A Tip for Students Interested in Law School

A new study looks at the average LSAT scores of students with different undergraduate majors, sometimes grouping related fields together to gather a statistically significant sample. (Via.) And the best scores were attained by students studying:

  1. Physics/Math (160.0)
  2. Economics (157.4)
  3. Philosophy/Theology (157.4)
  4. International Relations (156.5)
  5. Engineering (156.2)

At the bottom of the list? Prelaw (148.3) and Criminal Justice (146.0).

I’m not one to crow about the superiority of physics with respect to other fields, so I found this more amusing than anything else. Still, that’s a pretty substantial gap between #1 and #2, if you compare to the differences between the lower scores. The obvious explanation: physics and math students get to be really good at taking tests like the LSAT. I don’t imagine this correlates very strongly with “being a good lawyer.” Then again, I don’t think that good scores on the physics GRE correlate very strongly with “being a good physicist,” over and above a certain useful aptitude at being quick-minded.

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57 Responses to A Tip for Students Interested in Law School

  1. Oded says:

    Nice timing on this post – tomorrow I’m (maybe) going to my university to switch my undergraduate major – from computer science, to, Physics+math…

    I’m a first year student (as in, just finished my first year) and I’ve been pondering switching to physics for half a year already. Tomorrow is truly my last day to decide if I plan to do it before next year. And I’m still not sure. 🙁

    I work full time, and computer science, while being very easy for me, was still quite hard to manage and took quite a lot of my time.. And I know physics will be that much harder, and I’m still not sure if it will interest me more.

    I’m thinking that if I ever go into academia, it will be for physics.. Since I don’t need my degree for my job (I like to brag – I’m 22 years old, and making $5700 a month as a programmer! 🙂 ), I think going to physics will leave more options open for me – if I ever decide I do want to go into academia…

    Sean, you are my hero.. I hope one day to be doing what you do

  2. Nameless says:

    LSAT is essentially an IQ test, just like SAT, similar to GRE general. It does not test any specific knowledge of law.

  3. Michael says:

    “The obvious explanation: physics and math students get to be really good at taking tests like the LSAT.”

    The other obvious explanation is that students who major in physics were already the smartest/best at taking tests in their class before they did the physics, which has a reputation for difficulty.

  4. curious says:

    what michael said. self-selection seems like a natural fit here.

  5. MartyM says:

    The Math GRE really kicked my butt. It was a long time ago, but I probably should have prepared more for it.

  6. DW says:

    For the love of god, please don’t push law school as an option. If you know anything about it these days, you know the industry is collapsing in on itself. Although patent work seems to be quite immune to the current troubles, that’s all you’re going to find. And even that, in my humble opinion, is a bubble waiting to pop (patent is not the productive, good-for-society area it used to be, once again in my opinion, having studied a bit of it). Here are a few links:

    http://lawshucks.com/layoff-tracker/
    http://www.abovethelaw.com/

    As of right now, the class of ’11 is facing almost a completely uninterested cadre of large lawfirms. And yes, those are the “big law” jobs, not the smaller firms, but can you guess who gets jobs in smaller firms when big law is shedding them? Add into that the fact that law has been headed towards a client base becoming historically more and more resistant to traditional rate setting and you have one unhappy industry.

    Bottom line: stick with the physics. You won’t regret it. And if you do, you’re just fooling yourself.

  7. Joe says:

    As a lawyer (at “Big Law”)who scored a 173 on the LSAT and is generally happy with his life-

    First, let me offer qualified support for DW. You should probably wait a year or two before going to law school unless you’ve got a job already lined up. The recession is driving people into school, and many firms are cutting back on hiring or deferring their incoming class for a year, so there will probably be a glut of talent for three years or so.

    BigLaw isn’t collapsing, its going through the same pains as everyone else. [Excluding the New York firms with large capital markets practices, who are truly in the toilet for the moment.] I’d imagine the economic crunch is hurting the availability of research, teaching and post-doc opportunities in physics as well – they just don’t (to my knowledge) have a collective griping apparatus like Abovethelaw.

    Second, there are a couple reasons that physics and math-heads do so well at the LSAT.

    (1) Self-Selection #1 – generally, you have to be pretty sharp to want to major in physics or math in the first place. Its much harder to BS your way through than, say, criminal justice.

    (2) Self-Selection #2 – if you’ve got a physics degree, you have other options – and law school is expensive. Presumably, only the physics students who will do particularly well on the test will take it (or who really suck at physics, but even then, they shouldn’t be too bad – see rule 1).

