Friday, June 26, 2009
This post was inspired by some conversations I had with other law professors and administrators at the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning conference at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Many of the things I hear from undergrads interested in law school are the very same things that cause ASP professionals trouble when those undergrads go to law school. There are many myths and misconceptions about what it takes to go to law school, what type of person you should be to be a successful lawyer, and general misconceptions about a legal career. Although this blog is aimed at ASP professionals, I know students sometimes read the blog as well. Hopefully, a few will read this and think a bit more deeply about law school, or if they are a law student, hopefully this will give them some food for thought about what is required to succeed in law school.
1) I like to argue, so I would be a good lawyer. There are several problems with this belief. The first problem is that lawyers need to skilled at argument, not arguing. Argument is different from arguing. Argument is a well-formed analysis of an issue that addresses, and rebuts, different perspectives on a topic. Having the ability to harangue your parents into allowing you to break curfew is not argument. Badgering siblings until they break down and cry is not argument. It may be called arguing, but it is not argument. Llogic is ancillary to arguing. Logic is the cornerstone of a good argument. While many lawyers argue, it is a not a skill that makes them successful. Frequently, it is what makes lawyers annoying and disliked. The ability to craft arguments for your position make a successful lawyer. If you are struggling with legal writing, it is likely one of the problems is a lack of analysis or argument. No yelling, badgering, annoying, haranguing, or bullying necessary.
2) I hate math, and law school requires good writing skills, not math skills. I think it was said brilliantly by my colleague at Quinnnipiac Law School, Cindy Slane; "Law is like geometry in words." Law requires logic, and logic is the cornerstone of (most) math. It is possible to be very logical and hate math, but it's not too common. If you are not logical, law school is going to be a long, painful slog. Many of the students I worked with in Acacademic Support find logic to be impenetrable. These are the students who barely squeak by in law school if they make it at all, and leave the law profession.
3) I have to major in Political Science, History, or English to go to law school. No. Just no. Not true in any way. Many brilliant attorneys have majored in engineering, biology, art, psychology, or chemistry. The most important thing to remember when choosing an undergraduate major is to choose something you will enjoy and succeed in. Law school admissions offices do NOT favor Political Science, English, or History majors. In fact, it will not help you at all the be one of these majors, because the skills you need to succeed in law school differ greatly from the knowledge you attain in these majors. I suggest a broad group of classes to anyone interested in law school, such as micro and macro economics, philosophy and logic, poetry, and public speaking. If you are struggling in law school, it is highly unlikely that it is caused by your choice of undergraduate major.
4) I want to go to law school because I am not sure what I want to be, but I want to make a lot of money. Please, please, please see the NALP graph on the income of law school graduates. http://www.nalp.org/apictureworth1000words If you didn't go to a "big 14" law school or graduate at the top 10% of your class at a top 50 school, and will not be making a six-figure income when you graduate from law school. 90% of the people who go to a top 50 law school are not going to be in the top 10% of their class. Many people with majors in high-need areas will make as much money coming out of undergrad as they will when they graduate law school. Most law school grads make in the 35-55K range when they graduate. I have had to break this reality to many law students during their 1L year. There are so many wonderful reasons to go to law school, but money is not one of them.
5) US News ranking is what matters most when choosing a law school. Not true, but the answer is quite nuanced. In all honesty, and to the chagrin of many law school professors, ranking matters. However, it does not matter in the way most pre-law and law students think it matters. Going to a school ranked 25 versus one ranked 30 (or 5 vs, 10) is not going to make a whit of difference when you are looking for a job. Students who go to a "big 14" school have the opportunity to make more money when they graduate, and most law school academics come from those schools. But if you want to be a local attorney in a certain state, look for schools that produce a lot of attorneys in that area. There is such a thing as "regional powerhouse" law schools, and it is something that is not measured by US News. You need to find that out yourself by talking to attorneys in the area where you want a job when you graduate. Fit is absolutely critical when choosing a law school. I see many students transferring because they choose the best ranked law school that admitted them, and later found the school did not fit with their career goals or their personality. Law students who are struggling should not assume that the law school is the problem, because the first year curriculum is standard across the country. But if you are struggling because you are homesick, don't like the culture of your law school, or hate the weather in the area, it might be best to transfer to a school that is a better "fit" with who you are.
I invite other ASP professionals to send me myths and misconceptions about law school and legal careers. This is the time of the year future law students are getting ready to make their final arrangements for law school, and this may help a few make better choices so they do not wind up in our offices later in the year. (RCF--rebecca.flanagan(@)uconn.edu)