Deborah Morris Burton
Thinking of Becoming a Lawyer? Part 3
Part 3: Law School Admissions Process
[This is the third part of a four-part article. If you didn’t read the first one and you’re trying to decide if you want to go to law school or become a lawyer, go here: https://www.homeschoolcourt.com/post/thinking-of-becoming-a-lawyer-part-1.
The next article in this series will concentrate on the next two steps after college graduation and taking the LSAT: Choose a law school (really several) and get admitted.
Choosing a Law School
There are several key factors in choosing a law school. Because almost all states require graduation from an ABA-accredited law school to take the bar exam, this is probably the most important factor in choosing a law school.
You can find a list of all ABA-accredited law schools here: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/aba_approved_law_schools/.
However, for the Christian student, a law school that is Christian may be the deciding factor. Many of the Christian and Catholic law schools I discovered were also ABA-accredited: Ave Maria School of Law, Baylor University, Catholic University, Fordham University, Liberty University, Pepperdine University, Regent University, St. John’s, and St. Thomas. You will need to judge for yourself whether these law schools meet your definition of “Christian.”
Whether a law school offers any combined degree programs may also influence your decision. Combined degree programs enable a student to earn a law degree (which is the J.D. or Juris Doctor) and another degree (usually a master’s degree) in the same three years (four for a combination with some master’s degrees). This saves time and money. It also allows for some specialization in the law after graduation.
In addition, the reputation and expertise of a law school are important. When a combined degree is offered, both programs are probably well respected.
When I decided to go to law school, I looked for schools with a combined degree program with a journalism master’s program. It was my deciding factor in choosing the school I attended and enabled me to pay for many of my expenses with a graduate assistantship. At the time, combined degrees were relatively few.
However, today there seems to have been an explosion of combined degrees. Let’s look at just a couple of law schools to see the wide range of options.
The University of Iowa School of Law has combined degrees with a Master of Health Administration, Master of Public Health, Master of Business Administration, Master of Science in Business Analytics, Master of Science in Finance, Master of Arts in Philosophy and a combined M.D./J.D. program. In addition, its website stats that students may pursue a combined degree with almost any graduate program and lists some that have been combined in the past: Accounting, Art History, Communication Studies, Economics, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Higher Education, History, Journalism, Library and Information Science, Political Science, Social Work, and Urban and Regional Planning. Quite a variety!
Stanford Law has combined degrees for both master’s degrees and PhDs. For example, one can combine the J.D. with master’s degrees in Bioengineering, Business, Computer Science, Economics, Education, Electrical Engineering, Environment and Resources, Health Research and Policy, History, Stanford Global Studies, International Policy Studies, Management Science & Engineering, and Public Policy. Law students can also combine their degree with an M.D. and certain Ph.D. programs: Bioengineering, Business, Communication, Economics, Environment and Resources, History, Management Science & Engineering, Modern Thought and Literature, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology and Sociology.
Notre Dame Law School offers combined degree programs with Business, English, Engineering, Global Affairs, Political Science, Engineering, Science and Technology Entrepreneurship (ESTEEM), and is open to other combinations.
In each case, the student must be admitted into both the law school and the graduate school. In general, with the exception of medical school, it’s probably a safe bet that if you are able to be admitted into a particular law school, you won’t have a problem with admission to the graduate school.
This article does not cover every possible combined degree program, even at a particular school. The purpose is simply to provide a sample of what is available.
There are two other statistics that you will want to consider when choosing a law school: its bar exam passage rate and its employment rates (along with median salaries).
There are statistics online at PublicLegal, a product of the Internet Legal Research Group (ILRG). In a helpful chart, it provides a wealth of information about each law school, from publicly available sources, including the school’s website. You can find the chart here: https://www.ilrg.com/rankings/law/1/desc/Bar.
This chart can be sorted by any column. For our purposes, it is sorted by the overall bar passage rate. So the University of Virginia law school has the highest bar passage rate in the U.S. based on 2017 bar exams. Let’s look at the bar exam passage rates and employment rates for a few schools chosen randomly.
School #25 is Belmont University Law School. There are two employment statistics: percentage of students employed at graduation and percentage of students employed ten months after graduation. Graduating with a job is ideal, but the ten-month statistic allows for students to study for and take the bar exam, and perhaps get a job after passing the state bar.
The bar passage rates are shown by the state bar and overall passage rate. The state bar passage rate shows the bar passage rate for the jurisdiction in which the greatest number of the law school’s graduates took the bar exam. The overall “pass bar” rate is the percentage of students who passed the bar exam within that same jurisdiction.
For Belmont, the percentage of students with a job upon graduation is 30.8%. The percent with jobs ten months after graduation is 82.1%. Its bar passage rate is 92.6% overall, while the state bar exam passage rate (Tennessee) is 74.4%. So Belmont’s students who took the bar in Tennessee had far highest bar exam passage rates than the general population.
School #50 is Ohio State University (Moritz). It reported 62.4% of students graduated with a job, and 86.1% had one within ten months of graduation. Its overall bar exam passage rate was 87.1%, while the state bar exam passage rate was 75.4%.
