Pre-law school books?
January 6, 2009 4:52 AM   Subscribe

What books should I buy while applying to law school? I want to decide which school and area of concentration are best for me, and learn more about the law school experience as well.

I'm looking for 3 categories of recommendations:

1) I'm going to order Planet Law School and would like recommendations for similar books about the experience of going to law school (to warm my cold feet and prepare me).

2) Books that will help me decide which school to go to based on their qualities, advantages, etc. I'm only looking at the top 30 and ideally would attend somewhere in the top 10 (hoping for NYU or Columbia!) but I am thinking about finances and the option of attending a lower-ranked school that might offer me a scholarship and transferring up in my 2L year.

3) Books that will help me decide what kind of a lawyer I want to be, what I might like to concentrate on, etc. I intend to resolve this question during law school, but I don't know a lot about different kinds of law and legal careers, and the different career experiences a given area of focus/practice may determine for me. Specifically, I enjoy living outside my home country (the USA) so I want to consider and learn about concentrations I might focus on in law school that will enable me to have an international career; this could also feed back into my decision on which school to attend.

I have to put in an Amazon order right now if I want to read and benefit from any of this while making my final application decisions - your advice will be much appreciated!
posted by xanthippe to Education (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The obvious choice: 1L
posted by Pollomacho at 4:56 AM on January 6, 2009

Law school is only financially viable for students of the top 10 or so. Going lower ranked and intending on transferring up is a huge gamble. Only go lower ranked if you can go for 30k or less.

There really isn't substantial difference between similarly ranked law schools. It's not a PhD program. There is no "specialization". All the professors are hot shit Yale grads (even at tier 4), all the students are Adderalled-up workhorses, and everybody prays to God they end up robustly upper middle class.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 5:32 AM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Planet Law School is a bit manic. Law School Confidential is more reasonable.

No book will tell you what visiting the schools you get into will tell you.
posted by JakeWalker at 5:40 AM on January 6, 2009

Books that will help me decide what kind of a lawyer I want to be, what I might like to concentrate on, etc.

A book is only going to take you a short way toward making this choice. Many lawyers don't truly decide "what kind of a lawyer I want to be" until years after law school. This is a remarkably flexible profession, so long as you are always willing to re-start at the bottom.

The classes you take in law school really don't have much impact on what kind of law you end up practicing. I know tax attorneys who never took tax in law school, criminal attorneys who never took criminal law (other than the required courses), and really good IP litigators who never took a single IP class.

First year curriculums do a good job of exposing you to several different areas of law. Study hard, and then when it comes time to pick electives go with what you find interesting. Summer work is also important; work in a law firm, see if you like it. Or, get an internship with a government agency.

Pick a law school that best suits your learning style. Break ties by going with prestige rankings.

Also: the book "1L" is a fun read but not a good introduction to law school life. Scott Turow appears to have had a serious fear of speaking in public, and that comes through.
posted by profwhat at 5:44 AM on January 6, 2009

Response by poster: Good advice profwhat - can you recommend a book or other resource that might help me assess which schools suit my learning style?

(I'm abroad right now so visiting schools isn't an option.)
posted by xanthippe at 5:51 AM on January 6, 2009

assess which schools suit my learning style?

Well, that won't matter because every Tier 1 law school teaches law the same way. Law school isn't really about making sure the learning experience conforms to what you need and nurturing you like your undergrad may have been; law school is a competition, where teachers use the Socratic method because that's what always been used and only 4 or 5 students per class can earn As because of a curve.

As for what law to practice, talk to some lawyers and ask them what they like about their jobs. See if your undergrad's alumni office can give you names of some lawyers, or if the law school can if your university has one. There aren't really any books that compare, like, elder law with tax law or criminal with municipal. But you won't be alone going into law school not knowing what you want to do -- most people do that, then either work for a big firm if they're top 15%-ish or work for medium firms, small firms, or do some type of criminal work. Not everyone, but most.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 6:03 AM on January 6, 2009

Do not rely on the prospect of transferring up to a top school just to save a few bucks. While we'd all like to think that the economy will be better by the time you're looking for a job, it's possible that things will still be rough. If you get into a top school and do reasonably well, you should be able to find good work even in a tough economy; if you go to a lower-ranked school, you'll have a much harder time getting your foot in the door and you'll probably be more limited in where you'll be able to find work. See #1 here.

