Law School 20|20 by Matthew Ormsbee - Read Online
Law School 20|20
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Law School 20|20 is a modern, all-encompassing guide for law school applicants, students, and graduates. It addresses all aspects of getting into law school, succeeding in law school, and choosing the career path that's right for you. "20|20" refers to the book's unique take on legal education and training, giving you a clear and unfettered view of law school and the job search, warts and all. While the bulk of the book gives you what you need to know about admissions, course work, and extracurriculars in a detailed, no-nonsense manner, later chapters are written in a more opinionated manner to highlight the drawbacks of American legal education and the risks you should be aware of before enrolling in law school. In other words, yes, this is an admissions guide, but more than that, Law School 20|20 critically analyzes the status quo to give you a 20|20 view of the benefits and drawbacks of law school.

Many features set this book apart from others. First, a number of law graduates, who are now practicing attorneys, have written, edited, and contributed to the book, giving it a less biased and more representative voice. We've poured our hearts into this book. This is not a canned recital of run-of-the-mill tips from a corporation. It's a thoughtfully written go-to guide for those who now stand where we once stood. And for those who will later stand where we now stand.

Also, Law School 20|20 is admittedly a work that will change with time. While it was carefully written and edited over a few years, this is the first edition and the author is open to your feedback: tell me what's awesome and what isn't. How many guides include the author's email address for feedback and questions? Your questions and edits will help improve Law School 20|20 and lead to an even better second edition.

Finally, Law School 20|20 is comprehensive. It covers every aspect of law school and the early years of law practice, including resources such as legal resume templates and cover letter models. References to the minutiae of law school life that you won't find in any other guide are included, all in an effort to make the transition to law school even smoother.

Published: Matthew Ormsbee on
ISBN: 9781311169617
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Law School 20|20 - Matthew Ormsbee

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The best advice for law school hopefuls from those who have been to law school? Don’t go. Either you’ve heard this somber warning before or you soon will. Today, more than ever, many law graduates feel that the cost of attending law school far exceeded the value gained in exchange. But don’t go is too simple an answer. The full answer is you should go, but only if you truly think law school is right for you and you’re fully aware of the risks.

I began writing this book in 2011 as a comprehensive and forthright guide to law school and the first years of law practice. While this remains the focus of the book, I now also include proposals to reform aspects of law school to help readers understand not only how law school works, but also the current shortcomings of American legal education. I include my opinion of these shortcomings to give you an immersive and complete depiction of law school. It’s my goal to give you a 20|20 look at legal education and law practice, warts and all.

Several traits set Law School 20|20 apart. First, Law School 20|20 is current, while many other resources are outdated. While changes in the law school experience may not be radical from year to year, the values and perspectives of admitted students and employers inevitably evolve. Furthermore, this book is one of the first of its kind to embrace the e-book format, which means that without a traditional publisher and distributer, there’s less delay between the finished product and delivery to you.

Second, this is the most no-nonsense book of its kind. Other publications strain to entertain more than to inform, or they try to hook you with the promise of how to game admissions, with confidential insider advice and the secret of how to survive law school. This book will give you an authentic and exhaustive look at what it takes to get into and succeed in law school, plain and simple. It’s a thoughtful resource that gives you what you need to know.

Third, Law School 20|20 is comprehensive. It’s everything you need. While some books give details about law school only (as if that were the end goal of a legal education), this book contains everything from admission, to every year of law school (including summers), to graduation, to bar admission and practice. If you think I’ve missed something or want to give other feedback, email me at

Fourth, a book inevitably projects the views of its author, making it potentially one-sided. With Law School 20|20, however, several other lawyers have contributed and collaborated with me, making it more representative and less biased.

Fifth, while some books cater primarily to students wishing to attend law school at Harvard or Yale and work at only the most prestigious Wall Street law firms, this book provides advice and resources for all, which will help you wherever you wish to one day study or work.

Sixth, the author and contributors are at a good point in their careers to reflect. We’re not entirely consumed in the world of law school, nor are we so long ago graduated that we don’t even remember what law school is like. For us, law school remains recent, the bar exam is still on our minds, and we’ve practiced law for a while now. The result: the best perspective of both school and practice.

Finally, with this book I strive to do more than recount what law school is about. I give my personal opinion about what needs to change in legal education. This is a complex issue, so I hope you will consider my observations and proposals as part of a greater dialogue.

