College Advice for the Career-Minded: Law School

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Welcome to installment one of College Transitions’ “So You Want to Be a….” series. Designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys, these blogs will look at the financial, academic and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions.

Does going to a prestigious undergraduate school help?

Getting into a top law school is first and foremost a numbers game. Simply put, a high GPA and sparkling LSAT score are your ticket to the country’s top law schools. So with that in mind, does a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University trump a Bachelor of Arts from Boise State?

In general, so-called Tier one law schools are looking for students with outstanding GPAs and LSAT scores in the 170s (98th percentile and above). These are, after all, the primary metrics used by "U.S. News and World Report" to rank the top law schools. Prestige is less of a factor and, in some cases, may actually hurt you if you can’t maintain a similar GPA to applicants coming from less selective institutions. For example, a student with a 3.4 from Penn State may present as less competitive than a 3.7 student from nearby Drexel University.

Harvard Law School’s 1L student body of 2014-15 comprises 560 students from 172 different undergraduate institutions. The full gamut of colleges and universities are represented on this list, from the Ivies to your good ol’ state schools; literally from Brown to, yes… the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Should I be a Pre-Law major?

The American Bar Association does not recommend a Pre-Law course of study for future barristers in college. In fact, they have decreed publicly that there is no “right” major. A look at law school admissions data reveals that History, Economics, Math, Science, and Philosophy majors all have far superior rates of admission into law school than those with a Pre-law or Criminal Justice background. Essentially, if law school is your desired next step, then you have a license to pursue whatever subject you find intellectually stimulating as an undergraduate. The operative phrase there is intellectually stimulating. To be adequately prepared to ace the LSAT and handle the rigor of law school, you’ll want to steer clear of Phys Ed, Advanced Crocheting, and most of the majors on this list.

Make sure you actually want to be a lawyer

To picture the day-to-day experience of most attorneys, start by imagining your favorite oozingly-earnest Sam Watterson closing statement from the "Law & Order" TV show…OK, ready? Now subtract all of the glamour, drama, and high-minded ideals. Substitute in 90-hour workweeks, endless mountains of paperwork, and a cutthroat and highly stressful work environment.

OK, maybe that was a bit harsh. But if you examine surveys of those currently in the field, a less-than-rosy picture of the job emerges. Almost 75 percent of those practicing law today say they wish they had chosen a different career. Equally bleak is the fact that depression, substance abuse and even suicide are more prevalent in the legal field than in any other profession. We’re not saying there aren’t lawyers who have wonderful and fulfilling careers, but you’ll want to do your research to make sure there is an area in the field that genuinely excites you.

Gain experience in the field

Jumping straight from your college graduation into law school might make you feel like the star of your five-year high school reunion (Man, that guy/gal has got direction!), but it could cost you the chance to do your due diligence. We recommend spending some time working in a legal setting before cutting that first hefty law school tuition check. Whether it’s in the summer or after graduation, there is no better method of career counseling than actually seeing the real deal up-close.

Plan the financial end

Two key things to remember here:

A) Law school is extremely expensive.

B) Not every lawyer makes a ton of money.

Just about everyone who successfully works his or her way through medical school will go on to a lucrative career. This is simply not true of law school, where, quite frankly, there will be winners and losers. Your performance relative to the rest of your class matters, and those at the bottom 50th percentile of their class rarely, if ever, waltz into six-figure jobs. Those with a passion for less lucrative sectors of the profession such as family law, civil rights, or public interest also need to be particularly thoughtful in this area.

The average law school graduate comes out over $100,000 in debt. There is, of course, good debt and bad debt. Overpaying for a high-end undergraduate education, and then, paying big bucks for a lower-end law school is likely to leave you with bad debt. If you have a choice between attending an elite college as an undergraduate or an elite law school (and not both), go with the elite law school every time.

What kind of law school should I aim for?

Unlike our approach to undergraduate admissions, College Transitions does not place as large of an emphasis on “fit” when it comes to law schools. Of course, fit matters to the extent that, for example, candidates interested in a career in government may find better prospects at a D.C.-area law school.  Yet it is important to acknowledge the reality that law school and the legal field itself are hypercompetitive, and prestige does matter.

If you’re going to go to law school, aim for a top-shelf institution. Tier 3 and 4 law school graduates too often face a chilly job market and are saddled with burdensome debts. If, after looking over your law school prospects, you conclude, like Groucho Marx, that you wouldn’t join any that would have you as a member, it may be time to explore other professions.

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Please visit our website——to learn more.