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Applying to Law School: Crossing Off To-Dos, Focusing on To-Bes

I don’t come from a family of lawyers – I come from a family of accountants. My parents were nothing but encouraging and supportive of my decision to go to law school, which they’d speculated was a long-time coming. But my parents couldn’t offer much in the way of advice or expertise when it came to questions like “Should I take an LSAT prep course?” and “When should I submit my applications?” 

It didn’t feel simple, but applying to law school involves a lot of straightforward doing. It isn’t difficult to find guides to what you should be doing and when you should be doing it. But what should you be? That’s something I couldn’t find a checklist for. My list remains two items long: be honest and be yourself.

Be honest. Some people love law school. Some people hate it, other people see it as merely a means to an end. Most people, myself included, bounce between these extremes during their tenure as a law student. But you don’t know where you’ll fall on that spectrum until you’re knee-deep into your 1L year, which is a terrible time to realize that you don’t want to be in law school at all.

Before you take the LSAT, ask yourself why you want to go to law school. Be as specific as you possibly can. Where do you want to work? What do you want to do? How do you plan to do that? I know a lot of people who found themselves at admitted students days – and graduation – who still hadn’t answered those questions and it isn’t an enviable position.

I applied to law school because I wanted to be a copyright litigator in New York. My answer winnowed down my list of schools to those with top-ranked copyright programs and great law firm employment statistics. But I didn’t realize that I desperately wanted to be a law student in New York, surrounded by smart people and a mix of big law and public interest opportunities – NYU Law to a tee, essentially – until mid-way through my application cycle. By that point, I’d wasted a lot of time and energy on applications that could have been better invested elsewhere.

Your answer doesn’t need to be anywhere near that specific. It doesn’t even need to be because you want to practice law, but you do need to be prepared to spend three years of your life learning to be a lawyer.

More importantly, your answer shouldn’t be set in stone. Mine expanded to include newfound interests in trademark, free speech, and privacy law. It shifted as I realized that where I practiced, whether in a courtroom or on a call with my client, wasn’t as important as what I worked on or who I worked with. But having an answer pushed me forward when I asked myself whether there was anywhere I’d rather be than studying for exams in the library at 2 A.M. In  that moment, of course there was.  In the long run? Not a chance.

You’ve heard it before, but the law market isn’t what it used to be. If some part of your answer includes employment, it’s important to be honest with yourself about bar passage rates, job prospects, and employment statistics at the schools you’re applying to and whether you’re willing to take those odds. Almost everyone applies thinking they’ll be good, if not great, at law school. Lawyers aren’t known for their mathematical prowess, but half of your law school class is going to have a below average GPA – what happens if that’s you? There’s no harm in retaking the LSAT, waiting for the next application cycle or gaining additional experience if that means matching your to-be alma mater with your reasons for applying.

Knowing why you applied to law school makes your experience there much, much easier, from identifying summer jobs to selecting upper-level courses to nailing your interviews. It requires research and soul-searching, but it’s better to ask whether you want to be a lawyer before taking the LSAT than after taking the bar.

Be yourself. I was a "straight through," meaning that I came to law school right after undergrad. And I was a young applicant: I took the LSAT at 19, applied at 20, and turned 21 the same summer I started law school. Even though I didn’t admit it at the time, I was convinced that no one would take seriously the aspirations of someone who couldn’t legally drink champagne to celebrate her graduation from college.

Looking back at my personal statements, it’s painfully obvious that I was trying to prove to the people reading my application that I just knew that I wanted to be a copyright litigator. It isn’t a bad personal statement. It definitely got the job done. But I wrote it the wrong way for the wrong reasons. I denied myself an opportunity to connect with the people deciding to offer me a spot in the Class of 2014. Instead of shaking their hands, I slipped them a business card:

“Aspiring Copyright Litigator

This Is Definitely What I Want To Do – Seriously Though, Please Believe Me.”

My application was well-researched, well-edited, and well-expressed – yours should be, too. But my application didn’t do a great job of reflecting me. There were more engaging and more unique stories for me to share than the one I chose. Tell your story the way you want to share it, not the way you think someone else thinks it should be told.

Being yourself doesn’t always come naturally. In my experience, being yourself is often the exception, rather than the rule. But it’s a skill that will serve you throughout law school. Writing in short, straightforward sentences served me better than relying on the legalese I thought lawyers were supposed to use. Talking about my hobbies and interests in employment interviews resulted in more callbacks than talking solely about The Law. And allowing myself to be a totally unashamed copyright law nerd opened up incredible opportunities at NYU Law and beyond.

I got a sense of what it’s like to review applications when I read more than 100 anonymous write-on applications. Even now, I remember details from the personal statements of folks we selected. It’s not just because those personal statements were funny, fascinating or well-written, which they often were. It was often obvious who’d written the words I’d read after meeting the writers in person at orientation: their personal statements showed me who they were, not just what they’d done.

It should go without saying that being yourself means being your best self – a professional, thoughtful, and resourceful self. You are going to be stacked against hundreds, potentially thousands, of other applicants who want to be lawyers. Some of those applicants will have the same (or better) GPAs or LSAT scores than you. Others may have more work experience, more life experience or all of the above. But in my experience, your best shot at standing out is sharing what sets you apart.

Amanda Levendowski passed the July 2014 bar exam and is awaiting admission to the New York state bar. She is a member of Cooley LLP’s Trademark, Copyright & Advertising group. Amanda graduated from NYU Law in 2014, where she was awarded the Walter J. Derenberg prize for copyright law. As a student at NYU Law, Amanda published her student Note, Using Copyright to Combat Revenge Porn, reported on technology law and policy, and worked with the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy. She graduated from NYU in 2011, where she concentrated in Publishing, Copyright, and Technology. In her spare time, Amanda enjoys jamming on her guitalele and playing kickball with her team, Torts Illustrated. She tweets as @levendowski.

Amanda will be speaking on “Before the LSAT: A Pre-Law Panel” at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study on March 10. Details are available here.

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