Law school is extremely expensive. However, starting pay for an associate at a Big Law firm is very high. If you don't want to go the Big Law route, most top schools have loan repayment assistance programs for graduates who decide to go into public service; if you're interested in going that route, look at which schools offer how much assistance as a way of deciding between schools.

It's also true that many people graduate from lower-ranked law schools and go on to have extremely distinguished careers. However, it's a significantly harder road from Loyola-Marymount than it is from Columbia. Handicapping yourself from the start for what in the long run amounts to a few bucks is not the best idea.
posted by sinfony at 6:21 AM on January 6, 2009

Response by poster: Ok. I was thinking of choosing a few safety schools based on their specialties though in the immediate future - i.e. Cornell as they are highly-ranked for international law, rather than applying to several similarly-ranked schools with no good reason to decide between them.

In this economy, does "lower-ranked" now mean under top-10/top-14/top-20? How low would you say it's no longer worth the investment (if my alternative is waiting a year but having a much higher LSAT and possibly higher GPA to get me in a top 5)?
posted by xanthippe at 6:31 AM on January 6, 2009

3) Books that will help me decide what kind of a lawyer I want to be, what I might like to concentrate on, etc.

NALP's Official Guide to Legal Specialties. That's the main book my law school (which is in the top 14 -- there is no "top 10"!) recommended. There's a chapter for each type of lawyer; each chapter has lots of snippets of interviews with those kinds of lawyers talking about their job. (The one problem I have with it is the section that recommends careers based on your "strengths"; each job seems to have almost identical lists of accompanying "strengths," rendering the whole thing almost meaningless.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:55 AM on January 6, 2009

Specifically, I enjoy living outside my home country (the USA) so I want to consider and learn about concentrations I might focus on in law school that will enable me to have an international career; this could also feed back into my decision on which school to attend.

If this is true, you should seriously reconsider going to law school. International law isn't what you appear to think that it is and almost no law school graduates have an "international career" in the way you seem to want. If you think going to Cornell will in any way lead you to going abroad, you're almost certainly wrong. You haven't given an idea of your numbers yet for application, so this is all prospective, but please think this through.
posted by allen.spaulding at 7:03 AM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Law school is only financially viable for students of the top 10 or so.

This is complete horseshit. Law school is financially viable, in the long term, for virtually everyone who goes and applies themselves both to the study, and practice of law. You're going to make more, and earlier, by going to a top 10 but it's not like going to law school is a losing proposition if you're outside of that range. (Although this is a common, uncited, statistic parroted by students in the top 10 and those disaffected with their own study and career/prospects.)

More to the OP's question, though: you're not going to find those answers in books, I'm sorry to say:

1) The experience at each school will be different. Visit the school. How the admissions dept treats you on your visits is a good litmus for how you'll probably be treated by the admin while you're there. Talk to students (preferably several) about their experiences. Listen to what they say. Expect one or two of them to be unhappy.

2) The odds of transferring up are negligible, and I don't think it's a very good idea in any event, unless the only thing you're looking for is the name on the degree and a little extra cash when you graduate. Also? You can get a decent idea of a school's specialties by just visiting their websites. After that, you should decide which one to attend by visiting them. Law school is enough stress alone without adding on the complications of hating your school/location/environment.

3) This is a waste of time. Whatever you decide now will almost certainly change, and it could keep you from exploring some options that you might be surprised to find that you really enjoy. Go to school with no preconceived notions. Take your 1L classes and then see what you excelled at and what you enjoyed. Talk to your professors about where those same concepts and skills can be used and where you might find similar qualities to the ones you enjoyed in your classes.

I appreciate how bewildering the thought of going to law school can be, but let me assure you that the answers are not going to be found printed on paper. This is an experiential thing and your best bet is to talk to some real-live human beings. If you're dead set on reading some books, take them all with a huge grain of salt. I have yet to find even one that describes anything like what I experienced.
posted by toomuchpete at 7:10 AM on January 6, 2009

Response by poster: I understand that reading a book is not ideal; however, I live outside the USA and have a friend flying from the USA to where I am in a couple days that could pick up some books for me. That's why I'm asking now. Thanks if anyone can provide any more recommendations.

allen.spaulding, I want to understand why you claim that international law, or any sort of a JD, will not lead to an international career, and/or how it can and what steps and decisions I can immediately take to make that happen. Where can I get this information? Could you either explain your reasoning in more detail or recommend a source for me to seek clarification from? This is exactly why I'm asking this question. It's much more convenient for me to get an American JD as a US citizen, but I don't want to get stuck in America permanently as a result (I'm not ready to get stuck anywhere in particular permanently, actually, which makes it just as useless for me to get a law degree in some other country).
posted by xanthippe at 7:18 AM on January 6, 2009

