How to Get into the Top Law Schools, by Richard Montauk

Book review by Frank Sabatini, Harvard Law 2012. Published July 2009, last updated March 2011.

How to Get Into the Top Law SchoolsThe best book for an overview on success with law school admissions is How to Get into the Top Law Schools by Richard Montauk. The following detailed book review provides some of the highlights from this very informative book.

Admission to law school consists of three steps: deciding to pursue law instead of another career, applying to law schools, and, finally, selecting a law school to attend. Shockingly, many prospective law students skip the first part of this procedure. Although attending and graduating from law school certainly can lead to an exciting and interesting career that would otherwise be impossible, law school only prepares students for careers in law; it is not three extra years of college. For this reason, it is essential that all prospective law students, especially those contemplating completing a second simultaneous degree in addition to the JD, seriously ponder their goals and become well-informed about just what attending law school means for their futures. Someone who attends law school with a specific career in mind will be best able to determine how law school fits into his or her life plans and therefore how to make his or her legal education most valuable. Many experts, including Richard Montauk, suggest “at least two years” of full-time employment after college in order to become absolutely certain that a career in law is appropriate (11). Some individuals, like Montauk, suggest even knowing what specific area of law and what kind of legal work a student wants to do before ever applying to law school (17). All potential law school applicants need some perspective: other careers are available to those with backgrounds sufficiently impressive for admission to law school. There is no reason to go into debt and miss out on earnings for three years by pursuing a career that brings unhappiness. The function of law school is not mere intellectual stimulation but the preparation for legal professions. If doubt remains even after the admission process ends, an individual should request a deferral at his or her school of choice.

After an individual has decided definitively to pursue a career in law, that person must select schools to which to apply. Ultimately, how favorable a school is in the eyes of employers determines the majority of career opportunities, even long after graduation and even in non-legal fields. A more reputable school will lead to more career freedom in terms of actual occupation and in terms of earnings: graduates of top schools make twice as much as other graduates on average. Nonetheless, a school is much more than its reputation relative to other schools. Each applicant must determine what the most important aspects of law school are to him or her and must also assess how any specific law school advances his or her goals in comparison to other schools. Of course, a potential law student must also contemplate personal factors of importance, such as “location, size, teaching quality, mission, and cost” (Montauk 41). Furthermore, some individuals may want to enroll in part-time programs (not available at all law schools) in order to continue working as full-time professionals. However, it is extremely difficult to balance a full-time job with even part-time law school, so people pondering this route should fully understand the ordeal they intend to undertake. Finally, although a school may not present itself completely honestly, it is nonetheless informative to take note of how a school presents itself in promotional materials and through its representatives.

One must be very wary of the misinformation that circulates regarding law schools. Because both law schools themselves and the ways in which they do business are changing rapidly, printed materials regarding law schools become antiquated quite quickly. Despite the difficulty of obtaining information, however, law school applicants must not rely exclusively on rankings because publications that rank law schools do not necessarily reflect with great accuracy how different law schools are perceived by various types of employers, nor do they take into account every criterion of importance, nor are they as valuable on a micro level as they are on a macro level (they are good for favoring a school ranked tenth over one ranked twentieth, but not in choosing between the tenth and eleventh best law school, which is decision that should be based on personal criteria). Even at the schools with the finest reputations, local connections can still be important, which cannot be reflected in national rankings.

Other important factors in considering to which schools to apply (and which school to ultimately attend) include opportunities for study at other institutions (American or foreign), available internships, and the number of small seminar classes offered (as opposed to huge lecture classes). Typically, none of these data are used in commercial rankings. Students should also make sure that any given school has full-time (not merely part-time or adjunct) professors in their areas of interest, but they should also heed Montauk's warning that “The greatest danger exists for someone who chooses a school because of one or two famous professors” (62). Although launching a non-legal career after law school is a questionable decision, individuals who try to do this must diligently investigate various law schools' success rates placing graduates in non-legal fields. In order to appreciate any given law school's full educational quality, rankings must by no means be ignored, but they should only be one piece of the puzzle.

