Do you want to be an attorney? Due to debts (mentioned below), challenging employment prospects, and the three-year effort required to graduate, a student should think carefully about applying to law school if the student is considering a law-related career other than an attorney. Law school is a professional program that awards a degree needed to practice law.
Carefully reevaluate your decision to attend law school if it is rooted in the following reasons: It's what's next after undergrad; It's what my parents want; It will give me time to figure out what I want to do next; It's a prestigious degree; It seems fun; It will help me find myself. These bad reasons are often supplemented with bad timing: "and I have to go right now/this year."
Good Reasons require that you know what lawyers do, that you know what is required to excel in the practice of law, that you understand that you will have significant debt but honestly think that will be outweighed by your enjoyment of the profession, that you understand how law school exams are graded, and that you have prepared yourself before, during, and after law school for a solid career.
Some argue that a law degree may open other paths. This may be true. However, with a few exceptions, pursuing "other paths" probably should not be your primary reason to go to law school due to challenges such as the heavy debt incurred and potential employment difficulties.
2. Choose Strong Classes and Majors
You need to choose classes/majors that will help you in FOUR ways: (a) to do well on the LSAT, (b) to do well in law school, (c) to do well on the bar, and (d) to do well as a lawyer. All four of these are achieved in courses/majors that require you to examine texts closely, make cogent arguments, offer alternative opinions, and write clearly.
For the LSAT and law school, significant data show that three majors do better than others—math, economics, and philosophy. But anyone with sufficient preparation can do well. And, regardless of your major, you should have a strong liberal arts background.
As an attorney, you will often have to "ramp up" to learn material for a case or client. For example, you may have to learn well about a certain medical procedure or a particular question concerning stocks. Doing well here means being adaptable and having the practical ability to see things from different directions, etc. Therefore, take classes that promote careful reasoning and/or creativity.
An attorney who understands business practices and technological ability will also be appreciated by many potential employers.
3. Know that Applying to Law School is a PROCESS
Think of the process as the following:
Prepare for LSAT -> Take LSAT -> Apply to Schools -> Choose School
Each of those steps above requires significant time. For example, serious preparation for the LSAT alone may take up to a year. Doing this process well requires time, effort, patience, and wisdom.
There is no need to apply to law school immediately following graduation from SCU. The average age of students entering law school is 25-26. In fact, only 1/3 of law students enter directly from college. So take your time.
Of the four steps stated above, the most important is preparing for the LSAT. It is ESSENTIAL that you do not take the LSAT unless and until you are ready to do your best. Do not take the LSAT thinking, "I can always take it again." Even if law schools do not average the LSAT scores (although some do), they do see all your scores. This may affect the amount of money they offer you.
The average law student incurs a debt of $140,000 after law school. As of now, this debt will have an interest rate of 6%. What this means is that you will have $8400 in interest to pay off each year. Someone with this amount of debt—and many students will have much more—will have to pay $700 per month simply to cover interest alone. This amount is in addition to rent, food, transportation, and other normal expenses. Because of low income, many people defer payments and the interest owed is then added to the debt total, thereby increasing (a) the overall amount owed, and (b) the payment each month to avoid further interest.
What this means is that you can expect to have your law school debt for 20-25 years. So, if you graduate at 28, you will be paying off your legal education possibly into your 50's. This debt cannot be forgiven in bankruptcy. You must pay it off.
One of the best ways to reduce debt is to do well on the LSAT and thus increase (sometimes by tens of thousands of dollars) the money the law school offers you.
Debt restricts your future choices as a lawyer. For example, you may want to do public interest work, move to a better city, work less in order to spend more time with your family, buy a house, etc., but these may not be realistic/possible because of the debt. Sadly, you have the ability to restrict your future for decades based upon choices made in your early 20's. So be careful.
5. Question the Employment and Salary Statistics
Unfortunately, there has been a well documented tendency among many law schools to manipulate both employment statistics and the average salary earned by their recent graduates.
One of the ways that salary statistics are deceptive is the type of average used. For example, if 80% of new lawyers earn $50,000 and 20% earn $160,000, then the weighted average salary of an attorney would be $72,000. But that is not what 80% can expect to make. That figure is skewed by the 20%.
Law schools have engaged in practices that include hiring graduates at $15 per hour after graduation so that they may say something like, "95% of our graduates are employed within 6 months." Please note that this employment number may include (a) those hired by law schools, (b) those working in non-JD required jobs (such as bartending), or (c) part-time jobs. Be careful when looking at law school employment statistics.
It may take you over a year to find a job after law school. The law market is shrinking due to several reasons: (a) do-it-yourself legal websites, (b) outsourcing by firms, (c) the influx of new search technologies, (d) government hiring freezes, and e) the increasing unwillingness of clients to pay high hourly rates to train new lawyers.
6. Ask a Law School Adviser for Help with All of This
No SCU student should take the LSAT until he or she speaks with a pre-law advisor. This is not an overstatement. It is essential that you ask us for help before the LSAT. We will help you think about when to take the exam, what prep courses can offer you, what the exam will entail, what things successful students often do, etc.
We are here to help you through the entire application process. There is much to learn about LSAT prep, personal statements, letters of recommendation, waitlists, scholarships, pre-law emphases at SCU, courses that help with your analytical skills, what law school is like, etc
Some excellent books we recommend to bring you up to speed on the law school application process and the current legal environment include:
Failing Law Schools by Brian Tamanaha
Do Not Go to Law School (Unless) by Paul Campos
The Law School Admission Game by Ann Levine
We also recommend a few blogs that question the law school figures:
"The Law School Tuition Bubble"
"Above the Law"
Please contact one of the designated SCU pre-law advisors:
Mike Dana, Director of Pre-Law Advising (Business School)