Matthew Ormsbee

New York, New York

December 14, 2013

Chapter 1: The Decision

You won’t be the same person after law school. The experience will transform your life by disciplining your thought processes, introducing you to diverse and influential classmates, and arming you with new responsibility going forward.

But law school isn’t for everyone. Before applying, ask yourself:

What’s your true reason for wanting to go to law school? Could your goals be better met by applying to a different program, committing to your present job long-term, or some other alternative?

Are you ready to commit 100%? Are you in a good place financially and personally to commit fully to three years of intense study?

Have you researched average student loan debt and your odds for potential career payoff later?


Whether to Apply

Rankings and Statistics

School Visits


Alumni and Post-graduation Job Placement

Alternative Entry Programs, Accelerated Programs, and Dual Degree Programs

Part-time and Night Classes

Professional Certificates and Law-related Degree Programs

Bar Exam Passage Rate

Cost, Loans, Financing

Work Experience

Your Personality

The Big Picture

Let’s start from the beginning.

Probably the biggest decision for you is whether to apply to law school at all. Because this is a complex decision with many factors in play, the following sections are especially lengthy and detailed to be as useful as possible.

They present important considerations which will guide you in this decision and hopefully cause you to ask more questions about why you wish to apply and what you hope to take away from law school.

In the end, the decision to commit to law school, and which law school to apply to, will hopefully be less of a gut decision, and more of a calculation based on a number of factors. This way you will knowingly accept both the benefits and the drawbacks.

1. Whether to Apply

The day-to-day life of a law student features a large amount of reading and analysis, note-taking, and trying to formulate rules and conclusions from case law.

It can be difficult, meticulous, unrewarding work. Tom Hanks put it well when he said that being a lawyer is basically doing homework for a living (

Law students must be good at careful reading (actually, scrutinizing), contextualizing conflicting and overlapping opinions from various courts and judges at various points in time, and students must be able to step back and place everything before them in the greater view of the evolving law.

It is also helpful to be a relatively fast reader, because of both the density and the sheer volume of reading material.

While the first year of law school is largely standardized in the U.S., curricula for second and third year law students (2L’s and 3L’s) can vary greatly, leaving students free to pursue electives and structure their daily schedules with some freedom.

Thus, a 2L or 3L may have only one or two one-hour classes on a given weekday, with gaps of time for studying and interning, while first year students (1L’s) have less freedom in course selection and probably have class every weekday.

No two law students will have the same experience, but before applying, everyone must answer a few questions up front:

First, does the previous description of everyday life as a law student appeal to you? It’s not everyone’s cup of tea to sit in front of thick casebooks nearly every day, poring over cases, digests, and answering often-unanswerable questions. Did you enjoy challenging reading assignments and constructing arguments in college?

Second, are you confident expressing yourself and arguing in front of your peers and professor? The Socratic Method is a staple of law school that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. You will be cold called in class to answer questions about assigned reading without advance notice. Depending on your professor, you may be pushed to answer a series of questions about the facts and reasoning of a case. Especially in the first year, this can be a very trying experience for students, who may even have to stand to answer several questions. While some students enjoy the lime light, others would rather die than be put on the spot for five or ten minutes, which can feel like an entire hour. But don’t be overly intimidated by this process: your success in answering questions in class is usually (but not always) irrelevant to academic success in law school, since grades are usually determined exclusively by final exam grades. Also, some professors could care less about the Socratic Method and choose not to use it.

Third, what do you want out of law school? If you’re looking for a cozy job or prestige, you can find it elsewhere for cheaper. Also, if you’re looking merely for intellectual rigor, you can find it elsewhere for less intensity and debt. I’m not saying you must have only the purest intentions when applying to law school, but law school is geared toward those who would enjoy learning and applying the law in some way. Let your true intentions ultimately guide you in deciding whether to apply to law school or to pursue another line of study or work.

Finally, law school is expensive and becoming more so at an alarming rate. You’ve likely already heard stories of graduates finishing with six-digit debt and no job - this is a reality, not a myth. If you borrowed for college, you probably already know what it feels like to finish with a cloud of debt over your head every day. Think realistically about the debt load you’ll assume and speak with practicing attorneys about how they’ve dealt with the cost of law school and the risk of not finding a job right away. The investment is not worth it for every individual.

