Legally bound?
August 30, 2005 6:33 AM   Subscribe

Adventures in Law School: I have decided I would like to be a lawyer. Problem is, my resume is tooled right now in a totally different direction. My college GPA was a straight-up 2.5 and the first time I took the LSAT I only scored in the 57th percentile (153). Is there hope or am I too dumb to be a lawyer?

More information: I'm 24. I've worked newspaper jobs for 3 1/2 years, and met more than my fair share of lawyers. I'm pretty good at researching and debate, and from what I've seen I believe I'd excell in the courtroom. It irks me that so many mediocre people get into law school while I'm worrying about my cruddy GPA. I'm taking the LSAT again Oct. 1 to try and get a better score. Is my GPA going to be a dealbreaker? Should I consider getting a second undergrad degree to fix it?
posted by Happydaz to Education (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What type of law school are you looking to attend? Ivy? State? part-time?
posted by socratic at 7:30 AM on August 30, 2005

You're never too dumb, but you might (read: most certainly will) be judged too dumb for a first- or second-tier law school. If I were in your shoes, I'd find any law school that would take me and I'm make damn sure I got the best grades and made the most connections while I was there. Then I'd try to transfer in to another program (can you even do this with law school?) The point is, you can't "fix" the past, but you can get into *a* law school, and if you acheive while you're there than you can move up the rungs. Let's face it, the odds of you stepping foot into Harvard Law are slim-to-none, but unless your idea of being a lawyer is pulling down 500K as partner in #1 Corporate Law Firm, your past performance will not keep you from being a lawyer.
posted by bobot at 7:31 AM on August 30, 2005

do not do not get more educational debt just to get into law school. my GPA was a low B, my LSAT 99th percentile and i got into 3 first-tier law schools and a full ride at 2 second-tiers. take the route of least debt. really.

also take a serious look at the legal market in your desired practice area and your desired geographic area before you go to law school. most people i know who graduated from law school in the last three years are still unable to find jobs as practicing lawyers. do not take the word of career services at the law school as to how easy it will be to find a job because they will be overly positive.

talk to everyone you know about being a lawyer before you do this. most of them discover that their daily job requires none of the skills they thought it would. i'm mostly happy with what i do, but it's really not what i expected.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:32 AM on August 30, 2005

Your low GPA will certainly make it hard to get into a top-20 school. Their admissions criteria are pretty mathematical: they take a linear combination of your GPA and LSAT, and make most decisions on that alone. Many law school admissions brochures are kind enough to list the exact formula they use, and give a histogram of the number of people with each "score" that they admit. There are exceptions to this: legacies, affirmative action, and other special cases.

But there are something like 180 accredited law schools in this country; you can find one that will let you in. The tradeoff in going to a non-top-20 school, though, is that you will have a tougher time finding a job. If you decide to go this route, definitely pick a school that is located in a region of the country where you will want to work; employers in other parts of the country might not think your school is sufficiently prestigious to hire you.

Also, remember that comparatively few lawyers end up in courtrooms. Be sure you would be happy with your choice if you ended up with a less glamorous job--for example, being a contract attorney, working by the hour, reviewing stacks of documents all day.
posted by profwhat at 7:36 AM on August 30, 2005

GPA won't necessarily be a dealbreaker, but combined with the low LSAT it probably will be - unless you can demonstrate some unique life or work experience that makes you a compelling choice for an admissions committee. At 24, working in a somewhat traditional sector, I can't see you making that argument easily (obviously there might be more incredible life experiences there than you are sharing here).

Retake the LSAT. I had a crud GPA too - I think it worked out to a 2.8 in the American system - but my LSAT was in the 88th (162) percentile, and I was offered admission. Admittedly, this is in Canada, where there are far less schools and a different system, so YMMV. However, it's far easier and less expensive to retake the LSAT than it is to take a second undergraduate degree just to get into law school. But prep for the LSAT - I think it's a three test limit, so if you don't do a whole lot better, you aren't much father ahead, especially if you are considering applying to a school that averages LSAT results if they are within a certain point range. If you can blow away the LSAT and get at least 10 points higher, that may be enough.
posted by Cyrie at 7:36 AM on August 30, 2005

Yeah, unless you're independently wealthy, even a state school will stick you with ~$60,000 (minimum) of loan debt (about $350/mo over 30 years). If you go to a private school, your loan debt will be much higher. If you don't score a top-tier job, you're going to be carrying all that extra debt on a (relatively) low income. If you don't go to a high-ranked school, you're less likely to score a top-tier job.

