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Law School Demystified

In these days of rampant "no protest zones," radical lawyers are needed. Environmental defense, direct actions against free trade agreements, antiwar protests, all get lawyers involved, like it or not. Becoming an attorney is another way to be an activist, but few people know how...
Law School Demystified
By Kirsten Anderberg

In these days of rampant "no protest zones" and Robocops on American streets, radical lawyers are needed. From environmental defense, to direct actions against free trade agreements, to antiwar protests in permitted areas, lawyers end up involved, like it or not. Becoming an attorney is another way to be an activist. Yet I am amazed how few people know how to become an attorney. This article is a generalized description of the path to law school, what law school entails, etc. It behooves the law profession to shroud itself in mystery, but there is nothing particularly novel about law schooling. Law school has a veil of secrecy to it, perhaps due to its historic class, race, and gender insulation, but the law school process is basically the same at most American law schools. And behind the big door marked "Law," is a professional schooling system, like any other schooling system. Nothing magical there.

Most law schools require an "undergraduate degree," which is your standard 4 year college degree, as a prerequisite for the application process. It does not seem to matter what your undergraduate degree major is. What matters is excelling within your chosen area of study. There are private law schools and public law schools. Public law schools often are housed on public university campuses and property, such as the University of Washington or Oregon Law Schools. Private law schools, such as Seattle University Law School or Willamette Law School, are usually affiliated with a private university or college campus. There are accredited and unaccredited public and private law schools. Students can usually receive federal and state financial aid at accredited public and private law schools. Students often cannot gain full access to federal financial aid at unaccredited law schools. Some states require a law degree from an accredited law school to sit for the Bar exam to get a license to practice as an attorney. Private law schools are more expensive than public law schools, and public laws schools are generally harder to get into than private law schools, except for Ivy League schools.

A basic law degree is called a J.D. degree, and one usually needs a J.D. as a prerequisite to sit for the Bar exam, which is a prerequisite to obtaining a license to practice law legally. In some states, you can apprentice to the Bar exam without attending law school. I believe you must sit for the state Bar exam in each state you practice law in. Some parts of the exam, such as the Professional Responsibility part, may be good over many states, but each state has special interests and law systems (for example, Washington state's Bar exam covers maritime law, while others do not), and thus one usually must prepare for more than one Bar exam if one plans on practicing in more than one state.

The application process for law school usually involves a copy of your college grade transcripts, 2-3 confidential letters of professional recommendations, a 1-2 page personal statement written by you, the law school's application forms, and your Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores. There is usually a minimum grade point average (GPA) requirement to meet, it is usually over 3.0, look in your perspective law school's catalogue. There are also LSAT score averages of students accepted in the catalogues, but do not pay too much attention to this. Although LSAT scores are very important and influential, you can make up for somewhat weak scores with an incredible personal statement or a 3.8 GPA. In the personal statement, you usually want to sell the law school on the unique perspective and talents you could bring to the law school population, and the law profession at large. Look up the law schools you are interested in on the internet and request their admissions packets, which will tell you how to apply, who applies, who gets accepted, etc. Fee waivers are available for the LSAT and LSAT score reporting, and also for law school application fees. Ask about them.

The most common reason people attend law school is in preparation to sit for the Bar exam and to learn how to become lawyers. But just as the American Medical Association (AMA) regulates how many doctors graduate from medical school yearly, the American Bar Association (ABA) also constructively regulates how many law degrees are awarded yearly. If one private law school, for instance, started churning out huge amounts of J.D.'s, saturating the legal market, they would hear from the ABA. I think this has a lot to do with the structure of law school. Many law schools accept 10% of the students who apply to attend. And then, they cut half of those by the second year of law school. I think what may be happening is law schools take the largest first year class they can for prices of $20,000+ a year. Then thin the numbers like a pyramid so that by the end, only about 1/3 of the original first year class graduate with a J.D. in the end. Thus receiving money for 3 times the amount they could ever graduate in first year students, 2/3 of what they can graduate in second year students, maximizing profits. For this reason, law school is very competitive.

