The “right time” for law school will vary from person to person, based on many factors, from finances to undergrad experiences to family considerations. But here’s the good news: every year, first-year law students come from a mix of folks fresh out of undergrad and those who have been working for a few—or many—years.
“I have worked with as many students who push straight through their education as I have with those who took years or even decades off,” said Lisa Freudenheim, Director of the Academic Excellence Program at New England Law | Boston. “Both groups can be extremely successful if they are in law school for the right reasons and at the right time for themselves.”
According to the Law School Admissions Counsel (LSAC), about half of all law school applicants from 2011 to 2015 were between 22 and 24 years old. At New England Law, about one-third of applicants come straight from undergrad, said Director of Admissions Michelle L’Etoile.
“The decision of whether or not you should go to law school immediately after undergrad depends on you,” L’Etoile said. “Some people have known for a while that they want to attend law school and need to keep the academic momentum going. Others need a couple years to figure out if law school is the right decision for them or they just need some time off from academics.”
What path should you take? Keep reading to compare going to law school right after undergrad versus taking time off.
Going to law school right after undergrad
If you cannot wait to start your law career, going straight to law school after undergrad might be the right choice for you. Just remember: even though you apply at the end of your senior year of college, you need to be thinking about law school well before that.
The admissions process, from researching law schools to crafting standout applications to arriving on campus, takes time: in a perfect world, around two years. You need to fit all that planning and effort into your undergrad schedule, including lots of prep for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
But if you spend your undergraduate years laying the groundwork for law school, you’ll be much better positioned to apply your senior year. After all, your grades, LSAT score, and course rigor are typically the top factors law schools look at when evaluating your application. They impact your financial aid prospects too.
You can also strengthen your skills (not to mention your law school applications) by taking advantage of undergraduate classes and extracurricular activities that will prepare you for law school and your legal career. For example, you might take challenging writing classes that mimic the writing-heavy course work in law school. Or you could join a pre-law student group. Or you might seek out legal job shadowing opportunities (the alumni office at your college can be a great first step in connecting with lawyers who graduated from your school).
Beyond classes and extracurriculars, if you apply to law school while still in college, you’ll be close to campus resources like graduate advising offices, with people who can review your application and help you chart your career path. (This isn’t to say you can’t access these things after you graduate; you likely can. But the proximity can be helpful.) You can also cultivate relationships with professors who can write thoughtful law school recommendation letters.
Perhaps most importantly, you should pursue undergraduate internships and other hands-on experiences in the legal field. Otherwise, it can be hard to know if your expectations of the work measure up to reality. Law school is an enormous academic, professional, personal, and financial commitment. You want to make sure it is truly the right path for you!
Cayla Barbour, a member of the U.S. Navy JAG Corps and 2018 New England Law grad, opted to enroll right after earning her undergraduate degree from Providence College. She’s always loved international affairs, she said, and becoming a lawyer was in the back of her mind throughout college. So she applied to law school in the spring of her senior year. After that, everything quickly fell into place.
“I came up and toured [New England Law]. I saw the clinics and the opportunities. I saw a few international opportunities that I didn’t see everywhere else,” Barbour said. “It just felt right.”
Taking “time off” before law school
So, you’re excited about becoming a lawyer, but you want to take some time off between undergrad and law school first. Welcome to the (very big) club.
Most students wait at least one year before starting law school. In fact, Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, as just one example, has seen as much as 90 percent of their entering class take time off before enrolling!
Even a year or two of real world experience can make a difference, both in your law school readiness and in how an admissions committee will view your application. You don’t necessarily need to get a full-time job either. You could conduct research, volunteer, travel, or a combination of the three. And you might be able to get funding for these endeavors through a postgraduate fellowship or research grant. (Talk to the career services and/or financial aid offices at your undergraduate college or university to start exploring your options.)
“For students who take time off, it can be helpful to have a clear sense of the goals for this time,” Freudenheim said. “Some students need a break from the classroom and want to come to law school fresh and excited to learn. Others take time off to explore other fields, to save money, or to give themselves time to make sure that they really do want to go to law school.”
Waiting to attend law school potentially means more time to study for the LSAT too, especially if you want (or need) to retake it. Again, your LSAT score is critical to the competitiveness of your law school applications and financial aid prospects, so preparation is critical. You would need to find time to study and take practice tests, which can be complicated by the 9-to-5 work schedule—not to mention family responsibilities, if you have them.
Some folks may question their ability to head back to school after taking time off. Sure, it might take some extra self-control to give up your post-grad job, with its corresponding lifestyle and paycheck. But you might find that you’re eager to launch your legal career, and going back to school actually sounds fun!
That being said, law school is much different from undergrad; in many ways, it’s more akin to a traditional full-time job. So if you develop the habits of a full-time employee out in the real world—time management, professional communication skills, etc.—you may be better prepared as a law student. Real-world experience can also build your confidence, networking prowess, and interpersonal skills, which are all invaluable in launching a legal career.
But taking time off before law school isn’t just about gaining “practical” experiences. It can fall in that sweet spot where you’re still young and unencumbered enough to travel, explore professional and personal interests, and take risks. This can lead to invaluable personal growth too. And in law school, a little more maturity and perspective can go a long way.
“I think my real-world work experience and my age has been the biggest help in law school,” said Chelsea Carlton, a rising 3L student at New England Law | Boston, who worked in insurance for several years before heading to law school. “You’re coming in with a different level of maturity, you know your strengths and weaknesses…you know what hard work looks like.”
So…should you go to law school immediately after undergrad?
As you might’ve gathered from the advice above, the answer isn’t so simple. But, luckily, “either path is okay!” L’Etoile said. “The most important thing is to go to law school when it’s the best time for you to be fully engaged in three to four years of intensive study. It’s a significant commitment of time and money, and you want to be sure you’re in the best position to succeed.”
If you’re considering going straight from undergrad to law school but still not sure, try asking yourself the following questions:
- Have you gotten hands-on experience in law-related or even legal-adjacent work?
- Have you heard first-hand accounts of what law school and being a practicing lawyer are like?
- Have you researched legal specialties and the legal job market?
- Have you researched your law school options and the admissions process?
- Finally, gut-check time: Do you have a unwavering desire to become a lawyer?
If you answer “yes” to all these questions while still an undergrad, then going straight into law school after you graduate may be the right choice for you.
If you answer “no” to one or more of these questions, then you may want to give the decision more thought. Keep exploring the legal field, talking to folks who can give you new insights, and thinking about why you want to go to law school in the first place.
“Students should go to law school based on the desire for a legal education, rather than the ‘negatives’ like a fear of not being in school, not knowing what else to do, or being pressured by others,” Freudenheim said. “Law school is an incredible opportunity, but it also takes enormous commitment and conviction, and regardless of your timing, should be a reflective decision.”
When it comes to attending law school—or being a lawyer, for that matter—there is no such thing as too much preparation.