One of the most important things you can do to set yourself up for success – in law school admissions and beyond – is to do a good job of setting realistic goals. A lot of times when people use that phrase, “realistic goals,” what they really mean is “goals that aren’t too high.” That’s not at all what I intend to convey. “Realistic” to me means figuring out what you really want and working backwards to develop a process that has a strong chance of getting you there.
Why do you want to go to law school?
The first thing to ask yourself is “why do I want to go to law school?” There are many great reasons to go to law school: perhaps you want to work in government service, become a public defender, practice big law, or become a law professor. Or maybe you just really enjoy writing and want a career that will allow you to make an impact while supporting yourself well. These are all good reasons for making the plunge.
It is important to identify why you specifically want to go to law school, though, and much ink has been spilled about why. Given the opportunity cost and the cost of attendance, “I want to make a lot of money,” “I like to argue,” and “I want to get my parents off my back” don’t tend to be great reasons for sitting the bar. Statistically speaking, attending the wrong law school at full sticker is highly unlikely to provide you with either riches or happiness.
Once you have a clear sense of what you want out of law school, the next thing to consider is which schools are going to best help you achieve your goals. As you probably know, there are over two hundred law schools in the United States, but not all of them are created equal. There are many quality law schools out there, but there are just as many (if not more) schools that are entirely unable to justify their high costs of attendance with strong student outcomes. US News provides the authoritative rankings and most students would be well advised to steer clear of the bottom third of the list.
Charting your path – and working backwards.
Perhaps the hardest path to chart is to become a professor of law at a well-regarded university. To have a good shot, it’s virtually table stakes to attend a T14 school (though there are many prominent exceptions). To have a really good shot, it is best to attend a T5 school; and to maximize your chances, you should go to Yale if you can. Fortunately, other paths aren’t nearly as exacting. For big law and federal government positions, the higher up the rankings you go, the easier your lot, but top students from law schools at virtually all levels are accepted, and students attending law schools ranked 25 or better are well-positioned.
For state government and regional or local practice, rankings matter less. Top New York law firms consistently hire, in addition to students from Harvard, Yale and Stanford, top graduates of local New York City schools: Fordham (ranked #39), Cardozo (#52), Brooklyn Law School (#71), CUNY (#108), and New York Law School (#117). If you are sure you want to practice in Philadelphia, Drexel (#100) is an excellent choice. If you’re tied to Kansas City, a degree from Washburn (#132) will in no way hold you back.
Setting LSAT goals
So what does any of this have to do with how you approach the LSAT? Of course, a higher LSAT score is always preferable, but it’s helpful to keep the long term in mind for two major reasons.
First, having a goal that is not arbitrary but tied to real consequences in terms of outcomes will help you stay focused and motivated. It’s one thing to say “I want a 165 because that’s a respectable score.” It’s quite another to say, “I need a 167 to be confident in my application to Fordham, which will do a substantially better job of providing me with the opportunities I’m seeking than the next school on my list.”
Second, none of us has infinite time and resources. If you can help it, it’s better to spend six months on the LSAT than two years. Hitting a 180 on the LSAT is almost never a good goal if you already have a 174.
None of this is to say that you should you should aim for the lowest score that will help you squeak into a law school you would be ok with attending. Far from it! Aim for a score healthily above the median of your dream school. If you achieve it, you have a good chance at being admitted there and a great chance of picking up scholarship money from high-quality alternatives. And, as they say, if you fall you’ll land on a cloud. Being clear about your ultimate goals will help you decide whether the cloud you land on is one that you’re happy with.
From there, it’s all about giving yourself adequate time, developing an effective study plan, and sticking to it. An LSAT tutor can be immensely helpful in terms of setting up a realistic study schedule for you and helping you stay on track. If tutoring is cost-prohibitive, self-study programs like those provided through 7sage can help provide you with structure. Friends who have successfully gone through the law school admissions process are another valuable source of information. How you study and for how long will depend on your familiarity with the test, your schedule, your learning style, and ultimately, your goals. The important thing is to come up with a study plan that is designed to help you get where you ultimately want to be.
In other words, keep your eyes on the prize.