I posted this in the Am I Doomed To Misery If I Go To Law School? thread, but was a bit late to the party, so I'll repeat myself here - given all the nonsense that has been posted above. (On what planet is Cornell a safety school?)
- Below the top 20 (or so), geography trumps rank. Go to school where you want to practice law. Do some searches on to get an idea of how many alumni from a particular school practice in your target city.
- Work your ass off for the LSAT; it has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of lawyer you will be but it will open doors to what law school you get into.
- All else being equal, incur less debt.
- Doing exceptionally well at a lower-ranked school is better for your career than merely graduating from a high-ranking school.
- "Top 10 or bust" is silly, but the combination of going to a very high ranked school and doing well at said school will give you access to: (i) clerkships at federal courts of appeals and high-demand federal district courts (i.e. those in the Acela corridor); (ii) law professorships (seriously, forget about doing this unless you get into Yale, it's just not worth it otherwise); (iii) snobby nonprofits (sorry Obama transition team, I kid because I love) and (iv) some, but most certainly not all, prestigious white-shoe big-law firms and boutiques in high-demand cities.
- You can find firms that treat you humanely. If you do good work, nobody's going to fire you for not making your billable hour requirement. In fact, nobody's ever going to fire you. You'll find another job at another firm and keep intact the contacts and professional relationships you had at your old job. Then you'll go in-house so you can see your kids.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:21 AM on January 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm not saying it's impossible. 2 of my law school roommates got jobs doing high-level in-country work for major human rights organizations but those jobs are extremely rare and only available to the top students at the top schools. Even then there's a lot of luck involved and you have to be at the right place at the right time with the right mentors and the right opportunities.

A JD just doesn't prepare you to do intenational work, plain and simple. It's a really terrible preparation for an international career and people need to realize that International Law isn't a an actual job. If you want to live and work abroad, it makes little sense to get a JD. Seriously, a PhD in classics is about as useful. While you might study either comparative or international law, there are little opportunities to practice it and even then it's unclear that studying at an American law school is the best preparation for it.
posted by allen.spaulding at 7:34 AM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Agreeing that books will probably not give you the answers you're seeking. Deciding on something as important as law school without visiting the school may end in tears. Is there any way you can get a trip back to the US before you have to decide where you're going, if not where you're applying?

What you think you want to do and what you actually wind up doing often differ markedly because your actual goals change with the classes you take and the internships and work experiences you have. For example, I, like you, wanted to work abroad. The easiest way to do this and pay down my law school loans appeared to be to work on large international deals in a foreign office of a US or UK law firm. But deals are stunningly boring to me, as it turned out, though it sounded good when I read about it. "International law" is not a ticket to international work, though it sure sounds like it.

Your best ticket to any kind of work is to go to the highest ranked school that is a good fit for you and get the best grades you can and get good experience in the area that you're interested in. You don't need to go to a law school that specializes in a particular field.

I went to Columbia and considered NYU, so feel free to mail me if you think it would be helpful. FWIW, the one school that has a different model than many of the other top schools is Yale and is the one school I wish I'd applied to.
posted by *s at 8:20 AM on January 6, 2009

Response by poster: I didn't say I want to save the world and singlehandedly achieve universal human rights; I just don't want to live in the USA.

Also, I believe I will really enjoy being a lawyer and have the potential to be quite good at it. I could just as well be a doctor and look for a job at a hospital in a different country, or a scuba instructor, or whatever. Given that this is the area I want to work in, if I end up at a law school in the US, what would a good choice for that school be and what should I do to get international after finishing it?

