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University of Pennsylvania Law School
Published October 2006, last updated August 2013.
With its Ivy League brand and urban location, the University of Pennsylvania Law School attracts thousands of the brightest law school applicants every year. The school also features a collegial student body and an interdisciplinary focus, which allows students to take advantage of one of the world’s great centers of graduate and professional education.
Gaining acceptance to Penn Law is difficult: typically, just about 16% of applicants were accepted in 2012. Like most law schools, Penn Law places heavy emphasis on each candidate’s undergraduate GPA and LSAT score. On these metrics, the class of 2013 had medians of 3.87 and 170, respectively.
Penn Law extends offers to Regular Decision applicants on a rolling basis from December to May. Renee Post, associate dean of admissions and financial aid, advises hopefuls to submit as soon as possible, since the school “reviews applications in the order they are completed.” In addition to securing high GPA and LSAT profiles, the admissions committee—which does not use an index to evaluate applications—tries to build a class of diverse and talented individuals. According to Dean Post:
A complete file includes an application form, transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate schools attended, two letters of recommendation, a resume, a personal statement, the LSAC credential assembly report, and the $80 application fee. Candidates may also submit one or more supplemental essays. The school requires applications, including letters of recommendation, to be submitted through the Law School Admissions Council, and requires that recommendations be submitted through LSAC.
Personal statements and addendums
The required personal statement gives each applicant the chance to highlight compelling information not conveyed elsewhere in the application and to showcase writing ability. The statement also allows a candidate to show that he or she would contribute uniquely to the incoming 1L class, and to lend a coherent narrative to his or her file.
If applicants feel they have good reasons for potential weak spots in their applications, Post urges them to write addendums: “You don’t want the Committee guessing about what happened. We have wonderful imaginations.” A candidate with a history of low standardized test scores alongside strong academic performance may want to document this to mitigate a low LSAT score; conversely, someone with health reasons for a low GPA might want to explain his or her situation. Criminal records are another frequent occasion for addenda. The admissions dean adds that such explanations should be thoughtful but concise.
Letters of recommendation
The law school requires two recommendations, but it accepts up to four. Letters must be submitted through the LSAC Letter of Recommendation Service, and those using the LSAC evaluation service must still submit at least two letters. Letters can come from professors, employers, or anyone else who can attest to an “ability to succeed in a rigorous law school program.”
Penn Law allows applicants to submit one additional, optional essay. The most recent application lists four topic choices. The first, a diversity statement, can touch on issues of background (race, sexual orientation, age) or experience (academic expertise or employment history). The second invites applicants to write about what defines them and how this matches up with Penn's "core strengths." The third prompt asks applicants to discuss an example of working with a team. The fourth presents an opportunity to explain standardized test scores or previous academic records.
Binding Early Decision application
Applicants who are certain that Penn is the best fit for them can apply under one of two binding Early Decision options. The first round, which guarantees a decision by Dec. 31, requires applications to be submitted by Nov. 15 and completed by Dec. 1. The second round requires applications by Jan. 7, complete files by Jan. 15, and guarantees decisions by Jan. 31. Dean Post has cautioned applicants with financial concerns against applying ED, since they will not have the chance to compare aid offers from different schools. Conventional wisdom also holds that applying Early Decision puts candidates out of the running for significant merit-based aid.
Applicants should note that in recent years, application numbers for even the top law schools have been in free fall. In a buyer's market, applicants should be extremely wary of applying early decision anywhere. Even if your heart is set on Penn, it would be well worth your while to compare and try to leverage scholarship offers from its peer schools.
Transfers, waitlists, and deferrals
Dean Post says that Penn Law selects between 20 and 30 transfer students each year out of around 200 applicants. (The most recently published ABA data lists 24 transfers in and six transfers out.) The most important factors are different from traditional J.D. admissions: Instead of undergraduate GPA and LSAT, first-year law school grades and the strength of applicants’ current institutions are most heavily weighted. (Anecdotally, one TLS user noted that most transfers in a recent year came from schools ranked in the top 30 by U.S. News & World Report, or from nearby schools ranked slightly lower.) Letters of recommendation—written by law professors—and personal statements are also crucial. The administration makes special efforts to accommodate transfer students, reserving on-campus interview slots and allowing transfers the chance to write on to journals.
The law school also admits a significant number of waitlisted applicants each year, 30 to 40 out of a pool of several hundred. Waitlist review begins in May, and candidates are sometimes accepted late into the summer. The committee invites waitlisted candidates to remain in contact and even submit additional materials, including extra letters of recommendation, new grades, and updated resumes.
