Doogie Howser, J.D.
Earlier in the month, a story came out in the Orange County Register about a nineteen-year-old college graduate who will soon be attending Northwestern law school. While perhaps not quite as young as Kate, we’ve seen a smattering of twenty year olds taking the LSAT on their way to an early J.D. In our youth-smitten culture, the reaction to these youngsters is typically awe tinged with envy. “You’re going to law school at 20? Wow; you must be smart.”
For most of these students, the truth is that they’re fairly smart, but no more so than any other average middle-class educated bright kid who took an AP Geography class. We’re all fairly familiar with the depressing fact that the American educational system isn’t that great and it’s not all that difficult to skip grades, attend honors programs, and go to college early. But just because you can, does that mean you should?
First, let’s posit a difference between true genius and the educational system sucking. Our girl in the OC sounds like she might actually have a talent for reading and retention that’s above most “normal” people, as opposed to the many grade schoolers bright enough to learn fractions in fourth grade instead of the sixth. For her, going to college early might be an important way to challenge herself. (Though one does wonder about that 3.5 from UCSD, but whatever).
But for others who graduate from college at 18 with a ho-hum GPA, it’s not clear what the advantage is. In terms of law school applications, your LSAT score and GPA are commonly touted as the most important factors. But the personal statement is the biggest piece of your qualitative application and it’s not clear how much cache “I went to school young” possesses on the personal statement. In fact, when we speak to admissions counselors, we find that many of them are searching for interesting life experiences to make up a class with a diversity of backgrounds. While being young may fit that criteria, it’s not clear that it’s enough, by itself, to justify going to law school so early alone when going to the Peace Corps or starting a non-profit may fit the criteria as well if not better.
Then there’s the additional concern about being mature enough to go. For many, law school is more about balancing stress than true intellectual stimulation. It’s not clear that a 19-year-old is psychologically equipped to withstand the humiliation that can come with the Socratic method, the stress of competition that attends curved grading, and the mounds of reading that are given for no clear purpose other than perhaps to see how one deals with too much reading.
We often tell our students to take a year off before law school. A year long deferral is relatively easy to come by and can help you to understand whether or not the legal profession really is for you. Given that we don’t even think that people who are 22 are ready to go to law school, of course we’re distrustful that it’s a good choice at 20. Are you really in that much of a rush to grow up?