Making a law degree a good investment in the recession

Meryl SerottaWhile the recent recession statistically ended in June 2010, this economic climate has presented additional and ongoing challenges for practicing lawyers. There have been significant associate layoffs, reduced hiring of new graduates and shrinking partnership opportunities.1 Some law firms, particularly when pushed by clients for cost savings, have turned to the use of “contract lawyers:”2 outsourcing or “offshoring” their legal work to independent lawyers outside their firm who are paid by the hour and have neither job security nor benefits. Yet law school applications continue to rise, fueled by this difficult economy where college grads have limited job offers.3

Practicing attorneys must accept that times have changed, and modify their advice to their adult children or to young lawyers whom they mentor. How can we as lawyers best prepare our adult children to meet the new increase in competition in the legal community?

Strategy No. 1 – Ace the LSAT to Bring in the Big Bucks
If there is any one test that determines a lawyer’s career potential, it is the LSAT. Students should not “wing it.” Extensive preparation is necessary, even by great test-takers. Diligent and repetitive study is required to do the very best one can on this most important exam.

The LSAT sets into motion a law student’s career track. Realistically, a student’s range of school choices is determined by his or her LSAT score. Law school acceptance is predominantly made on the numbers, or “predictors.” The LSDAS makes a weighted average, taking the LSAT score TWICE, and the applicant’s college GPA ONCE. The LSAT score is seen as a more accurate predictor of success in law school, since GPAs, even though adjusted slightly for extra challenging colleges, have too many variables that cannot otherwise be adjusted. Thus, the LSAT score largely determines whether a student will qualify for a top law school. Conventional wisdom says that law school prestige is all important, and that applicants should choose the most elite law school that will have them.4 Coming from a top tier law school has, in the past, vaulted students into automatic contention for big ticket jobs and judicial clerkships.5

Because of the importance placed by law applicants on the law school rankings of The U.S. News and World Report, which in turn are significantly determined by the median LSAT scores for the school, many law schools entice those students with higher than the median LSAT scores by offering tuition remission (a/k/a merit scholarships).6 Tuition remission reduces either student debt or parental expenditure. Although not guaranteed beyond First Year, a GPA of 3.0/4.0 generally extends the scholarship for each successive year. Law schools at every level are offering this enticement to improve their demographics with higher LSAT scores. Thus, at EVERY level a higher LSAT score translates into money:

Strategy No. 2 – Consider the First Year of Law School a Full Time Job
These days, demonstrated success in law studies is more critical than ever to get that plum job upon graduation. Success in law school is defined as good grades – no, very high grades – in an extremely competitive arena where work is evaluated, not on an objective grading scale, but in comparison to other students in the class. While the curve varies among law schools, only a very small, select number of students will excel and consequently be considered for Law Review, big money jobs, and prestigious public service positions. Class rank most accurately predicts earning power.7

Therefore, the importance of getting a flying start as a First Year student cannot be overstated. Today most schools have a semester grading system so that the first exams – in December – count as final grades, not midterms. Even though the first term requires a major adjustment to law school methodology – to Socratic instruction, to the Case Method, to briefing and to a different testing format, these first term grades become part of the student’s record. In fact, by the end of First Year, students will have grades counting at least one third of their final GPA, since some upper classes courses (like Trial Techniques, journal experience, or clinics) are graded pass/fail. Thus, after First Year it is arithmetically difficult to raise one’s GPA by dramatic amounts. More importantly, Law Review and big firm job opportunities are based on that First Year GPA. So it is essential that students work from the beginning to get stellar First Year grades!

Strategy No. 3 – Be Open to New Methodology
Practicing attorneys should mentor law students by explaining the ropes: what the professor does in class is not on the exam in the same format. Nevertheless, class time is important because it teaches by example how to isolate issues and generate arguments for a particular factual situation. The professor will use the Socratic Method to make students think critically and to raise counterarguments; professors may not articulate a rule of law and rarely knight an answer as “the right answer.”

Today, discomfort with the Case Method is as real as it was for us. This learning system is exactly the opposite of that used in college classes. In undergraduate school, students are taught to reason deductively: professors present the material broadly and guide the students to note or infer particularities from that general knowledge. The Case Method, however, requires that the student do just the opposite: analyze the facts of a specific situation, comprehend the reasoning of the court on those facts, and extrapolate a general rule for application to other cases. So foreign! So difficult!

