By DIANA TAO
A history major, a chemist, a test prep instructor, and a journalist appear to have very little in common yet all have sat in similar rooms, waiting on the same situation with a proctor, a test booklet and a 3.79 liter clear, ziplock bag holding their possessions.
They all took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), a standardized exam designed to measure an individual’s “essential success in law school” and one required of U.S. or Canadian law school applicants.
Though once considered a golden ticket to job success, law school has declined in its number of applicants. In 2004, there were 100,000 applicants for ABA-approved schools and in 2013, the number had decreased to 59,000.
Despite these statistics, the number of what is commonly defined as “top-tier applicants”, those with a 170 or higher on their LSAT, is rising. For these applicants, the probability of attending a law program where application rates have remained consistent and unemployment rates low, is high. The schools included in this list are Ivy Leagues such as Harvard and Columbia as well as prestigious public universities like the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the University of Virginia. This upper-tier of law schools is generally denoted as the “Top 14,” a title derived from the U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings.
For students who attend a Top 14 law school, the after-effects of the stock market crash of 2007-2008 are notably not as prevalent, and there is a sense of freedom that allows them to pursue their law degree without the pressure of wondering, “Will I get a job?”
For these “top-tier applicants,”while the decision to attend law school hinges on factors such as academic rigor, merit scholarships, cost of attendance, none is more important than what the rankings are directly correlated to: job placement.
Yuko Sin, an LSAT instructor for Blueprint Prep, took four years off after graduating from McGill University to teach and thoroughly contemplate whether he wanted to attend law school. Sin realized how expensive law schools could be after he graduated in 2010, discovering that even the lowest-ranked schools cost as much as upper-ranked schools like Yale and Stanford, with price-tags of $54,650 and $52,530, respectively.
Sin says, “People have different definitions of what second tier is…some people think it’s schools ranked below 100, according to U.S. News. I don’t think I would ever go to a school like that, because even if I went for free, I wouldn’t have been able to get a good job.”
Sin scored a 174 on his LSAT, placing him in the 99th percentile of test-takers, which translates to a top school and a lucrative career. “Some people are saying the economy will never be like how it was pre-2007, but I think at least for a few schools, it’s going to be really good,” he says.
Connie Kuang, a 1L at Columbia Law School agrees, “I think now we’re so certain that we’re getting jobs that stressing out seems futile.” Kuang has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Yale University and says she would have attended the University of Virginia if she had not been accepted at Columbia.
For Sin and Kuang, the experience of attending a top-tier law school has generally been “relaxed,” a synonym most would not expect to come from a first-year law student. Attending Columbia Law, a school with an employment rate of 97 percent, takes a great amount of pressure off its students.
A 3L student at the highest-ranked law school in the country, Rebecca Counts applied to only three schools after she graduated: Yale, Stanford and Harvard. She says if she had not been accepted to any of those schools, she would have applied a year later to a few other top-tier schools.
Since attending law school, Counts has not had the issue of finding employment after graduation or the anxiety of maintaining an above-average GPA to succeed; in fact, Yale Law School does not have grades. The system is demarcated by Honors, Pass, Low Pass and Fail, and the differences between Honors and Pass are seen as marginal. Counts says, “It allows you to figure out what you want to do because you want to do them and not because you should.”
Counts’ job after graduation is already set: working as an associate at McKool Smith, a law firm in New York City, specializing in patent litigation. Unlike many of her classmates, she is not interested in clerking for the Supreme Court or studying constitutional law, and describes the experience of attending an institution like Yale, which allows its students a wide range of academic freedom, as “free, liberating and exciting to let some doors close.”
With a lack of grades and transparency on classroom performance, Counts has often found herself facing issues she had not faced at her undergraduate institution, the University of Texas at Austin. She describes the experience at UT Austin as “pretty straightforward [on] what you had to do to succeed” and Yale as the complete opposite.
She admits, however, to the benefits of attending the highest-ranked law school. “In the long run, I don’t think I’m going to have regret going to Yale because there is something special that comes from that institution [which] causes people to overestimate you,” she says.
Karthik Kasaraeneni, a 1L student at Columbia Law School, hopes to work in patent litigation. Like Counts, he only applied to a handful of schools, five to be exact. Although Kasaraeneni’s switch to law came out of wanting to excel out of “the bottom of the [laboratory] value chain,” he would not have attended law school at all if he had been rejected to all five of the schools he applied to.
There are many like Kasaraeneni, who have viewed law school as an all-or-nothing ultimatum. Either attend a top-tier school with a 96-99 percent chance of employment or attend a school with a 50 percent chance of employment and a lower-paying salary that would take three times the amount of time to pay back loans? The difference is stark.