Do the numbers. Find out how much it costs you to live now, how much it will cost to attend law school where you apply, how much you can reasonably expect to make as a lawyer with a degree from that school, and whether, in the long run, you're going to be financially better off as a lawyer.

(Of course, so people may accept a cut in pay to do something they love, but listen to people who say it isn't what they expect. Being a lawyer isn't like being in a debating club.)
posted by socratic at 7:41 AM on August 30, 2005

Also, consider delaying law school for a few years and working up some more real-world experience and saving some money. There are a lot of people in law school who are older than the "normal" age, and (in my experience) the older students tend to do somewhat better gradewise.
posted by socratic at 7:45 AM on August 30, 2005

Best answer: [Brief, cheap plug for MefiLawyers, our lawyer and lawyer wannabe discussion list, which needs to become less moribund]

Of course you are not too dumb to become a lawyer. You did a mediocre job on a ridiculous standardized test. Of course, you know that a threshold LSAT and undergrad GPA are dealbreakers for most law schools. You can overcome this in many cases by putting together an exceptionally compelling application. Take the LSAT again and consider spending the money on a Kaplan-type course to boost your score.

You should know, however, that while research and public speaking are critically important, especially to litigators, the greatest - by far - asset of a successful lawyer is his or her writing. There's an adage that 90% of all cases are won on the briefs. Courtroom argument serves only to supplement and clarify what wasn't originally written down. In addition, most lawyers never go to court at all. They either serve behind the scenes in litigation or they do preparatory or "transactional" work such as mergers and acquisitions, real estate sales, tax, and trusts and wills. In a tight job market, law firms look for people who have the generic attributes of a successful lawyer so they can thrive in any of the firm's practice areas. Writing ability is critical for the non-courtroom work.

In your applications, spin your work in journalism. This is your biggest asset. Unfortunately, unfair as it is, your statistics will hurt you, and if you don't wow a competitive school with a reason why they should overlook your 2.5, you'll be attending a fourth-tier or unaccredited law school. While prospects for high-paying law firm gigs are slim at these schools, they have trained some of the best courtroom practicioners in the country - people with your skill set. The legal market, however, contains only a few spots for these superstars and reserves most of its positions for people who work in the more mundane parts of law practice.

Full disclosure: 3.3/164, 3L at UConn Law.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:46 AM on August 30, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far everyone. Socratic: I'm looking to get into a public institution, full-time, if possible. I did my undergrad at the U of Oregon and would love going to law school there, but from their admissions page it sez 75 percent of students have gpas of 3.4 or higher.

My only buffer to the low GPA is an impressive collection of newspaper clips and writing (I skipped class throughout college to spend extra time at the student newspaper.) Seemed like a good idea at the time, just wondering how all this will look next to the 4.0 with gold stickies from his community service.

profwhat: Yeah, that's a good point. I'd love to do constitutional law. However, with all the lawyers I know, I'm planning on setting up some informational interviews to make sure that's my best fit.

Is there any way to wipe out my low GPA? I'm probably OK with attending a low rated law school, as long as it's in the northwest and accredited. How do I go about finding these?
posted by Happydaz at 7:52 AM on August 30, 2005

I went to a top law school. I did fine, and I now work at a big law firm. (I love my firm and the work I do, but many of the people I work with are miserable, so beware). I work right along side people who went to second and third tier law schools. We make the same money and do the same work. The important things about them: 1. they went to a law school in the city where they wanted to work and 2. they were in the top 20% of their class.

If you go to a not-top-20 law school away from where you want to work, make sure you take on the least amount of debt possible. Alternatively, if you want to do something public service like, look for schools with really good debt forgiveness programs.

