Finding Balance in Law School Admissions and Beyond

Preface

The legal profession, law school, and law school admissions can be very tough on people. The following comes from a 2014 joint study conducted by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation:

33 percent drink problematically.
28 percent suffer from depression.
19 percent exhibit symptoms of anxiety.

Those are just numbers, percentages to be exact, to many. But there have been a number of recent articles in the media that put a poignant and troubled face on these issues (for example, a recent New York Times article, "The Lawyer, the Addict" is a tough read).

It's always the legal profession, though, that gets all of the attention. Not law schools or the threads on admission; about how stressful and painful it can be for some. Or how obsessive it can become for others. So we thought we would share this, from someone who went through the process a few years ago who was candid enough to share with us.

We aren't posting this to cause undo concern. If you went out drinking after the LSAT — well, probably so did most admissions officers. Do get involved in the admissions process, of course. Just introspect from time to time to make sure you aren't getting too consumed by it. And please, please talk to others, including professionals, if you are.

-Mike Spivey


I have always had an obsessive personality. One of mom’s favorite stories about my early toddlerhood is that, for a period of several weeks at the age of two, I became utterly and completely obsessed with blueberries. That is, I refused to eat anything that was not topped with, mixed into, or at the very least accompanied by blueberries. I didn’t want spaghetti unless it had blueberries. I carried them around with me in a fanny pack.

In middle school, I became deeply, embarrassingly consumed with the Twilight series. I didn’t just read the books; no, I started my own web forum dedicated to them. I counted down the days until the next premiere. I dressed up as a vampire. I bought red contact lenses.

Contrary to… well, the above, I’m not telling you all of this just to embarrass myself. I’m telling you in order to explain that it wasn’t exactly uncharacteristic for me that I became, to a very real degree, completely, utterly obsessed with the law school admissions process.

Shortly after deciding to pursue a legal career, I became consumed with doing as well as I could throughout the process of applying to law schools. I quickly began spending countless hours on top-law-schools.com and soon became utterly convinced by the idea that, in law school admissions, numbers are everything. I learned that, while my college counted A+ grades as 4.0, the Law School Admissions Council counted them as 4.33. Armed with that knowledge, I started asking my professors for those plusses. Yeah, I was that kid. It got me a 3.9.

I also decided I was going to “game” the LSAT. I pored over books and methods (PowerScore worked for me), went to my test center to take practice exams in a classroom there at the correct time of day, and recorded myself announcing the five-minute warning. I got a 176.

With my scores, it was statistically incredibly likely that I would be admitted to Harvard (in the upper 90% range based on online data). In fact, there are very, very few rejections in all of that data from the past several years. I am one of those rejections. Turns out, that’s the result you get when you let your life be consumed with law school admissions to the exclusion of having a personality, passions, and interests outside of that singular enterprise. Law schools see right through you.

When I got my rejection from Harvard, I was crushed. For the preceding year and a half, I had hinged nearly my entire identity on the process of law school admissions, and the rejection became emblematic of not just my failure to secure admission to one law school, but my failure as a human being. I cried.

Fittingly, I ended up at the only law school for which my application demonstrated anything but a person who had spent all of her time striving for a great GPA and LSAT score. I had grown up nearby this top 10 law school and genuinely loved the school and surrounding community. My application reflected that, and between that and my numbers, I ended up with a full scholarship, an opportunity for which I was incredibly thankful.

I loved my law school, but my obsession with law school admissions hurt me there, too. Finally I had made it to law school, and suddenly I was surrounded by people who had done so many things with their lives other than focusing on admissions. I met peers who had worked in government and finance, who had toured the country as musicians, dedicated years to political campaigns, worked in medical research. And there I was, with not a single passion in the past two years of my life but “playing the law school admissions game.” Suddenly I felt very, very small.

I did not handle it well. Eventually, my mental and physical health declined steeply, and I ended up having to take a medical leave of absence from school during my second semester. Over the course of the next year, I would spend nearly four months in residential eating disorder treatment, an obsession gone wrong.

The problem of mental health and substance abuse in law school and the legal field is too deep and difficult a subject to go into here with the respect and care that the topic deserves, but let it be clear that though my situation may have been on the more extreme side, mental illness is not uncommon in the world of lawyers, and it shouldn’t need to be swept under the rug. The stigma does nothing but discourage us from reaching out for help, and that step, ultimately, is vital. I was eventually able to get the help I needed, but many law students and lawyers are not.

Despite everything, I don’t regret the path I’ve had to take. Eating disorder treatment, in fact, taught me recovery in a number of ways, and I ended up cultivating my sense of self in a far more meaningful way than I ever had prior to law school. Among many other self-improvement projects, I started writing again, made real friends, and began participating in community theatre (funnily enough, I ended up playing Elle Woods in Legally Blonde the Musical at a small local theatre — I made it to Harvard Law at last). Today, I am a far more well-rounded person than I have ever been before. I don’t obsess about law school admissions, or blueberries, or a number on a scale. I have found, at last, some measure of balance. I think law school admissions offices may have liked that.

If there’s a lesson that I would take from my experience, it’s this: don’t choose things in life just because you think they’ll look good to admissions offices. Do what you love; follow your passions. Find some balance. By and large, law schools will understand and value that, and more importantly, you’ll be starting your legal career better equipped to handle its inevitable stresses.