The first year curriculum at law school is pretty much the same across America. Most first year students, or "1L's," take a core of year-long, cumulative classes on Torts, Real Property, Civil Procedure, and Contracts. There are also usually half-year classes on legal writing, research, and citation, as well as some professional and criminal law classes. But the main core is in torts, contracts, property and "civ pro." Torts are wrongdoings, these are cases where people are wronged, where there are losses, such as assault and battery, slander, property damage, damage to persons, copyright infringement... Real Property deals primarily with land ownership, but it also deals with inheritance laws, "chattel" or property that is not land, as well as illusive, newer areas such as personal identity. My favorite part of Real Property was when we studied "Adverse Possession," aka legal squatting. "Civ Pro" teaches a student civil court procedures, such as to how to establish the residency of a company that operates in many states, to name the company as a defendant. It teaches the procedure and requirements for class action cases. It outlines different federal and state court guidelines, etc. Contracts deals with business transactions, gifts, exchanges between people with written, verbal, implied, retroactive, etc. trades. This class deals with things such as industry standards for the definition of the word "chicken" in a contract, as well as things like at what time a contract is voided, upon one party asking for the work to stop, or upon the request for the work to stop being received?

Law schools often use what is called the "Socratic Method" of teaching. The way this "method" played out at the law school I attended was the professor would ask students a question, and after calling on someone for an answer, he would say "no," one after another, and the whole class would be taken up with answers that were not right, yet you were never told what the right answer was. Additionally, you were told there are no "right" answers on law exams, just "better answers." And there was little to no graded class work. Just a midterm and a final exam in several of the classes, along with daily class interaction and preparation. Due to this ambiguity, I was not clear what we were supposed to be studying in the beginning. But over time, I began to see a logic to things. I began to look at law school exams like Easter egg hunts. Law school exams are often called "racehorse exams," meaning no matter how fast you come running out of the gate, you cannot get every issue in the exam in the allotted time. Instead of intimidation, I began to look at those tests like Easter egg hunts, and I would go in looking for as many issues I could find. It became fun, although it was stressful.

After the first year's final exams, about half the class fails, and half the class passes and moves on to become second year students, or 2L's. Once into the second year of law school, electives are permitted, along with upper level requirements such as Evidence, Professional Responsibility, Constitutional Law... The third year of law school consists primarily of electives at most schools. Extracurricular activities such as moot court, law review, internships, public interest law, etc., occur while in law school, but one's last year usually focuses on taking the Bar exam after graduation. As I said, most states require a J.D. to sit for the Bar exam, so the progression is undergraduate college degree, to J.D., to Bar exam, to attorney. See? That is not so mysterious, after all.

homepage: homepage: http://www.kirstenanderberg.com
address: address: Seattle, Wa

good article 10.Apr.2004 15:19

here's a few additional thoughts

most law school programs, whether by design or by chance, channel their students into corporate type jobs after law school. a three-year legal program at a private law school such as lewis and clark or willamette will cost you at least $60 to $70,000 (in tuition fees alone!). for most people it is difficult to impossible to afford this kind of money so law school loans and grants are the option for most law students.

once the education is complete, paying off the massive loans becomes the driving motivator. it is nearly impossible to pay off law school loans without a high-paying job, hence most debt-laden graduates try to get the best paying job they can find. everyone knows that the best paying legal jobs are offered by the corporate law firms.

once hooked up with a grinding job with a corporate firm, if one is 'lucky' enough to find one, new lawyers start paying off those loans and working 60 to 80 hours per week. they may also decide to buy a new car and/or house with some of their newfound money.

this completes the cycle: many law students entered law school to make a difference and stand for justice. without a trust fund or wealthy parents, most incur huge debt to make the trip. once in deep debt, most decisions about where to work and what type of law to practice become secondary to the income considerations. after school, the trappings of 'success' become even more controlling: mortgages, car loans, fancy clothing, children, etc.

it is possible to avoid these pitfalls and go on to a legal career built on the foundations of truth, justice, fairness, and equity, but it takes an extremely committed person to a) avoid the legal indoctrination of law school toward the corporate law mindset and b) take a low paying job (as most justice-based law jobs are) instead of opting for the corporate suites.

think long and hard about your choice if you decide to go to law school. it is true that a law degree can be one of the most powerful tools an individual can possess. it is also a road to disaster for many people who think they can/will change the world, but instead find themselves slaving for the loans, mortgage, and trappings of 'success'.

best of luck...

LAW SCHOOL AND THE BAR EXAM. 24.Apr.2006 20:05

Paul TWISTEDplots@juno.com

Is Law School a Chiseled-in-Stone Prerequisite towards taking the New York Bar Exam?