Pre-Law Advising

Pre-Law Advising

The process of applying to law school can be complex and, at times, bewildering.  This website will hopefully offer you guidance and information necessary to make the process go as smoothly as possible.  This is a centralized resource for your questions, including links to additional resources..

The site is organized around common questions that students raise about law school.

If you cannot find the answers you want here, or are interested in more individualized advice, you can always contact Professor Shortell, the university pre-law advisor.  He can be reached at shortell@pdx.edu or at 503-725-3921.

Going to Law School?

Is Law School the Right Choice for Me?

The decision about whether to attend law school is a personal one, but one that requires careful consideration of the relevant factors.  You should be aware that lawyers have one of the lowest job satisfaction ratings of all professional careers. At the same time, many lawyers love what they do. One major reason for the low job satisfaction rating is that students in law school too rarely know what they are getting into.  What do lawyers do?  What is the day-to-day life like?  For those who make informed decisions, practicing law can be tremendously rewarding.  The purpose of this page is to assemble some of the common issues that arise and help guide you in making your own decision.

What questions should I ask myself?

The first question to ask yourself is why do you want to go to law school?  Is it because you have a passion for the law?  Is it because you enjoy debating others?  Is it because you want to make a lot of money?  Is it because your parents expect you to go to law school?  Answering this question honestly to yourself is a very important first step.  As a general rule, if you get into a career just because you want to make a lot of money or because of family expectations you will likely end up discontent.  Many lawyers work extremely long hours- if you don’t enjoy the job, those hours will seem extra long!

Another question to ask yourself is how much you know about what lawyers do in a typical day.  Having a J.D. opens up many doors and there are numerous careers that lawyers pursue.  Most lawyers never enter a courthouse.  Some work for big firms, some work for small firms, some work for themselves, some work for companies, some work for the government.  Familiarize yourself with what it means to practice law to determine if it is the right fit for you.

What do lawyers do?

Lawyers engage in an incredibly wide variety of activities.  For most lawyers, litigating is not that common.  Most of the time is spent negotiating on behalf of your clients with other parties, drafting documents such as contracts, wills, and deeds, and counseling clients about which course of action they should take to remain within the law.

What kinds of skills are important?

Lawyers in all areas of practice need to be able to write well.  Briefs, contracts, and memos are just some of the documents that lawyers produce regularly.  Analytical abilities are also important.  The law is predicated on an understanding of logic and reasoning.  Good lawyers are able to put together compelling arguments and respond to counterarguments.  An ability to communicate with others clearly and effectively is also of great value, especially for those lawyers who spend time in court or interact frequently with clients.

Getting Ready

What should I do to get ready for law school?

A broad undergraduate education is a vital component to prepare for law school.  However, students often wonder about specific majors or classes.  These answers are intended to address those questions.

Are some majors better than others?

The short answer is no.  In general, what you major in does not matter to law schools.  There are two caveats to that.  Law schools sometimes hesitate with fine arts majors (music, art, dance, etc.) because they are not sure that the applicant has demonstrated analytical abilities.  If you are majoring in a fine art, be sure to take classes in outside areas that demonstrate analytical skills.  The second caveat is that law schools look favorably on students with technical backgrounds.  Biology majors and engineering majors in particular are appealing.  There is a shortage of lawyers with good technical backgrounds.  However, the most important advice is to major in what you like.  If you like the subject and are interested in the material, you will be much more likely to perform well in your classes.  A higher GPA is much more important than any particular major, although it is worth noting that law schools do want to see you taking challenging courses rather than artificially inflating your GPA by taking what are perceived as easy classes.

What kinds of classes should I take?

In addition to your University Studies and major course load, it is helpful to take at least one law-related class as an undergraduate.  This is more for your benefit than to bolster your application.  It will help you get a sense of what law school might be like and what the law is.  Students often have assumptions about the law that do not necessarily fit the reality.  Classes that read case law, in particular, are helpful since that gives you an opportunity to familiarize yourself with some of the language that you will be dealing with in law school.  Classes such as constitutional law or business law are helpful in this respect. You should also consider taking a course or courses that provide some context for understanding the law either historically or socially.  For a list of law-related courses at PSU, take a look at the Law & Legal Studies minor which includes most of these courses as requirements or electives.

Other classes that are helpful are those that will aid you in developing the skills necessary to succeed as a lawyer.  Classes where you write a lot and get good feedback are especially valuable.  Another area to consider is taking a class in analytical reasoning in philosophy or in higher level mathematics to develop your analytical skills.

