5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before Applying To Law School

The legal market is oversaturated. Law schools are pulling out all the stops to keep butts in seats. The entire structure of legal practice in law schools is torn between maintaining tradition and standards, and facing the fact that law school, as we currently understand it, just doesn’t make sense anymore. One year ago, I was a freshly minted Lib Arts Queen, with two degrees from a large state university under my arm. I had been planning on attending law school for my entire undergrad career, I had three legal internships under my belt (which makes me a rare and beautiful tropical fish, in the world of law applicants), and, most importantly, I had a good LSAT score and was accepted into a good law school.

Today, I’m battered, learning how to live with depression again, and wondering what the hell I was thinking. Even worse, the Stockholm Syndrome has set in, and I honestly can’t say whether or not I should stay and take it on the chin, or get out while I still have my health. The point of this piece is not to frighten you or dissuade you. If you’re anything like I was, reading this will just make you say “I’m tougher than that, I can do it.” But these are the things I wish I had thought about/somebody had told me before I applied to law school.

1. Do you really, really, really actually want to be a lawyer?

Okay, kiddos. This one seems obvious, but it is Number One because it is the most important. Do you absolutely want to go to law school? If the answer is, “I hear lawyers make good money” or “Maybe. Idk. Seems like a good use of my degree” or “I just want to go to grad school and put off the inevitable” or anything other than “I can’t see myself doing anything other than law and this is my calling and my passion and I want to give my all as a servant to Lady Justice,” then you should not go to law school.

Here’s the cold brass tax of the issue. What we know as “lawyer money” is Big Law money — further, it is Senior Partner at Big Law money. Only the very cream of the law-student-crop make it to Big Law, and even fewer make partner. Meanwhile, everyone puts out blood, sweat, tears, hours, and sells your soul to the angry god of Billable Hours.

Of course, there are many different areas and paths of law, but recognize that other paths may offer more in work/life balance, but you end up making about the same money as you would on any other traditional career path.

Furthermore, law school is a totally different animal than most post-grad programs. While it is true that more law schools are switching over to the GRE as an option for an entrance exam, this is a slow process, and the vast majority of law schools are not on board. Legal practice is a series of grueling and unique exams: LSAT, MPRE, MBE, and finally, the Big Bad Bar. This makes law school a bad choice for graduate exploration. It cuts off your other options and pigeon-holes you into one very difficult, very expensive course of study.

2. Consider your mental health needs and how you handle setbacks.

I remember my 1L orientation: one week of meet n’ greets and informational meetings and short networking events. What I remember most clearly was that every day of that weeklong orientation, we had some sort of seminar related to mental health. The statistics are scary. More and more law students and legal professionals struggle with depression, and many people graduate with their JD and a substance abuse problem. There is a reason for this.

Law school is hard. Being graded on a curve is grueling. Being in a curve with a section of Type A overachievers is something few people entering law school can truly appreciate. In the world of law school, you can bust your ass and do all the reading and join a good study group and give it your all, and still end up with mediocre (or worse) grades. Law school is unbelievably competitive, and it thrives on a system of elitism. You are pushed down a path of expectations (highest grades, best internships) with the knowledge that only very few can actually make it.

I have struggled with depression and anxiety all my life, but entered law school after a phase of fantastic mental health coming off of undergrad. Law school was the perfect cocktail of circumstances to tear apart all my good work, and now I’m having to clean up the mess and learn how to live a healthy life again. My partner, who will graduate from law school this year, will be one of the many who now has to learn to live with depression, as well. Law school can be very rewarding, and certain mindsets and personalities are particularly keyed into it, but even the sunniest law school experience comes with major setbacks. Know yourself, and take care of yourself.

3. Be real with yourself. What kind of student are you?

Were you always top of your class? Do you have a solid foundation of study habits? Are you a procrastinator? Do you have problems speaking in class?

Law school demands the absolute most from you — academically, it is one of its greatest challenges and greatest rewards. Knowing where your strengths and weaknesses are, as a student, is all part of the puzzle in figuring out if law school success is within your wheel of capabilities.

4. Choosing a law school: the numbers game no one tells you about.

This was a concept that didn’t occur to me until I had already been in my law school for a semester, and I will do my best to break it down in a way that makes sense (this is my way of admitting that all of my thoughts on law school equate to the ramblings of a woman driven mad).

As I mentioned previously, for optimal law school/law career success, you need to be shooting for Top 10% of your law school class. When you’re applying for law schools, you will hear many people say that the most important thing to think about is getting into the highest ranked law school possible. This is true, but even more important than that is the rank you will graduate with. Class rank is the most important thing that law firms (especially the gods in Big Law) are looking at. School rank comes second. That top class rank will also come in handy in securing the sweetest summer/semester gigs.