In order to utilize rankings properly, one must understand what they truly indicate. In broad chunks (that is, not necessarily from one individual place in the rankings to the next), rankings indicate which schools have the best students and the best employment opportunities. One caveat is that students must look at multiple rankings in order to get an accurate understanding of how schools are viewed and not fall prey to the idiosyncrasies of a single ranking system. Rankings may be most important for individuals seeking specific, prestigious jobs. For instance, individuals hoping to obtain professorships should only consider the very top schools. The ranking of the law school may actually not matter as much for dual-degree candidates who may need to focus more on the other program's data. The idea, ultimately, is for the individual to “rank” schools in a way that best meets his or her personal needs.

Prospective law students should remember that they will not only learn in law school for three years but will live at law school for that amount of time even if they do not literally live on campus. For this reason, prospective students should investigate campus life at their law schools of choice. Some of this information can be gleaned from statistics. For example, Northwestern University School of Law, a small school with a preference for older applicants, has a tremendously different atmosphere from Harvard Law School, a large school with a relatively young student body. Different grading systems can also influence students' interactions with one another. As with academic concerns, however, statistics alone do not sufficiently tell the whole story. It is vital, therefore, for prospective students to visit each school that they are seriously considering. As a potential member of the law school's community, a prospective student probably wants to know how life typically functions at the law school. To garner this information, visits should occur during the academic year but not while the school is administering exams. Montauk strongly advises prospective students “not [to] plan to visit your likely top two choices first” because as a student who has “visited several schools, you will know what items are most crucial for you to investigate as well as how best to gather the information you need” (70). Because a visit to the school should reveal information that statistics cannot, visitors should waste neither their own time nor members of the law school's community's time with quantitative inquiries.

Financial considerations can and often should inform one's decision of which school to attend. Various schools offer loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs), which forgive loans for underpaid legal work. The individual attributes of these programs (such as qualifying employment, amount of loans waived, and adjustments based on family circumstances) vary drastically from school to school, with NYU and Berkeley having amongst the most generous programs. It therefore behooves applicants interested in LRAPs to research the law schools and have firm career plans before selecting a law school. Additionally, some schools award scholarships for students dedicated to public-interest work, but, unlike LRAPs, these usually require upfront, enforced commitments to public-interest work.

In terms of financial aid, several schools may guarantee to meet need, but they might accomplish this goal through completely different combinations of loans, which must be repaid, and grants, which need not be repaid. Some schools give merit aid as well. Frequently, merit aid may be disguised as need-based aid, so it may be impossible to select a school based on predicted financial aid; the student must wait until the school officially awards such aid to him or her. The government's guidelines for disbursing its own aid similarly cannot be used as accurate predictors of a school's financial aid policy. For these reasons, it is often possible to convince a school to enhance its financial aid award if the student receives more aid from a comparable (or better) law school. In the end, it is generally better to go with the better law school than with the better aid package from a law school that will offer fewer career opportunities.

Some aid requires that the recipient maintain a certain GPA in order to renew the scholarship. Because undergraduate GPA cannot predict law school GPA, due to the fact that the student's peers at the law school have a similar level of accomplishment but are also, nevertheless, bound to the school's usually mandatory curve, the best way to measure the likelihood of retaining the funding is by calculating the percentile of the class one must equal or exceed in order to keep the aid. Regardless of one's financial aid situation, however, attending a superior school, even if grants less aid, is usually the most financially prudent decision.

Other unique situations may also make some schools more appealing than others. For instance, for students fortunate enough to have obtained an outside source of grant funding, such funding may reduce the institutional aid package. Whether a school reduces its own grant aid or its own loan aid (or a combination of the two) as a result of an outside grant may make the school more or less appealing than another school. Public schools offer reduced tuition rates for residents of the states in which they are located. The state of California adds an extra and very atypical bonus: second- and third-year law students, even if not originally from California, can usually become “residents” of California and therefore receive the corresponding reduction in cost at schools like Berkeley and UCLA.

Once schools to which to apply have been identified, the prospective student must actually apply to the schools. Finding a way to be accepted to a top law school presents a greater challenge to the prospective student than actually graduating from that law school. By the time students begin submitting their applications, their academic and professional credentials probably will not change dramatically. Consequently, admissions counselors are most interested in the way applications reveal the people behind the hard statistics. Montauk suggests, therefore, that a person should develop a “[p]ersonal marketing strategy” before beginning his or her applications (xi).

