The difference between being rich and being poor is more than one of money; it is one of world view, as well. Wealthy people assume that opportunities exist; poor people assume that they don't. In large families, older children are expected to take on a large share of the household and child-rearing tasks -- unless the family can afford a nanny or a housekeeper.
Even middle-class families can vary from the expected norm. If the absence of one or both parents from the home placed an unusual amount of responsibility on you, make sure the law school knows this. It indicates a level of maturity and responsibility many students have not attained. It may also help explain lower grades for a semester or throughout college. The value of this extra maturity may be two or three index points. For admissions officers who evaluate grades and LSAT scores separately, family responsibility is seen as a justification for lower grades, but not lower LSAT scores.
"I'm Not Rich"
When I discuss socioeconomic factors with prospective clients, the most common comment is, "We weren't poor, but we weren't rich either."
I've got news for you, people: you're wrong! Here's what the U.S. Census Bureau says about income:
Half the people in the U.S. make less than $45,000 per family. If your family makes $105,000, your income is in the top 10% of all families in the U.S. If your family makes that much money and you think you're not rich, you're only looking at the people who make more money than your family.
The importance of socioeconomic variables is not defined exclusively by money. As the "socio" part of "socioeconomic" implies, class is an element in the equation. The child of a famous athlete may not take college grades very seriously; after all, Dad wasn't Phi Beta Kappa, and he's rich. Parents who are plumbers or policemen may not see the need for college at all; they make good money without having gone. Children in these families may see college itself as the goal, and not understand the need for good grades.
People's expectations are formed by their peers, as well as by their families. If the guys in your neighborhood all grew up to be blue-collar workers and the women to be secretaries or homemakers, you had relatively little stimulus to pursue a college or professional degree. This may not seem like a major factor in your development, but it's a lot harder to stay home and study when all your friends are going out to play; that's as true when you're twenty as it was when you were twelve.
Socioeconomic Plus Demographic
In certain parts of the country, jobs are so scarce and so limited in scope that virtually no opportunities exist. Residents of Appalachia, as well as folks from East Los Angeles, may find that the combination of poverty and lack of opportunity can be worth up to 6 index points -- so long as you make sure the admissions officer sees the background from which you came. Use your diversity statement to paint a picture of the place where you grew up, as well as of your family's circumstances. If the application doesn't allow for a diversity statement, make sure you include this information in your personal statement. You can also include it in answer to a question about lower grades.
Many law schools will consider economic disadvantage in evaluating a file. They'll ask how many hours you worked during college, your parents' occupations, etc. In addition, the Council on Legal Education Opportunities offers summer head start programs for folks whose background has so disadvantaged them that their gpa or LSAT score is a real risk. For information from me about CLEO and its summer institutes, click here. To go directly to the CLEO Summer Institute web site, click here.
Too Poor to Pay Tuition
An interesting item showed up in my in-box a while back. The question from a prelaw advisor was, "How do you feel about students who cannot get a transcript because they have not paid their tuition?" The answer was,
" A red flag goes up for us when we receive from LSDAS a report that says "transcript unavailable due to outstanding financial obligation." This person would not be able to get loans for law school, first of all, and it's awfully risky to admit someone who may be averse to paying their tuition!
Mostly, though, it's because the student needs to take care of his or her prior financial considerations before taking on additional debt. Just as we do not provide transcripts on behalf of a student who owes money to our University, we would not aid a student who wants to circumvent another school's attempts to receive payment for outstanding debts."
So if you have any unpaid transcripts out there, I advise you to get them taken care of before you apply. At least one law school is going to put your file on the back burner until all your bills are paid.
Too Poor to Apply to Law School
Economic disadvantage usually refers to your family's finances when you were growing up; however, many applicants are still in those circumstances. Law Services has made arrangements for severely impoverished applicants to get many services at no charge.
Fee waivers are available for the LSAT as well as for application fees. You can get a fee waiver from a law school, not from your undergraduate institution. If there is a law school locally, make an appointment with the admissions officer, bring them the letter in support of your request, and ask them for a waiver letter. If there is no local law school, you can get a fee waiver from Law Services. Fee waiver information is also available on-line.