The Art of Law School Personal Statements, Part Three: Some Things Not to Do (or to Think Twice About Doing)

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been talking a little about writing a personal statement for law school.  In the second part of the series, there’s a list of a few “to do’s.”  The first part frames your law school personal statement in the context of your law school application as a whole.  That first post also notes that general personal statement do’s and don’t’s can only take you so far (not far enough).  There aren’t mechanical rules to apply that will result in a first-rate law school personal statement that can improve your admission and law school financial aid opportunities.  To get that kind of statement involves tireless editing, refining and rethinking.

As it happens, these are qualities and skills that good lawyers need, too, so you can and should use the process of constructing your personal statement as you use your LSAT prep and your application and law school targeting processes—as occasions to develop the abilities you’ll need to be a great lawyer.

There are a few general cautions to keep in mind when thinking about and writing a law school personal statement.  They aren’t set in concrete but if you plan on violating any of them, you should know exactly why you think it’s on balance beneficial, and you should pause before hitting the upload button.

1.  Don’t repeat your résumé (of other parts of your application).  It’s ok to have a little overlap between parts of your application, so long as it’s strategic and limited.  But there are few enough pieces of paper that law school admissions committees will read to decide on your application that you don’t want them to duplicate each other.  In addition, you want the admissions personnel reviewing your application to want to turn to the next document.  If you’ve broken the spell by repeating yourself unnecessarily, you’ve lost a valuable admissions ally.

One of the most common errors law school applicants make in their personal statement is to give a narrative version of their résumé.  But the committee already knows this information, so there’s no point in giving it to them again.  Those personal statements have also lost sight of the basic function of the personal statement, which is to tell a reviewer why you’re interesting or why she or he would want to meet you.

It’s unfortunate that some very expensive advisors on law school personal statements don’t advise their clients well on this.  Some free consultations that I provide are on the order of “second opinions.”  Sometimes the advice that people have received is good and I’m glad to tell people that.  Sometimes, however, advisors have recommended a personal statement topic that is simply stock for the person whose statement it will be.  If you’re a member of a minority, a foreign-born student, or from a small town (as I am), as examples, something else in your application will already say that—and law schools will expect you to take the easy road and expand on that status (they’ll be bored but they’ll expect it).  If you have something truly compelling to say related to that status, by all means say it (but keep in mind that that’s the road most similarly-situated people will take, so what you have to say should be unique).  If you don’t, it’s better to find something else to talk about.  That will make you seem more thoughtful and less satisfied with resting on the (real or imagined) status brace—and you don’t lose your status advantage, which is already contained elsewhere in your application.

2.  Don’t be too clever by half.  Applicants who don’t repeat their résumés often do this instead—they try to come up with something cute and clever as a “hook” that will knock over the reviewer in the first sentence or paragraph.  Now, you do want to tell your reader why she’s reading this statement (see part two).  But if you’re good enough to start a career as a writer, you should probably just do that and skip the law school thing.

Here’s a simple rule: anything you think is really clever is probably something that any experienced law school admissions person has seen—a lot.  You’re a novice at this; admissions offices are not, and hyper-cleverness runs a high risk of achieving an effect the exact opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish.  As I noted in part two of this series, one of the biggest to do’s in a law school personal statement is to be sincere.  Excessive cleverness makes you look like a trickster—and law schools are aware that they’ll have enough of those in their class without really trying.  They don’t need another.  Cleverness is more likely to injure your application than it is to help it.

As important, you need to avoid the “appearance” of cleverness.  Even if you’re being sincere, you should attend to another “do” from part two.  Keep your audience in mind; if you think that there’s a risk that your statement will be viewed as a trick, it probably will be.  This is one reason it’s so important to discuss your statement with people whose professionalism you trust, and to have as many of them read it as possible.

The next few “don’t’s” are variations on this theme.  They’re common tropes that law school personal statements use that are best avoided unless you’ve got something really compelling to say and you can make it sound like it’s really you rather than your following some cookie-cutter advice you’ve read or been given.