Penn Law grants accepted students one-year deferrals in most reasonable cases, although applicants must submit their requests in writing. The school grants two-year deferrals for a narrower range of reasons, including military service or multi-year service programs like Teach for America.
Scholarships and financial aid
With a cost of attendance soaring beyond $70,000 per year in a rough economy that has hurt job prospects across the board, a Penn Law education represents a significant financial undertaking. The school offers significant merit-based aid—mostly based on GPA and LSAT numbers—as well as some need-based grant aid and institutional assistance in securing and handling student loans. Roughly half of each class qualifies for grants. All applicants are automatically considered for merit scholarships; those who wish to apply for need-based aid must submit additional paperwork, including parental resource information for most applicants.
The law school’s highest award for incoming students is a spot in the Levy Scholars program, which covers full tuition for all three years. The program also provides additional resources to encourage interdisciplinary scholarship and growth. Other named scholarships include the James Wilson Scholarship, which provides around $20,000 of support a year, and the Silverman–Rodin Scholars program, which covers all tuition costs for 1L year and half tuition for the second year. A number of Dean’s Scholarships also provide students with grant aid in amounts from $4,500 to $60,000 over the course of three years.
Public interest support
Penn Law makes an effort to enable students to pursue public interest–minded careers despite the financial burdens of a legal education. Penn was the first nationally prominent law school to institute mandatory pro bono service, and continues to encourage all students to consider the greater good in their careers.
The Toll Public Interest Scholars Program funds a few students in each class who have a demonstrated commitment to public interest, and provides as much grant assistance as the Levy Scholars Program. The program supports each scholar’s public interest development through funded summer internships, seminars, and mentor relationships. As with other merit scholarships, no special application is required. The program covers all of the tuition 1L year, and two-thirds tuition the next two years. Penn also offers guaranteed funding to all students working public interest internships over the summer—around 175 each year.
The law school also provides public interest support to recent graduates through its Toll Loan Repayment Assistance Program. Graduates in qualifying employment (legal work that primarily benefits the public interest, such as direct services or many government posts) can have part or all of their law school debt forgiven. “TolLRAP” covers annual loan payments up to $14,000 for those making less than $48,000 and dispenses decreasing aid for those making more. Adjustments are made for spousal income and dependent children.
Students at Penn Law seem happy with their classmates, who bring a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences to the table. About 36% of the class entering in 2012 entered Penn directly from college. The student body also carries significant diversity: over a third of the most recent class self-identify as students of color, and students hail from 37 U.S. states as well as several foreign countries. Approximate demographic information for the entire student body is reproduced below:
What would a Penn Law profile be without the word “collegial”? Most law schools claim to be free of the snarky backbiting that allegedly pervades their peers, but Penn students are among the most insistent. One student and TLS user wrote:
Another put it more bluntly:
While those looking for a completely competition-free zone should probably look elsewhere than law school in a struggling jobs market, most Penn Law students do seem to praise a tangible sense of friendliness and community.
From most reports, Penn students lean to the left politically (not unlike those at most top law schools and Ivy League universities). Groups like the American Constitutional Society are prominent, and the campus is particularly tolerant on social issues. Students cite a vibrant LGBT community, and note that tolerance of students with diverse sexual orientations is nearly universal.
Still, conservative prospectives need not run for the hills. One right-of-center student points out that the Federalist Society is also popular, and often hosts events alongside the ACS. Another tells similarly minded students not to worry:
First-year students take a traditional set of courses: civil procedure, contracts, property, torts, criminal law, and constitutional law. They also take two semesters of Legal Writing, which is graded on a pass/fail basis. The class includes large lectures and small “cohort” meetings of about 15 students. Penn first-years can choose two electives, one from a list of Regulatory offerings and the other from a Perspectives list of survey courses like Jurisprudence and Chinese Law.
Second- and third-year students freely select classes to complete the remaining required credits, and have a wide variety to choose from. Upper-level students can also take advantage of the university’s other graduate offerings and a range of experiential learning opportunities. To graduate, all Penn Law students must complete at least 70 hours of pro bono service, take a professional responsibility course, and satisfy a senior writing and research requirement.
Unsurprisingly, Penn’s law faculty is distinguished and highly credentialed. Its ranks include scholarly heavyweights such as Christopher Yoo (technology law) and Paul Robinson (criminal law). Many of the school’s most cited professors have also won accolades for their Socratic savvy: For example, David Skeel, one of the most important names in corporate law and bankruptcy, is a two-time recipient of the Harvey Levin award for distinguished teaching (chosen annually by the graduating class).