First, prospective applicants must understand what kinds of student law schools want. According to Montauk, law schools want students with “brains, demonstrated potential for the rigors of legal study, and outstanding personal characteristics” (103). With this in mind, individuals ought to commence their work on their applications before the summer one year before the beginning of law school. College students planning to go directly to law school, in other words, need to begin right after the end of their junior years. Law schools tend to use rolling admissions, which can confer a significant advantage upon persons who submit applications early on, especially given that the rate at which law schools receive applications typically skyrockets near deadlines.

In order to determine how academically prepared their applicants are, law school admissions officers evaluate much more than numbers. Top schools not only want high GPAs and LSAT scores (which are still quite important) but also students with expertise in writing and research and the capability of excelling when exposed to a rigorous legal education. To this end, graduate work may provide an applicant with a solid source of recommendation letters, but strong graduate grades usually do not impress admissions officers to any great extent due to rampant grade inflation.

Because admissions counselors cannot possibly have sufficiently deep knowledge of the quality and difficulty of every undergraduate program, the LSAT contextualizes the other data when context is needed. Furthermore, the LSAT is often a much more recent, therefore more reliable, indicator of current academic ability than the undergraduate record, which may have been earned several years prior to application to law school. So that law schools view one's complete record in the most positive context possible, potential law students must devote ample time and effort to LSAT preparation. A course may or not be necessary; individuals with a history of standardized test difficulties or who cannot motivate themselves to study all but require a course. As with rankings, it is folly to rely on one company's preparation materials; different companies offer an array of strengths and strategies that, in sum, can be invaluable.

International students need to take special care to contextualize their achievements. Although the LSAT is usually required for international JD candidates, international students should also include information regarding reasons for legal study in the United States, the prestige of the individual's accomplishments, and mastery of English. LLM candidates can generally prove mastery of English rather easily as they take the TOEFL, but, in exchange, these students do not take the LSAT, so they must compensate for their lack of this important contextualizing tool.

Non-academic credentials must also impress admissions counselors. Generally, admissions counselors concern themselves more with the value of an applicant's work experience than with the length of such experience. While unique career backgrounds excite admissions officers, the application must clarify why law school follows logically from such atypical circumstances. Both the type of work and the applicant's performance in such work must demonstrate ambition and desire for success. Such work indicates leadership qualities that would enhance the education of the applicant's classmates if the applicant enrolled. For applicants still in college, activities in college should demonstrate the same sorts of qualities admissions counselors seek from work experience. That is, activities should reveal dedication (but not stereotyped narrowness), leadership, and a clear connection to career goals. Interestingly, academic organizations, which often have little need for true student prerogative and decision-making, are among the least valuable activities in the eyes of law schools. At the other extreme, volunteer work directly with people in need might almost be considered a requirement.

With an understanding of what law schools want in general, a person may begin his or her application. Before applying to any particular school, however, the applicant should peruse the data regarding the most recent entering class at that school. Montauk writes that “The to fit in and stand out at one and the same time” (191). By reviewing the general overview of recently admitted students, the applicant can create a strategy for showing how he or she “fit[s] in” by highlighting the ways in which his or her presence at the law school would contribute positively to the community while also showing how he or she “stand[s] out” and brings something unique. Caveat: although applicants should tailor their application packages to individual schools, they should still be recognizable as the same person in each application.

An application essay is really a “story” (Montauk 216). This fact may not be obvious from the personal statement prompt, but, in fact, this ambiguity is by design: the open nature of the personal statement neither inhibits the truly talented from masterful expression nor provides any sort of crutch for the less than excellent writer (Montauk 216-17). Despite the perhaps overwhelming freedom in choosing a topic, applicants can more easily begin writing by creating “story” essays that answer specific questions. For instance, “What is your job?” could be the principal overarching question that breaks down further into questions, such as (and this is Montauk's suggestion) “How does your career progress compare with that of your peers?” (220). Another great question, according to Montauk, asks “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” (221). This question allows admissions counselors to see who the applicant really is as a person. For this question, weaknesses must reveal a kind of strength: how the applicant overcame (or is in the process of overcoming) the weakness. Furthermore, the strengths must resonate with the applicant's core message in the application. There is one question that a large percentage of applicants should avoid (and, again, this is Montauk's wording): “Why do I want to be a lawyer (or, why do I want to go to law school)?” (230). Those individuals with no work experience have no business trying to answer this question because their naiveté tends to inform their decisions to attend law school. Even older applicants must exercise great caution when answering this question. A true desire to practice law must be evident, and the connection between law and the applicant's current career should be made fairly explicit.