There are law schools where its graduated students did significantly better than the state average of bar exam passage rates. For example, Stanford Law graduates passed the California bar 95.3% of the time, while the overall state passage rate was 58.3%. On the other hand, as you get lower on the list, there are schools with graduates who pass the bar exam at a significantly lower rate than the state average.
The employment rates also vary significantly, with graduates of some schools employed after ten months at greater rates than graduates of other schools. It is worth considering these statistics for any law school you look at.
Law School Admission Process
Just like students applying to college choose “safety,” “match” and “reach” schools, so should you in applying to law school. The chart we looked at for bar exam passage and employment rates also provides information that helps identify these law schools.
The two most important factors in law school admissions are the undergraduate GPA and the LSAT score.
On this same chart, there are statistics for lowest, median, and highest GPA and LSAT scores. The lowest statistic in each refers to those students granted admission who enrolled as full-time students. The “GPA Low” and “LSAT Low” indicate enrolled students who were at the 25th percentile, meaning only a quarter of enrolled students had lower GPAs or LSAT scores. But if you are looking at a law school like that, you can look at it this way—a quarter of students were admitted with lower GPAs or LSAT scores. So it is not hopeless, it just makes it a “reach” school for you.
“GPA Median” and “LSAT Median” indicate the 50th percentile, meaning they were right in the middle of enrolled students in terms of undergraduate GPA or LSAT scores.
And “GPA High” and “LSAT High” indicate the 75th percentile, meaning there were only a quarter of students who enrolled in that school who had higher GPAs or LSAT scores.
These statistics help you identify safety, match and reach schools. Law schools, like colleges and universities, vary in their selectivity and difficulty of admission.
Let’s take a hypothetical law school applicant and identify those schools for this future student. Applicant X has an undergraduate GPA of 3.5 and a LSAT score of 155.
If you sort the list by highest GPA, you see that starting at school #158, the highest quartile of enrolled students had GPAs of 3.5 or lower. Glancing at the highest LSAT scores for those same schools, you see that none have high LSAT scores above 155, and most are lower. These schools would be “safety” schools. Applicant X would seem to have a great chance of being admitted to these schools without difficulty, because he/she would be in the top 25% of students in terms of entering GPA and LSAT score.
If you sort by median GPA, you see that by school #75, Applicant X is solidly at the median for GPA and also for LSAT score in most schools.
Sorting by low GPA helps us identify some reach schools for Applicant X and some schools that would be out of reach. For example, the GPA of the lowest quarter of students enrolled at the number 1 school sorted this way, Yale University, is 3.84, well above Applicant X’s GPA. Its low LSAT score is 170, also well above Applicant X’s. This would be above a reach school for this applicant.
On the other hand, a reasonable reach school for Applicant X might be school #30: low GPA is 3.42 and low LSAT score is 157. The GPA is slightly lower than Applicant X’s, however, the LSAT is a little higher. Because a quarter of students were enrolled with lower grades and scores, this makes this a solid reach school—possible admission, but definitely not assured.
Other Law School Admission Factors
The admission process considers more than LSAT score and undergraduate grades. Law schools seek to have a diverse class, so that many perspectives are available during class discussions and in school activities. Of course, race is a factor in diversity. But so are a student’s home state and undergraduate major and extracurricular activities.
Another factor that law school admission personnel will look at is the difficulty of classes the student took in college. They cannot just look at the total GPA of one student compared to another. They also consider the difficulty of each student’s college coursework. A student who took difficult classes but has the same GPA as a student who chose easier courses will have a better chance of admission.
Along with being admitted to a law school, being at the higher level of applicants will increase your chances of receiving good financial aid offers.
I believe my story illustrates several of these points. When I went to college I majored in journalism and never had any intention of going to law school. When I became interested while working after graduation, I looked for combined programs to earn a J.D. at the same time as earning a master’s degree in journalism, and applied to several, along with my state school.
None of the schools to which I applied were “reach” schools, but I saw the state school as a “safety” school. Apparently, I was correct, because I was admitted to all the schools and combined programs. I had a fairly good GPA and a fairly good LSAT score.
However, one school offered me both scholarships and a graduate assistantship in the journalism program, which together almost paid for my entire tuition, room, and board. While I think my grades and GPA helped, I believe I was seen as bringing diversity of undergraduate major and geography to the school. In my law school class, I was one of only two students from my home state. My school was in the Midwest and I was from the East Coast. Since the combined program was relatively new at the time, the school was certainly seeking law students who also wanted a master’s degree in journalism. At the time, there were not many journalism majors among the law school class—it was predominantly political science and history.
One thing to note about “reach” schools: sometimes law schools will admit some students provisionally. That means that they are allowed to take some law school courses and if they earn a certain grade, they are fully admitted to the school. If not, they will probably attend a school that is a safety or match school for them.
The next article in this series will concentrate on the next two steps after you have applied to several law schools, gotten admitted, and chosen the one you will attend: graduate from law school and become a licensed attorney.
Footnote:  The Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar’s Council is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) as the national accrediting agency for programs leading to the J.D. In this function, the Council and the Section are independent of the ABA, as required by DOE regulations. All state supreme courts recognize ABA-approved law schools as meeting the legal education requirements to qualify for the bar examination; forty-six states limit eligibility for bar admission to graduates of ABA-approved schools. See: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/about_us/.