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One advantage that you can have over other potential prelaw students is to develop a clear plan for getting into law school early on.
Developing this plan requires you to start by thinking about some key aspects of your career as a lawyer. What type of lifestyle do you want? What are the most important things that you want from a job? At this point, you are more interested in trying to identify important lifestyle factors rather than trying to figure out what kind of law you want to practice.
The first step in this process is to develop a law school ranking list customized to your personal goals and aspirations. This list will be much more helpful to you than the US News ranking. Next, identify the important nuances that matter for each school. Finally, analyze and identify factors that increase your chances for acceptance at the top law schools on your list.
One Thing You Must Absolutely Know Right Now
The one thing that you must absolutely know right now is where you want to live as a lawyer. Your pre-law plan will target law schools that will help you achieve this goal. For some people, this is easy. For others it takes a great deal of thought. For this exercise, you don’t have to absolutely be city-specific. Knowing the region where you want to live after law school is sufficient. And, you can target more than one region. But the more specific you are, the easier your plan will be.
The reason that knowing where you will live is so important is that certain law schools provide better opportunities in specific areas. Knowing where you want to practice narrows the field of law schools that you should consider.
If you want to practice law in Southern California, Vermont law school probably wouldn’t be your best choice. Outside of the very top law schools, each region has a hierarchy of law schools that feed it. To identify this ranking—which is the only one that matters for you—we need to first identify the region.
Factors to Look for in a Law Job
The other consideration that is useful (but not vital) to think about now is what you are looking for in a job. Hey, we all want the job that pays the big bucks and lets us work 35 hours a week. But that just isn’t reality for most. What factors are important to you in a job? Is it all about the money? Or is lifestyle more important to you? Do you mind, or like, travelling? Are you looking for a small office, or do you want to be downtown in a high-rise? Do you want a guaranteed salary, or do you prefer to work on a more entrepreneurial pay scale?
Try to envision the types of law firms that you would like to work for. If you are able to do this it can enhance your law school search because certain types of firms will target different law schools.
What You Must Research
The next step in this process is to identify the large cities in your region, and a list of representative law firms. The Martindale website can assist you in this search. Limit your results to firms with websites and attorney bios.
By way of example, let’s assume your target region is Southeast Texas, and you limit the search to firms with 25 or more lawyers.
Step one would be to identify the large cities in the region. The results would look something like this: 1) Houston; 2) Galveston; 3) Beaumont; 4) Tyler.
The next step is to do a Martindale search. Here is a small example of the results as of writing this article so that you can follow along:
Adams and Reese, LLP — Houston
Royston, Rayzor, Vickery & Williams, LLP — Galveston
MehaffyWeber, PC — Beaumont
White-Shaver, PC — Tyler
How to Develop and Rank a List of Target Law Schools
Now that we have identified your region and some representative law firms from each city (at least 2 firms from each city), go to the firms’ websites and review the attorney bios. You are looking to get a flavor of what schools the attorneys came from, and how well they did in law school. Look for the law school and note if the lawyer lists any of the following: Law Review, Moot Court, Order-of-the-“___” (code words for top graduates). Make sure you are reviewing the attorneys in the correct city’s office if the firm has multiple offices. Ignore any named partners if possible. Identify a minimum of 4 different law schools.
In completing this exercise for the firms above, the most common schools were:
South Texas College of Law
University of Houston Law Center
Baylor Law School
University of Texas Law School
Keep note of which law schools had the highest numbers, but remember that these numbers will not necessarily determine the ranking. In my review, I found South Texas to be the most common law school. Virtually all of the graduates of South Texas in my poll also listed law review or moot court. About half of the UH and Baylor lawyers were in law review or moot court, and fewer UT lawyers were in either.
Noting these code words for top graduates tells me that while South Texas was the most common school I found, I was only seeing top graduates. From Baylor and UH, there was a mixture of medium to high-ranked graduates, and for UT it didn’t matter.
If we were to look at the US News rankings (as of writing this article), we would see why:
University of Texas #15
University of Houston # 60
Baylor # 64
South Texas – Tier 4 (only Tier 1 and 2 are ranked)
Based on the numbers of lawyers that reviewed, and their qualifications, the regional results are consistent with the US News rankings.
Add to that list any “reach” schools that you would attend if you were accepted, and then rank the schools.
Begin with the US News rankings as a guide, and move things as necessary. For instance, outside of Houston, there were more Baylor graduates than UH. If you were more interested in living outside of Houston, it would make sense to rank Baylor higher on your list even though it is ranked slightly lower by US News. This is also the time to consider the unique characteristics of each law school if you find it important. You should consider:
• Class size
• Faculty-student ratio
• Special programs
• Bar passage rates
• Job placement numbers
• Attrition rates
You now have your personalized and ranked list of law schools. Your goal now becomes to get you a seat in your number 1 school.
What Admission Committees Expect You to Demonstrate
Before developing a plan for getting into the law school of your choice, you should understand what admissions committees are looking for. In a perfect world, you present the admission committee with a complete application that fulfills all of their goals. The closer you come to fulfilling these goals, the more likely your chances for admission.
Law schools expect you to demonstrate two major things in your application. First, that you would be a successful law student. And, second, that you can bring a unique perspective to the law school class.
This means that your goal is going to find ways to show the admissions committee that you can think, read, research, and write well, and that you have a diverse viewpoint to offer the law school class.
Identify Your Personal Keys to Admission
With a basic understanding of the things that all law schools are looking for, it is now time to identify the traits that are most valued by your target law schools. Not all schools are the same. Some schools like people who have traveled and seen the world, others are more academically oriented, and still other schools like you to prepare with certain courses even if they are not prerequisites.
Go to each law school’s website and search for this information. Carefully read through the admissions material. Look for traits that the school identifies as important. Take careful notes. In the end, you want to develop an application checklist for each school. The checklist contains the basic elements that are the same for each law school (examples listed in Blue) and the unique things that your research indicates that you need for emphasize for admission into your school (examples listed in Purple). For GPA and LSAT, list the school’s median, if you can find it. Otherwise, average the 75th and 25th percentiles to get a target number.
By way of example let’s use the University of Texas. You should complete a checklist for each school that you want to attend.
University of Texas Law School
Undergraduate GPA 3.71
Appreciation for Diversity
Personal Statement that demonstrates diversity (ethnicity, nationality, or experience).
Early decision is available
Looks for students who have demonstrated a commitment to public service or leadership.
Reviews every application and puts high emphasis on “soft” factors.
Looks for students from underrepresented regions of Texas and disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
Looks for students who have overcome economic, social, or personal disadvantage. (first generation college grad, physical or mental disability, discrimination, etc…)
Once you have a list of factors for each school, you should review the list for things that you are not going to be able to provide. For instance, in the example above, most people will not demonstrate overcoming a physical or mental disability. That’s OK. Highlight the impossible items on your checklists so that you can remember that these weaknesses need to be overcome by strength in other categories.
For instance, if an applicant to Texas was not a minority, did not come from a disadvantaged background, and grew up in a major city, she should plan to show a major commitment to public service and leadership.
Once you find the right balance of traits you have and things a school you are excited about are interested in, you now have a solid plan to get admitted to the school of your dreams.