What I am about to share is not politically correct. It will probably lose me a few friends who see me as a champion of law school applicants with problematic backgrounds. Through my four years as the Law School Expert blogger, you know me as the person who tells you that you can still go to law school despite an honor code violation, minor in possession charge, DUI, history of substance abuse, 2.7 GPA and/or LSAT score in the 140s. What I'm about to say shouldn't contradict any of the advice I've given in that regard. However, there are limits to the number of problems a law school will be willing to overlook. Going to law school is not a right. You have to earn it.
Many law school applicants have been raised on the "If you dream it, you can do it" philosophy. I get a lot of e-mails from those who have read my blog and book telling me they've always dreamed of going to law school, but don't seem to have the credentials to make it. They might've applied to law school in the past with a series of high-130s LSAT scores and 2.6 GPAs. They might think that a year or two working as a paralegal will balance that out and impress law schools. They might spend their personal statements sharing a litany of excuses for their poor performance (inability to perform well on standardized tests, undiagnosed learning disabilities, working while in school, not preparing enough for the LSAT, etc...). They talk about having "the dream" of becoming a lawyer. Maybe that dream started in childhood and a parent or grandparent taught them that dreams can become reality. They always finish their essays by stating that they're certain that they will succeed in law school, pass the bar exam, and become enormously successful and productive attorneys.
The part that's missing is that you also have to do the work to make the dream come true—the dream itself isn't enough. The dream must be what propels you to get good grades and prepare for the LSAT. If you write to me and tell me, "I've taken the LSAT three times and my highest score is a 142. Because I was going to school and working while studying, my GPA is a 2.6, but I have the dream and must chase it," then you need to be prepared when I tell you (because someone surely must) that having the dream does not entitle you to a legal education. It's not enough to claim that you deserve a shot. You need to demonstrate proven success in at least one area of your life that parallels the law school experience; if you can't do this, then you're not ready to apply to law school. If you jump the gun and apply anyway, you will waste money and time and come up empty handed.
There's another version of the dream. There is the perfectly bright person who slacked off in college—maybe even got into trouble once or twice—and whose LSAT score is fine but not outstanding. This person should not only be motivated to put together the best possible application materials, but also needs to be willing to pick the right schools. Even if you're smarter than most, if you haven't proven yourself on the LSAT or in college—and you lack professional or real-world experience that can distance you from college grades—then it's no one's fault but your own that a Top 20 law school isn't willing to accept you.
Now, the point of today's column isn't to make you angry or feel worthless. It's simply to save you the disappointment you will feel a year from now if you apply without confronting these issues head-on. As we progress through this admission cycle together (since we've already covered the law school application timeline and résumé writing), this is the best time to decide whether you're really ready to make a case for yourself as a law school applicant.
Just wanting to go isn't enough. Be honest with yourself. Do you really have a chance to get into the law schools you want, or even to get in anywhere? If the answer is "no," then spend this year getting your act together. Put distance between yourself and a DUI by doing meaningful community service. Make up for lackluster grades by showing an upward trend during your senior year, or completing some graduate school level courses (and excelling in them). Re-attack the LSAT with renewed vigor. If you lack professional experience, and you're having trouble finding employment in this economy, is there a business you could start or an organization that might benefit from your skills and contributions?
Taking this year to collect yourself and grow could be the best move you make, not just for your law school applications, but for your life.