The "Party" Model
of Law School Admissions

One of the most common myths about law school admissions is that schools use the "merit" model. This myth contains two false assumptions:

  • That law schools are seeking only the most qualified applicants, and
  • That applicants with the highest grades and LSAT scores are the most qualified.
There are so many books attacking the "merit" model of admissions that I won't even waste my time naming them; anyone who truly wants to know that "merit" has little or nothing to do with the admissions world can find plenty to read about it.

While "merit" has virtually nothing to do with it (see my analysis under the "World Series" model), law schools have come to place a far greater emphasis on gpa and LSAT score than they used to. Within the narrow range left to them by competition for USNews rankings, however, the "Party" Model still plays a role. So given the understanding that this model is subjugated under the more important game of Winning the Rankings, I think it still plays a role, albeit a minor one, in the admission process. I irreverently call it the "party" model because it is more similar to the way you might invite people to a party than to the dry numerical calculation most people envision.

Imagine yourself throwing a large party; you'll invite 500 people.  Who do you want to invite?

Interesting people who will add some "life" to the party. That means people who come from very different backgrounds from most of your friends. You'd want that new guy in the neighborhood who moved here from Russia, the Nigerian woman in the apartment next door, the gay man who lived in San Francisco for ten years. You might go out of your way to include a mountain climber, an artist, an airplane pilot.  Maybe even someone who served time in prison (so long as you're sure they're reformed now!)

You'll invite influential people whose favor you'd like to curry, or whose animosity you can't afford to incur. Children of judges and legislators are on the "must" list, as are certain relatives who, after all, are family.

You would avoid inviting loudly argumentative people, people who abuse alcohol and make a nuisance of themselves. You wouldn't invite anyone who might steal the silverware. You might "forget" to invite people who complain too much, or who are known to constantly try to monopolize conversations. Inviting these people would increase the risk of a bad party.  Finally, you would invite enough other people -- regular, friendly types who can hold their own in a conversation -- to fill the guest list.

That's the "party" model of admissions! Law schools are looking for diversity in people's backgrounds and experiences, to enrich the quality of the discussion. They're looking to reward certain people whose favors they must return, and to avoid people who are too great a risk. The remainder of the seats go to "regular" qualified applicants.

The Mechanics of Deciding

As you're deciding who to invite to your party, you won't make an immediate decision about every person in your address book. There are some people you will definitely want to include or exclude, but sometimes you'll say, "Hmm...  I don't know; let me think about it,"  and set their names aside.  Later on, as you see how many people you've invited, how many have declined, and so forth, you'll return to your "maybe" stack and reconsider them.  

That's how admissions officers make decisions. They keep their eyes open for certain interesting types of people, make a note of the ones they find, then make large stacks of the others to compare against each other, to see who is the most interesting or qualified.  Periodically they check on how many seats they still have open, and review the stacks again.  

So where does "merit" come into play?

The biggest difference between your party and the law school's is that the admissions officer may be considering one factor that you aren't: the law school's reputation. Admissions officers know that people with the highest grades and LSAT score are more likely to succeed, or at least more likely to impress employers (who often judge a law school by the undergraduates it admits).  The admissions officer will give grades and LSAT scores extra weight in the "regular people" group.

In the other categories, grades and LSAT may play a much smaller part. We already know that the famous athlete, the mountain climber, and the artist are likely to succeed; the fact that they are interesting to us means they will be interesting to the average employer. And the admissions officer has good reason to believe the people from different socioeconomic backgrounds will succeed. The evidence is that they've made the transition from where they started out in life to where they are now -- college graduates qualified to attend law school. (A person who is not qualified will not be offered a seat, no matter how much diversity they offer.)

But won't the "diversity" people get poor grades?

It is true that not all diversity admits will get A's.  But neither will all "regular" admits. I'm sure you've all heard the old joke, "What do you call the person who was last in his class at Harvard?" "A Harvard grad." The admissions officer wants to make sure all the people she accepts will graduate. She may worry less about whether they will be first in their class, for the simple reason that everyone can't be first.

Bad and Good Advice

If your prelaw advisor suggests schools or discusses your chances of admission based on your gpa and LSAT without learning more about you, you're getting bad advice.  The advisor is assuming that you're a mainstream applicant, or may not know the benefits of various diversity factors.  

In a typical first conversation with a prospective client, I ask the following questions:

  • What is your ethnic heritage and how long have your ancestors been in this country?  If your family immigrated recently, is English your first language? What language do you speak at home?
  • What is your family's socioeconomic level?  Has this changed recently?
  • How old are you?  Did you come to college right after high school? If not, why not?  Have you attended more than one college?  If so, why?  How did you do at the previous college?  
  • Have you worked during college?  How many hours, and why?
  • What's your major?  Have you routinely taken a full course load?  Have your grades been fairly steady, or were there any bad semesters?  If so, why?  Has your gpa gone up or down over your college years?
  • Do you have any particular athletic, social or academic achievements?
  • Do you have any physical or learning disabilities that you've had to overcome to achieve your grades?  Have family problems presented an obstacle to your education?
  • Have you ever been arrested or charged with violating any honor code or behavior code?

Your prelaw advisor may not ask all of these questions.  I don't always remember to ask all of them in a first interview.  But if the advisor doesn't make an effort to learn your individual strengths and weaknesses beyond your gpa and LSAT, you're getting bad advice.  


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