When Lawyers Become Pre-law Advisors
by Eileen Crane
Many practicing attorneys and judges never talked to a pre-law advisor when they were preparing to apply to law school. Often they did not consider themselves pre-law students while they were undergraduate students. Others did not think they needed to speak to someone about the application process, so they collected test materials from various sources and applications directly from the law school. They believed that they successfully completed the process, gauged by the fact that they were accepted and attended law school. Some attorneys have never heard of a pre-law advisor and wonder what use such a person might be.
Sometime later, when the kid down the block says he wants to go to law school next fall and it happens to be late November already, some well-meaning attorney says things like, “I never wasted much time preparing for the test; just take it and see what you get.” Bad advice.
Or the bank teller at the bank sees your ABA or Utah State bar card and says that he is studying political science at the local college and wants to go to law school. So the loyal lawyer-customer says, “You’ll need a letter of recommendation. You can write it and I’ll be happy to sign it.” Bad advice.
Or your favorite secretary has always wanted to be a lawyer and she is deciding to which law schools she will apply. You tell her that you know the dean of a law school from when you were fraternity brothers in college and assure her that you can pull strings to get her in. Bad advice.
There are approximately 1200 pre-law advisors in the United States. They work on almost every undergraduate campus in the country. They are about evenly split between professors in some department in arts and science colleges and career counselors specifically trained to deliver student services. They are organized into six regional professional organizations that have annual training conferences as well as a quadrennial national conference. They receive specific information and training from the Law School Admissions Council which administers the LSAT and facilitates the application processes. Many of the application processes that attorneys who graduated more than five years ago know about have changed remarkably due to technology and engineering advances. Simply put, the rules have changed.
1. The LSAT is a very challenging test that should be extensively prepared for by every student in order to maximize her opportunities for admissions and scholarships at all law schools in the U.S. and Canada. Taking a prep course is likely to enhance a student’s performance if she prepares extensively for the test.
2. When a lawyer reads a personal statement written by an applicant, he remembers what he wrote or what he has heard others say they wrote. A lot of people think that they should tell their life stories, or why they want to be lawyers, or what they have done to prepare to become lawyers. But admissions deans see thousands of those kinds of essays. A more effective essay is one that shows who the applicant is through a variety of stories that illustrate, without bragging or forcing the reader to wade through self-enhancing superlatives.
3. Letters of recommendation should be written by professors and employers and other people who actually have known the applicant in a professional, academic, or volunteer setting where they have witnessed the applicant’s work ethic, interaction with colleagues and superiors, ability to learn and perform assigned tasks, integrity, and ability to read and write and synthesize copious amounts of information.
4. Students need a mentor. They need to start looking for a law job before they ever set foot into the law school of their choice. They need to be guided by someone who has been there and has accurate, up-to-date information. They should be introduced to lawyers, shadow lawyers at work, read about professional issues that lawyers face, and consider their best alternatives.
5. Applications should be submitted as soon as possible in fall in order to maximize student acceptance opportunities. The LSAT is best taken in June or October so that applications can be in by Thanksgiving.
6. All of a student’s undergraduate work at any university (other than study abroad programs) must be revealed and is part of their UGPA configured by LSAC in the application process. Applicants must provide evidence of all college work they have completed.
7. Students need to make sure that they keep or get their credit report in good shape. Federal loan programs no longer cover most or all of the cost of attendance at U.S. law schools, so students are forced to pursue private loans that are credit-based. Students with poor credit records may be able to get funding, but they may pay much higher interest rates for it.
8. Students should plan for the unplannable. Just because students think they want to do this kind of law or that kind of law does not mean that they should limit their focus or exploration of various kinds of law. Students should meet attorneys who use their training in a variety of ways so that they can expand their understanding of their career possibilities.
9. When a student is choosing which school to attend from among those that accepted her, many lawyers advise the student to read the rankings or to go to the school near the place where she wants to practice. The rankings have been discredited in a variety of studies attempting to replicate them. And NALP (National Association of Law Placement) data show that people change their minds about their ultimate career goals. As educators we consider that a success. We think that students have been shown that there are many options available after earning a law degree. Students should assess which school would be best for them based on a lot of important factors.
10. Encourage your friend who wants to be a lawyer. So many of my students over the years, each having interviewed the lawyer of his choice, has been discouraged by the overtly negative remarks and regret he has encountered. Students begin to doubt themselves and their judgment and wonder if they can be any different than the seemingly successful lawyers they spent time interviewing. If attorneys do not like this profession, then steps should be taken to improve the satisfaction of those who are in it.
Pre-law advising is an art, but it is also a science. The artful side comes in listening well to the candidate and meeting their needs for information and direction. Relationships between pre-law advisors and law school admissions officers are valuable because pre-law advisors can pass on tips about what admissions committees value in applications. The scientific side comes from the copious data that are published annually by LSAC, the state bars, the ABA, the individual law schools, and various ranking sources. When lawyers want to practice law and be pre-law advisors, they should be responsible communicators of facts and figures that are based on research, not conjecture and conventional wisdom. Alternatively, perhaps the best advice occurs when a lawyer realizes that she could refer the candidate to a pre-law advisor.