Finally, take challenging courses that are interesting to you.  It will not help your chances at law school to take only easy classes- you should demonstrate that you are a high quality student who can succeed in the demanding environment of law school.

How important are extracurricular activities?

The answer to this question depends on the nature of the extracurricular activities.  In general, extracurricular activities have a fairly limited influence on admissions decisions.  Joining clubs and organizations just to say that you were active is not likely to be a successful strategy.  As with choosing a major, the best advice is to do what you enjoy.  Be true to yourself.  If there is an issue that you are passionate about, then join a relevant organization.  Take on a leadership role.  Do that for yourself, however, rather than to help your application.  Law schools can tell the difference.  And throughout, make sure that you maintain your GPA.

Are internships a good idea?

Internships are a great idea.  You should learn more about the law while it is free before you start spending money for law school.  You may find that you do not like it.  You may find that you love it.  Either way, that information is really valuable.

LSAT

How do I prepare for the LSAT?

The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is the single most important element in your law school application.  It is a very challenging test and you need to be well-prepared for it.  The information below will help you get ready.

How do I register for the LSAT?

You register for the LSAT (and do almost everything else related to applying to law school) at the Law School Admissions Council website, http://www.lsac.org. Go to the LSAC website and click on the “Register for the LSAT” link under the LSAT heading.  You can find dates, times, and locations there as well.  The fees for the LSAT change each year, so be sure to check that on the LSAC website.  Register early so that you get the dates and locations that you want.

Where are the test locations nearest to me?

LSAT locations can be found on the LSAC website by clicking on “Test Centers” under the LSAT full menu option.

When should I take the LSAT?

The LSAT is administered nine times a year, but it is important for you to register for your preferred date well in advance.   If you are a current student, the preferred test is the late September/early October one.  That exam allows you to study heavily over the summer and comes early in the quarter before you get too far behind in your classes.  Taking the September/October test will put you on a good schedule for having all of your information submitted to the schools by January for admission the following fall.  Follow this link for more on the application process.  The November exam will also allow you to get your application completed by early January, but is administered during the quarter and you may have conflicting demands on your time.  The January and February exams occur later in the application cycle and should be avoided if possible.  By the time the February scores are reported, for example, 3/4ths of the seats at most law schools are already filled.

What are some good strategies for preparing for the LSAT?

Adequate preparation for the LSAT is an absolute must in order to do well.  The exam is designed to not give you enough time to answer the questions.  The more familiar you are with the style of questions, the quicker you can answer them.  It is also not an exam for which you can cram.  Slow and steady is the best way to prepare yourself for the exam.  What follows is a typical plan for studying.  It does not need to be followed exactly, but gives you an idea of the time you should invest in studying.

If you are taking the September/October exam, you should begin studying for the exam in January.  Buy some test books available at bookstores or some past exams from LSAC on their website.  Take a practice test under test conditions to give yourself a base line.  What is your score before you start studying?  What are the areas of the test you struggle with the most?  This is useful to track your improvement over time.

Over the course of the winter and spring quarters, you should continue to study a couple of hours each week, increasing your familiarity with the questions and the sections of the exam.  When summer begins, you need to increase your study time.  If you are taking an LSAT prep course, you would typically start the prep course in early summer (this varies based on the length of the course).  During the summer, you should be doing at least some studying every day.  Take practice exams under test conditions- that means that you need to time yourself and proceed through the whole exam with no interruptions.  That is the best way to get a sense for how the actual exam will be.  The more familiar you are with how to operate under test conditions, the better.

You should continue to study once a day through September.  However, as you approach the date of the exam, it is helpful to taper off your studying somewhat.  Again, this is not an exam for which you can cram.  Before the exam, give your mind a little break from studying so that you are fresh on the exam day.  Get a good night’s sleep the night before and make sure that you have breakfast that morning.

Are LSAT prep courses worth it?

First, you should definitely make use of the free prep course provided by LSAC through Khan Academy.  You can find details about this on the LSAC website.  As for paid prep courses, this is a difficult question to answer because it depends on the individual student.  Some students are able to do well on the LSAT without a prep course, just studying extensively on their own.  Other students note a significant improvement from the prep course.  Still others see no difference in their test scores as a consequence of the prep course.  The best answer to this is probably a qualified yes.  Prep courses are not cheap (typically anywhere from $1200-$1500, although PSU offers one for $550) but do provide a structured opportunity to study regularly.  It is difficult to recommend any particular commercial prep course over others, since students typically only take one course and the outcomes are so personal.  If you would like more guidance, you can reach out to the pre-law advisor.

