I love law. Law schools don't love me.
April 28, 2010 1:36 PM   Subscribe

I love a very unprofitable branch of law, and my grades are less than stellar. Can you help me find a law program that is good for me?

I am in love with immigration law. I would die to go to Law School, but I am dead scared of getting in debt when I know I couldn't ever do corporate law, which apparently is the only way you can make enough to cope with the loans. The very specifics of my situation are:

• I moved here about two years ago, and I have a BS in forestry (I was young and didn’t really know myself when I decided to go for this major).
• Coming from a country with (according to the UNICEF) one of the worst cases of grade deflation, I graduated with a lame 3.2, although I did graduate among the top 10 of my class. The top of my class got 3.4!
• I have not taken the LSAT yet, but I know I can ace it.
• I am not looking into Ivy League, expensive, big-deal schools. I just want to be prepared in immigration, and be able to take cases to court (which is why I need Law school, and not merely an immigration counselor certification)
• I want to keep a full time job, so weekend programs, on line courses, etc., would really be my cup of tea. It doesn’t matter how long it will take.
• I come from a Latin American country, and I am currently working as an AMERICORPS volunteer, in the hopes that it will give me some extra points on my applications.

Is there such a thing as the program I’m looking for? I just need the knowledge and the degree that will allow me to take cases to court. I already did the university experience, and even though I don’t want a mediocre program, I certainly don’t have the availability, funds and GPA to get into Harvard or anything like it.

I live in Hampton Roads, VA (close to William and Mary, ODU, CNU, etc.) and will actually try to get into W&M, but know I will most likely not get into it.
posted by anonymous to Education (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
1) Start studying for the LSAT even if you think you can do well. Take practice tests, so you can be sure that you will do well on it. I don't know how much you already know about the LSAT, but it's totally different than any other standardized test, including the GRE.
2) You can do an addendum to your apps to explain that while your GPA is not high compared to many applicants, that the grading system was different, and you were in the top of your class. You also want to put this on your resume.
3) Law schools love to take people with unique undergraduate majors. Forestry could very well help you stand out among all the history, political science, government, etc. majors.
4) Schools with good part-time programs (yes, the USNWR rankings are pretty f'ed up, but this is a convenient listing).
Legal jobs, even public interest ones, are crazy competitive right now because the people who might otherwise go into BigLaw are having to pursue other avenues. The school you go to can be important, especially for job placement, alumni network, etc.
It's also totally untrue that you can't make a living unless you're in corporate law. I know many attorneys in small firms working for small-time clients, like small businesses and individuals, that do just fine, upper middle class easily. Unless you have a really expensive lifestyle or go to a really, really expensive school, you wont necessarily be in the poorhouse after school. Hopefully by the time you graduate (hell, hopefully by the time I graduate) the job market will be somewhat better as well. There are some pretty well-funded organizations that do environmental law, and it's a hot area.
posted by ishotjr at 1:49 PM on April 28, 2010

From what I've heard (and I'm hoping someone with more actual experience than me can contradict this, because what I've heard makes law / law school sound almost impossibly dysfunctional) is that:
  • None of what you've listed above actually matters w/r/t getting into law school.
  • The LSAT score is the only thing that matters. You want to kill the LSAT. You want to kill it so hard. Even if you already know you can kill it, you want to take all the classes you can to help you massacre it.
  • If you massacre the LSATs, like, seriously, destroy that silly little test, devote your next n months to studying on how to destroy that silly little test even though it doesn't have anything to do with law, really, and is in fact dumb, dumb, dumb, ypou will get into one of the top 13 or so schools.
  • It doesn't matter what field you want to practice in. It doesn't matter what different schools specialize in. For every job that anyone wants ever, the most important thing is having gone to one of the top 13 or so schools. You don't want to go to an expensive Ivy League big deal school? Then you should be trying to get into a big deal public school. Your options are University of Michigan, Berkeley, and (maybe) UCLA. Good luck on the LSATs!
  • California weather is nice.
  • Once you're on the job market, you'll have (comparatively) your pick of jobs if you went to one of the top 13 or so schools. If you went to one of the other schools, no matter what you studied there, you will have your pick of jobs... if you are a genius, and only after you've excelled at jobs you don't want for a decade.

posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:50 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh yeah, and like The World Famous said, many schools have loan repayment assistance for people who do public interest/make under a certain amount of money per year. I've seen such programs that do it at $50k/yr and under, and some that have higher maximums.
posted by ishotjr at 1:51 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

...which apparently is the only way you can make enough to cope with the loans

Actually no, depending on the choices you make: ever hear of LRAPS? You can do public interest work related to immigration and make arrangements for loans, if you're determined. Here's a starting point. I think you may be underestimating your chances, depending on how well you score on the LSAT.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 1:51 PM on April 28, 2010

You don't want to go to an expensive Ivy League big deal school? Then you should be trying to get into a big deal public school. Your options are University of Michigan, Berkeley, and (maybe) UCLA. Good luck on the LSATs!