In the end, everyone makes their own decision about the value of law school. I cannot say enough about the transformative nature of the experience, particularly, how your way of thinking will never be the same, perhaps especially for those of you who are relatively young.

However, balance this with the emotional strain and the long-term financial investment to determine whether at this point in your life, law school is right for you.

2. Rankings and Statistics

Perhaps more than in any other profession, prestige plays a big role for many in the legal profession. Whether it’s which law school you attended or at which law firm you’re an associate or for which judge you clerked, names matter to many lawyers. To some extent, this is rightly so. However, I say all this in the context of law school rankings, the importance of which is overblown by many.

So for those who have decided to apply to law school, it’s no surprise that rankings factor in greatly when choosing where to apply. The first place most prospectives look is U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of law schools. As with undergraduate rankings or rankings of other professional schools, there is certainly a pecking order, a general hierarchy, that doesn’t change much over decades. Students would be wise to have at least a general idea of this. See, e.g., Enduring Hierarchies in American Legal Education (2013).

In any event, U.S. News & World Report is a great place to begin. After all, this is a well recognized and comprehensive listing of school statistics for every ABA-accredited law school in the U.S. It’s based on demonstrable fact and it’s easily accessible for all.

But while this resource can give you a quick glimpse of the pecking order, and how a particular school may fare, you should soon look to other resources, such as school publications, blogs, and people you know who went to law school.

The biggest gripe about the U.S. News rankings is that many people think the rankings are fueled to some extent by money and that the rankings vastly oversimplify the decision-making process of prospective students by reducing a law school to one number in a list.

Furthermore, law schools can always seek to skew the rankings slightly by focusing on the factors that U.S. News values most in the rankings, and neglecting factors that matter to many students, but that do not contribute to the overall score.

Again, the U.S. News rankings have value, but the magic number assigned to each law school is too simplistic and thus ultimately not very helpful to many.

As for the factors considered in the U.S. News rankings, part of a school’s ranking stems from other law schools’ faculty members giving it a quality assessment score of one to five (weighted by 0.25). Part of the ranking comes from practicing lawyers and judges, which would seem to perpetuate the high rankings of the most prestigious schools, since many of their alumni go on to practice at well-connected law firms and fill vacancies on the bench (weighted by 0.15). Other considerations include a school’s quality assessment, selectivity, and placement success.

Each ranking system has its own method of determining how to rank schools, so read the fine print and determine if a particular ranking’s methodology is consistent with the considerations you most value in a law school.

Law school rankings are certainly not without their detractors. See one of many articles regarding Supreme Court Justice Thomas’s comments that the rankings lead to discrimination:

For an alternative - and considerably different - ranking system to U.S. News, see Professor Brian Leiter’s rankings at

Leiter’s ranking system offers perhaps a more relevant scheme, leaving out certain factors that U.S. News considers, and which you may find irrelevant, e.g., number of books in the library - FYI most law students don’t even touch books in the library except for research assignments mandating use of them in the first year; otherwise, legal research is done primarily (surprise!) on the Internet. This is just one example of a factor in reputable rankings that most law school applicants could care less about.

You may also be interested to check out, a website which, among other things, aims to aggregate all law school rankings at once in one comprehensive ranking.

Finally, you may be interested to see my ranking in Chapter 11: Resources at the end of this book, where I’ve taken into account school location, post-graduation employability, and overall quality of education, among other factors.

The most relevant factor these days for most applicants is probably the employment statistics at each school. After all, the American economy is arguably still recovering from the recession of 2008 and many recent graduates continue to struggle to find work after a three-year, pricy investment in their education.

Even these stats, however, should also be scrutinized. In 2011 and 2012, dozens of law schools were sued on the basis of misconstruing or falsifying their graduates’ employment stats. Generally, it was claimed that employment numbers included those graduates in non-legal jobs as well as traditional legal jobs, or that schools themselves hired recent grads in fellowship programs through the law school in order to count them as employed after graduation.

The moral of the story: kick the tires when you vet a law school. Speak with someone from admissions or job placement, or even better, a recent graduate, who can tell you frankly how happy or discouraged recent graduates are.