When I was applying to law schools, my LSAT score was in the 77th percentile of test takers (pretty sweet) but my GPA was meh (not bad, just painfully average). This closed the door to T14 schools, but I had many offers for schools ranked high and low (and among those, several seductive scholarships). I ended up choosing the highest-ranked law school on that list, where my stellar LSAT was the median in the class. Looking back and fully appreciating the complete picture of what law firms are looking for, I would have chosen a lower-ranked law school in which my LSAT score was in the 75th percentile of my class or better. It seems shallow, but any leg up you can have in being at the top of your class is a worthy investment for someone willing to put themselves through the hell of law school.

5. Don’t listen to talking heads…but kinda do.

When you begin researching and applying to law schools, you will be smacked upside the head with information. Blogs like “Above the Law” and “Law School Expert” will reveal to you the horrors of the legal job market and schools that lose their accreditation, and (my personal favorite) will publish the yearly rises and drops in law school rankings and the percentage of students who failed the Bar that year. You will be given every scary statistic about law school, and it can all be disheartening and overwhelming.

When you get into law school, your deans and profs will tell you that it takes all kinds and that “there is more than one way to be a lawyer,” while also pressuring you into the very narrow idea of success that we talked about before.

It sucks. It really really sucks. But the most important voice you can listen to is your own. Take in all the scary info (including what I just dumped on you) and apply it realistically to your goals and expectations and capabilities. I had a total shift in values and priorities between my first and second semester of 1L year, and another one after completing my first year. I know this piece may be a little doom and gloom, but it’s also real. I have many friends who took those struggles and ran with them and are doing amazing things, but every journey is different.

Caitlin is a 1L year survivor and coffee shop haunt who splits her time between Los Angeles, CA and Austin, TX. When she’s not writing, Caitlin enjoys movies, yoga, and indulging her INTJ/Capricorn bend with research on her many academic passions.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Rebecca Ann

    I went to law school, as well. I hated it, and honestly, I wish I would have left after the first semester or year. I’m in crippling debt, and will be until I die. I have not taken the Bar exam, and don’t really want to. I did not go to a great school, and the environment made me basically hate the field and not want to work in it. Instead, I work in compliance for a big mortgage servicing company. Making regular person money.
    I probably would have fared far better if I had “take a leave” from school and found a paralegal job at one of the big firms in DC, or even back home in Michigan (where I had to move back, because nobody in DC wanted to hire a law grad for anything else).
    So I’d offer this advice: take your own advice! If you’re on the fence, and unless you feel that your passion for practicing law is the only career you want, get out now, while the loans are still relatively low, and save your sanity. Otherwise, stay, and make sure you take your self-care very seriously. Good luck!

  • Maddog

    So you want to go to law school!?!

    http://www.maddogslair.com/blog/so-you-want-to-go-to-law-school

    My background:

    I am a retired lawyer. After graduating law school, I passed the Oregon Bar and the Washington Bar. My practice was an active litigation practice focusing on medical issues, administrative law, and construction law. I practiced in a mid sized firm, a smaller boutique firm, and as a sole practitioner. I hated my last boss most of all, that sole practitioner was a heartless bastard.

    My thoughts:

    1. Law school is expensive with many, perhaps even the average law student graduating $125,000-150,00 in debt. My rule of thumb is one should limit debt to no more than 50% of first-year income, honestly appraised.

    2. Law school is ten times harder than University. Are you prepared for the extreme competition for grades which came easily at University? You will be competing with the top 5% to 10% of the University class how did you do compared to these students?

    3. Law school is not anything like the practice of law. There are three distinct variants of law. There is law school law, Bar law, and the law you will practice as an attorney. These things are completely unrelated. Are you sure you want to practice law?

    4. The two basic things which are most indicative of success both in law school and as a lawyer are IQ and conscientiousness. It is possible to be somewhat lower in one or the other, but if you are low in both, there is little chance you will be able to succeed in law. Without a high level of conscientiousness, practicing law will be difficult.

    5. How ever hard you work in law school, your practice will be more difficult, and more demanding. The billable hour is a cruel, unrelenting taskmaster however efficient you believe yourself it will prove you are not. The typical 2,000 hour work year (8 hours per day, five days per week 50 weeks per year) is 167 hours per month. In my first practice, my billable hour “goal” was 190 hours per month. After six months, that rose to 200 hours per month, and by the end of my first year, I was working an average of 210 hours per month. After that my average rose significantly with a significant percentage of months in the 230 to 240 hours per month range. If you do not enjoy working an average 12 hour day 5.5 to 6 days per week, the law will be an awkward fit. You also need to understand that these billable “goals” were independent of vacation time. I could take all the vacation time I wanted, whenever I wanted. But I still had to meet my total billable hour goal at the end of the year. And I could not leave my clients without a human contact willing to address their needs at a moments notice.

    6. It pays to be above average on the sociopath scale but controlled. So, for example, lying is detrimental but being sly, cunning and calculating is valuable.

    7. How do you handle failure, because you will fail? If not in law school in law, especially if you choose an active litigation practice. One problem which can be difficult to overcome is that you will expect to win; this is likely to become your minimum standard, your C grade by analogy. Under this mental regime, there will be almost no way to do more than a win or get a C grade. So, I will you be able to feel successful?