Not all of these schools have strong environmental law programs. There are plenty of other good schools that you can get jobs from. People who say T-10 or bust probably went to those schools and are trying to feel better about being $150k in debt. ;-) Don't let them freak you out.
Also, GPA definitely matters, so don't let people lead you astray by saying otherwise. That's why you want to do an addendum.
posted by ishotjr at 1:53 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you live in Virginia, you don't have to go to law school to become a lawyer.
posted by The White Hat at 1:56 PM on April 28, 2010

Looking at your situation, and assuming you can do well on the LSAT (I agree with the advice above about really studying hard; that studying probably netted me $60k in scholarship money), your big problem is going to be finding a job in immigration law, since not many people do immigration law in the first place, and even fewer actually get paid to do it.

It doesn't sound like you have any experience so far doing immigration law. What I would suggest is getting a job as a paralegal or administrative assistant with someone who does the work. If that fails, volunteer. Do it for a couple of years if you can. Show them that, if you only went to law school, you would be the most kickass immigration attorney they've ever seen. Only then would I go to law school. When you graduate, either go back to the firm you were working at pre-JD, or go to other firms with the World's Best Cover Letter that covers how great you are, how experienced you are with the work, etc.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:00 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

oh, and UVA. That is also an option.

I'm glad to hear from ishotjr that GPA does in fact matter some. I'm in a graduate studies in a discipline with a fairly brutal job market, and my partner's in law school. It's fun to compare notes on whose field has the more messed up standards...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:01 PM on April 28, 2010

LRAPs are nice, and they're certainly better than nothing, but many of them don't actually help you as much as they might. My alma mater's LRAP program only gives you five years worth of payments, which is half of your indebtedness. Your income is very unlikely to rise enough in five years to make up for the loss of LRAP payments once they stop, so you're still pretty screwed.

The reason getting into a good school is so important is because they aren't that much more expensive than the not-so-good schools but make a huge difference in employability and long-term income. Seriously, most lawyers who don't graduate from a top school--say top 25 to be generous--start at less than $40k a year. When you owe in excess of $1000 a month in debt service, this means that you're worse off having gone to law school than if you'd just stuck with whatever job you could find with your college degree.

Look, just don't go to law school. We're arguably on the edge of a tuition bubble, but until that bursts, it's just a terrible bet to make.
posted by valkyryn at 2:04 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

You want immigration law? You can make plenty of money as long as you do at least some labor immigration law. If you only want to represent poor people pro bono you probably won't make much money ($35,000 a year maybe), but at least in that case you're likely to qualify for law repayment assistance, assuming you go to a school that has such a program.

If you want to spend as little on law school as possible, you want either a state school or you want to get a scholarship. (Yes, they exist, usually not from the best school you get into, though.)

Immigration law is not like big firm law in the sense that you have to go to a top tier school to get a competitive job. Grades/schools matter, but they are not the be all and end all. Though public interest jobs are very hard to get and applicants coming from better schools do have a better chance. Being local can also help with some immigration law jobs though, so you might want to try for a job near wherever you want to practice. If that's VA, then UVA might be your ideal school.

The LSAT is hard for non-English speakers. Practice as much as possible, because you do need to massacre it.

GPA does matter to law schools apps. My understanding is that they are 48% LSAT + 48% GPA + 4% sob story or fascinating background. But the addendum to your application is a good idea.

This is definitely doable.
posted by n'muakolo at 2:04 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

It would be helpful if we knew what kind of immigration law you want to practice. REALLY makes a difference to what you will earn and how hard it will be to find a job.
posted by n'muakolo at 2:07 PM on April 28, 2010

I have not taken the LSAT yet, but I know I can ace it.

That's just a guess. People would be able to give you much better answers once you have a score in hand.
posted by halogen at 2:09 PM on April 28, 2010

I don't have any big conclusion for you, but I want to clear up a few things (in response to your question and some of the comments):

- LSAT is not the only thing that matters. Undergrad GPA matters a lot. Also, you could benefit from affirmative action given your ethnic/national background. And there are other factors, like recommendation letters.