Or, do the transfer thing. Check out Sua Sponte for someone who did it.

Or, if you really think you'd like being in court, consider practicing law for individuals - doing divorces, DUI's, criminal defense work, white collar crime, and small tort/contract cases. In that type of work, it's much more important that you be good with people than able to craft perfect 40 page briefs. It's hard work, but I know several people who do it very well, and do very well at it, and they didn't go to top law schools or even get good grades.
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:13 AM on August 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'd love to do constitutional law.

Lawyers don't really "do" constitutional law. Before you make this huge investment, you need to find out what lawyers actually do -- and more importantly, what the lawyers who graduated from the school you get into do. Be very, very insistent about getting *real* employment statistics from the schools, not inflated numbers.

In general, the problem with lower-ranked schools is that you pay almost the same amount you'd pay for a higher-ranked school, but your employment prospects are much worse. Caveat emptor.
posted by footnote at 8:13 AM on August 30, 2005

Funny enough, I was just about to post a similar question, so maybe I can piggyback onto this one.

I'm 36 and Canadian; I got my undergrad degree in 1992. I want to go to law school (I have to attend school in Canada; a foreign law degree is all but usless up here). My university grades were terrible during my first couple of years (read: D average) and mediocre during my senior years (read: B-/B average).

I have five years of experience working in a legislative setting. I'm writing the LSAT on October 1st, and have been practicing hard for it. So far, I've built up my practice scores to the 165-170 range. I hope to be able to reliably get 170 or higher by the time the test rolls around.

I have no educational references to use; I've just been out of university too long and never kept in touch with any of my old profs. As such, I probably can't apply as a matre student.

Do I have any chance of getting in, or am I kidding myself?
posted by solid-one-love at 8:17 AM on August 30, 2005

Also, think carefully about why you got bad grades in college. Are you really going to be able to put in the long, long, grinding hours of study it takes to get those all-important good grades in your first year of law school? If you end up towards the bottom of the class of a lower-ranked law school, you may have made a lengthy and costly mistake.
posted by footnote at 8:17 AM on August 30, 2005

Solid-one-love -- you probably have quite a good chance with that LSAT and work experience. But just the same, you should make sure you really want to be a lawyer.
posted by footnote at 8:19 AM on August 30, 2005

I should warn you that a low LSAT score means you will have to work that much harder and that much more than your fellow students who had high LSAT scores. I took the February bar, and all of my friends who had LSAT scores 155 or below studied their @sses off and half didn't pass. The vast majority of my friends (all but one) who had scores above 155 and who spent a moderate amount of time studying passed. YMMV, of course.

I, in all honesty and being quite frank, blew off the bar exam. I had a 165 LSAT, 3.7 undergrad GPA, and 2.5 law GPA, and I passed on the first time. I think the LSAT is valuable to determine HOW you learn - not if you CAN learn. All the LSAT does is show that you either reason following antiquated rules of logic, or you don't. It becomes valuable in the way that the bar exam (both multistate and Illinois, for me) tests that antiquated logic (not to mention antiquated law).

I don't think anyone is too dumb to be a lawyer. Let's be honest here. There are some dumb@ss lawyers out there.

However, if you're looking get a scholarship , I would take as many Princeton Review/Kaplan classes as possible and re-take the LSAT. Think Legally Blonde.

I think, job prospect-wise, a lot of lawyers limit themselves to practicing law. You can go to law school and end up doing a lot of different things, and still use your law degree every single day. I am a law firm marketing director, and I pull a damn good salary and I use my law degree and I'm admitted to practice - but I don't practice law for my job. I write an odd will and do a closing here and there, but I really don't practice - but I sure make what a practicing lawyer does. I did go to law school knowing that this was my career path, though. So, my advice would be, don't limit yourself to practicing law - if you're interested in the law, by all means, try law school - if it's for you, you'll know - if it's not, you'll know a hell of a lot sooner - but don't limit yourself to the practice of law. Think outside the box, man.
posted by MeetMegan at 8:36 AM on August 30, 2005

Best answer: The LSAT is your friend. A good score cures many GPA deficiencies. Law schools look kindly on retest scores if they're significantly higher than the first time (they recognize you can have a bad day or prep inadequately first time). LSAT scores correllate very well with law school grades and Bar passage rates; if it turns out that 153 is the best you can do, there are probably many other professions you'll have a better time at entering.

