Law School Scholarship: Playing the Odds

July 14, 2011
Jeff Thomas

Yup, I’m the one: the one guy under thirty keeping dying sports alive. Two of my favorites? Boxing and horse racing. So what a terrific Saturday in May it was with both the Pacquiao fight and The Kentucky Derby on the same day! (In fact, my fascination for the so-called “sport of kings” led me to an internship with the New York State Racing & Wagering Board in law school.) The Derby is a grand tradition. It’s always fun to sit back and watch beautiful women in ridiculous hats sip mint juleps while you try to win a buck or two picking the ponies. If you watched this Saturday’s race – or were lucky enough to be one of the record 164,858 fans that were there – you know it was tough to pick the winner. The race featured a wide open field after the heavy-favorite “Uncle Mo” scratched the day before. The most popular betting strategies? Favorite numbers, jockeys or names. C’mon. Who wouldn’t bet on 2008 Derby entrant “Onoitsmymothernlaw”? But really, successful handicappers don’t get “tips”; they have written troves about the amount of research, studying and preparation that goes into successfully predicting who, like “Animal Kingdom”, ends up in the elusive Winner’s Circle.
This all leads me directly to the question I’m sure you’re now asking yourself. What in the world does all this have to do with law school? Well I’ll tell you. A lot.

Early this year, the New York Times once again garnered a lot of attention in the legal education community with its article “Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Schools Win ,” regarding the disappearing act of merit-based scholarships for may 2L students. The article surprised just about everyone – except law school students themselves. As you may know, the reporter, David Segal, contends that some law schools game the law school rankings by luring in applicants who have stellar LSAT scores and high GPAs with generous financial aid packages (the rankings are very much driven by these two factors for students in the class), all the while knowing that it will be difficult for them to achieve the level of academic success demanded of them to keep the scholarships. David indicts law schools on this point. Me? I indict prospective law students.

Now, I’m not necessarily indicting you. I’m indicting the thousands of 1L students who will make their law school “bet” on their favorite name or number – either the school’s ranking or germane to this article, the significance of a scholarship award without a full understanding of exactly what it takes to keep it. That’s not you. You – eager applicant – just by reading this article are doing your homework. Let me give you a “tip”: the system’s not that tough to crack.

Here’s the scoop: Virtually all law schools, with rare exception, use a standard bell curve in their 1L grading system. A median GPA is set by the school ahead of time, and it’s set at different places. Some schools set it as low as 2.0, some as high 3.4. (The average median, or mean median if you will, is a 2.95 on a 4.0 scale – slightly below a B.) To be painstakingly obvious, 50% of students will be above the bell of the curve, 50% below. But here’s a key, key point that often falls in the “yeah, yeah, yeah. I know that” category: by virtue of gaining acceptance to your law school, every one of your class mates are equally as qualified as you to be there. You – and they – will be entering into a new realm of academia, with new challenges, new assignments, new exams and new requisite study techniques. At the end of the semester, 50% of all 1L students will be at or below the bell in the curve. If your school has a 1L grading curve with a median set at a 2.5, and you required a 3.0 to maintain your scholarship, understand your “odds” are going to be steep. Law schools aren’t trying to be tricky. They just know they’ll be able to offer a lot more scholarship awards and only need to pay out X percent of them on a continual basis through years two and three.

(And to further rebuff conspiracy theorists, remember that law professors themselves cannot be a part of any alleged ponzi scheme to take students’ scholarships away because not only are grades per class almost universally based upon one exam taken at the end of the semester, but grading is blind – students are given an anonymous number so professors don’t even know who you are when grading.)

One question we get on a regular basis from the tens of thousands of students we help every year is this:”I’ve been accepted to a top ranked, more expensive school who offered me just a little money and also a lower ranked school who’s offering me a full ride. What do I do?” It’s always about you personal goals. There are many great reasons to go to law school – it’s a noble profession and you can do many things with it – but for many it’s not an easy decision because of the investment of time and money. We cannot imagine a worse situation for a 1L student to be in at the end of the academic year than finding out that the money you counted on to help you through law school won’t be there after all. This may cause a student to drop out, plus be thens of thousands of dollars in debt toward a degree he or she will never have because they cannot afford it. Talk about disillusioned.

What we say is that while law schools must be responsible when offering hefty merit-based scholarships to applicants (the American Bar Association is actually discussing new rules right now,) responsibility is a two-way street. Aspiring law school students themselves have to ask the tough questions – a skill they will need as successful lawyers anyway.

  • Is this scholarship guaranteed every year?
  • If not, what does it depend on?
  • What is the median GPA for students in your 1L class?
  • What percentage of your students maintain their scholarships for 2L and 3L?

And let me tell you – schools are not looking to play a shell game. They’ll gladly give you the answers – if you ask the right questions. Handicap your law school list on a number of metrics – this being one of them – and you’ll be sure to end up in the “Winner’s Circle” at the end of your 1L year.

Jeff Thomas

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