Do your research before you click the “Send” button on your law school application.
This was the theme of the panel that I moderated last night at NYU on the pros and cons of law school: Should I Apply to Law School? Hosted by Stratus Prep, the panel included three attorneys and one future attorney at various stages of their careers:
•Shawn O'Connor, Founder / President, Stratus Prep
•Peter Samuels, Senior Partner and Co-Head M&A, Proskauer
•Rebecca Gingold, Senior Investigative Attorney, Kings County District Attorney's Office
•Elnaz Zarrini, Fordham Law School, Class of 2011.
Covering everything from the law school application process to choosing a law school to the legal job market to what it’s really like behind that casebook, the panelists discussed a wide range of topics that prospective law students should consider. In describing their own experiences in law school (Harvard Law, Michigan Law and Fordham Law were all represented) and professionally, the panel offered a genuine glimpse at the law school experience and advised prospective students to consider the following before diving in to law school:
1.Treat the Application Process Seriously.
According to O’Connor, prospective students should “take ownership” of their applications. Law-school hopefuls should focus on presenting real reasons for why they want to go to law school in their personal statements, take initiative in asking for letters of recommendation (including writing a cover letter to remind the professor of your work), and commit to studying for the LSAT—O’Connor, who received a 179 on the LSAT, studied for 9 months. The law school you go to may have a significant impact on your career prospects, so you should dedicate yourself to getting into your target school.
2.Choose Your Law School Carefully.
Should you go to the highest ranked law school you get into? “If you have the geographic flexibility and monetary flexibility, you are always going to be better served [by going to a higher-rated law school],” said Samuels. O’Connor echoed this thought, noting that if you get into a top 14 school, you should go—those schools will open doors. But as you slide down the rankings, other factors may come into play. For example, location is an important consideration for lower-ranked schools, whose networks may be more regional, according to Gingold. In fact, location influenced Zarrini’s law school decision—she chose Fordham Law over another slightly-higher-ranked school outside of New York because she wanted to practice in the Big Apple and determined that Fordham had an impressive local network (and it worked out for the Class of 2011 grad-to-be, who secured a law firm job in the City).
The panel seemed to agree that higher-ranked schools will provide students with more opportunities. And O’Connor shared his belief that the down economy will not have as big of an impact on students who attend top 50 schools over those at lower ranked institutions.
3.Law School is a Different World.
“People who thought that it was going to be a continuation of undergrad are in for a rude awakening,” said Gingold. Law school is an intense process. Unlike undergrad, when you may have been able to go out every night and get by with minimal work, studying for law school is a full-time job. As Zarrini mentioned, the atmosphere is more competitive in law school due to the forced bell curve (which O’Connor described in detail), and careful preparation is required for each class.
Thinking about cutting class? Forget about it. You won’t get lost in the crowd in law school, Gingold warned. The professors know who you are and where you sit—they’ll notice if you’re missing, she said. Plus law students are required to attend a certain number of classes each year, said O’Connor. So get ready to commit to your education.
4.Understand the Financial Commitment.
Law school isn’t cheap, and prospective students should carefully assess the financial commitments they’re making in going to law school. “The only way to avoid paying off student loan debt is death,” said O’Connor, who encouraged prospective students to consider fixed rate loans. He also advised prospective students to carefully investigate the terms of any scholarships they receive, noting that grade cutoffs that may seem easy-to-meet based on undergrad standards may not be as attainable with the law school bell curve.
The type of law you want to practice may also impact your law school planning. For example, if you are leaning toward public interest work—which pays a much lower salary than large law firms—your debt load may be much higher, noted Samuels. Indeed, public-interest-bound students should research loan forgiveness programs at their schools, said O’Connor.
5.Keep Your Head Up.
The legal industry hasn’t been spared from the effects of the down economy. As Gingold pointed out, hiring is down across the industry, including at her own employer. On the other hand, Samuels cautioned that you can’t predict how the market will be three years from now. “Stick with the fundamentals: do you want to go to law school?” said Samuels.
In other words, if you want to be a lawyer, law school is the path, and you have to keep a positive focus. Zarrini did just that—her determination and interview approach helped her secure a law firm job during one of the lowest points of the down economy. That’s not to say landing a job will be easy—prospective law students should prepare themselves for the possibility that the job market may still be rough and what that may mean for their careers and finances.
6.There Are Many Roads.
Your legal education can take you in many directions. If you don't end up at your dream school, you may be able to transfer (although transferring is quite competitive). Or if you end up at a regional law school, you may find opportunities to branch out from that region after you have work experience under your belt. And, as O'Connor pointed out, law school may also open doors to alternative career paths ranging from public policy advocacy to business to journalism to academia and who knows what else. A law degree is versatile.
Panel Advises on Attending Law School
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