    8. Do the math, figure out how much debt will need to undertake to attend law school. Figure out how you are likely to do compared to the law school class (IQ/conscientiousness) and calculate your presumed first-year salary. Make sure you can afford it. How much debt do you have from University? The last thing you want is to become a debt slave; it is also the most likely thing you will become.

    9. Interview lawyers who are doing what you want to do. Call up first-year associates, 5th-year associates, and try to get a contact with a partner or two in your area of interest. Take them to lunch, pick their brains. Be utterly prepared with quality questions; it is as much an interview for you as of you. Make an impression while accumulating the information you need. Do you still want to be a lawyer? If so, time to take the LSAT, and begin the application process.

    Thoughts about the article:

    “Do you absolutely want to go to law school? If the answer is, “I hear lawyers make good money” or “Maybe. Idk. Seems like a good use of my degree” or “I just want to go to grad school and put off the inevitable” or anything other than “I can’t see myself doing anything other than law and this is my calling and my passion and I want to give my all as a servant to Lady Justice,” then you should not go to law school.”

    Your competition will be ruthlessly laser focused on succeeding as the best lawyer, and to be that they need to win every time. If that is not you, the law will be a painful grind. No amount of truth, justice and the American way fantasizing will change this. Go to law school because you have an incredibly high IQ, you are extremely conscientious, you are incredibly competitive, you want to work 12+ hours per day six days per week, and you need to win every time. That way you might have a chance.

    I suggest potential law students take this article to heart.

    Aretha has a song your subconscious is singing to your conscious, pay attention to it and Think!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqYnevHibaI

    Mark Sherman

  • Lauren

    Co-sign. My biggest piece of advice: DO NOT go straight through from undergrad to law school. Take some time, work a few law-related jobs, establish yourself as an adult with adult habits and an adult lifestyle, and spend significant time in serious self-reflection. If after all that, you still want to go, more power to you. But law school is full of young people fresh from college that have no idea what they’re getting into, and it is a decision with a price tag that will leave a lasting and potentially devastating impact on your life.

  • Jay

    This may be some tough love, and my hope is that someone thinking about going to law school or currently in law school will read this. First of all, I’m a little confused by the author. 77th percentile on the LSAT is not even a 160. Also, I want to emphasize that LSAT percentiles are based on all people who took the LSAT, not all people who are eventually admitted to law school. Therefore, while percentiles are a good stat, they are not the same as saying I tested better than 77% of people in law school.

    That coupled with meh GPA doesn’t just keep you out of T14, that will keep you out of top 50, maybe more. Unless standards have changed significantly or they are reporting incorrectly. However, a review of 2017 LSAT median scores indicates that the median doesn’t drop below 160 until after the top 50 schools. Not saying that you can’t get in to law school with grades or LSAT scores outside of this, and not saying that you won’t be a highly successful attorney, but without that kind of foundation it becomes more of an uphill battle. Most everyone who goes to law school was considered extremely intelligent in undergrad, we all got at least decent grades. Getting to law school and realizing that compared to everyone else you are average can be shocking and painful. TL;DR, if you want to go to law school, get good grades, study your butt off for the LSAT, and be prepared to work your butt off in law school. Because Maddog is right, it doesn’t get easier. And those 2000 hour billable requirement she mentioned? 8h/day for 50 weeks? That’s just for BILLABLE work. In transactional work, you’re lucky if you’re at 80% efficiency in billing your time. Note this also doesn’t include CLEs, business development, client events, firm events, and other things you are expected to attend as an associate. So you’re probably looking at a minimum of 10h/day. If you want to take vacation (or not work on firm holidays), you probably need to be doing more than that. It can be incredibly rewarding and interesting, but it is not for the faint of heart.

    And the 3 internships in law firms is nice, but even that is just fluff, your grades and your LSAT score are the things that matter. Law schools want well rounded candidates, but they are fixated on maintaining their law school ranking, which revolves around GPA and LSAT scores. As a biglaw associate, I can guarantee you that when I’m interviewing potential summer associates I do not really care if someone worked as a secretary or a runner in undergrad for three different law firms. It’s a fun fact and demonstrates that you had a job during undergrad, but that does not set you apart from other candidates. That being said, you should be leveraging those connections to clerk there in the school year and in the summer. I definitely care if you have prior legal experience where you are researching and writing and performing other supervised “lawyer” tasks as opposed to administrative assistant work. From a practical perspective, I would encourage those in and considering law school to be around lawyers as much as possible.

    • SN

      This is all 100% correct. I went to a top-10 law school and a tier-1 boutique transactional firm after law school and honestly, none of it was worth working my ass off in undergrad and studying for the LSAT. I don’t say this to be arrogant but to truly, deeply emphasize that being a “big law” lawyer SUCKS. The only thing positive to come out of it is the ability to rapidly pay off debt and accumulate a solid amount of savings but you have to be very disciplined to do this fast enough to get out of the job ASAP.

  • Katie

    This was immensely helpful and illuminating, from someone who was considering law school half-halfheartedly! Thanks to all of the commenters as well, I really appreciate the honesty.