Ask them: does the Office of Career Services fight tooth and nail for its graduates to secure desirable jobs? Or do they just put out publications for students and let the students do all the work? This issue will be all-important once you’re admitted to practice law and struggling to find a position while doing law work and an internship on the side.

These considerations are all valid ones that are not encompassed in a ranking.

A Note on ABA-Approved Schools

The American Bar Association (ABA) is the governing body, which sets standards for law schools and the profession. It’s generally wise to confine one’s search of law schools to ABA-approved law schools, as they’re the ones that are held up to the rigorous standards of the ABA, ensuring that all graduates have necessary lawyering skills and have completed a litany of important coursework.

In other words, ABA-approved law schools must meet certain minimum thresholds for the quality of legal education, while non-approved schools cannot make a guaranteed representation as to the quality of their legal education.

Moreover, while graduation from an ABA-approved law school qualifies a student, from an academic standpoint, to sit for the respective state’s bar exam eventually, graduation from a non-approved law school may or may not qualify a student to sit for a particular state’s bar exam.

For more detail on state-to-state requirements, see page eight of the ABA’s Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements:

Despite the foregoing, non-ABA-approved schools are an important option for those who can’t gain admission to an ABA-approved school. Though be forewarned: gaining admission to the state bar may be much more challenging after graduation and your career prospects may be limited by this option.

Ultimately, examine whether an ABA-accredited school fits your career goals or whether an unaccredited school - probably costing less - is better for you.

3. School Visits

Without a doubt, there is no better way to size up a school than to simply visit in person, observe a class or two, and speak with students and professors.

Admissions personnel and publications will of course only highlight the best that a school has to offer, but taking a day to explore the school and its neighborhood may be the most revealing measure you can take as a prospective student.

Are the classrooms full of sunlight with working outlets for all laptops or are classrooms and equipment somewhat shabby? Are the bathrooms clean? Walk down the halls - do the professors keep their doors open? These are things that may not seem relevant now, but will affect your everyday life if you accept an offer of admission.

Most schools encourage you to visit at any time in the admissions process, but often schools go out of their way to invite applicants who have already been admitted. If this is the case, you must visit: the school will roll out the red carpet on admitted student days, but more importantly, you’ll meet the types of people that will make up your class if you decide to enroll.

You will get a first impression of whether you want to surround yourself with these individuals for the next three years as well as how their backgrounds and ambitions match up to yours.

Also, schools put on special events for admitted students, like a moot court demonstration or mock class session that you wouldn’t normally experience if you were visiting on your own time. Even better, schools generally plan out the events for an entire day, providing meals and speakers to fill time between other events.


Another important consideration in choosing where to apply is whether a school has a special focus or concentration in an area of law that interests you.

For example, many law schools in New York focus on business law, finance, and accounting. Schools in California may offer expertise in intellectual property, venture capital, and innovation due to ties to Silicon Valley. Schools in Texas may focus on land development, energy, and oil rights.

Look at the interests of professors at each school and what they choose to publish on. More often than not, full-time faculty, especially if tenured, make their areas of practice very well known and will offer courses in their specialties at least once a year, if not every semester.

Look also to the numbers of adjunct professors, who may teach part-time, maintaining a practice or of counsel status with a law firm the rest of the time. These individuals will offer more practical experience and perhaps more up-to-date information on the state of their area of law, since they still practice law.

If possible, determine how involved professors are in school activities, whether they plan and host lectures and symposia at the law school. Professor involvement will bring in judges, practitioners, and others who help students to network.


Previously, there had been ABA-mandated rules regulating the proportion of students to faculty, in an effort to maintain numbers that would reasonably ensure that every student with the desire to speak with faculty could be seen.

However, an ABA committee reviewing the standard governing this ratio proposed in July 2013 to do away with this rule mainly because it is too difficult administratively to even derive the actual number of faculty members at most law schools.

Virtually every law school today uses a considerable number of adjunct professors, part-time teachers, and special lecturers that are difficult to quantify or categorize with any precision or standardized measures.

This underlies one of the growing trends among law schools to name fewer and fewer full-time, tenured law professors and rely more on part-time untenured teachers, permitting greater flexibility for law schools in hiring, firing, and teacher compensation.

Moreover, as numbers of applicants to law school continue to drop, law schools have gradually taken steps to trim their faculty, citing a decrease in institutional revenue. Fewer professors are now on track to eventually be tenured.


