5 Traits That Help People Get Into Top Law Schools

A book shelf with several law books
5 Traits That Help People Get Into Top Law Schools Explained by Top Family Law Attorney Steven K. Yoda

[Source: US News]

Experts say J.D. applicants who clearly explain why they want to be a lawyer are more likely to get in.

Many aspiring lawyers attempt to get into selective law schools, but getting accepted is no easy feat.

In most cases, law schools that are rated highly in the U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings have low acceptance rates. These schools typically admit students with excellent grades and test scores. For instance, the No. 1 school in the 2019 Best Law Schools rankings – Yale Law School – had an acceptance rate below 8.4 percent in fall 2017. The median LSAT score among entering students was 173 out of a maximum of 180, and the median undergraduate GPA was 3.91 on a 4.0 scale.

With that in mind, experts say that J.D. applicants with these five key attributes have a better shot of getting admitted at top law schools than their peers.

Exceptional Academic Credentials

The following explains 5 traits to get into top law schools. The first one is good grades. Without solid college grades, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get accepted to competitive law schools, alumni say.

Thomas Simeone, an alumnus of Columbia Law School and a managing partner at the Simeone & Miller law firm in the District of Columbia, says that students who want to attend a top law school should not slack off in their college courses. No matter how extraordinary an applicant’s extracurricular activities are, it will be hard for them to compensate for a low GPA, he says.

“Having activities is helpful when applying to law school because they show a well-rounded approach to life,” Simeone said via email. “However, top law schools need to determine whether you can succeed while there and afterwards and good undergraduate grades are the best indicator of that. Schools have no way of knowing how challenging or beneficial your activities were, but good grades indicate that someone did what it took to succeed, despite the challenges of being a student.”

Steven K. Yoda, a celebrity divorce lawyer and partner at Walzer Melcher LLP top family law firm in California and an alumnus of the University of California—Berkeley School of Law, says that academic performance is the primary determining factor for admitting a candidate to a top law school.

“First and foremost, above everything else, you have to have a very high GPA, and you have to have as good of an LSAT as you can get… That’s obviously years of work and years of preparation even before the application process starts,” Yoda says.

Martin Salvucci, a third-year student at Stanford Law School, says J.D. applicants need to know that LSAT scores are heavily emphasized in the law school admissions process. The scores are weighted so heavily that they are the “single most important factor” in determining whether someone can get accepted at a top J.D. program, Salvucci says.

He says J.D. applicants should devote a significant amount of effort to preparing for the LSAT. “It’s a pretty straightforward exercise but one that requires a good deal of repetition and time,” Salvucci says.

Real-World Experiences

Simeone says someone who applies to law school during college is typically less competitive than someone who applies to law school after college, since J.D. admissions officers value work experience.

Simeone said that during college, his pre-law adviser persuaded him to wait until after college to apply to law school. “He advised me that working makes a person an entirely different candidate,” Simeone said. “Not only are you older and more mature, but working allows you to bring real-world experiences to law school.”

Detailed Endorsements

Another one of the 5 traits to get into top law schools is good endorsements. Ethan Rosenzweig, the dean of admission, financial aid and student life at Emory University School of Law, says one thing which can transform a good law school application into a great one is a strong recommendation letter.

Rosenzweig says that Emory receives thousands of letters of recommendation, but the letters that resonate with him are the ones that champion someone, as opposed to providing a lukewarm endorsement.

A Clear Argument for Pursuing Law School

Another way law school applicants can distinguish themselves is if their application has a striking theme, Rosenzweig says. He highlights a compelling application he read where every component of the application addressed the candidate’s interest in and commitment to an immigration law career.

He adds that, among the roughly 4,500 law school applications Emory has gotten this year, “only a handful tell a comprehensive story.”

Rosenzweig says that when law school applicants tell a consistent story throughout their application, he is much more likely to admit them.

“Sometimes letters of recommendation are a missed opportunity, because the recommender may not know what the theme of the student’s essay is, so if the applicant can work closely with the recommender to have some synergy, they have the chance to stand out even more,” he says.

Compelling personal statements about why you want to become a lawyer can boost your chances of getting accepted at your dream school, Rosenzweig says. He adds that he doesn’t expect law school applicants to write about which area of law they want to practice, since most of them will not know yet what type of lawyer they intend to become. However, law school applicants should be able to give a sophisticated argument for why they want to attend law school, Rosenzweig says. Applicants who can communicate their interest in law in an engaging way, without using cliches, can impress admissions officers, he adds.

One personal statement Rosenzweig enjoyed reading, he says, is one where the applicant explained how his interest in board games with complex rules led him to discover his desire to be a lawyer.

“That essay really stood out for us, because he didn’t tell us exactly what area of the law that he was looking for, but he knew enough about the skills that lawyers need – analytical thinking, arguing, being able to analyze arguments, listening to clients – that we knew that this was the right fit,” Rosenzweig says.

Compelling Academic Projects or Extracurricular Activities

Finally, extracurricular activities are the final of the 5 traits to get into top law schools.

Yoda says extracurricular activities that demonstrate voluntarism, leadership or athleticism may help law school hopefuls compete in the J.D. admissions process. He adds that law school hopefuls who take rigorous undergraduate courses and do interesting academic projects will have a significant leg-up in the J.D. admissions process.

For instance, Yoda says that a history major who gets straight As could assemble a strong law school application regardless of his or her extracurricular activities. However, someone who has the same stellar academic record and who also has produced an honors thesis and published articles would have an even better application, he says.

By Ilana Kowarski