    (3) Sample Issue – As Volokh noted, pre-law and criminal justice are generally offered at lower tier schools and not higher tier ones. Similarly, most lower-tier schools are not going to have large physics departments.

    (4) Logic games. There is, if I recall correctly, some fairly convincing research that people with a math background do particularly well at the logic games section (“Eight people around a table, using a set of rules, who is sitting next to whom?”), which is generally the hardest part of the test.

    Does this correlate with better lawyering? Somewhat. The point of the LSAT is to see if you can (1) pick up data from reading efficiently, (2) identify logical flaws, and (3) anticipate the logical results of your actions. If you have that, its definitely a good start. It doesn’t mean that you’ll have the social or written advocacy skills needed.

  8. Nameless says:

    “Bottom line: stick with the physics. You won’t regret it. ”

    I have to disagree.

    Don’t get me wrong – physics is nice and all – but you will never get paid near as well as if you go to a top 14 law school. Even with the industry “collapsing on itself”, there are always jobs for good lawyers.

    Sticking with physics or math means that your lifetime salary cap is somewhere around 100k. Maybe 120-150 if you’re one of the lucky few who manage to become full professors. Computer science means similar salary caps unless you move into management. Many people who go into physics/math/CS are nerds whose capacity for being managers is rather limited.

    On the other hand, if you graduate from a good law school and actually manage to find a job, you’ll be making 200k by the time you’re 30. Full partners can sometimes make 400-500k.

    Money isn’t everything … but sad reality is that 100k does not cut it in this world any more. Especially in high-cost coastal areas like SF or LA, which is where all physics and CS jobs are, you can’t buy a house in an area with good schools on a single 100k income.

    It is a decision one has to make for himself or herself, taking one’s preferences and capabilities into account.

  9. Brian says:

    This is a list for nerds and the status-driven. The scores are tightly clustered and while possibly meanful on a population level, completely meaningless on the personal level. I’ve seen more misuse of statistics in academia (measuring itself) than nearly anywhere else, enough to make me very leery of any academic with a self-interest to find themselves in the 90% percentile of anything.

    If that’s not enough, how about those allegedly top scorers in Physics and Math? They are being nipped at by the Philosophy/Theology majors, and close enough that they are likely within the confidence bands of measurement. That’s quite a conjunction of polar opposite fields you’ve got going there.

  10. Jason says:

    Sean,

    Although these number are potentially interesting, they are not of much use unless we also know the standard deviation around the mean.

  11. Lab Lemming says:

    Where do the other sciences fall?

  12. King Cynic says:

    Re: Nameless. I don’t want to live in a universe in which $100K isn’t enough to live comfortably on.

    Fortunately that universe doesn’t exist.

  13. Nameless says:

    “I don’t want to live in a universe in which $100K isn’t enough to live comfortably on.

    Fortunately that universe doesn’t exist.”

    100K is enough to live comfortably on as long as you’re single.

    Try to support a stay-at-home wife and raise two kids on 100K in any major coastal city, and you’ll quickly realize how little that is.

    If you want to live in a good neighborhood with good public schools and a 15 minute commute to your job, you’re looking at 3000-4000/month in mortgage payments. Easily half of your monthly paycheck, spent just on housing. That’s taking recent home price declines into account.

    And good public schools are paramount because private schools are out of the question at 100K – good non-brainwashing (i.e. non-religious) private schools start at 1500/kid/month.

    To live “comfortably”, you probably want to put money into 401k, save for college for your kids, maybe go on vacation from time to time …

  14. DW says:

    Maybe my perspective is off because of the whole recession thing, but it feels almost like I was scammed by my law school. I graduated from a school ranked in the top half of tier 1 of US News. Granted it’s not top 14, but it’s no chopped liver, either. I’m pretty much in the middle of my graduating class. I’ve applied for a ridiculous number of jobs, many of which, to be perfectly honest, are below me. I’m not exaggerating. They just are below me. I’m not that haughty about it either; I’m talking about legal assistant jobs in the middle of Saskatchewan with some extremely obscure federal agency or temp positions with firms doing document review that apparently existed at some point but I see zero evidence of today. Nothing is biting, and no non-legal employer wants to hire a juris doctor, either because they see you as “overqualified” or as a potential troublemaker (yeah, apparently HR departments like their employees to be unaware of their “rights”, as if I would have any or know about such things anyways, lol). It’s not a fun place to be.

    I’m not an unattractive candidate as law students go. I’m pretty average. If I’m having trouble finding the most basic kind of employment, and if a number of my friends are also an indication, then there’s something deeply wrong with the way this country educates and employs its lawyers.

