Managing Expectations – Choosing Law Schools

It's okay to apply to reach schools, but be sure you have a safety net.

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This week, I received three emails from people with 3.5 GPAs and low 150 LSAT scores. All three had the same question: "Can I get into a Top 20 school?"

Well, that depends.

This year I did have two clients (we'll call them Sue and Jake) with low 150 LSAT scores get into Top-30 schools, but they were exceptions to the rule. How do you know if you are also one of the few who have a shot? The key is to honestly assess yourself.

Are you—in all honesty—a pretty basic applicant with a good GPA, an internship or two, at a large state school where it's hard to get professors to really advocate on your behalf (in letters of recommendation), and lack any community service or leadership experience beyond that of the average college student? If so, then it's probably not going to be you who has the one-in-1,000 shot at getting into a top-20.

[Get tips on getting in from law school admissions officials.]

However, if more than one of the following applies to you, the shot might be worth taking:

1. Are you the first in your family to go to college? (Jake is).

2. Are you a member of an underrepresented minority group? (Jake is).

3. Did you grow up in an underprivileged environment and have a great story to tell about the perspective you gained as a result? (Both Sue and Jake did).

4. Did you do more than just earn good grades in college? Did you also do thorough research projects or write a thesis? Did you do more than was required of you? (Both Sue and Jake did).

5. Is your writing finely polished like both Sue and Jake?

6. Are you prepared to apply early in the admission cycle like Sue and Jake?

7. Do you have a specific and credible reason for going to law school? Sue had a great story for why she wanted to be a public defender. Jake had studied policy in a master's program.

Even if you answered yes to some or all of these questions and believe you can follow in their footsteps and get into a super-reach school, there's no guarantee you will. I must admit that I was amazed that they both got into such highly-regarded schools (including UC Hastings, Iowa, Minnesota and others). I pressed them to cover their bases by applying to safety schools, mid-range schools, and—yes—some reach schools. However, the reach schools were carefully selected by geographic location (for Sue) and area of interest (for Jake). Both are attending public law schools.

Both Sue and Jake are articulate, professional and mature. They shook hands at recruiting events and followed up with thank-you notes. No one ever had to tell them to advocate for themselves. Both are just really good people who possess neither ego nor a feeling that they are entitled to anything.

As you hone your list of schools, it's important to manage your expectations and assess yourself realistically. People around you may tell you to "go for it!" and that "it will all work out" but it's important that you think for yourself about why a law school would pick you over somebody else who has better grades and/or a better LSAT score. Volunteering with your sorority's philanthropy or working for two years in a law firm is not going to be the thing that gets you into a huge reach school.

I would never say, "don't apply to your dream school." But, make sure you're also applying to schools that are reasonable. My goal is for you to have multiple options next spring so you can make a decision about what your next step should be.

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