable of “doing the work” in law school. A person can have an incredible story to tell but if their writing is poor or they do not seem capable of managing the rigor of law school they will not be a successful applicant.

  1. Every applicant must include with their application materials a minimum of two letters of recommendation. Some law schools will accept three letters but if a student has two excellent ones a third is not necessary. (More is not necessarily better in this case.) In the majority of cases the student should choose two academic references. If a student has been out of college for a length of time a professional reference is appropriate. Any other choice for a recommender should be talked over with the student to determine what their relationship with the recommender is and whether or not the recommender can speak to the student’s academic abilities. Letters of recommendation should only be sought from faculty members in whose classes the student performed exceptionally well. Recommenders should direct their comments to the student’s academic skills, writing, critical thinking and analytical reasoning, as well as the student’s character and promise for success as a law student. It is advisable for a student to meet with the faculty member to ask for the letter in person. They should take with them a packet to leave with the recommender that includes the LSAC Letter of Recommendation form, the student’s resume, personal statement, and a copy of their transcripts. A recommender should not have to do research on a student in order to write the letter.

  1. It is also recommended that a student submit their résumé in addition to the application for admission. This is true even when the law school does not call for it to be included with the application for admission. The resume should be a typical ‘legal’ resume in that it should not include an ‘objective’ or administrative skills sections (e.g. it should not note typing skills, computer software knowledge, etc.) It should be organized with education first, professional or work experience second, and any ‘special interests’ or ‘extra-curricular activities’ section last. There is no need to included references or any indication that they are available upon request

  1. Lastly, a student may choose to include with their application for admission supplemental or diversity statements or addendums to the personal statement. An addendum to the personal statement is typically only done when a student has something that requires explanation such as poor grades during a particular semester or a history of poor scores on standardized tests to assist in explaining a low LSAT score. An addendum should be short and to the point. No more than one paragraph. It may unwise to include multiple addendums as it can seem as though the student is making excuses for poor past performance. A supplemental essay differs from an addendum in that it is typically in response to a question posed on the law school application. Law schools are often interested in the diverse background of applicants and may provide an opportunity to write a short essay about any difficult circumstances the applicant has had to overcome. This supplemental essay should be careful not to repeat a story told in the applicant’s personal statement. It should only be done if there is new important information for the committee to hear about which was not covered in the personal statement.

What is next?

If you are interested in pursuing law school, the first place to go is Create a free student account and start reading! They have wonderful resources that will guide you through the process of deciding if law school is right for you and will offer guidance to lead you through the application process. Once you have determined that law school is the right choice for you, meet with a pre-law advisor. At Sacramento State there are pre-law advisors and mentors willing to help! The Division of Criminal Justice is home to the Sacramento State Pre-Law Advising Program. You can contact the Criminal Justice Student Service Center to find a list of available pre-law advisors.

1, American Bar Association, 2011.


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