  15. Jason Dick says:

    An alternative explanation might be that the fields higher in the list are perceived as being more “smart” fields, and so students who do well are more drawn to them.

  16. Nameless says:

    DW, I feel your pain … but recessions come and go, and low earning potential due to being a physicist is forever.

  17. Pingback: A Tip for Students Interested in Law School | Cosmic Variance … | Law firm live today.

  18. Davis says:

    As someone who just left a career as a math professor to pursue a law degree (I started as a 1L today), I’d like to emphasize Joe’s point about the logic games on the LSAT. Having a PhD in math going into that exam almost felt like cheating — even the parts of the LSAT that were not the logic games were still heavily logical.

    DW,

    I’m not an unattractive candidate as law students go. I’m pretty average. If I’m having trouble finding the most basic kind of employment, and if a number of my friends are also an indication, then there’s something deeply wrong with the way this country educates and employs its lawyers.

    I know this doesn’t make you feel any better, but many people who pursue advanced degrees in math and science experience something similar, even when the economy is doing well. My experiences seeking employment in academia have led me to view that path as a pyramid scheme — we train far, far more people for academic positions than we can possibly employ.

  19. My Physics professor wife and I expected our son to go into Math or Physics or Engineering after he got his double B.S. in Math and Computer Science at age 18, having started full-time at university at 13 (thirteen). But he studied for the LSAT with Dr. George Hockney (PhD Physics, FermiLab, JPL) and did better than 99.5th percentile. He’s started his 3rd (final) year at USC Law School, now that he’s 20. He is usually one of the 3 top students in any course, far above the dweebs who started in Pre-Law of Criminal Justice. The top students in the advanced Patent Law course usually have PhD in biotechnology (or related) and/or run a start-up or lab.

    In my other life (besides Astronomy and Math Adjunct professor gigs) I was a part-time paralegal specializing in Appellate and Supreme Court briefs and writs. What we call “The Law” is a chaotic attractor in the space of all possible laws. I keep meaning to explain this in copiously footnoted dense theoretical prose of the Law Review variety. Math and Physics
    rarely, but sometimes, sneak into such theoretical legal publications, and sometimes indirectly affect the Supreme Court. Although, anecdotally, the current Supremes read Law Review articles FAR less often that was the case some decades ago.

    The Superior – Appeals – Supreme – Legislature hierarchy, and the precedent-based logic, make the laws at a given time evolve sensitively to initial conditions.

    The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are written in plain English. BUT…

    Isaac Asimov wrote about complicated issues of Science, Math, History, and Literature in Plain English — intentionally, and superbly. That doesn’t make the underlying Science, Math, History, and Literature simple.

    In American Law, there is a 3-level hierarchy of interpreting “plain English.”

    (1) If neither part disputes what the language means, then it is taken to mean what they agree it means, on the surface.

    (2) If the dispute what the language means (often at the Appellate level) then the analysis proceeds by related laws, by court precedents in that state, by precedents in other stares, and by Federal precedents.

    (3) If that still doesn’t decide things, then (usually at the State Supreme Court or US Supreme Court level) then one goes to INTENT of the framers of the language, as established by transcripts of legislative debates, analyses by other authorities, even memoranda of legislative aides and the like.

    I Am Not A Lawyer, and it is a Felony in my state to practice law without a license. So this is
    only my informed opinion as someone who has, over 15+ years, been a paralegal from time to time researching, writing, serving, and even arguing (in pro per) Superior Court, Appellate Court, and State Supreme Court motions and Writs.

    “The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are written in plain English.” Yet that does not make the meaning simple. English has changed in 220+ years. The culture has changed. What is “free speech” in the context of the web and Terahertz waves that allow law enforcement to literally look through walls, and satellite photos of people and cars on the ground, and so forth. Ben Franklin could not have predicted these. And the laws of other countries have changed on, for instance, death penalties, and the UN exists and the EU, and there is an influence of foreign laws on US laws — that influence itself debated.

    Hence even documents in Plain English can simultaneously be “written in code.” For geniuses such as Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, and John Jay, this is often important.

    Also, drafts change. For instance, earlier drafts read: “Life, Liberty, and Property.”

    Then the phrase “pursuit of happiness” was used to replace “property”, probably as a compromise between delegates representing states with differing percentages of property-owners and non-property-owners, or the like.

    Does anyone strongly agree or disagree?

    There is much debate as to what “pursuit of happiness” really means. But is seems clear to me that we can pursue happiness better if we are not diseased from pollutants. And I’m suffering from smoke inhalation, having been stuck for a week in a non-airconditioned hom in West Altadena, 3 blocks from the mandatory fire evactuation zone.

