Less than a generation ago, most college students who wanted to become lawyers went immediately from graduation to law school. Taking a year or two off between undergraduate and law studies was seen as unusual at best, and wasteful at worst.
This perception is no longer the norm. In fact, at top law schools, work experience is now valued as a factor that shows maturity and focus — one that boosts an applicant’s chances for admission.
A Strong Preference for Work Experience
“When I became dean, I directed our admissions team to give extra weight to applicants with experience since college,” said Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School (HLS), in 2009. Her statement was featured in a Harvard Crimson article, which reported that roughly 75% of incoming HLS students have at least one year of work experience, signaling the admissions committee’s active preference for students who have previously held a job. HLS also encourages admitted undergraduates to consider deferring for a year or two, in order to pursue active employment or even additional academic interests.
In a program similar to the 2+2 Program at the Harvard Business School, the Law School now invites juniors at Harvard College to apply under the condition that, if accepted, they will take at least two years off before returning to campus. In the words of Jessica Soban, Chief Admissions Officer at HLS, the program is intended to give students “the room to explore their passions” as well as to develop “networks and work experience” — all while having a guaranteed spot in the class.
New Admissions Criteria
The very best law schools in the nation are increasingly adopting business-school practices into their admissions policies, from expressing an active preference for work experience to inviting applicants for interviews. Qualities such as interpersonal skills, maturity, and sound judgment are valuable, but are difficult to discern from an applicant’s numbers alone. These new priorities invite a more holistic approach to the application review process.
In addition to Harvard, other schools that have incorporated interviews into their admissions processes include Northwestern Law, University of Chicago, Georgetown, and Columbia. Unsurprisingly, all of these schools also place a premium on work experience.
At Northwestern, virtually all entering students have had at least one year of full-time work experience; half of them have worked for three or more years. At Georgetown, almost 70% of incoming students have taken at least a year off before starting law school. In an interview published in Tipping the Scales, Georgetown Law Dean of Admissions Andrew Cornblatt stated, “We take plenty of college seniors, but we do believe at Georgetown that having more life experience — sort of being out in the world, even if it’s just for a year or two — will make you a better possible student, and probably a better candidate for a law-related job when you get out of here.”
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Pre–Law School Employment
Holding a steady job is not only a huge plus in the law school admissions process, but it also makes you more employable after graduation. It may even help you save money, thus giving you more freedom when it comes to selecting a law school (and even taking a non-paying summer job after 1L). There are, however, a few caveats to keep in mind:
First off, work experience is only valued if the experience itself is interpreted as relevant. For instance, working in a position that doesn’t develop key law-related skills may not help boost your chances of admission.
Second, there is the opportunity cost of delaying your career: The longer you wait to start law school, the higher the opportunity cost of your decision, and the less time you’ll have to practice law. Someone who decides to start law school at 35 will be giving up a significantly higher salary than a 21-year-old would, and would also have less time to build her law career.
Debt is also factor, particularly for those who wish to be saving for retirement — or for their own children’s college educations — in their mid-thirties and forties, rather than paying off their student loans.
Finally, keep in mind that all of the schools mentioned above are elite institutions, and are particularly well-positioned to consider “soft” factors such as work experience when selecting a small number from a large, highly-qualified pool of applicants. Schools such as Harvard, Northwestern, and Georgetown can easily afford to put an emphasis on work experience without worrying that the median LSAT or GPA in their applicant pool will suffer as a result. Lower-ranked schools do not have similar flexibility. Given the shrinking applicant pool of recent years, a top LSAT score — coupled with a respectable GPA — is likely to earn you admission to most (if not all) of the nation’s law schools.