A shortcoming at many law schools, incoming classes tend to be somewhat underrepresented by minority students. Recent articles have highlighted the lack of racial diversity among law faculties at schools ranked highest in U.S. News and World Report’s law school rankings.

A spring 2013 edition of the Lawyers of Color magazine took stock of the number of faculty at ABA-approved law schools, giving particular praise to the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law and the Florida International University College of Law. Read more at:

Virtually no one denies that diversity among the student body enriches the learning experience by bringing in new and different points of view.

Do your research and know in advance whether a law school seems to value diversity in all its forms or whether that doesn’t seem to be a high priority.

Clinics and Experiential Learning

As a prospective student, you may not know the importance of evaluating a law school’s clinic opportunities and placement track record for experiential field placements.

However, these opportunities can be the key to finding long-term employment after law school, whether through a contact in a clinic or out-of-school placement or from a third party but by virtue of a student’s coursework and experience in a clinic.

Certainly, law students and law schools know the value of law clinics, as many law schools battle for greater recognition by beefing up their clinical offerings, establishing new clinics, and focusing on new and relevant areas of law.

In short, clinics generally are two-part: they provide a few hours of in-class coursework each week lasting one or two semesters, paired with real world client experience and office hours under the oversight of a licensed attorney/faculty member of the law school (or sometimes an external attorney who pairs with the law school but is otherwise not affiliated with the school).

Often, clinics focus on a type of law, for example, housing rights or immigration law, and often positions in the clinic are extremely competitive, being filled mostly by 3L’s, with any remaining spots going to 2L’s. As a rule, 1L’s are usually not permitted to apply to clinics and must focus on their standard coursework instead.

For purposes of vetting law schools, look at the raw number of clinics and their track record as you can glean it from a school visit and publications. Determine which clinics are in-house, run by the school in school facilities by school faculty members, and which are field clinics, run by outside organizations.

Obviously, if you know in advance that you’re interested in a particular field of law, look to whether a law school offers a clinic specializing in that field of law. However, this should only be a very minor consideration at this stage, since your interests may change later on and since admittance to a particular clinic is not guaranteed, even for 3L’s.

4. Location

As a general matter, you should attend law school where you plan to practice later. It’s certainly possible to go to law school in Montana, for example, and later practice law in Florida, but this can cause unnecessary difficulties.

The study of law is unique from other professional schools: whereas medicine or business practices probably don’t change radically when you cross state lines, state laws can vary greatly from state to state, even among neighboring states.

Furthermore, while most law schools will give you a good general focus on a topic of law, many professors like to include the law of the state in which you’re learning. So while a property course may focus on the general law in almost every state, at NYU, for instance, it will also focus on the quirks of New York property law - which makes sense. Thus, get a head start and learn the law of the state in which you hope to one day practice.

Moreover, lawyers are licensed at the state level, so if you wish to practice in State A, you must take and pass State A’s bar exam and application requirements. If you want to practice in State B, you must complete State B’s bar exam and application requirements, too.

With few exceptions, there is no reciprocity between states as far as law licensure. Since it’s already difficult enough to learn distinctive features of State A’s laws and pass State A’s bar, you might as well go to a school in State A or a neighboring state (for example, New Jersey, where many students later practice across the river in New York, and vice versa).

Finally, while it’s not strictly necessary that you attend a law school in the state where you wish to eventually practice, presumably you’d like to make less work for yourself. You might as well start learning the ins and outs of the state’s laws where you wish to live, such as the local court system hierarchy and local laws and regulations.

Also, you should try to make contacts in academia, law firms, and legal organizations in the state where you wish to stay. In any event, the region where you go to law school is very likely the region where the bulk of your colleagues will remain after graduation.

5. Alumni and Post-graduation Job Placement

Law school does not last forever, and when it ends (actually well before it ends), your focus will be on job placement. This should be one of your main considerations from Day 1.

Ask around: does so-and-so law school have a strong alumni network in Philadelphia? Six months after graduation are at least 85% of this school’s graduates placed at a full-time legal job where the employer is not the law school itself (or arranged by the law school)?

This is an important point, since many schools are currently disputing the inflation of their employment stats by also counting non-legal jobs among recent graduates.

A strong and widespread alumni network may make the future job search easier for you, with more connections to use to