Essays about unusual life experiences should clearly demonstrate how such experiences will help the applicant contribute positively to the school's academic and social atmosphere. This is especially important for essays about minority status, which, unfortunately, often put admissions counselors off because such essays commonly complain about life's troubles rather than express how such experiences have contributed to individual growth. Montauk advises against “[e]ssays on an immersion in the unknown” (234). The essay provides a limited space to express ideas, so a sense of focus greatly benefits applicants. Admissions counselors use essays as examples of applicants' capabilities as writers, so style matters as much as content. For this reason, essays, although they tell stories and reveal the candidate's uniqueness, should still show mastery of traditional principles of good writing. (Note, however, that this does not mean that the essays need to follow “standard format.”)

Aside from required essays, there may be other opportunities to write, thereby enhancing one's candidacy, on the application. Applicants should take advantage of all optional essays. In fact, the availability of optional essays should help the applicant shape his or her required essays, for there is no need to repeat information, and certain pieces of information may be better and more appropriately presented in one essay than in another. Finally, for important information that does not fit in any of the essays, a brief addendum may be attached. In particular, explanations for lackluster or problematic elements of one's candidacy belong only in addenda—nowhere else. In any case, all the essays in the application must work together to further the message the applicant wants to communicate, so no essay is truly done until it is reviewed in the context of drafts of all the other essays of the application.

The applicant must make sure to take significant time before writing the actual essay in order to plan what he or she will write. After this, the applicant should write a “rough draft that incorporates most of the basic points you want to make” (Montauk 255). The applicant should not worry too much about the details at this stage, and this draft—like all subsequent drafts—should be written in the first-person. The applicant should take some time before revising the first draft in order to come at the essay with fresh eyes. Now the applicant has the opportunity to really inject some life into the essay through strong editing that cuts out the fat and spices up the meat (TLS metaphor, not Montauk's). Revisions for content come first, then those for structure. Although the essay does not need to utilize a stereotypical essay format, a well-organized essay, regardless of form, yields a coherent outline, so an applicant might try making an outline of the paper to see if it makes sense. Furthermore, the introduction, although not necessarily a “thesis statement,” must catch the reader's attention and excite him or her into reading the rest of the essay. Finally, the conclusion of the paper does not so much end the essay as it “points toward the future” (Montauk 259). After the content and the structure of the essay have been edited to satisfaction, the writer should make final revisions to basic mechanics. Finally, the writer must ensure that the essay falls within the guidelines of the application! Others should read and comment on the essay. Some essay subjects or techniques are really tacky: quotations, definitions, unnecessary “big words,” and hot-button controversies.

Letters of recommendations form an essential part of the application package. Letters benefit an applicant insofar as the information they provide cannot be found elsewhere on the application. In fact, one of the most helpful services a recommendation can provide is to ameliorate a real or perceived weakness somewhere else in the application. Redundancy signals a lack of accomplishment. Professors with whom the applicant has worked closely generally write the strongest letters. These professors ideally would also enthusiastically and deeply care about the student's professional and academic success now and in the future. A thesis advisor who is fond of his or her advisee would, all else being equal, probably write the finest recommendation possible. Furthermore, since recommendations should, in a perfect world, reveal the full spectrum of the applicant's talents and character, letters should come from professors from varied academic disciplines and backgrounds. As with essays, both style and content matter, so the prospective student should scrutinize feedback on papers and other written communication from the professor to see how well the potential recommender writes. At least one of these recommenders, furthermore, should be able to speak to your personal—that is, non-academic—attributes. Even though at least one academic recommendation is usually expected, an employer recommendation, in conjunction with at least one and possibly two academic letters, can enhance the application. Immediate supervisors write much more useful letters either than higher-ups who never interact with the applicant or than individuals who report to the applicant as subordinates.

