The law deals with all aspects of human life in its individual and collective expression, searching for economic and social justice, addressing past injustice, and ruling on divisive issues. As dynamic as the society it represents, the law changes as the zeitgeist or spirit of the times reflects emerging interests and concerns. Those interested in a career in law will find it a route to understanding American culture in all its dimensions.
A career in law requires dedication, persistence, and the analytical skills that are essential for interpreting past and current legal decisions. Liberal arts undergraduate programs or degree programs that have a concentration on critical thinking skills, along with a number of advanced courses–such as logic, English literature, foreign language, business and/or education law, sociology, and philosophy–prepare students for law school. Pre-law school advisers are available on campuses to assist students in planning for a career in law and choosing law schools. Mentoring services are available in most law schools.
Each law school has its own unique culture and admissions process. Although law schools differ in many aspects, a common goal is training well-qualified graduates to represent the highest ideals of the profession in practice. Prospective students are encouraged to review the specifics of individual law school policies and procedures through campus visits and/or websites that are comprehensive and detailed. All law schools now have websites with information about admissions processes.
Criteria for Admission to Law School
Law schools are highly competitive and selective, and there is a wide range of criteria used for admissions. Students can find a law school whose admissions acceptance rates meet their individual profiles.
Although some law schools admit students from the third year of undergraduate studies, most require a bachelor's degree. Since applying to law schools is a time-consuming and costly process, students are encouraged to use a centralized processing agency (Law School Data Assembly Service, or LSDAS), which for a fee will assist them in preparing multiple applications. Law school admission review boards examine a student's GPA (grade point average), Law School Admission Test (LSAT) score, plus a variety of other factors including extracurricular experiences such as leadership activities, debate clubs, foreign language, and travel. A student's résumé should include volunteer service, work experience, and extracurricular activities together with the LSAT test score, also a personal statement about long-term and short-term goals, reasons for choosing law as a profession, and any other information that candidates wish to share. Three or four personal recommendations should be included. It is very important to carefully proofread materials submitted to assure accuracy and grammatical correctness. Admissions offices are inundated with applications; those not correctly filled out may be discarded.
There is no specific formula for admission to law school beyond a good academic record and LSAT score, along with experiences that show a commitment toward community improvement. Students who have low grades in first-year undergraduate courses but who show marked improvement in later studies demonstrate improved achievement and often the review committee will review these applicants favorably. Students need to apply to several law schools to ensure their admission. Applications a year or a year and half before matriculation dates are advised, except for students transferring from other law schools at home or abroad, who should apply earlier than regular law students. Law school admissions officers must receive letters of good standing from previous law schools. Law schools differ in the time frame but applying for the fall term should take place from October through February.
Law schools are interested in having a faculty and student body representative of the larger society. To ensure ethnic and cultural diversity in enrollment the Council on Legal Education Opportunity, the Association of American Law Schools, the National Bar Association, and the American Bar Association (ABA) support special programs, mentors, individual and group tutors, and remedial courses in reading, writing, and grammar together with practice examinations. In addition, efforts to fund students' tuition costs based on financial need are continuing.
The American Bar Association's list of approved schools provides detailed information about a number of factors important to review prior to submitting applications. Some of these include the credentials of part-time and full-time law school faculty, percentages of dropouts through the three or four years, advanced and joint degree offerings, professional associations program approval, library and special facilities, gender and minority enrollment statistics, costs including available grants, loans, job assistance for spouses, and availability of housing and costs.
Applying to Law School
Students interested in applying to a law school should engage in networking to learn about the school's culture, history, and curriculum. It is helpful to contact current and former students to discuss the admission process as well as to learn about the campus, instructional methods, competitive ranking, and the quality of students, faculty, and administrators. Applying to three or four law schools can give students a range of options from highly competitive institutions with international reputations to "safe schools," or those that have a broader range of admissions acceptance. Study guides and tutorial programs are available to aid in preparation for the LSAT, which is a multiple-choice test given four times a year at strategic sites throughout the country. The Law School Admission Council offers publications such as The Right Law School for You and Financing Your Law School Education.
Curriculum and Degrees
Full time students are expected to complete a three-year program, while part-time students often take four or more years for completion. Both full-time and part-time students complete their degree more quickly by taking summer school courses. The first year of law school is the most challenging, with the greatest dropout rate. Law schools with the fewest dropouts have very selective admissions processes. Although there are a number of students who drop out at the second year, generally most students who complete the first year of law school complete the degree requirements. Few drop out in the third and fourth year of law school.
A typical first-year law school curriculum includes contracts, criminal law, constitutional law, civil procedure, civil law, property, and torts. Second and third year courses offer students a variety of concentrations such as business and tax law, commercial law, constitutional law, labor and employment law, civil liberties and civil rights, and environmental law. Generally there is no formal second and third year curriculum, but some law schools require legal research and writing courses.
There are a variety of law degrees, including the most common J.D. (Juris doctor), LL.M (Master of Laws), and S.J.D. (Doctor of Juridical Science). Joint degrees are available, including the J.D./M.B.A. (Master of Business Administration), J.D./M.Ed. (Master of Education), and the J.D./Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy). Non-ABA-accredited law degree programs offer J.D. degrees. They are often accredited by state agencies. In many states practicing lawyers are required to have graduated from an ABA-accredited school.
Online law schools are available for individuals who are place bound, those who enjoy studying at their own pace, or those who have other needs requiring flexibility in time and place. Online law programs provide unlimited access to faculty and law resources twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. As in other professions, so in law, online degree programs with their nontraditional formats have challenged accreditation agencies. Accreditation of these programs will be under review as accrediting agencies work through the challenge of innovative, emerging models for legal education. Concord University, one of the first online law degree programs, is accredited by the Distance Education Learning Council and a Committee of Bar Examiners in California.
In a litigious society, well-prepared, well-qualified lawyers will continue to be in demand. Law provides a career well worth a prospective student's best efforts.
See also: Law School Admission Test.
Daly, Stacy A., ed. 1997. REA's Authoritative Guide to Law Schools. Piscataway, NJ: Research and Education Association.
Doughty, Harold R. 1999. The Penguin Guide to American Law Schools. New York: Pengiun.
Lammert-Reeves, Ruth. 2000. Law School Admissions Adviser. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Martinson, Thomas H., and Waldherr, David p. 1998. Getting into Law School Today. Stamford, CT: ARCO.
Morgan, Rick L., and Snyder, Kurt, eds. 2000. Official American Bar Association Guide to Approved Law Schools. New York: Macmillan.
Munneke, Gary A. 2001. How to Succeed In Law School. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series.
Owens, Eric. 2001. The Princeton Review Complete Book of Law Schools. New York: Random House.
American Bar Association. 2002. <www.aba.org>.
Law School Admission Council. 2002. <www.lsac.org>.
James J. Van Patten
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