I haven't looked much at ways to become a lawyer outside the US because, in the end, I think it's something I'd have to do in my native language, and therefore it makes most sense to study in it, too. I'm open to learning more about the alternatives as well. I noticed that NYU has an LLM program in Singapore; are there other reputable grad programs that give me legal training/qualification similar to, or short of, a JD in Europe or the Middle East, for example? (That's as much as I'm willing to commit to a region for the time being.)
posted by xanthippe at 8:24 AM on January 6, 2009

Re: the question of working in other countries with a US JD, I agree with allen.spaulding WITH the caveat that there are schools that offer you joint JDs, where you do the same three years as you would at a purely domestic law school, but spend the third year in a different country, studying that country's law, and you graduate with a JD in the US and a legal degree in the second country, qualified to practice in both places. My law school has joint programs with a school in Australia, one in France and (I believe) one in Italy. This may be somewhat more along the lines of what you're looking for, xanthippe.
posted by Inkoate at 8:36 AM on January 6, 2009

I wasn't limiting my position to international human rights, I used those as an example that it's possible to find jobs, but quite hard. As far as corporate work goes, usually the only options are major financial capitals such as London or Hong Kong, but with the global finacial sector reeling, those salad days are over. Cravath and others are beginning to wonder what the value is in having American JDs overseas being paid ridiculously high salaries. What everyone said about the insane hours is true and while overseas it does raise the question of why bother. It's unclear how much you can like any city when working 75 hours a week. If you want to live in london and get above a 170 on your LSAT, you've got a good chance. If you want to live in Asia, you better get above 170 and speak either Japanese or Mandarin these days. If you want to live in Qatar or Dubai, that's getting more and more dubious. If you want to live anywhere else, you better speak the language, get into a top 5 law school, and get lucky.

And I mean it, your JD won't really train you well to practice law in another country. It's not a generalist degree in that sense. If you want to live in more than one non-US country, a JD is almost certainly not going to get you there. At best you'll get a placement in a Magic Circle office, but who knows what things will look like in 3 years and even more importantly, who knows when firms will release it's not worth paying 6 figures to an American with a degree that doesn't allow them to practice and was largely spent learning inapplicable doctrines.
posted by allen.spaulding at 8:41 AM on January 6, 2009

er realize, not release.
posted by allen.spaulding at 8:42 AM on January 6, 2009

Your two paths of going international with an American JD are with biglaw or biggovernment/bigNGO. To have a decent shot at the biglaw, you need to be T10. To have a decent shot at biggovernment/bigNGO, you need to be T5, preferably Harvard or Yale, and also make serious connections with professors who will know people or will write you shining recommendations. Who knew that making $70,000 a year and possibly being eligible for loan forgiveness from your law school was actually harder to get than being paid $160,000 plus apartment stipend?

On preview: agreed with *s, particularly since it sounds like your interest is more in living in other countries, rather than practicing the law of other countries (or thinking about how how the laws of different countries interact or should interact, which is what lawyers think when they hear the term "international law.")

Also, transferring is a risky proposition. What if you get sick right before your first round of 1L finals? What if the economy goes further in the trash can, and lots and lots of people decide to take the "cheap, easy law school, then transfer out to better"? It's always a crapshoot, and while I know some transfers from T3 law schools that have gone on to grab plum clerkship positions and so forth, it's something that you'll have to explain by incorporating into your narrative, and lawyers are snobs, through and through.
posted by joyceanmachine at 9:05 AM on January 6, 2009

Since you're outside the US, it sounds like your time would be better spent talking to people who are practicing international law or doing the kind of international work that interests you in whatever non-US location you are currently in. This can help you decide if you actually would like to do international law, and if so, what the best preparation for that would be (US law degree, foreign law degree, or some completely different course of study or experience). It can also give you an idea of how likely it is for a US citizen to get one of these jobs. In other words, would a typical local firm/organization be willing to sponsor your work visa or help you get credentialed to practice there? Would a US-based firm or organization send you overseas?

Instead of viewing law school as a path to the international job you want, find people who are doing that job now and see what path they took to get them there. Use google and whatever connections you have (alumni from your university may be a good place to start) and talk to people.

Have you considered the foreign service? Since you say you don't want to commit to a geographical location, it could be a good fit, and it might give you the opportunity to work with international legal issues (although maybe not with a JD).
posted by bbq_ribs at 9:17 AM on January 6, 2009

One does not practice "international law," generally. Many Big Law firms have a substantial overseas presence, and many of those offices include a number of American lawyers. As I understand it, this is mostly corporate law work (not a lot of need for American litigators outside of America, but there is some international arbitration work out there). The Magic Circle firms in particular have tremendous numbers of lawyers around the world; at my school's OCI, I recall Lovells interviewed for their London, New York, and Hong Kong offices.

As allan.spaulding says, you won't be practicing local law in a foreign jurisdiction with an American JD. You simply wouldn't be qualified.
posted by sinfony at 2:36 PM on January 6, 2009

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