GUIDE TO GRADUATE AND PROFESSIONAL STUDY
The on-going debate about affirmative action is a powerful reminder of the continued importance of African-American lawyers in the defense of civil rights. Among the outstanding members of the bar who defended the University of Michigan’s Affirmative-Action program was John Payton, a partner with Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, D.C., who represented the university before the United States Supreme Court. Theodore “Ted” Shaw, director-counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., represented minority students who intervened in the case. These lawyers continued the legacy handed down by Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, Constance Baker Motley and a host of others.
Civil rights law is not the only career option for Blacks entering the legal profession. Opportunities abound, from corporate law to trusts and estates. Holding a Juris Doctor also opens a vast array of opportunities for those who have no desire to be corporate lawyers and work for a large law firm. Those seeking to “make a difference” can benefit from having a law degree when seeking positions as counsel for congressional committees, the White House and executive branch agencies or for comparable positions in state and local governments.(n1) Others may enter academia as professors or university counsel, practice public interest or criminal law, work as in-house counsel for corporations, become CEOs of their own companies and firms or, like Barak Obama, join the ranks of elected officials.
A law degree enabled me to join a women’s rights advocacy group, work as associate civil rights counsel for a congressional committee, serve as a lobbyist for a college association and head a federal civil rights agency during the Clinton Administration. In every instance, the opportunity to have an impact on federal law and policy was immense and none of those positions would have been as attainable without a law degree.
Practicing law can be financially rewarding as well. In a survey of Black Harvard Law School graduates the average salary of 1970s graduates in private practice who responded to the survey was $221,862.(n2) For 1990s graduates, the average salary was $116,015.
The decision to pursue a law degree should be reached after much thought, research and a clear vision about the “end game.” Anyone who has not seen the movie “The Paper Chase” should view it, if available. Even the movie, “Legally Blonde,” while a lighthearted comedy, can give you a glimpse into the law school experience.
The law school curriculum is designed to challenge your intellect and your resolve. You should be prepared for the intense competition from your peers as well as the scrutiny from your professors. The mental preparation is, therefore, as important as the intellectual preparation. Never forget, however, that you, too, are among the best and the brightest. Having confidence in yourself is half the battle.
The legal profession demands good writing, critical thinking and communications skills. In addition, if you have or would like to develop good negotiation and advocacy skills, the legal profession is a potentially good option.
Undergraduate majors in the arts and humanities, natural sciences, or social sciences can prepare you for law school. According to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), more vocationally-oriented programs may not be as helpful if you seek to attend law school. “What counts is the intensity and depth of your undergraduate program and your capacity to perform well at an academically rigorous level” notes the LSAC.(n3) As important, successful law students and lawyers are those who understand the importance of thorough preparation. Developing this habit before law school will immensely benefit you later.
- Research law schools by visiting their websites and, if possible, visiting their campuses and consulting with alumni. Also consult your prelaw advisor. This is an important source of information about the law school application and admissions process.
- Decide what kind of law school environment appeals to you. Law schools range between public and private, urban and rural, large in student body size and smaller. If diversity is a consideration, pay attention to efforts to recruit a diverse student body and faculty, university statements in support of diversity and other factors. Law schools have different academic strengths (e.g., some emphasize clinical programs) and some are more successful than others in graduating students who pass the bar examinations on the first attempt. Also consider where you would like to practice law. Nationally-recognized law schools provide more flexibility of movement in your early career. However, regionally known schools may suffice if you plan to remain in one location. Remember that the reputation of the law school does matter, especially as you seek employment in the first years after law school.
- Apply to more than one law school. In this highly competitive environment, the LSAC reports that the average law school applicant is applying to four or more schools. If you need financial assistance to submit multiple applications, seek a fee waiver from the law schools to which you are applying for admission. Remember the application deadlines of each of the schools. Also refer to LSAT/GPA profile grids to gauge your chances for admission.