In determining how many letters to request and send, applicants should assess precisely what new perspective an additional recommendation beyond the minimum would provide. For college students, two letters typically suffice. Finally, prospective law students should know that a successful letter must both make the applicant stand out and satisfactorily address the specific questions of the particular recommendation form. Therefore, a potential recommender who hesitates or otherwise seems uneasy with writing a recommendation probably should not be writing the recommendation.

Although interviews are not terribly common in the law school admissions process (except at Northwestern School of Law), they do occur, so applicants should prepare themselves accordingly. Often, law schools interview waitlisted applicants exclusively. In any case, if an interview is offered, even if it is “optional,” the applicant must take it if he or she wants to have any reasonable chance of admission. The interview forms part of the application, so it must enhance the picture of the applicant formed in the rest of the application. Therefore, an applicant must actively interview with goals in mind; the applicant should not merely wait passively for questions to answer. The interview, like everything else, should reveal the candidate's uniqueness but also his or her potential for success and ability to become an integrated leader on campus. Similarly, a positive attitude will go a long way, as will an interview strategy tailored to the specific school and the distinctive circumstances of the interview. In order to tailor the interview strategy to the specific school, the applicant should not only review his or her application to the school but also talk to students at the school and review the school's publications about itself beforehand. Interviewers look quite favorably upon applicants who have in-depth knowledge of the school. TLS members who have been interviewed by Northwestern School of Law said, “they asked typical questions regarding work experience, extra curricular activities, academic background, leadership style, and so on.” Of course, all applicants need to practice for interviews.

Three categories of people may interview a prospective student: an “admissions officer, an alum, or a student” (Montauk 319). Montauk suggests that interviews conducted by admissions officers are the “most formal, although not necessarily the most difficult” (319). This type of interviewer wants to become familiar with the candidate's substantive achievements as well as with his or her personal characteristics. Alumni interviewers typically just want to sell the school to the prospective student and are relatively easy on the applicant. Ironically, since alumni know the current state of the institution much less intimately than admissions staff or students, they are rather useless in their capacity to provide helpful information. Finally, an interview with a student is almost the reverse of an interview with an alum. That is, the student is very tough and demanding on the interviewee but a veritable goldmine of highly useful information about the school. For interviews conducted by current students, an applicant must somehow impress the student without seeming arrogant, a difficult task indeed.

Some general advice applies to all three classifications of interviewers. Sometimes a question's purpose will be indiscernible. When an interviewer asks about a controversial legal issue (a popular question), the interviewee should convey truthfulness, logic, and cordial acknowledgment of the merits of opposing views. Answers to questions about college or work experience should demonstrate seriousness, commitment, energy, and career focus. Nonverbal communication “speaks” as loudly as what the applicant actually says. For instance, improper attire (that is, clothing either too casual or too gaudy) can instantly destroy an interview. Furthermore, the interviewee should note and respond to the interviewer's nonverbal signals. At the end of the interview, the applicant almost always may ask the interviewer questions. These questions can shape the interviewer's impression of the candidate dramatically. Yes/no questions do not bode well, especially because one can usually find their answers in the school's printed promotional materials. Finally, the applicant must send a personalized thank-you note with completely accurate contact information to the interviewer very soon after the interview.

Applicants seeking financial assistance apply for financial aid long before the academic year commences. Schools typically will not dispense their own financial aid until the applicant has exhausted federal loan resources: Federal Perkins Loan, Federal Subsidized Stafford Loan, and Federal Unsubsidized Stafford Loan. Using online practice forms before applying for financial aid allows the prospective student to calculate whether or not “asset-shuffling” would result in a superior aid package (Montauk 418).

Most applicants will have to deal with waitlists or rejections at some point. Waitlisted applicants should send new information that augments the positive features of the original application and reduces the weaknesses. This is called a letter of continuing interest (“LOCI”) and an article and LOCI samples can be found on TLS. With a rejection, an applicant must decide whether or not he or she could substantially improve his or her application either in presentation or content next year. If the applicant can identify specific ways to improve the application, the applicant may decide to wait another year and reapply.