Is there any way to get help paying for the LSAT?

You can apply for a fee waiver for both the LSAT and the Credential Assembly Service (CAS).  Be aware, however, that the fee waivers are challenging to get.  As LSAC notes on their website, “Because the cost of these services is only a fraction of the cost of a legal education, the need criterion is considerably more stringent than for other financial aid processes. Only those with extreme need should apply.”

For more information on the fee waiver, visit here.

What about the GRE?  Do schools accept that instead of the LSAT?

In recent years, more law schools have started the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) instead of the LSAT.  It is still a proportionally small number of schools, roughly a quarter of them, but this is an alternative for those who are not comfortable with the LSAT.  The GRE, for example, has a math section that may play to the strengths of STEM majors.  If you have taken the LSAT, though, you must apply with that score.  You cannot take both exams and apply with the better score.  Before pursuing this option, it is highly recommended that you contact the law schools to which you are considering applying to learn more about their policies.

Law Schools

How do I decide which law school is right for me?

Deciding on the law schools to which you will apply is not always easy.  There are many factors that come into play- location, cost, ranking, and programs of interest are just some of them.  This section addresses some of the common considerations and gives guidance about how to find out more information.

How do I learn more about law schools?

The best information about law schools is often found on their own websites.  Of course, you need to know what law schools are out there before you can look up their websites.  Simple lists of all law schools can be found here and here .  These lists contain links to all of the schools’ websites.

In the Oregon and Washington area, the ABA accredited law schools are University of Oregon, Lewis & Clark, Willamette University, University of Washington, Seattle University, and Gonzaga University.

You may also want to consider law schools outside the region.  Generally speaking, law schools on the east and west coasts tend to be the most competitive for admissions while those in between offer more opportunities for admission while still providing a high quality of education.  Before deciding on where to go, however, ask yourself whether you would be okay living in that location for the duration of your career.  You never know what will come up while you are in law school and you may find that there are good reasons for you to stay.  The career and alumni networks of most law schools are focused within the region of the law school and you may find it easier to get a job there.  It is best to think about this possibility before moving rather than after.

Is it okay to contact law schools I am interested in?

Yes, absolutely.  The admissions officers at law schools are always willing to help answer your questions (within reason, of course).  In addition to contacting admissions officers, you should try to go on a campus tour of the schools that you are interested in.  That will give you a better sense of how well you fit with the school.

How important are law school rankings?

This is a tricky question.  In one sense, they are a highly artificial construct that has little bearing on the quality of legal education that you will receive.  In another sense, they can be quite influential in how the prestige of a particular university is perceived.  The ABA says the following about law school rankings:

“No rating of law schools beyond the simple statement of their accreditation status is attempted or advocated by the official organizations in legal education. Qualities that make one kind of school good for one student may not be as important to another. The American Bar Association and its Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar have issued disclaimers of any law school rating system. Prospective law students should consider a variety of factors in making their choice among schools.”  The LSAC adds some further thoughts to that: “Since there is no official ranking authority, you should be cautious in using such rankings. The factors that make up a law school’s reputation—strength of curriculum, faculty, career services, ability of students, quality of library facilities, and the like—don’t lend themselves to quantification. Even if the rankings were more or less accurate, the school’s reputation is only one factor among many for you to consider.”

It is probably best to think of the rankings in broad tiers rather than specific numbers.  A third tier school is probably qualitatively different from a second tier school, although where the cutoff is between the two tiers is highly contested.  Even so, the quality of education at a third tier school may be every bit as good (even better on practical matters possibly) as a second tier school.  The biggest difference will be felt in getting the first job out of law school.  Graduates from top tier law schools, not surprisingly, have an easier time getting jobs than graduates from lower ranked law schools.  The influence of where you get your degree from decreases once you accumulate work experience as an attorney.  There are many highly successful lawyers and judges who attended low-ranked and non-ABA law schools.  Each school is different and the school alone will not determine your success in your career.

How do I pay for law school?

Law school, as with most professional schools, is quite expensive.  This is true even at public law schools, although they are still less expensive than private law schools.  So how do you afford it?  This is definitely something that you want to consider before beginning law school, as it will help you to make the best choices throughout your time as a student.