- You could probably write a really impressive essay for your law school app. You're coming from a Latin American country, working in Americorps, and passionate about immigration law -- the essay practically writes itself!

- You can't possibly know that you're going to ace the LSAT, even if you've taken practice tests. You'll know if you've aced it after you've received your score on the actual exam.

- If you want to do well on the LSAT, do not think of it as a "dumb, dumb, dumb" test (as one commenter said).

- I don't know if there's any mechanism for law schools to consider the grade deflation at your undergrad. Some of the comments on this thread (not AskMe) suggest there's nothing you can do about it, but I'd research the question more since this is really important. (Law school apps will generally allow you to attach a sheet explaining anything about your academic performance that requires explanation -- maybe you could mention it there.)

- "T-10" is a meaningless phrase in the context of law schools.

- Since you mentioned coming from a Latin American country, I'd assume you're not a native English speaker (though I wouldn't have known this from the rest of your question). If so, I agree with n'muakolo that the LSAT could be unusually difficult, especially the "reading comprehension" and "arguments" sections. A lot of it hinges on linguistic nuances.

- I like craven_morehead's plan.
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:15 PM on April 28, 2010

I'm an instructor for one of the major LSAT preparation companies and, trust me, the LSAT is very, very difficult. While you may be able to ace it, you almost definitely will not be able to ace it without significant practice. The test is just too hard, especially if English is your second language. A high LSAT score is a critical part of your law school application, so start studying now.

Your background will probably be a significant aid to your application (diversity matters to law schools), but you'd be better off if you could find some proof about your class rank. Do you have a transcript that lists your rank as 10 in a class of xxx? If so, definitely include both the transcript and an explanatory letter.

I'll give you the same two bits of advice I give almost everyone asking me about law school:

1) Don't go.

2) If you do go, be very careful about the debt you take on. Your debt load will influence the type of job you can take out of school.

Good luck.
posted by griseus at 2:18 PM on April 28, 2010

Any law school will give you the credentials that (assuming you pass the bar exam) will let you take cases to court. While many law schools have immigration law classes, there's not a place where you can study just immigration law -- and you wouldn't want to because it's not a tech school, you learn a way of thinking that allows you to practice law. Go to law school, the best one you can afford that is a good fit for you. Look for one that has an immigration law clinic that will let you road-test your interest. (Most of the Ivy League schools you're writing off appear to have them.) Also, as mentioned above, look for a school with a loan repayment assistance program. Many of the schools with good LRAP programs are upper-tier schools, but don't let that stop you! Your credentials may get you further than you think, so don't take yourself out of the running, particularly if you're going to cream the LSAT.

You happen to be not too far from Georgetown, George Washington, George Mason, American University, and the University of Maryland, which are all top-ranked part-time law schools! Exciting! I'm familiar with Georgetown's LRAP program, but other schools may have them too.

Something to consider: while I'm the last person to dissuade someone from public service, there are actually very lucrative careers in immigration law. I live in a city with the largest immigration law firm in the US and they go to court and help people and love what they do. They also make googobs of money. Many people also start at non-immigration law firms to get the courtroom skills (and pay off their loans) and then move over to immigration. There are many paths. There may be more opportunities than you realize.
posted by *s at 2:21 PM on April 28, 2010

Now is not the time to move to California to go to a public university. Due to our ongoing buget crisis class offerings are going down, tuition prices are going up, faculty is being cut, class sizes are increasing, and the unemployment rate is high while housing costs are astronomical.

We do have nice weather though.
posted by elsietheeel at 2:23 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Most of the Ivy League schools you're writing off appear to have them.

Yeah, I'd second this, and I'm not sure why you're writing off the "Ivy League." Correct me if I'm wrong (oh wait, you can't, you're anonymous!), but that seems more like a surface aversion to elitism than a rational plan. I went to an Ivy League law school (Cornell), and they had an immigration law clinic that sounded really intense based on talking to students who did it. I'm almost sure they also offer a normal course on immigration law. I wouldn't be surprised if all 4 other Ivy League law schools are similar. I recommend going to the overall best law school you can manage to go to; don't fixate too much on whether it's a perfect "immigration law" school.
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:32 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Does the 10-year loan thing from the federal government help out here? iirc, you agree to income contingent repayment, pay what you can, and get the rest forgiven at the end of ten years. (I'm sure it's not quite as nice as all that.)