For those students who have done well in their first year and want to “trade up” in prestige, transferring to another law school can be done. Class ranking is the most important criterion for transfer, with the reputation of the first law school also frequently mattering. In order to determine schools to which to apply for transfer, the applicant should research what any given school considers a “good” reason for transferring. Such criteria for transfer actually vary fairly significantly across law schools. For students attending law school with the intent to transfer right from the beginning, several factors may determine selection of the first school: part-time programs (to make it easier to bail out of law if transferring does not work out), ability to interact with professors (for recommendations), price factors, and reputation of the school. Students really desperate to study at a top school might try other options, such as studying law abroad before attending an American law school or taking advantage of third-year matriculant programs. Transfer students, unfortunately, often have difficulty obtaining financial aid.

Between acceptance to and matriculation at law school, hard work continues to be necessary for long-term academic and career success. Academic excellence and awards at the end of one's college career can strengthen one's opportunities down the road. After college, preparation for law school and beyond separates those whose careers prosper from those who fall short of potential. A conscientious law student would enroll in a bar review course and would begin to read the introductions of commercial outlines to first-year courses such as Gilberts or Emanuel. The seven first-year subjects, in alphabetical order, are Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law, Legal Research and Writing, Property, and Torts. Several articles on succeeding in one’s first year of law school are available on TLS.

Professors teach first-year classes, by and large, by using the “case method,” in which cases read and discussed in class illustrate a specific legal principle. The professor will call on individual students to recite details from the prepared reading and answer questions. Notes taken during class in this sort of course generally yield less benefit than notes taken in college courses. In the second and third years of law school, students experience a greater variety of course types. For instance, lecture classes more closely resemble college classes, and notes become more practical because the professor expresses important issues more clearly than in case method classes. Clinical classes develop practical skills; students get hands-on experience “playing lawyer.”

No matter what, law school challenges its students and makes them work hard. However, first-year law students often work even harder than they have to because they do not know how to work efficiently. In terms of academic success, students should worry almost exclusively about succeeding on examinations, which generally determine 100% of one’s grades. All other work is strictly secondary. For this reason, reading entire cases generally wastes the student's time; briefs and commercial outlines (or outlines prepared by successful upperclassmen) offer superior preparation for exams. Each case only contains one rule of import to be used on the exam and the details of the case are not important for success on the exams. Mock exams not only provide practice for real exams but also quickly disabuse novice students of the mistaken notion that the minutiae of individual cases matter. The professor's current research and recent publications might give clues as to what the professor is looking for on exams. Study groups should serve only a supplementary purpose.

First year grades are by far the most important for they can help land a job with an excellent firm as a “summer associate” in the second summer, so be sure to stay focused and study wisely in your first year (your third-year grades are generally unimportant for students at the top law schools who usually have jobs already lined up by then).

Outside of class, the way in which a student divides his or her time depends largely on his or her career goals. Law students should start making contact with members of the law school community, local professional community, and larger organizations dedicated to the student's area of interest. Clubs and organizations are at the heart of social life in law school. In terms of one's career, participation in law review (or whatever the flagship publication at the law school is termed) confers the most prestige of any activity because it is, firstly, difficult to be selected (via grades, a writing competition, or both) and, secondly, because all employers know that it is time-consuming and difficult work. Law students need to become especially attuned to recognizing the symptoms of stress. Those students suffering from stress need to reduce their involvement in some way.

Savvy students understand the importance of implementing financial strategies while in school. Students should obviously avoid extravagant lifestyles during law school. Although the ABA technically has established a maximum number of hours per week during which full-time law students may work, no one really cares about this requirement. Part-time work for firms can contribute to the student's financial well-being. Working for a professor, while rewarding in its own right, does not adequately address pecuniary concerns. Unlike summer income, income from jobs during the academic year typically affects neither need- nor merit-based financial aid awards. Students may consider working more hours during their third years than during their second years because second-year grades matter much more for most employment opportunities than third-year grades.

More detailed information can be found when reading this book, How to Get into the Top Law Schools. This book, along with The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, are the two best books for successfully applying to law school.