Insight from a Duke Law School Graduate: Is Law School Right for You?
Deciding whether or not to go to law school is a difficult decision. Even once that decision is made, the application process can be challenging. It can be hard to know which program is best suited for your interests, how to best strengthen your application materials, the best ways to study for the LSAT, and how to best fund your degree.
We sat down with a recent Duke Law School graduate to shed some insight into the law school application process. In this piece, he shares his thoughts on how to determine if law school is right for you, how to best prepare for the LSAT, how to decide where to apply to law school, and how many law schools you should apply to.
Is Law School Right for You?
The best way to know if law school is right for you is to ask yourself if you want to practice law as your career. It sounds self-explanatory, but it’s not uncommon to like the idea of studying law without actually wanting to spend your career as a lawyer.
The Duke Law grad we spoke to explained that he’s seen a lot of people go to law school for the wrong reasons, perhaps more than other fields. Growing up, we hear the fields “doctor,” and “lawyer,” as noble, high-ranking professions. Some students think a law degree is what their parents would want them to get. Others graduate undergrad and are unsure what they want to do next, so they default to a profession they know is prestigious and decide law school isn’t a bad option. Many students aspire to get a law degree because it seems like the pathway to a strong, well-paying, and well-respected career, and it is. However, this degree is not for everyone.
Since so many people begin a law degree when practicing law isn’t really what they want to do, many people end up leaving the profession.
Of course, the Duke Law grad we spoke to explains that there is an inherent level of risk. It can be difficult to know if you will enjoy practicing law, even if you do enjoy the subject area. To better understand if this step is right for you, you can try to intern at a law firm as an undergraduate. This will provide some insight on what the day to day life of a lawyer is like. This Duke Law grad interned at a public defender’s office while he was an undergraduate and worked his final two summers at law firms. This helped him confirm that practicing law was something he really wanted to do.
To be applying to law school, at the very least your interest and motivation should be wanting to practice law.
Studying For The LSAT
A hurdle you have to pass prior to applying to law schools is passing the LSAT. The Duke grad we spoke to explains that it's hard to overstate the importance of the LSAT. In many ways, it's the single most important factor in the law school application.
He suggests planning far ahead and making a timeline for studying. You have to have your LSAT completed and score returned prior to sending out applications. This means you have to know what your application deadline is and work backwards to decide when to take the LSAT, and when to start studying. He suggests getting the LSAT out of the way before working on any other elements of the application.
Many people apply to law school their senior year of college. That means, the summer before senior year is the best time to take the LSAT. That way, students receive their score by August, use those scores to decide where to apply, and subsequently work on those applications throughout the fall.
It’s also important to keep in mind that you may not like your first score. If you don’t, you want to have time to retake the test. It’s a good idea to allow yourself enough time to have two chances to take the test prior to submitting your applications. It would be awful to have to delay school for a full year because your scores haven’t come in time.
The Duke graduate we spoke to explained that having at least three months to study for the LSAT is a good baseline. It’s an unusual test but it's certainly something you can train for. It’s important to take studying seriously. Don’t just take a few practice tests. He recommends using some kind of prep program instead of the free material if it's an option for you. There are quite a few out there which are good and well respected.
He stresses how important just a few points can be on the LSAT. Your score can make a big impact on admissions and on scholarships. Just a few points can make a difference in thousands of dollars for scholarships. 5 points is a huge difference in LSAT scores. A 10 point difference can completely block you out of different schools.
What to Look for in a Law School
So you’ve decided to go to law school and you’ve taken the LSAT. The next question is determining which law schools you should apply to. What is most important in a law school will differ from person to person. If you’re searching to be a part of big law, practicing at one of the top 100 law schools in the country, and handling headline worthy cases, you should generally aim for top law schools.
However, that’s not most people. Most people aren’t exactly sure what law they want to practice. Or, they know what they want to do, and it doesn’t include working at a top law firm.
Assuming that you’re not searching to join big law, there are a few factors to consider when looking at different law schools. First, is location. Perhaps you want to be close to family or perhaps you’ve always wanted to live in another state. Most importantly, where you go to law school will likely influence where you subsequently take the bar exam and where you take the bar exam is where you will practice law. If you don’t want to end up living across the country, perhaps you shouldn’t apply to a law school on the other coast.
Another factor is cost. If you know that you want to be a public interest attorney or know you won’t be making a large salary right away, it’s important to be conscious of what you are going to spend for law school. Getting a law degree isn’t cheap. If you’re staying in the state, applying to a public school would be advantageous.
By taking the LSAT first, you can also help narrow down schools by examining the average LSAT score of admitted students. You have to work with the stats you have. That means, it's important to keep your LSAT score and your GPA in mind when you are deciding where to apply. Your scores are a very good indicator of where you will be accepted.
Additionally, you have a greater chance of receiving scholarships if your scores are higher than the average for that institution. Compare your scores to each school’s average. If you are near the average, you have a higher chance of acceptance, and if you are past the average, you have a higher chance of being offered a scholarship.
In general, of course, higher ranked schools will require higher scores. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply to any higher ranked schools if you don’t have pristine scores. It just means that every school you apply to shouldn’t be highly ranked. Try to mix your applications to give yourself the best chance of acceptance.
How Many Law Schools Should You Apply to?
Another thing to think about is how many law schools you should apply to. This can vary quite a bit from person to person, but it's generally a good idea to apply to more schools than you think you need to. If you’re applying to the top 15 law schools, it also makes sense to apply to more. Always air on the side of applying to more than less to give yourself the best chances.
Even if you have the stats that those schools want you to have, they have their pick on who they choose. There is no guarantee on admission based on score.
For example, the grad we talked to was denied admission from some of the top 10-15 schools, but offered admission at some of the top 5-10 schools.
It’s also better to apply to more schools because of those you are accepted to, scholarship awards will vary. Some may admit you but offer no scholarships. Others will offer widely different scholarship awards. The more schools you apply to, the better your chances of receiving funding.
That said, no one has time to complete hundreds of applications. In general, the Duke grad advises 10 is probably more than enough but he wouldn’t recommend applying to fewer than 5. He stresses that each individual application isn’t that much work after you’ve done a few. You can tailor and personalize your first personal statement/essay for each school pretty easily.
All in All
All in all, applying to law school is a difficult decision and quite the process in and of itself. That said, if you desire to practice law, it’s a necessary step in your career. Getting some exposure to the field prior to applying to law school can be extremely advantageous and help you decide if it’s the right step for you. Once you’ve made that decision, study hard for the LSAT, contemplate carefully where to apply, and apply to a good number of schools.