Today on LSAT blog: An interview with Law School Expert Ann Levine. Ann has worked as a law school admissions consultant since 2004, and before that as a Director of Admissions at two ABA-accredited law schools. She’s also the author of The Law School Admission Game and The Law School Decision Game. She fielded some questions from Blueprint LSAT Prep instructor and Most Strongly Supported blogger Yuko Sin about choosing the right law school, the downside of law school rankings, and what law schools really look for in applicants.
Yuko Sin: How should an applicant decide which law schools to apply to?
Ann Levine: There are three questions to ask yourself when choosing law schools to apply to:
1. What schools (in locations of interest) am I in range for based on my numbers?
2. What schools can I afford to attend (given that I might receive scholarships, be able to live at a lower cost, receive in-state tuition, etc.)?
3. What schools (from list #1) will help me reach my career goals?
YS: Are there law schools that no one should be applying to?
AL: “No one” is awfully broad. Certainly (or at least, arguably) people have graduated from Thomas Cooley and Florida Coastal who have gone on to have meaningful and prosperous legal careers. For students who don’t have to worry about debt because someone is paying for law school, or whose numbers are very low but they are well connected in the legal field and are secure in their chances of finding jobs, schools like these are good options, just like state bar law schools can be for the right candidate. But for most applicants, these are difficult gambles to make and I urge people to really do their research before signing on the dotted line. While I’ve worked with many, many applicants who have gone on to top law schools, I also have seen applicants who have attended lower ranked schools and done well for themselves. My husband graduated from California Western School of Law and is an equity partner in a law firm with six offices. But he didn’t have to take out student loans, so he was open to taking a lower-paying job for a few years after graduation. His firm seems to be always hiring and isn’t picky about which law school people attended; the more important thing is being a sharp cookie and being willing to work hard. But they aren’t paying $100,000 to recent grads, either.
YS: Out of the many law school rankings, including the National Law Journal’s Go-To Law Schools, the various rankings put together by Brian Leiter, the new Above the Law Rankings, and of course the U.S. News Rankings, which do you think are the most useful to law school applicants?
AL: I love that there are more options than just US News. I developed quite a distaste for US News’ rankings when working for law schools and it’s hard for me to overcome, and of course the over-reliance on US News by applicants is dangerous (as I’ve written about in my books). I think the other rankings you mentioned are very helpful to applicants who are viable candidates for BigLaw and clerkships, especially Brian Leiter’s rankings and the new ATL Rankings because of the emphasis on employment. Law School Transparency, while not officially a ranking, is another helpful resource in this regard. But many applicants are tied into certain cities and regions and have other considerations, especially non-traditional applicants, and most lawyers don’t work in BigLaw, so even these other rankings aren’t the end-all-be-all for many applicants.
YS: With law school applications plummeting, do you think law schools can afford to significantly cut their class sizes?
AL: I don’t think class sizes will be cut significantly. Schools that say they are cutting their classes a little are probably spinning the fact that they are having trouble filling the class with qualified applicants. I’d like to see tuition lowered, and to be honest this is happening through recruiting scholarships. Law schools associated with major universities, and especially private universities, will be funnelling a little less money to the undergraduate campuses now, but you won’t hear too many law school deans complaining about that.
YS: Given that GPAs aren’t standardized between schools, or even between majors within the same school, how do deans of admissions weigh and compare GPAs among different applicants?
AL: Rigor is what they are looking for: Did you challenge yourself? Were you surrounded by challenging peers? Did you take interesting/stimulating courses? Did you seek meaningful research and writing opportunities? Did you do all of this and excel? Do your professors think of you as an outstanding student who contributes to the quality of classroom discussion? Is your school known to have an excellent program in your area of study, even if the school as a whole may not have an Ivy-League reputation? The school’s curve, as evident from your Academic Summary Report, is also taken into account.
YS: Many law schools claim that their admissions process is “holistic.” How “holistic” is it really?
AL: It’s REALLY holistic. Really. Applicants with outstanding stories and achievements see this in their admission decisions. But something about your numbers has to show that you have the academic chops to make it at the law school: With a low GPA and low LSAT, it’s hard for the soft factors to come into play. But with a very high, exceptional, GPA and interesting personal story and impressive experiences, you can overcome a low LSAT score.
YS: Which non-academic activities make the biggest difference to an applicant’s chances?
AL: Study abroad in an English-speaking country. Just kidding.
The answer is, of course, “it depends.” It depends on the applicant. Interning at a law firm where you were really just filing, or working 25 hours a week during school as a paralegal: which do you think it more impressive? Or, for that matter, working at Starbucks 25 hours a week to pay your expenses and tuition? A demonstrated understanding of financial realities and self-reliance are impressive. So are extensive writing and activities that you sought out for a purpose other than a grade or class credit, whether as part of an internship or a journal or as editor of the school paper. Industry experience related to what you hope to do with a law degree can add credibility to your application and to your future goals.
Other good activities include athletic commitments and achievements, living abroad, speaking another language, and participating in significant volunteer activities or leadership activities.
YS: What’s the most common mistake you see law school applicants make on their law school personal statements?
AL: Aside from typos and mistakes? Not knowing what their point is, not making their point, or choosing the wrong point.