    A lot of these things were debated first in other venues.

    So no surprise that trained analytical thinkers do well in Law.

  20. J.J.E. says:

    @Nameless,

    You have constructed a fantasy land out of your own aspirations. If that keeps you on track for your goals or helps your rationalize your own decisions, that’s fine, but stop pretending that your view of how “adequate” $100k is represents anything remotely representative of reality.

    For example, I can name off the top of my head many places where $50k would be adequate to raise a family with a stay at home spouse, own a large house, and work as a tenure-track professor at a world class academic institution. They happen not to be in Manhattan or in the Bay area, but that little condition was imposed by you to make your little statement start to seem remotely plausible.

  21. Haelfix says:

    I believe this is also true for students taking the MCAT, where physics degrees tend to score better on average.

    There’s the obvious and controversial IQ specter somewhere in this, but I like to think its merely a matter of being versed and a little quicker in problem solving aptitude. Some of these tests are really like cross word puzzles. If you do them a lot, you get fast.

  22. J.J.E. says:

    @10. Jason

    I think the standard errors would be more illuminating if you are willing to talk about groups instead of individuals. For example, the smallest sample size is N = 484, which gives a sqrt(N) = 22 (in this case, coincidentally, this is exact). So, the standard error of the mean is at least 22 fold smaller than the standard deviation, and is often much smaller. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of those top groups were substantially different than groups only a little bit lower. When you sample so deeply, your ability to discriminate between groups is quite strong.

    If those standard deviations are on the order of 50 or less, I guess you can distinguish physicists from biologists. If it is much higher, then the list might not actually be that useful. But the linked pdf doesn’t really give much hope, as they state:

    “[…] because standard deviations by majors are not provided by the
    LSAC, no multiple comparisons of means can be made.”

    Here’s the full list:

    http://taxprof.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341c4eab53ef0120a592d8eb970c-350wi

  23. Nameless says:

    @ J.J.E.

    I have no doubt that you can live like a king on 100k in Boise or Knoxville. Problem is, there are no jobs paying 100k for people with physics or math degrees in either. If you want to work in Boise, and you have a physics degree, the best job you can expect is a high school teacher, paying, optimistically, 35-40k.

    Personally, I’d love to be a tenure-track professor at a world class academic institution in a remote place like that. That’s probably the best job in the world. But there are far fewer tenure track jobs in the United States than there are Ph.D.s. If I recall correctly, the ratio is 1 to 4 in physics. What happens to the other 3? They get industry jobs, which are in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, San Diego, Manhattan, Boston. Not in Boise. And then they either marry someone of their own trade (so that they can afford a decent place to live) and send their kids to full-time day care, or they resign themselves to commuting 30-60 minutes one way.

  24. J.J.E. says:

    How about Taipei, Melbourne, Porto, Toronto, Brisbane, rural central Texas (20-30 minute drive to UT), any national laboratory, NASA, UC Davis, the Research Triangle, Ithaca, Iowa City, quite a lot of liberal arts colleges, large state schools, etc.? (Ohio State, UIUC, ad nauseum).

    From my perspective (not that you necessarily believe this), a “requirement” for a high salary is a post hoc justification that is a mental defense against being branded as a sell-out. But then again, I grew up in a single parent home with an annual salary of less than $20k, so those that complain about $100k and sacrifice can cry me a river while listening to the world’s smallest violin. I thought that doing a PhD on a grad student stipend in a major U.S. city was luxury, and I ate well and lived well (albeit without supporting a family).

    I guess when you’re considering as insufficient a salary that already puts you in the upper percentiles of incomes in the world, it isn’t a big leap to think it necessary to live a lifestyle that puts you in the top 1.5% of even American incomes.

  25. Nameless says:

    Also, remember that 2 out of 3 of these “world class academic institutions” are in high-cost areas anyway, so, if you’re lucky enough to get a tenure track job at NYU or Stanford, you’ll have to live in a condo or commute 1-1.5 hours one way from Holmdel or Livermore, because all decent places closer to your job are occupied by doctors, lawyers, venture capitalists, you name it.

    And let’s not forget all people with B.S. and M.S. degrees, for whom industry is the only option, because you can’t get a tenure track job without a Ph.D. (and 2-3 years of post-doc experience at the slave wage), no matter how brilliant you are … If you’re smart enough to get into a top 14 law school on a merit scholarship, you can spend 3 years after B.S. to get a J.D. and then get a six figure job anywhere in the United States, including Boise and Knoxville; or you can spend 2 years get a M.S. in physics and get … what exactly? I’m not sure. Most likely, no discernible benefit for your career at all.