Financial aid offices at law schools that you are interested in are the best resource for information.  They can provide you with specific information and have a wealth of experience.  Scholarships and financial aid are available, but they are not always easy to get.  The most common way of financing law school is through loans.  It is not unusual for students to graduate law school with $100,000 in debt.  Keep in mind, however, that the amount of debt that you take on during law school will influence the career choices that you have after law school.  You have to pay that debt back somehow.

For those interested in careers in public interest law (such as those providing free or low cost legal services to those who could not otherwise afford representation), most law schools will offer some amount of loan forgiveness if you practice in that field for a set number of years.  Speak to a financial aid officer for more information.

LSAC also has a whole section on their website here dedicated to understanding financial aid that you should definitely review.  They go through the typical process and talk about many of the options available.

CAS

What is the CAS?

The Credential Assembly Service (CAS) is the system maintained by LSAC that allows you to apply to any ABA law school.  CAS has a number of advantages for applicants.  Most law schools ask for similar information.  Instead of submitting that information for each school, CAS allows you to just input the information once.  It is also the centralized repository where your letters of recommendation will be sent and where you will upload your personal statement.  You should familiarize yourself with how CAS works because you will be using it extensively.

How do I find the CAS?

The CAS is maintained by LSAC and can be accessed through their website, www.lsac.org.

Do I need to register for it?

You will need to register for both an LSAC account (free) and a CAS account (not free).  You will need to register for an LSAC account in order to register for the LSAT and you can do that at any time.  You should register for the CAS roughly six weeks before you plan on submitting your applications.  That will give you plenty of time to get everything assembled and submitted.

Applying

How do I actually apply to law school?

Your application to law school is comprised of a number of different elements.  This section will walk you through each item that you will need.

What is the basic process for applying?

When applying to law school, you need to submit your LSAT score, your official transcript, the Common Information Form, a personal statement (sometimes several on different questions, depending on the school), letters of recommendation, and a resume.  In addition some applicants may include addendums to explain particular circumstances in their application.  For ABA schools, all of this should be done through the Credential Assembly Service (CAS).

When should I submit my application?

Most law schools give deadlines for their applications in March or April.  However, they operate on a rolling admissions basis.  Once they start receiving applications in November, they start to consider them and fill the available spots.  Ideally, you should get your application in no later than early January, which is when the law schools really start to fill the spots.

How do I fill out the Common Information Form?

The Common Information Form is a very useful, time-saving tool.  Instead of entering basic information that every law school asks for over and over again for each school, you can provide that information once and it is sent to all of the schools to which you apply.  This is really at the core of the CAS.  Further information about CAS is available from LSAC here.

How do I write a personal statement?

This is always a difficult question to answer, since a personal statement is by definition personal.  It is, however, a tremendously important part of your application.  For many schools, your combined LSAT and GPA are roughly 80% of the decision.  The personal statement is around 19%.  And then there is everything else.  A good personal statement can tip you into the accept pile.  A bad one can push you into the reject pile.  The personal statement is the one part of the application over which you have the greatest control.  Each personal statement is different, but the following is advice to help you craft a statement that is best for you.

There is no particular subject for a personal statement (unless the law school to which you are applying asks a specific question- if so, be sure to answer that rather than give a generic personal statement).  It is really just an opportunity for the admissions committee to get to know you a bit better.  You should use it as an opportunity to highlight your strengths.  What is it about you that would make you a good law student and a good lawyer?  Why should you get the spot for which so many others are competing?  It is not an invitation to say why you want to go to law school.  It is an opportunity to show more about yourself than can come through in the raw numbers.  You could talk about a particular hurdle that you have overcome.  You can focus on something that you are passionate about.  You can talk about particular experiences in your life that have shaped you.  Any of these (and many more) are acceptable approaches.  The most important thing is that your personal statement must have your “voice.”  It should be an authentic representation of who you are (put into a flattering light, of course).  If you write a personal statement about how you want to end world hunger by being a lawyer, that isn’t likely to carry much weight or be of much value.  If, however, you have dedicated your life to dealing with issues of world hunger and can discuss the things that you have done to advance that cause, then that would make a compelling personal statement.

Not everyone has worked to end world hunger, of course.  Even if you think that your life is boring, you need to find a way to demonstrate what qualities you would bring to law school.  Even a simple story about a nickname from a loving parent can be effective.  The point is to try to tie the personal statement in to your strengths and who you are.

Does that sound vague?  It is.  It has to be.  Everyone is different, with different life experiences.  There is some more concrete advice, however.  First, if you are having trouble getting started, brainstorm three or four possible topics and just start writing on each of them.  At that point, you should get a sense of which approach holds the most promise and you can go from there.