Also the apprenticeship thing linked above works in California as well. Wonder if anyone out there thinks it's reputable? I heard the farmworkers union here has a program. Here's the first relevant thing I could google.
posted by salvia at 2:33 PM on April 28, 2010

I think this is all about expectations. You say you want to take cases to court, but do you know what immigration lawyers do on a daily basis? (Hint: It's NOT appearing in court.) Many immigration practices are actually driven by fairly routine processing of paperwork, handled by non-lawyer personnel. Moreover, you may be surprised at how much time the lawyers spending doing marketing rather than substantive legal work such as appearing in court.

Please, please, please -- before you take the jump into law school, make sure you understand what is actually involved with the realities of building an immigration law practice (both lifestyle and potential lack-of-profitability).

If you REALLY want to do it, there are indeed part-time law school programs. You may be better off getting into any (cheap) program that lets you sit for the bar, and then seek some sort of effective "apprenticeship" with an immigration lawyer. But note that even in this scenario, you'd be competing against law school grads who are extremely hungry for any type of work and training.

It's a tough time, economically, to be a new law grad. Or a lawyer seeking work. Look before you leap.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 3:00 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

And there are companies that do hire lawyers to handled immigration issues, especially those in the tech sector where they hire a number of qualified engineers from overseas. So, that might be one avenue in which you could pay off your debt.

But question what it is about immigration law that you love in the first place. It's true that most of the time they don't appear in court, they're wading through tonce of ICE paperwork.
posted by inturnaround at 3:10 PM on April 28, 2010

Be very suspicious of loan repayment plans. From what I've seen only the very top school's (think Top 20 or so) have loan repayment plans that are realistic options. Many school's will have such odd and stringent rules for qualifying that only 1 or 2 students a year qualify. Beware phrases such as: every qualifying student who applied received funding, etc. Ask for hard numbers. And remember the more public interest oriented the school, the more of your classmates will be competing for loan repayment. On the flip side, the more public interest oriented the school the more creative and helpful your school will be in helping place you in a public interest position.

You have NO idea how you will do on the LSAT. Expect to score at least 5-10 points lower on the actual test than you do on any practice test. DO pay for one of those ridiculously expensive 6 week (or whatever) in person prep courses. Biggest mistake I ever made was not shelling out a few grand for one of those course. I did fine on the LSAT, but I'm fairly confident I could have done significantly better if I'd done a lot more than devote a few Saturdays and $100 in prep books/cds to studying for it. Law school admissions are extremely competitive and it has only gotten worse since I applied.

I too graduated from a foreign college and while I was near the top of my class, on paper my grades looked awful by American standards. So here is what I did: Addendum! Add an addendum to every application briefly explaining your country's grading system, your class ranking and what you believe your grades would translate to at an American college. I literally put down what I felt my foreign GPA should be considered as. I cannot stress the power of an addendum enough.

I really wouldn't worry that much about your GPA. It isn't so low that it would be disqualifying if you had an amazing LSAT. And with an addendum I think it would basically be neutral for most schools and your admission would turn on the rest of your application.

I believe your best bet is to apply to tons of part time and full time law schools and see who throws money at you.

That being said I had many friends who started out going part time to law school and without exception every single one went full time as soon as they could. Going to law school part time is essentially going to law school 2/3 time. And going to law school full time is already a 60 hour a week job, not including finals when its about an 80+ a week job. And remember, your future legal employers will be expecting you to complete multiple legal internships/jobs during 2L and 3L year and summer. That essentially isn't possible if you are working another job full time. Don't sacrifice your grades and the ability to gain valuable experience and connections, so that you can keep money coming in in the short term. You will never be able to make up for bad grades and a bad start in your legal career. You can pay back debt. I'm not trying to minimize the debt aspect. It's huge, but law school isn't something you can do half way. If you do, you run the risk of throwing away a lot of money and a lot of time and hard work.

Also, if you get into an Ivy League you should definitely go. Upon graduation you will likely have your pick of public interest fellowships, which sounds right up your alley. Most of these allow you to either qualify for loan repayment through your school (and if you went an Ivy this is basically a given) or through the program itself. Many of these fellowships are very prestigious and they are looking to fill the positions with equally prestigious people.

You should also be aware that just because a legal job is low paid doesn't mean that it is not VERY competitive. Many people want to practice immigration law despite its low pay. You will need more than just a JD and passing the bar to actually get a job in immigration law.
posted by whoaali at 3:14 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know nothing whatsoever about law school, but as far as income based repayment and 10-year public service repayment plans for loans - those exist for EVERYONE if you're on a Direct Loan, I'm pretty sure. It's federal law as of about 2007, and there's good info http://www.ibrinfo.org/ here. I'm not saying you'll necessarily be *eligible* for either program, but it's not a school specific thing or limited to just a couple of people.