- Take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). The LSAT is a standardized test required by 202 accredited law schools. It measures reading and verbal reasoning skills and is offered four times a year.(n4) Law schools may also require registration with the Law School Data Assembly Service. It is strongly recommended that you take the LSAT early during the academic year. It is also strongly urged that you take an LSAT preparation course in order to be competitive for this examination. You can also take sample tests and purchase previously administered tests in order to practice. The goal is to obtain as high a score as possible in order to be considered for admission to the law school of your choice. To register for the LSAT online, go to https://os.lsac.org/Release/logon/logon.aspx. You can also apply for a fee waiver for the LSAT. See http://www.lsac.org/LSAC.asp?url=lsac/download-forms-guidelines-checklists.asp to obtain information on fee waivers and to download forms. This page also provides a sample LSAT and other important information.
- Do not rely on affirmative action programs to give you an advantage. Remember that even with affirmative action, you are competing with other students of color who may have similar or better academic records than you.
- Law school preparation programs can provide important information about the law school admissions process, including financial aid, opportunities in the legal profession and issues of concern to minority students. The Law School Admission Council’s website has information about the dates and times of regional Law School Forum workshops. The LSAC also sponsors the Minorities Interested in Legal Education (MILE) program, which provides information regarding the law school application process.6 The Council on Legal Education Opportunity(n6) provides prelaw recruitment, counseling, placement assistance and training for minority and low income students seeking legal careers. CLEO’S program assists students to navigate the “Road to Law School” from the undergraduate freshman year through the bar examination after law school. CLEO has sponsored residential law school preparation programs for undergraduates and intensive prelaw programs for students who have been accepted to law school.
- You will need letters of recommendation and the law school application may include essays that you will have to complete.
- Apply for financial aid if needed. Law school tuitions at private colleges and universities can exceed $30,000 per year, according to the LSAC. Approximately 80 percent of law students receive loans to finance their education. In addition, grants and scholarships are available. Check with the schools to which you are applying to obtain information about the financial aid possibilities. Most schools participate in the Federal Family Education Loan Program.(n7) Private loans and work-study programs are also potential options. Remember that a professional school degree is an investment in your future. While the cost may appear significant, it will yield substantial dividends later.
- While an undergraduate, find opportunities to work for a legal services agency or law firm in an area of the law in which you have an interest. For example, if you are interested in practicing criminal law after graduation, seek an internship with a public defender service or a U.S. Attorney’s office. If your interest is civil rights law, seek a job with a public interest law organization. This experience will be helpful when you apply to law school.
- After you have celebrated the fact that you are heading for law school, take the time to prepare for the experience before you begin. Unless your parents or relatives are lawyers or judges and you understand the difference between a tort and a contract, it behooves you to become familiar with the first year curriculum of your law school. In most instances, you will be required to take courses in Torts, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure and Property. Research these areas of law. As important, become familiar with reading and analyzing cases, as most law schools will use the case study approach to teaching. Perusing law school texts to become familiar with the language of the law is highly advisable.
- Develop your note-taking skills and learn to outline or to “brief” a case. Several first year law school courses encompass the entire school year and you will need those notes in order to prepare for your exams.
- Join a study group. Don’t go it alone! By working with others you can share information and test each others’ knowledge of the law.
- Practice taking law school examinations. While you may be familiar with writing under strict time constraints, the challenges of applying the law to given factual situations in an intensified environment may be new to you. Work to improve your legal writing skills. This is very important.
- Learn to discipline yourself to study and to stay on top of the coursework. It will be much easier during exam time.(n8) If you survived in undergraduate school waiting until the last minute to study, you’re in for a rude awakening! There is absolutely too much information conveyed in law school classes to master the night before an exam.
- Remember that your grades may determine where you will work during the summers after law school and in your first and possibly subsequent jobs after graduation.