As stated above, you need to think very carefully about the return on investment in going to a bottom-tier law school (or a non-tier unaccredited school, of which there are many).

Attending a low-ranked school with the ambition to transfer is a high-risk strategy. Transfer is open only to the very best first year students, and there's no way to know in advance whether you'll get the best grades. Anecdotally, it seems to me that a high proportion of transfers end up going to people who initially attended a law school beneath their credentials for one reason or another (joint enrollment with another, more prestigious, graduate program at the first institution, family obligations keeping them in a certain city, error or delay in first-year applications, full ride scholarship which the student eventually decides isn't worth the resume expense, etc.)
posted by MattD at 9:42 AM on August 30, 2005

did you practice or prepare for the LSAT? A friend of mine took it, bombed, studied his ass off and took it again. Now he's going to a high-ranked lawschool.
posted by delmoi at 9:49 AM on August 30, 2005

solid-one-love - your situation sounds very similar to mine. I had been out of school close to 5 years, and I had no educational references either. My grades were almost exactly like yours too - if you can get that high on the LSAT and spin your work experience with some great non-academic references, I would think your chances are good. You can apply under mature status - you should be eligible for application as a mature student at Queens, York, Toronto (but with your GPA, it might be a wasted app) and Western. In most cases that I saw, mature status was dependent either on age, or how long you had been out of university, in some cases, there was a special consideration category for people without a university degree, but I believe mature status is usually separate. I don't have information on any non-Ontario schools, sorry, but most school websites have very clear eligibility criteria.

You may want to check out the Canadian Law Students Forums - I found them very useful when applying.
posted by Cyrie at 10:40 AM on August 30, 2005

Another option: be a real non-trad. That is, wait a few more years before applying to law school. More real world experience will reduce the significance of your GPA as a measure of your abilities. I had a 2.9/158, but I also had about eight years of post-undergrad work to talk up during the application process. Being able to express why your choice to attend law school was a natural outgrowth of your current career is, I think, very helpful in convincing schools you're worth taking a chance on.
posted by schoolgirl report at 11:01 AM on August 30, 2005

A lawyer who only wants to "do constitutional law" is kind of like a parking lot attendant who only wants to be asked to park Lamborghinis. It is great when you can get such a case, but you can hardly expect to make a living off it--unless you work for a few, very select, parts of the government.
posted by profwhat at 11:21 AM on August 30, 2005

Do you want law school or to be a lawyer? In many states, you can still apprentice to a law firm and pass the bar on the strength of that. Law Schools and the ABA don't like it, but boo sucks to them. It's one way of finding out on the relative cheap if this is really the life for you.

Might even help you go to a better law school later on, if you so choose
posted by IndigoJones at 11:34 AM on August 30, 2005

Lawyers don't really "do" constitutional law. Before you make this huge investment, you need to find out what lawyers actually do -- and more importantly, what the lawyers who graduated from the school you get into do. Be very, very insistent about getting *real* employment statistics from the schools, not inflated numbers.

can lawyers/law school grads go over what a typical day-to-day is for them?

I've been considering (again) going to law school and the one thing that keeps holding me back is the idea that I might really really hate being a lawyer. I'm not particularly a punctual person, I don't like working excessive overtime, and I hate office politics.

Of course, like everyone else, I think I'm getting my idea of what being a lawyer is from Law & Order and John Grisham movies, which I strongly suspect is not the actual case.

If I blow $60-100k on law school, am I gonna be able to make it back without selling my soul?
posted by fishfucker at 12:12 PM on August 30, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the great comments. No, I don't mean I'd get into law just to do constitutional stuff. It's the area that holds the greatest interest to me, but I am interested in real estate law, criminal law and other topics as well. I've reported on too many boring law cases to think that lawyering would be particularly sexy, so I don't think I'm delusional there. I studied for two hours the night before the test and got four hours of sleep the first time. I'm hoping to do better in October.

