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by Vault Law Editors | March 31, 2009

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Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools. If you have a question for Anna Ivey, send her an e-mail.

Question: I want to start working on my law school essays so that I'm ready to submit my applications in the fall, but I'm stumped. What do admissions officers want me to write about?

Part II: The Statement of Purpose

In my last column, I offered advice on techniques for writing effective personal statements. Here, I'll be discussing how to write a good statement of purpose, which is how I refer to essays that answer why you want a law degree. Unlike the personal statement, which is largely descriptive and designed to offer a snapshot of you as a person, the statement of purpose asks you to answer a narrow question: why you want a law degree. An effective statement of purpose is not descriptive. Rather, it constructs an argument designed to persuade. In that way, this essay approximates much more closely the kind of writing you'll be doing as a lawyer. Admissions officers pay attention to the coherence and strength of your argument, both to make sure you have good reasons for going to law school, and also to get a sense of your potential as a legal writer.

In my experience, most applicants have terrible reasons for applying to law school, and that's why they have such a difficult time writing a good statement of purpose. Many people apply because:

  1. They're in college, they have no idea what kind of career to pursue, and they would rather stay in school for another three years than go about finding a real job.
  2. They've been out of college for a while, hate their jobs, and figure that law school is a great way to change careers.
  3. They have no desire to practice law, but they think law school will be interesting and will allow them to do just about anything afterwards.
  4. They want to see the world, so they decide they want to study international law.
  5. They care about social justice, and even thought they don't have a meaningful track record in public interest work, they now want to devote their lives to it.

None of these approaches results in a good statement of purpose. Instead, applicants should construct an argument that paints a trajectory with both backward and forward-looking components: what is your background, what are your future goals, and why do you need a law degree to connect the two?

The problem with scenarios 1), 2), and 3) is that you may be able to talk about your background, but you can't articulate concrete career goals. And if you don't know where you're headed (and why), you can't explain why you need a law degree to get there. The impression you don't want to give is that you woke up one day and decided a law degree would be really prestigious and cool, and that you want to spend three years and up to $150,000 (plus lost income) to figure out what it is you really want to do.

The problem with scenarios 4) and 5) is that while you might have a concrete goal, nothing in your background necessarily makes that goal a logical, well-informed, or credible one. If you don't have a track record in public interest work, for example, why should an admissions officer believe that you know what you're getting yourself into? Or even that you're sincere? Maybe you really are pure of heart and do want to save the world, but people will say all kinds of things to make themselves sound better in their applications, and the absence of a track record can make you sound self-serving and disingenuous.

Those kinds of essays also end up sounding very naove. Public interest work involves long hours, little pay, and (if you go to law school) crushing debt, and most law students who intend to go into public interest law end up joining the private sector instead. Public interest law is a very hard way to go, and your argument will sound facile if you can't demonstrate an understanding of the real challenges and trade-offs. Admissions officers are very cynical about applicants who proclaim their devotion to public interest without any meaningful experience in that world.

As for international law, 90% of applicants who say they want to go into international law have no idea what that means, and their essays confirm their ignorance. As one of my admissions officer buddies likes to say, If you want to see the world, be a flight attendant. Why? Because most people who practice international law spend most of their time in windowless conference rooms, and windowless conference rooms look exactly the same whether you're in Dubai, Vienna, or San Francisco. If you want to go into international law, you too need to demonstrate a track record, whether you worked on international business transactions or you interned at a human rights organization.

Contrast the following career trajectories, which sound a lot more credible:

  1. Someone with a background in HR administration wants to go into employment law.
  2. Someone with internships in investment banking and corporate finance wants to go into securities law and corporate governance.
  3. Someone with a science background wants to become an intellectual property lawyer.
  4. Someone who grew up around a family business wants to help entrepreneurs get their start-ups off the ground.

What if you don't have a compelling reason to go to law school? Go experience legal practice from the inside. If you've worked with lawyers as an intern, paralegal, or case assistant, you'll have much more credibility when you explain what it is about the practice of law that appeals to you. Maybe you enjoy the analytical thinking, the fast pace, and the attention to detail. Or maybe there's a particular area of law that you've seen up close (Superfund litigation? 10K filings? Juvenile law? Tort claims?), and you want to leverage that experience.

Whatever your situation may be, your job is to make a compelling case to an admissions officer, and that usually ends up sounding quite different from the reasons you contemplate when you're counting sheep or arguing with your parents or daydreaming about ways to escape your horrible boss. A great statement of purpose demonstrates that you are in control of your destiny, not that you'll be happy to land wherever the tide takes you.

If you have your own question for Anna Ivey, send her an e-mail.

Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools, as well as the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews and More. Formerly the Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, she has also practiced corporate and entertainment law in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from Columbia and her J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, where she served as an editor of The University of Chicago Law Review. To learn more about her admissions counseling, visit annaivey.com.

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