Second, your personal statement should not simply be a series of unrelated bullet points about you.  Tie everything together and make it a cohesive whole.  Sometimes this involves providing a narrative arc, sometimes it is as simple as keeping a common theme throughout.  Avoid the temptation to jam as much information as possible into the personal statement.  It usually isn’t the ideal place to explain your LSAT score or to briefly mention some internship that you did when it is unrelated to the overall theme of your personal statement.  Focus on your strengths and save the rest for addenda where appropriate.

The final concrete recommendation is to write multiple drafts and have multiple people read it.  This is not something that can be cobbled together at 3am the night before you submit it.  If you give it little effort, the law schools will give your application little consideration.  After all, what kind of lawyer would you make if you can’t even be bothered to work on something as important as your personal statement?  It is not uncommon to go through five or six drafts.  Make sure that you catch all typos and grammatical errors.  Those are easy signals that you have not put the care and effort into your personal statement that you should have.  And you will need feedback on your personal statement.  You are not an objective judge of your work.  Have a friend or family member read it.  Have a faculty member or pre-law advisor read it.  Take that feedback seriously and put together the best personal statement that you can.

Who should I ask for letters of recommendation?

When it comes to letters of recommendation, admissions officers place the most weight on letters from faculty.  They have seen you perform in the class and know your academic potential.  As a consequence, at least two of your letters should come from faculty.  In fact, it is perfectly fine to have all of your letters from faculty.  The best letters will come from professors who know you well and in whose classes you have done well.  Be sure to ask them well in advance so that they have time to write your letter and get it sent in.

Besides faculty, who else should you get letters from?  Supervisors at work are often good letter writers.  This is especially true for those who have been out of school for some time.  Supervisors are able to comment on your abilities and your level of responsibility.

Who should you not get letters from?  Family members and family friends are not good choices for letters of recommendation.  Admissions officers tend to disregard them entirely, even if they are lawyers or judges.  Law schools are looking for someone who is neutral that can give a fair evaluation of you.  Family and friends don’t meet that description.

When should I include an addendum?

In addition to your personal statement, you have the option of including addenda to your application to explain any particular elements of your application.  The most common situations where you would include an addendum are when you are explaining a low GPA or a low LSAT score.

If you started out with a low GPA and then improved towards the end of your academic career, you should explain the reasons in an addendum.  Admissions officers are going to look at your whole record and wonder what happened.  Explain it.  If you had a particularly rough quarter or year that brought your GPA down, explain it.  Don’t leave it up to the admissions officers to make a guess.

If your LSAT score is low, you can try to explain that.  This is generally more difficult to do.  There are only a couple of reasons that are typically given consideration by admissions committees.  If you have historically not done well on standardized exams such as the SAT or ACT, but you have a high GPA, you can point out that you have over-performed based on your test score.  You want to convince them that this will happen in law school as well.  The second reason relates to the test conditions on the day that you took the exam.  If you were sick or some other factor influenced your ability to perform well on the test, you can mention that.  Keep in mind, however, that you have an opportunity to either cancel your test before it is graded or to take it again on another date.  If you have not done either of those things, the law schools are going to be more hesitant to give weight to your claim.  Explaining that you did not prepare adequately is not recommended.

Another situation where you might include an addendum is if you have been arrested or convicted of any crime in the past.  You must disclose that and you should absolutely explain the circumstances in an addendum.

If you have any questions about whether you should include an addendum or what you should say in an addendum, contact the pre-law advisor for guidance.

Are they serious about disclosing any past arrests, even if I wasn’t charged or if the records are sealed?

Yes.  They are very serious about it.  You must disclose everything, even if it is sealed because you were a juvenile.  When you finish law school and take the bar exam, the bar association conducts a full background check.  If they turn up something that you did not disclose in your application, you will not be admitted to the bar.  Disclose, disclose, disclose.  If you have any questions, contact the Oregon State Bar and get their opinion.

Why do some schools ask different questions?  Can I just submit the same personal statement?

While most law schools ask for a fairly generic personal statement, some schools ask different questions in their applications.  UCLA, for example, has the longest application of any law school in the country.  Be sure that you submit materials that respond to the specific questions asked by the law school.  You can upload as many versions of your statements as necessary and indicate which files should go to which schools.

Can I submit my application to schools before I get my LSAT score?

No, you cannot submit it until the application is complete.  That includes the LSAT scores.  If you are taking the January or February LSAT, be aware that you will not be able to submit your application until roughly three weeks after the test date.