In the past decade, Penn Law has increased the size of its faculty by nearly half, without significantly increasing the size of its student body. The student–faculty ratio is now approximately 10.3:1. As with other top schools, some professors are more well-liked than others, and some faculty seem much more interested in scholarship than teaching. But overall, students seem to feel that open and engaged professors are a big part of the community feel at Penn. Embodying this ideal, a widely followed tradition encourages professors and fresh 1Ls to get to know one another over lunch.
Interdisciplinary focus and joint degrees
Few law schools stress interdisciplinary engagement to the degree that Penn does. Students are encouraged to explore academic interests outside of and intertwined with the law in a number of ways. Creative classes integrate traditional legal topics with topical issues like Islamic law and health-care law; others apply cross-disciplinary tools to the law, such as Gender, Law, and Psychology, or seminars on Law and Economics or Law and Literature. Still other courses are team-taught by law professors and faculty from other university departments, and three-quarters of the law faculty hold advanced degrees in non-legal areas.
All students can receive J.D. credit for up to four courses in Penn’s other graduate schools. Although these classes must be approved by a dean as somehow relevant to a student’s legal education, students report that receiving such approval is not difficult. The most popular outside school among Penn Law students is Wharton, widely considered one of the country’s top three business schools. Students also take classes at the medical school and many other top departments. The compact campus—graduate and professional schools are all located within walking distance of one another—facilitates taking advantage of UPenn’s considerable resources.
The law school’s website advertises almost 20 joint degree programs, a dozen of which can be completed in three years. The chance to earn a Wharton MBA alongside a Penn J.D. in just three years is especially enticing, although candidates must apply separately to each program and spend their 1L summers taking classes at Wharton (a more traditional four-year J.D./MBA program is also offered). Additional schools with which Penn students can earn joint degrees in three years include the Graduate School of Education, the Fels Institute of Government, and the School of Social Policy & Practice.
Other joint degrees, including a J.D./MPH and J.D./Ph.D.s in American legal history or philosophy, take four or more years to complete. Students also have latitude to create their own programs. In recent years, law students have earned medical degrees and a Ph.D. in communications as well as several ad hoc J.D./M.A. combinations. Finally, the law school also awards Certificates of Study recognizing significant coursework in areas like environmental law or business and public policy. These certificates do not require an application, although the university does charge an administrative fee.
Penn Law students have several opportunities to take their education overseas. Traditional, semester-long study-abroad programs allow students to take classes at law schools in Barcelona, Bangalore, Beijing, and Tokyo. Each program can be completed mostly or fully in English. Students who want a more immersive experience can spend their entire third years studying in Paris or Hong Kong. The Paris program, taught in a combination of English and French, confers a JD as well as Master in Economic Law degree. In Hong Kong, students take English-language courses and earn an LL.M. However, those who actually want to practice in Hong Kong will need additional training and certification.
Penn Law publishes five journals. The most prestigious and competitive is the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, the oldest continually published law review in the nation. The Journal of Business Law, which started as a specialized employment law journal, now covers a wider variety of business-related topics. Students can also work on the Journal of Constitutional Law, the Journal of International Law, or the Journal of Law & Social Change.
Journal membership is determined through a combination of grades and a writing competition. This competition includes a multi-day editing portion in which students demonstrate their proofreading and cite-checking abilities, as well as an essay based on a set of (not necessarily law-related) texts and a personal statement. Each journal weights the criteria differently. While the Law Review is extremely competitive, generally taking those near the top of the class and those who ace the writing competition with respectable 1L grades, most any student who wants to do a journal should be able to find a spot on one of the secondary publications.
In addition to the five official journals, students also edit and publish the independent East Asia Law Review. This organization also serves as a group and network for students interested in East Asian affairs and legal issues.
Clinics and externships
Penn Law offers nine direct clinical experiences in which students can gain firsthand experience, as well as a Lawyering in the Public Interest seminar that combines readings, speakers, and court observations with students’ law school public interest experience and discussions of issues faced by public interest lawyers. Penn students can directly represent clients in civil or criminal-defense cases; they can help small businesses through the Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic or disadvantaged kids through the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic. The Legislative Clinic gives opportunities to policy-minded students, and the Mediation Clinic explores non-litigation methods of conflict resolution.
Penn’s Supreme Court Clinic allows students to research and contribute to actual cases to be argued in front of the nation’s highest court. Participants work in the clinic for a full academic year, and take a one-semester seminar that complements the hands-on experience. Two former clerks to Justice Anthony Kennedy conduct the clinic, and the seminar is taught by faculty members with extensive experience arguing Supreme Court cases.