- Once you have mastered the pace and demands of law school during the first year, the second and third years will become easier to navigate. Join a law review in order to enhance your legal writing and editing skills and consider participating in clinical programs to provide a “real world” experience in the law. Consider joining the National Black Law Students Association as well.(n9) It can serve as an excellent source of support.
- Unless you are attending a Historically Black law school, i.e., Howard, North Carolina Central, Southern University Law Center, or Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Florida A&M School of Law (Orlando), Miles College School of Law(Birmingham), you will enter an environment in which issues of race and diversity may arise. Before enrolling, you may want to meet with Black students and alumni to discuss the environment and ways to succeed in it. Law schools are microcosms of the national culture and you may encounter racism and the perception of “white privilege” that goes with it. However, you should seek support from organizations such as the Black Law Students’ Associations and from informal groups in which you can study and encourage each other.
- Your summer jobs between law school years are important because they may lead to positions after law school. Choose carefully. Especially if you decide to begin your legal career working for a law firm, it helps if you have worked for and performed well for such a firm during the summer after your second year. A fortunate few are offered permanent positions in these firms at the end of the summer. In the fall of your third and final year of law school, your job search will begin in earnest.
After the graduation ceremonies and your family has returned home, you have one additional task: taking and passing the state bar examination. Once you have determined the state in which you will first practice law, you will want to enroll in a bar examination review course. Normally, the bar examination is scheduled several times a year including the summer, approximately six weeks after graduation. This examination encompasses the law of the state in question and usually, the law of each state is not taught in national and regional law schools. Thus, you must master the law of that state in six weeks. Devote as much time as possible to studying for the bar exam. Treat bar exam study as if it were a full-time job. Some students remain on campus and work in study groups with others taking the same state’s bar examination. If at all possible, do not begin a job until you have taken the bar exam. Your future may depend upon it!
The practice of law can be very rewarding and challenging, both personally and professionally. While African Americans remain a distinct minority in law firms and among partnerships in such firms, the legal profession is cognizant of the importance of diversity and has begun to address the issue.(n10) The American Bar Association’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession offers information and programs to encourage African Americans and other persons of color to succeed in law firms.(n11) And, for the first time in the history of the American Bar Association, the ABA has an African-American immediate past president, Dennis Archer, and current president, Robert Grey.
(n1) For a list of potential career options after law school, see http://www.apsu.edu/careers/majors/majors/law.pdf. See also http://www.forfutureblacklawstudents.com/, a website dedicated to preparing black students for law school.
(n2) “Harvard Law School, Report on the State of Black Alumni, 1869-2000,” 2002, at 39.
(n3) Law School Admission Council, “Getting Started,” http://www.lsac.org/LSAC.asp?url=lsac/getting-started.asp.”
(n8) See also, Council on Legal Education Opportunity’s “Twelve Strategies to Succeed in Law School,” printed in Winter/Spring 2004 CLEO Edge Magazine, available athttp://www.cleoscholars.com/all%5fabout%5fcleo/cleoedge.htm.
(n9) The National Black Law Students Association’s website may be found at http://www.nblsa.org/.
(n10) See USA Today, “Legal industry still lacking in minorities,” http://www.usatoday.com/money/2004-09-09-attorneys%5fx.htm, September 9, 2004. According to this story, “Minority representation in the legal field lags behind other influential professions. African-Americans and Hispanics make up 9.2% of attorneys, compared with 14.9% of accountants, 10.2% of professors and 10.2% of physicians, according to the [ABA] report and U.S. Census Bureau figures.”
(n11) See the ABAs Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession’s website at http://www.abanet.org/minorities/. See also the National Bar Association’s website athttp://www.nationalbar.org/welcome.shtml.
By Shirley J. Wilcher, Esq.
Shirley J. Wilcher is President and CEO of Wilcher Global LLC Diversity Consulting. She holds a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College, M.A. from the New School for Social Research and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. During the Clinton Administration, Wilcher served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Federal Contract Compliance, U.S. Department of Labor, where she enforced equal employment opportunity and affirmative action laws.
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