Mentors should advise students to invert the order of the learning process from inductive reasoning to the deductive reasoning they already know. Students should browse in a legal bookstore and select ONE reputable book per subject that lays out the broad landscape of that area of law. Today, there are many student-oriented hornbooks that correctly explain and diagram how the issues are interdependent in that area of law. Students who just read a few pages of such an overview on the specific assigned topic BEFORE doing the case reading for class will understand the dynamics of the case and how it fits in to the development of the law in that area. Confusion averted equals more efficient learning equals greater success!

Strategy No. 4 – Learn the Art of Legal Writing. Write! Revise! Publish!
Another great way to set oneself apart and above other job competitors in this tough marketplace is to prove that you can write clearly and probatively. Succinct, effective legal writing is highly prized but rarely seen by law employers.

Legal writing class actually offers a big bang for the buck in law school. This is a class that teaches the practicalities of legal practice – how to isolate the issues that determine the answer to a legal problem. Legal writing class teaches how to write probatively rather than descriptively as in college writing. This probative writing style (setting forth the point and proving it with arguments and facts) is mandatory both for exam answers and for work writing (for a law firm, for court, etc). The effort and perseverance in learning legal writing and revising will pay off in spades, both in competing for Law Review and preparing for the job market.

Savvy law students set themselves apart from the pack of applicants by compiling a portfolio of writing from class, internships, and jobs. Of course, articles or notes that have been published by law school journals should be included. Also, students should demonstrate their ability to write several types of legal documents, including office style memos of law, motions for court, and appellate briefs. Include documents written for both state and federal practice (names redacted, of course). Use the materials from the Multistate Performance Test to practice analyzing case files and to write legal documents under time restraints. When interviewing for a job, present this portfolio and offer to analyze a case file and to write a document for the file. Writing well is the reason an employer will want to hire you as an associate, not just use you per diem.8

Strategy No. 5 – Find Paid Employment While in Law School
Employment in any legal setting may lead to a job offer upon graduation. At the very least, such work shows a prospective employer that the student has actual work experience, initiative and ambition, and that someone else was willing to pay for his time and efforts while he was still learning! This is another way for the student to differentiate himself from non-lawyer practitioners. The student with actual working experience (supervised, as an intern) is a good choice as an associate, one that an employer will want to have on his staff.

If the law student cannot find paid employment, there are other ways to gain practical experience.9 Volunteer work in public service settings can offer valuable learning experience and afford networking opportunities. Some examples of great learning experiences are internships for judges and prosecutors. Other great opportunities to learn are those pragmatic courses in law school: students can learn about interviewing clients and about the negotiating process by participating in clinical programs. Students should work on transactions (e.g., contracts, leases) as well as litigation documents (e.g., motions, briefs). One of the most exciting law school experiences is trying out the courtroom by taking a practical course in trial techniques.

As pilots for the next generation of lawyers, attorneys should seize opportunities to mentor current law students. Giving a student the opportunity for a paid legal job along with the opportunity to learn good professional skills gives him an experience with resume value and gives you as an employer the possibility of training your next associate!

Meryl Serotta, Esq, of Learning Enhancement for Students for Law, Inc., Garden City and New York City. She can be reached at

1. Debra Cassens Weiss, Law Firms Express “Growing Enthusiasm” for Contract Lawyers (June 22, 2010), at weekly/article.
2. Id.; See also G.M.Filisko, Getting the Business (August 1, 2010), at magazine/article.
3. Martha Neil, ABA Group: U.S. News Law School Rankings “Not Entirely Benign,” But We’re Stuck with Them (July 27, 2010), at http://www.
4. Debra Cassens Weiss, Law School Grades More Important to Career than Elite School, Researchers Say (August 3, 2010), at http://www. (citing analysis by law professors Sander and Yakowitz analyzing the best predictor of lawyer’s career success: grades vs. school attended).
5. Debra Cassens Weiss, Will Law School Credentials Bubble Burst? Law Prof Calls Trends “Unsustainable” (July 15, 2010), at
6. See Neil, supra note 3 at 1.
7. Weiss, supra note 4 at 1.
8. See Debra Cassens Weiss, Georgetown Law Dean Expects Grads Will Be More Entrepreneurial (August 23, 2010), at (quoting Dean William Michael Treanor, “Grads who opt for law firm jobs are likely to see the nature of their work change as clients refuse to pay associates for routine, repetitive work … we’ll see more outsourcing and contract employment.”)
9. See Debra Cassens Weiss, Adjunct Law Prof Hits Schools’ Preoccupation with “Impractical Scholarship” (Sept 1, 2010), at http://www. (quoting Professor Brent Newton saying that … “his students’ fear[ed] that they won’t be able to land a job after graduation … they worried that law school had not prepared them to make a living as a practicing lawyer.”)