The Gittis Center for Clinical Legal Studies also facilitates externship placements with Philadelphia-area legal employers, ranging from public interest organizations and governmental agencies to law firms arguing federal cases. Oversight by externship supervisors and clinical faculty expands the value of these experiential opportunities.
Penn 2Ls compete in an intramural moot court competition, Appellate Advocacy II, which includes a written brief as well as oral arguments. The top performers from this competition are eligible for 3L positions, including competitive spots on the Keedy Cup or National Moot Court Competition teams and membership on the Moot Court Board. Penn students also enter a number of national and international competitions, for which they make their own teams.
Along with moot court and journals, a wide range of interest- and affinity-based groups allow students to socialize and work with like-minded peers. Groups range from identity groups, such as the Black Law Students Association and Christian Legal Society; to serious special interests, like Penn Law for Reproductive Justice; to fun, activity-based organizations, like the Iron Chef Club and a variety of intramural sports. Unsurprisingly, many groups have a cross-disciplinary focus (the Penn Law Association for Law and the Arts, Law and the Brain). Finally, students give back through well over a dozen pro bono projects including direct service organizations like Advocates for the Homeless and outreach programs like Street Law, which teaches local children about constitutional and legal issues.
The law school currently comprises four buildings encircling a courtyard. Silverman Hall, a beautiful flagship building that dates to the turn of the 19th century, houses the Great Hall as well as faculty offices, classrooms, a trial court room, and a conference center. Gittis Hall principally contains larger classrooms. Tanenbaum Hall’s rooms include journal offices as well as the Biddle Law Library.
The fourth building is the new Golkin Hall, a 40,000-square-foot facility that includes a new moot courtroom and auditorium as well as seminar rooms, offices, and common areas. The new facility also includes a rooftop garden and will be certified as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building.
Traditionally, Penn Law students have enjoyed tremendous career prospects upon graduation. The school has long been a feeder for big law firms, especially in New York, and alumni have also gone on to distinguished careers in government or public service, academia, and business. However, the recent economic downturn and structural changes in legal hiring models have affected law students everywhere. Prospective applicants should carefully consider their goals, realistic career outcomes, and financial situations before attending any law school.
Most of the University of Pennsylvania’s alumni stay in the Middle Atlantic region after graduation, principally in New York City (about 40% of the class of 2012) and Pennsylvania (17.8%). A significant percentage of each class heads to Washington, D.C. (10.4% in 2012). California is also a relatively popular destination for graduates (about 10% of the class of 2012).
Office of Career Planning and Professionalism
CP&P, Penn Law’s career services office, provides students with a host of resources, including employer and alumni databases, career-planning workshops, resume sessions, mock interviews, and one-on-one career counseling. The office also coordinates two types of interview programs: the on-campus interview program (OCI) in late August, which targets rising 2Ls seeking summer positions, and regional off-campus interviews, which match up interested students and employers in markets such as California, Chicago, and Atlanta. Fall OCI usually brings about 300 employers to campus, although those numbers have been down somewhat recently. The school also holds a Public Interest/Public Service Career Fair to attract less corporate-minded employers.
The immediate goal of most Penn Law students seems to be working for a big law firm. There are many reasons for this preference: prestige, high-level training and networks, exit options, the chance to work on interesting or high-stakes cases, and (perhaps most important) a paycheck large enough to pay down sizable student debt. The hiring process for large firms is also streamlined, with OCI and high offer rates for summer associates making biglaw the path of least resistance for students at elite schools.
Despite the recent economic downturn, two-thirds (66.7%) of the Penn class of 2012 accepted jobs at large law firms (more than 100 attorneys), according to Law School Transparency. Another 10% or so obtained federal judicial clerkships, which often lead to large firm jobs. Penn ranked first in the National Law Journal's 2012 ranking of "go-to" law schools for the largest 250 law firms in the country, with 60.4% first-year associates from the class.
Government, public interest, and other jobs
In the class of 2012, only about 5% of Penn grads obtained jobs in government or public interest. A little over 3% obtained jobs funded by the school. Ten students got state or local clerkships, and one student found a position in academia.
According to LST, Penn has not yet made public all the information it has about its graduates' starting salaries—mainly its most recent NALP reports. For the sake of transparency, we urge prospective students to call the admissions office at 215-898-7400 and ask the school to release the information.
Based on the information Penn has released, we know that for the class of 2012, the median salary was $160,000 for those going into private practice, $49,001 for government, and $42,500 for public interest.