3.  Avoid “born lawyer” personal statements.  Some applicants think that the way to emphasize the skills they have is to talk about a teacher, parent or friend who has told the applicant that she or he is a born lawyer or great arguer.  There are a lot of problems with this type of statement.  First, it seldom highlights a trait that is particularly attractive to law schools—generally, this kind of statement makes the applicant sound like he or she is a “born lawyer” only in the sense of the media’s image of what lawyers do, not what they actually do, and therefore can make the applicant sound ill-informed or –prepared for law school and the law, or as if the only reason to go to law school is to learn how to score arguing points better.  Second, statements about how well you’ll do in law school should come from recommenders who know you now, not from (frequently) childhood mentors, parents or buddies.

4.  Avoid legal argument and analysis.  It probably should go without saying that you’re going to law school to learn about the law and legal argument.  Still, some applicants feel the need to show that they’re brilliant legal analysts, an effort not very impressive to law schools (and even less impressive to law professors, some of whom review applicant files).  There’s almost never a good reason to take this approach to a law school personal statement.

5.  Avoid revelatory moments.  This remains a common applicant trope.  You were standing on a beautiful vista in the Himalayas and suddenly it became clear that you needed to become a lawyer.  It’s hard to see why anyone thinks that the “road to Damascus” personal statement would ever be believable.  If you actually had such a revelation, well, you’re unique, and you should probably find another way to discuss that experience.  The light-bulb moment is a personal statement trope better avoided.

6.  Don’t worry so much about the law.  This isn’t really a “don’t” and depends very much on the individual law school receiving your application.  Some law schools do want to know, first and foremost, why you want to be a lawyer (or have whatever other profession you want law school to prepare you for).  Others want to know it, even if it’s not the main thing they want to know.  For still others, it’s not a significant concern.  Be sensitive to what each law school emphasizes, and adjust your personal statement accordingly.

7.  Don’t (usually) save the world.  Many applicants write about how concerned they are with the state of the world, how much they want to save a small (or large) part of it and how going to law school will help them do that.  If you have a lot of public interest credibility, there’s nothing wrong with the activist personal statement.  If you don’t, this type of personal statement isn’t usually very helpful, and risks making you look insincere or lacking in self-awareness.  Law schools know that most students who sing the praises of public interest-type law don’t end up practicing it.  A lot of law school scholarship programs focus on public interest law precisely in order to induce students to practice in underserved areas of the law.  Again, though, if you have the goods and you really do want your practice to be public interest-oriented, a personal statement focused around a mission of “helping people” is perfectly acceptable.

8.  Be careful about, “Oh, the troubles I’ve seen” personal statements.  If your personal statement is going to focus on problems you’ve overcome, or helped others overcome, make sure they’re real problems, or at seemed real to the third parties who had them.  Nothing says “pampered,” “reaching for something to say” and/or “has some growing up to do” more persuasively than a law school personal statement whose writer is overcoming a tribulation that a reader doesn’t think is really a difficult problem.  Victory over a significant obstacle can be persuasive—just make sure the problem was one that most people think is real.

9.  Be careful about explaining weaknesses.  There may be something you feel you need to explain about yourself in your application.  A personal statement can be a good place to do that (full disclosure: in my application, I knew that, like many second-career applicants, I had to answer the questions, “Why law school?” and “Why now?” and I chose my personal statement as the best place to do that, mostly because I had what I thought was a really good answer).

However, you should consider whether an addendum is a better place to address a given issue.  Here’s a guideline (and a corollary).  The guideline: you want your personal statement to be positive, saying something that will help admissions reviewers want you in their entering class rather than another person whose hard data is comparable.  That’s as opposed to giving law schools a reason not to not want you.  The corollary: if you can turn a question into a strength without hint of defensiveness in your law school personal statement, that’s good.  If you can’t, if the question is answered only with a surfeit of defensiveness or if the weakness remains a weakness by the time you’re done, then an addendum is probably a better place to address the issue.

Neither this list of don’t’s, nor the earlier list of do’s, is exhaustive.  Nor should they be applied mechanically.  Ultimately, your law school personal statement is about presenting, in combination with the balance of your application, a truthful and compelling portrait of you that helps law schools decide that you are the kind of person they want in their entering class.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on November 22, 2010.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: