A Law School Professor's Advice to an Applicant

I received a wonderful email from a law professor (and former Department of Justice and private law firm attorney). He writes, "I was asked to send my thoughts to a college student who is considering a number of top-tier schools" and allowed me to share.


Before I begin, I should state the disclaimer that you generally don't get value unless you pay for it in America, and my advice is free, so draw your own conclusions.  My three and a half points to consider:

First, if you are choosing between top-tier schools, go to the best school you get into.  Jobs during law school, jobs immediately after law school, clerkships, professors, networking, reputational impact generally, and learning-by-osmosis from your fellow students is greatly affected by even small increases in school ranking.  Certainly there can be reasons to go to a lower-ranked school but think hard before you do so, even if the cost difference is significant.  And don't ever think, "I'll go to the lower-ranked school, but I'll be a big fish in a small pond" (I actually heard a student claim this to me once).  Law school grade curves are very compressed and chances are strong that you will be in the middle of the pack wherever you go -- so you are likely to be choosing, for example, between being an average student at the #3 school versus being an average student at the #5 school.  Personally, I hate the rankings and think they are overblown, but the fact is that they matter.  I didn't take this advice myself, and for several years after law school I wished I had (fortunately, after five or so years of practice, it no longer matters).

Second, know yourself, and take a year off if you think you would benefit.
  There is much recent cognitive science that indicates that the young adult brain -- particularly the young adult male brain -- doesn't have fully formed logic and judgment centers until one's mid-20s.  Obviously we are talking about averages, and you may be unusually cognitively mature, but most people will be better first-year law students at 24 than at 23, and at 23 than at 22, simply because their brains are older.  This matters because your first year grades are the ones that count the most.  Don't be too concerned about "putting your life on hold for a year" (I hear this frequently); there are lots of things to do, and your career in the law is likely to last forty years -- there's no rush to start.  Being a little older when you get out of school is also a plus; for the same brain-development reasons, a 27 year old is generally a better first year lawyer than a 25 year old, simply because the 27 year old is more mature.  About three quarters of my colleagues who did not take time off say they wish they had (although not always for the reason I just mentioned).

Read big-picture sources on what the law is about, and start NOW.
  First year of law school isn't as bad as "The Paper Chase" but it is more information than most people can comfortably take in, and it's easy to lose the big picture in all the class details.  Give yourself a leg up by reading interesting, big-pictures sources.  A terrific source is the "Pre Law Reading List" by the Federalist Society.  That's a conservative/libertarian organization but the list is useful regardless of your politics; in fact, it's probably most useful if you aren't conservative/libertarian, since you will be challenging yourself.  I wasn't able to find a similar list from the American Constitution Society, which is the liberal/progressive counterpart, but do peruse that website.  Also peruse the American Bar Association's website; Most of the best U.S. legal thinkers are members of two of these organizations (sometimes all three).  

The 1/2 recommendation:  consider ROTC.  If you are well suited to do so -- again, know thyself -- consider the Reserve Officer Training Corps of the military or the National Guard.  Once you start practice or have a family, it becomes very difficult to take the time to do the initial entry training, or you may age out; therefore, the time to make a decision about it is now or very soon.  Without exception, everyone I know who did this counts it as his or her best decision, and that includes people who have had long deployments overseas.  The unselfish reasons are obvious; also, being a veteran helps significantly in getting government law jobs and in working in politics.  The drawbacks to service, of course, are equally obvious.  It's a big decision -- my point is that it's a decision that gets made for you in the negative if you don't make it affirmatively when you are young.  In full disclosure, I did not serve, and would not have been well suited to it when I was of prime age (I was declined as too old when I looked into it post-9/11; instead, I joined as a civilian law enforcer), so my information comes from friends and isn't first hand.  Seek first hand advice if you want to consider this further.

Good luck with your decision.  Despite my point #1, don't sweat it overmuch.  If you have a good mind, you will have a great career regardless of what you do in your first few years after undergrad.


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).