Law School "Gap Years," Work Experience, & Admissions Strategy

For several years now, the focus of law school admissions offices has been trending more and more toward employability. There are many reasons for this (among them applicants' increasing focus on employment outcomes in their law school selection process, legal employers’ increasing focus on work experience, and the U.S. News rankings increasing the weight of the employment metric). Quite reasonably, this has filtered down to applicants as well, who are now more than ever considering the benefits of attaining work experience prior to law school for strategic purposes. If you're a college student wondering what the right path is for you, read on.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with being a “K-JD” (as applicants online have dubbed it, meaning that you are going straight from kindergarten through your Juris Doctor without taking a break from school), but the reality of this path is that it is a strategic disadvantage relative to applicants with meaningful work experience. We would not have said this so categorically a decade ago, but law school admissions, like all things, changes over time. This is not to say that college seniors don't achieve great outcomes in admissions every single year—after all, every law school admits K-JDs—but by and large, on a broad scale in admissions, having substantial work experience is more strategically advantageous than not having substantial work experience. If you are looking to give your application every possible advantage, this is one of them.

How much of a disadvantage is it to apply straight from college? How much work experience do you need to get a boost? These are questions we receive frequently, from our clients and from applicants online, and the answers (like most things in law school admissions, apart from numbers) are highly individualized and rarely black-and-white. This is, in some ways, an oversimplification, but you can think of work experience in law school admissions as a spectrum—on one end is a college student who has never had the responsibility of a job or an internship (though note that even this type of applicant may be admitted to some great schools depending on the rest of their application), and on the other end is a seasoned professional who has risen through the ranks and proven themselves as truly exceptional in their field. Within that spectrum are college students with part-time work experience, college students with full-time work experience, recent graduates taking a "gap year" (more on that in a moment), and applicants with a few years of work experience.

So why are we using the term "gap year" in quotes? The terminology used to be more apt, but over time, it has grown to be less and less descriptive of the actual benefit of taking time off after college. If you think about the time between college and law school as just a short-term gap, that may lead you to do things like opting not to work to instead focus on the LSAT and your applications, or spending the whole time backpacking in Europe, or taking the year to work on personal projects only. There's nothing inherently wrong with these pursuits, but they're not going to get you a strategic edge over just applying straight from college. The key—talking purely admissions strategy here—is to get meaningful work experience. Additionally, since post-college jobs are ideally meaningful work experiences, many admissions officers dislike the term “gap year,” because it frames the experience as a “filler” rather than a critical learning opportunity.

What counts as meaningful? Certainly experience in the legal field (e.g. being a paralegal for a firm, working for a judge, or serving as a legal assistant for a public defender, to name a few positions) will give you a sense of what it is like to work in that field, and it may demonstrate your genuine interest in a legal career. Though it most likely won't be notably differentiating in the admissions process, the other benefits can be strong. Law schools highly value other types of work experience as well, however, and if you have another area of interest, that could be a better choice for you. Ask yourself, will the job that you are considering challenge you, allow you to grow and learn, and help you develop or enhance skills or qualities that are transferable or critical for law? Jobs that involve, research, writing, speaking, logical analysis, or client service may be strong choices, even if they are not directly connected to legal work.

The list of jobs that can make a meaningful positive impact on law school applications is virtually endless—working as an analyst or consultant, doing Teach for America, joining the Peace Corps, and working for a political campaign are all good choices for the right person, but many less common professions can be helpful, too. We have seen applicants overperform their numerical credentials with work experience in fields like nonprofit work, teaching English in a foreign country, performing arts, and more. Even jobs that one might think wouldn't be helpful for applying to law school—retail, food service, blue-collar labor, stunt work on movie sets—can be positive factors if you frame them smartly in your application.

Here are a few more advantages of work experience prior to law school:

  • There will be more options for your personal statement topic, and likely it will come across as more focused and substantive.
  • You may be able to better clarify and communicate why you want to go to law school.
  • You’ll be able to save some money for law school.
  • Your employer may be able to write you a letter of recommendation.
  • Your experience will give you a foundation for seeing the practical application of the theories you are discussing in class; you will get more out of your legal education, and your contribution to the class may also be more enriching for your peers.
  • Your work experience will likely be a benefit in your legal job search process.

Even if you believe there is nothing else on the planet that interests you more than attending law school, you owe it to yourself to make an informed decision on what law schools and legal employers are looking for in the current application atmosphere. But in the end, though it might sound cliché, you should do what works for you. One component that is often missing from these conversations is that law school admissions is not a static industry—while we strongly think that an applicant with significant work experience is better positioned for admissions than one without during the same cycle, an individual applicant might work for a few years and then find themselves in an admissions climate that is substantially more competitive, or one where law schools seem to be giving out less scholarship money than they did in the past, or any number of other circumstances. Ultimately, if you truly feel like it's the best choice for you to go straight from college to law school, give it a shot—worst case scenario, you can always reapply one or more cycles down the line (and in our 250+ years of collective experience working in law school admissions offices and making decisions on applications, reapplicants are not at any inherent strategic disadvantage).

One parting note: If you wait to attend law school in order to gain meaningful professional experience, you aren’t "putting off your dreams," as we have heard many times—you are simply expanding and enhancing them (and maybe even giving them a better chance of coming true).