Some transitioning veterans may be considering a career in law, and that means applying to, and gaining admission to, law school (duh). If the closest you’ve come to the law is reruns of “Law and Order”, or even if you’ve already been fitted for judicial robes and have just a few unanswered questions about the application process, or, this column may be for you. Read On!
Before committing to the law school admissions path, be sure to evaluate critically whether a career in law is right for you (no, being “good at arguing” is not a reason to attend law school). Talk to as many lawyers as you can to understand their work and career prospects. If possible, try to intern or clerk at a law firm or public interest organization as a legal assistant before attending law school. There is no substitute for being in the trenches and working alongside lawyers every day to understand both the sacrifices and the rewards of a career in law. Once you’ve decided to apply, invest the time, and the money, to prepare for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). A high (or low) LSAT score can make or break your application, and spending money on a qualified prep course (like Kaplan or Princeton Review) can make an enormous difference. Much of the material tested by the LSAT is coachable and you can improve your score significantly with study and practice.
When exploring which school might be right for you, be aware that all law schools are not created equal. The level, and variety of post-graduate professional opportunities realistically available to each school’s grads can vary considerably. Law is, and always has been, a very prestige-conscious profession, and gaining entry into certain firms or organizations without a degree from the “right” school can be difficult. Harvard, Yale and Stanford Law Schools, known colloquially as “the Trinity”, offer not only easy opportunities for their graduates to secure top law firm positions (paying a hefty starting base salary of over $160,000), but also a pipeline to the more exclusive and prestigious federal clerkships which can lead to a career in legal academia.
If you’re not sure whether securing an academic career is your primary goal, the next tier of national law schools –widely considered to include Chicago, Columbia and NYU—will offer virtually identical law firm placement opportunities while remaining very competitive for academic positions. The remaining eight or nine national law schools which perennially appear in the Top 14/15 schools in the US News & World Report rankings, though each of these schools may be slightly stronger in their home regions with a slightly reduced reach, and perhaps a smaller margin for error for students not at or around the median of their classes.
After these national schools, the remaining 150 or so American Bar Association-accredited law schools generally place best, with varying levels of success, in or near their home markets, so you’re likely to be best served (all things being equal, financially) by choosing the best school you can get into in the region in which you want to live and practice. Before choosing any school, be sure to review its (verified) placement statistics, available from the National Association of Law Placement, and pay particularly close attention to the median starting salaries and the percentage of graduates employed at, or shortly after, graduation. Speak to some recent alumni of your target school(s), who should be relatively easy to find on LinkedIn or Martindale-Hubbell, a popular directory for legal professionals. Some schools may even have military or veterans’ clubs, if their vet population is large enough; this can be a tremendous internal network to utilize.
Lastly (and perhaps most importantly), be VERY careful about incurring too much debt. Law school is long (three years of full-time study, longer if studying part-time), and paying off student loans is no fun (trust me). A good rule of thumb is to borrow no more to attend your school of choice than the median expected starting salary of the target school. Be conservative about expected outcomes: if your college GPA and LSAT score are at the median (or below) of the incoming class, do not expect to be a top student. Virtually everyone there will work hard and achieving superior results is not easy. If you’re able to use grants or aid, do so, and don’t be shy about asking your dream school to match the financial aid or scholarship package presented by another school. Law schools are very protective of their “yield” (the percentage of accepted students who choose to attend), and so once you’ve been offered admission, you may have considerable leverage.
While it is critical for the prospective applicant to understand the process, difficulties and risks of embarking on the law school journey, please do not mistake this advice as discouragement. For the right candidate, law school can absolutely be a path to a fulfilling and rewarding career, but I’d advise you to invest the time and effort to determine whether you are the right candidate. Best of luck!
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