If nothing else, your answers have given me a good deal of hope if this is an option I pursue. Well, I'm off to buy a study guide.
posted by Happydaz at 12:35 PM on August 30, 2005

fishfucker stated"I'm not particularly a punctual person, I don't like working excessive overtime, and I hate office politics--and--if I blow the money"--these comments do not bode well--IANAL but for four years I have been a lay member of the local Bar Association Discipline abd Grievance Committee--with those attitudes towards your career you are very (very) unlikely to find success or a home in a law firm of any size or reputation--therefore--you should anticipate working long and hard in private practice in the hope of paying off your law school debt--compensation is minimal for new grads in the public/solo private practice(s)--unless you secure a position with a well established law firm or graduate from a top tier school plan on being poor for a long time--also--I can tell you that after seeing hundreds of grievances there are three things that are absolutely necessary to keep your self clean--punctulaity (compeleting tasks in a timely manner), immpecable financial integrity, and a deep appreciation that your are very important to your clients--return phone calls, keep them informed and don't mislead them/raise false expectations--PS Solo practioners are much more likely to run into disciplinary problems as they do not have the structure and admiistrative support of the firms--
posted by rmhsinc at 3:37 PM on August 30, 2005

For a basic look at what schools might accept someone with stats similar to yours, you can check lawschoolnumbers or the site. lsac is quite helpful in that you can enter your LSAT and gpa and it will show you where you fall in the distribution of scores at each school. It will also give you a rough estimate of your % chance of admission. It's very rough though and based soley on the numbers. Maybe you know this.

I agree with everyone above who said not to get another degree just to get into law school. There is no sense sinking god-knows-how-many-thousands into another degree that may not even help your situation. You would be better off to bust your balls at work for 4 more years and then apply with all the experience and recommendations (and presumably, money) you will no doubt get as a result. It is probably also worth taking an LSAT prep course. Learning how to manage your time on tests like the LSAT is as important as knowing how to work the problems. For some people it is well worth the $1000 or whatever they go for. Use the LSAC link to see how your odds of admission improve with another 5 points on your LSAT.
posted by jaysus chris at 5:14 PM on August 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

Assuming you are wanting to practice law in Oregon, this PDF file tells you you must be a graduate of a law school, so unfortunately, IndigoJones' suggestion won't help you. I say unfortunately, because the actual practice of law has very little to do with what you learn at law school (at least that's so for criminal law - where writing ability is also generally not required - except for appeals).

Definitely do not do another degree for law school entry purposes. Sell your experience as a journalist. Many law schools like having "non-traditional" students. Your researching skills will help you, and you are assuredly not too dumb to be a lawyer - from my experience, there's no such thing...

Good luck.
posted by birdsquared at 8:28 PM on August 30, 2005

wow. thanks rmhsinc. That's worth thinking about. i *can* be punctual, if it's important, but my dream job would be a little more lax on when I need to show up to things, so maybe i'd rather invest the money in that direction.
posted by fishfucker at 10:36 AM on August 31, 2005

Assuming you are wanting to practice law in Oregon, this PDF file tells you you must be a graduate of a law school, so unfortunately, IndigoJones' suggestion won't help you

Other states, other mores. Vermont is much like Oregon in many ways, I believe you can do it there. Possibly even California....

My point was two fold- you can get the education and pass some bar exams without necessarily going to law school, and find out on the cheap whether the law thing is really for you. I've known plenty of would be lawyers who realized they had made a huge mistake some tens of thousand of dollars after the fact.

If in fact it does turn out that law is to be our questioner's role in life, then this could be an eye-catching and useful thing to put on the application when/if he does decide to apply to lawschool, an application which I gather he is none too confident of. Journalists wanting to go to law school? Dime a dozen. Lawyers wanting to go to law school? I'm guessing, not to thick on the ground.

And of course the experience is going to help him in any future coursework.

Ain't nothing easy.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:25 PM on August 31, 2005

not too thick on the ground. Sorry.

Besides, what a great conversation piece.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:27 PM on August 31, 2005

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