Huh. I was just skimming the site, and it turns out you can get the IBR through other lenders, too. The 10-year public service forgiveness is only Direct Loans, though.
posted by wending my way at 3:46 PM on April 28, 2010

Loan repayment plans amount to marketing gimmicks in my (admittedly limited or second hand) experience. Look in to the income based repayment plan for federal student loans. I plug it every chance I get because it cut my monthly payment on $120k to ~$450 a month and if you work for a non-profit or the government, you're done making payments after 10 years. It's 25 years in for-profit/private sector.

I disagree with the advice above to avoid working while in law school. While the actual attrition rate in law school is pretty low, the "What the fuck am I doing here?" rate is actually pretty high. An easy and honorable exit is just what many of (I'll say it) us could have used after first year. Instead we buckled down, paid another $100k and finished up. This, combined with a desire to minimize debt load lends itself well to working through law school.

If you can get in to an "Ivy League" school, though, go. Debt be damned. They are one of the few good bets on the law school roulette wheel.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 4:04 PM on April 28, 2010

I'm a licensed attorney and I LOVED my immigration law class-- if there were more opportunities in that area when I graduated I would have gone into immigration law. Once I pay off my loans, maybe I'll look into that for a reboot of my legal career.

My advice to you, like others, is to indeed NAIL the LSAT. It's always nice to get into a brand-name school, but if you have a strong package (grades, LSAT, non-traditional student, under-represented, non-native speaker, good extracurricular/work experience, etc.), schools will ply you with scholarship offers. Hell, I only got a 163 on my LSAT (middling to fair, but by nowhere close to outstanding), and I got full scholarship offers from some schools. I ended up going to a school giving me about 1/3 off my tuition. Granted, the schools offering a full free ride weren't the best schools, but "free" makes a lower ranked school much more attractive. Get a 170 or over, and you'll almost certainly have some very generous offers from some excellent schools.

If you're not looking to go into the government side of things, immigration practice is largely a small firm (often solo practice) gig. If you want to get a leg up on immigration work, see if there's a refugee resettlement agency or asylum seekers advocacy NPO in your area. Volunteer there and you'll get a good look at how applicants deal with the different federal departments.

Unless you have a family to support, I would really recommend doing a full-time program instead of part time. You'll get a better selection of schools, and you'll be able to devote yourself fully to your schoolwork.

Good luck!
posted by holterbarbour at 4:59 PM on April 28, 2010

Memail me. I can connect you with a guy who does immigration law full time. He really loves his job. It IS possible to do it for a living, despite student loans, etc.
posted by Happydaz at 6:27 PM on April 28, 2010

Don't go unless you get into a T14 school, preferably a T6 (Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Chicago, NYU). The legal job market is atrocious everywhere for all types of legal jobs. If you get into a good school, they will have an LRAP that will take care of you. If you go to a bad school, they will not. And you will be broke.
posted by ewiar at 9:01 PM on April 28, 2010

You can go to law school and work full time, because I know two people who did it. They slept very, very little, but they got through.
posted by salvia at 11:11 PM on April 28, 2010

The above comments are right on target. The job market is terrible and will be for a long time, more and more people are flocking to law school to escape the bad economy while the legal market is closing its doors. Get a job in an immigration law office for a year and watch what they really do on a daily basis, you'll find it's probably not going to the courthouse every day. Build a relationship with someone who already does immigration law and maybe they will hire you after you complete school.

While you're doing that, study for the LSAT and try to get a full scholarship (your background will help you a lot here, a full scholarship is fairly realistic) or into a top 10 school with an immigration clinical program. Don't take out any loan money.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:03 AM on April 29, 2010

a couple of things to add:

1) Don't dismiss an expensive school -- the price is not the tuition, but the tuition MINUS financial aid and loan forgiveness. A tuition bill of $100,000 with $90,000 forgiven over a few years is a cheaper tuition bill than $25,000.

2) Highlight the fact that your GPA is not an American GPA in your applications; state your class ranking very clearly. Your class ranking is excellent -- better, actually, it's exceptional. In fact, you may consider whether you are correctly translating your grades -- if your country's university system is grading differently, then B's there may be worth A's in the United States. Don't sell yourself short -- make sure that the admissions department understands your true undergraduate performance.
posted by jb at 11:59 PM on May 2, 2010

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