Summer internships are crucial for helping law students build legal resumes. Many Penn Law students spend their first summers interning for government entities or nonprofit organizations. The law school distributes public interest funding and work-study money to fund many of these experiences. Working as a research assistant for a professor (which is usually paid on an hourly basis) and interning for a judge (which is often unpaid) are also popular options. Penn 1Ls also spread out geographically during the summer, with many staying at Penn or working in nearby markets such as D.C., and others heading home to cities across the country or even finding opportunities overseas. One TLS member reported: “Everyone has a job [for 1L summer]. … I doubt most people are doing what they ‘want,’ but everyone is getting some sort of experience which is really all that matters.” Another writes, “Everyone seems to have gotten something legal by the time summer came around, usually with some sort of funding.”
With the economic downturn, some of the most sought-after 1L jobs—summer associate positions with large firms—have become rare, though not unheard of. These internships represent a significant cost to the firms, since 1L summer associates are often paid on the same scale as full-time first-year associates and are less likely to join the firm after graduation than are 2L summer associates.
The University of Pennsylvania provides some furnished, on-campus housing to law students in the Sansom Place East high-rise, which also houses other graduate students and some undergrads. The building has single rooms (shared bathroom, no kitchen; approximately $750/month), single apartments (kitchen, living area, private bath; approximately $1,300/month), and double apartments (two bedroom apartments, kitchen, private bath; approximately $800/month per person). While the location and provided furniture are convenient, most students decide to live off-campus.
Those that decide to live off-campus essentially choose between two neighborhoods: University City, the West Philadelphia neighborhood that surrounds campus, and downtown Philadelphia. Downtown—or “Center City”—begins about a mile east of campus, and many Center City neighborhoods are a reasonable walk’s distance from UPenn. These areas provide a wide range of accommodations, as one TLS member attested:
Another TLS user and 1L ventures that a “plurality of [students] live between 20th and 24th in Center City.” Living downtown, while farther away from campus, carries proximity to a greater number of restaurants, bars, cultural attractions, and entertainment options. More information about off-campus housing can be found on the university website.
Quality of life
Living in one of the country’s most populous metro areas, Penn Law students should not have trouble filling their free time. The area is steeped in history: The principal city of the late Colonial and early Federal periods, Philadelphia is home to landmarks such as Independence Hall. The University of Pennsylvania itself was founded by Benjamin Franklin, whose presence still looms large on the UPenn campus and in the city as a whole.
The city boasts a wealth of cultural offerings, from myriad art museums and galleries—the latter of which are open late once a month for First Friday, a celebrated Old Town tradition—to an award-winning orchestra and the Academy of Music, which hosts ballet and opera companies. Sports fans can watch teams in all four major leagues. Culinary options from world-class fine dining to Philly’s famous cheesesteaks and hoagies promise to please any palate, and a variety of nightlife options abound.
Parts of Philadelphia have a bad reputation for safety: According to Business Insider, Philadelphia does rank among the top dozen U.S. cities for violent crime. However, the city ranks fairly low on property crime metrics, and many report that areas around campus frequented by Penn Law students have grown markedly safer in recent years. Still, prospective students may want to take safety into consideration when choosing between housing options.
Winters can be cold and summers muggy, but Philadelphians enjoy pleasant spring and fall seasons. The city is centrally situated near other flagship cities on the eastern seaboard—Washington and New York can be reached in about two hours in light traffic, while Boston is a manageable half-day’s drive—convenient for those who want to get away for a weekend or visit friends.
Cost of living
Most cost of living indices put Philadelphia well above the national average, but below other large, northeastern cities like New York and Boston. In comparison to its most oft-mentioned rivals—Michigan and Virginia—Penn Law’s cost of living is higher: approximately 24% greater than Ann Arbor’s, and 18% higher than Charlottesville’s. Still, this increased cost will be more than worth it to some who would rather live in a major city than a college town.
When it comes to a law student’s biggest expense—housing—Penn advises that students living off campus should be able to find a studio for between $750 and $900 per month in University City (one-bedrooms are likely to be $100 to $200 more). In Center City, high-rise studio rents start at about $1,000, but can go much higher (studios at 2400 Chestnut, popular among law students, are in the $1,300 range). Cheaper options like brownstones and more expensive luxury apartments are also available. Groceries, entertainment, and transportation expenses are also significantly higher than the national metro area average, but will depend on each student’s lifestyle.
As always, check with potential housing options for the most updated rates.
University of Pennsylvania Law School
2013 Above the Law ranking: 5
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