If you’re thinking about enrolling in law school and becoming a lawyer, you probably want to know the most important law school requirements—and what you can do to give yourself a leg up in the admissions game.
First, some background on law school: The typical full-time Juris Doctor (JD) program lasts 3 years. A number of law schools also offer a 4-year part-time JD program as well. Some law schools offer master’s degrees that are not designed to lead to bar licensure, as well as advanced degrees, like an LLM or SJD, that you can pursue only after you’ve obtained your JD (or a foreign equivalent). My own law school, Concord Law School, which is fully online, offers an Executive Juris DoctorSM for those who want advanced legal training but don’t want to sit for the bar or practice law. But if your goal is to earn a law degree, get your bar license, and practice as an attorney, the Juris Doctor is what you’ll be setting your sights on.*
Because the Juris Doctor is a postgraduate degree, law schools generally require that you have completed (or be on track to complete) a 4-year bachelor’s degree. If you earned your undergraduate degree outside the United States, you should check with individual law schools regarding their policies.
Not surprisingly, undergraduate grade point average (UGPA) is a key indicator law schools consider when evaluating applicants. Law schools are notoriously concerned with their own prestige, and the UGPA (along with LSAT scores—see below) of the students they enroll is a significant factor in their U.S. News and World Report rankings.
College students interested in law school often ask if they should major in political science or other pre-law fields, either to make themselves more law school “ready” or to impress admissions officials. While doing so likely won’t hurt, it won’t provide a big advantage. In fact, some studies have shown that students who majored in math, engineering, or science may do better in law school, perhaps because of the rigorous training in logic they received. Law is a highly interdisciplinary field, drawing on sociology, economics, linguistics, history, and more. Many different academic backgrounds may provide a good foundation for law school. The bottom line: study something that interests you and you think you’ll do well in, and don’t worry about the major that “looks” good.
Until recently, the requirement that law school applicants take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) was nearly ubiquitous.
The LSAT is a standardized half-day test administered four times per year at various testing locations throughout the country (and beyond). It consists of 175 multiple choice questions designed to test your reading comprehension and reasoning and analytical skills, as well as a writing component. No prior knowledge of the law is required. Scaled scores range from 120 to 180, with an average of 150. The more selective the school you want to attend, the higher your score would likely need to be.
Historically, your LSAT score, along with your UGPA, would be far and away the most important factor that most law schools would consider. However, some law schools are starting to consider alternatives to the LSAT.
In February 2016, the University of Arizona College of Law made headlines when it announced that it would consider applicants who had taken the Graduate Records Examination (GRE), the admissions test for various graduate programs, in lieu of the LSAT. A year later, Harvard Law School announced that it, too, would accept applicants based on their GRE scores—a move that will no doubt lead other law schools to follow suit.
There are other admissions models as well. For example, Concord Law School does not require the LSAT. It considers applicants based largely on a combination of their UGPA and their score on a proprietary admissions test that simulates the format and coverage of the LSAT but is shorter and can be taken online.
Letters of Recommendation
Law schools will want to see at least a couple of letters of recommendation. Although these generally carry less weight than grades and test scores, they can still be important.
If you are still in college, now is a good time to start forging relationships with your favorite professors or those in whose classes you excelled. If a professor doesn’t know you, they’re going to have a hard time saying much about you in a letter. Don’t be afraid to “bother” your professors during office hours—that’s what they’re there for. And if you get the rare professor who seems too busy to help, he or she probably wouldn’t write a good letter anyway.
It is far better to get a glowing letter from a lesser-known professor who is familiar with you and the quality of your work than one from a “big name” professor who barely knows your name. The whole point of the letter of recommendation is an endorsement by someone who can credibly speak to your character and qualities. If someone is equivocal about providing a recommendation, find someone else. Reviewers expect letters of recommendation to be glowing, so if one is lukewarm, it sends a negative signal.
If you have been out of school for a while, chances are you are not still in touch with your college professors. Don’t panic. If you’ve been in the working world, a letter of recommendation from a boss or colleague may be quite valuable, as they can attest to relevant skills and character traits. Indeed, the life experiences of older applicants, including the challenges they have overcome, may themselves be indicators of ability to thrive in law school.
Most law schools will ask for a personal statement. It may be open-ended, or the school’s application may prompt you to respond to particular questions. Make sure to tailor your statement accordingly. Don’t write a cookie-cutter statement that is not responsive to the particular prompt.
The personal statement is an opportunity to showcase your writing skills, so make sure to polish it until it is error-free, and have others review it as well. It is also an opportunity to tell your “story.” This means both highlighting your unique or significant accomplishments, as well as providing context for any gaps or deficiencies in your academic or professional record. If you have overcome health, family, or economic adversity, you may want to consider addressing this.
It should go without saying, but...don’t have someone else write your personal statement. Not only is this unethical (not a great way to start your path toward being an officer of the court), but it does a disservice both to you and the schools that are considering you.
Choosing a Law School
No less important than familiarizing yourself with law school requirements and learning how to apply is deciding where to apply to law school. Law schools usually publish statistics about the UGPAs and LSAT scores of their entering classes, as well as the percentage of applicants they offer admission to. You can use this information to apply to a mix of schools where getting in is likely, as well as some that may be a “reach.”
Some applicants fortunate enough to receive multiple admissions offers pursue a simple strategy: enroll in the highest ranked school they get into. This may not always be best for everyone.
First, tuition costs are a major consideration. If your options are getting a full-tuition scholarship at a low ranked regional school or paying full tuition at Yale, get your winter coat and head to New Haven. But if your second option is paying full or half price at a slightly higher ranked regional school, it may be better to take the hit on rankings and graduate with a lighter debt load.
Second, if you know you want to specialize in a certain area of law, like intellectual property or education law, you may want to consider a school that is known for its strength in that field, even if its general reputation may not be as stellar.
Third, personal circumstances are important. For those who need to continue working while in school, or who have family responsibilities, military duties, or other nontraditional schedules, part-time study may be more realistic. Not all law schools offer part-time programs, and the quality of a school’s part-time program is not necessarily the same as its full-time. And for those who cannot commute or move near a brick-and-mortar campus, or whose schedules present particular challenges, an online law school may be a better fit than even a part-time, campus-based program.
Once You’re In
Have realistic expectations. Few law students have the nightmarish experience portrayed in films like The Paper Chase. Yet even those who found undergraduate study to be a breeze, or who excelled in other graduate programs, often report that law school was harder than anything they had encountered, particularly in the first year.
Law school is a significant time commitment. A full-time program of study really is full-time, with students easily spending 40 to 60 hours per week. Even part-time programs often require at least 25 to 30 hours per week of study.
Law school also effectively involves learning a new language, with hundreds of Latin, French, and Old English terms and concepts, as well as new ways of reasoning, researching, and writing.
If you have a passion for the law and are up for a challenge, law school may be right for you. But, as with anything else, it’s good to know before you go. Hopefully, this overview of important law school requirements helps you on your path to earning a law degree.