A Compelling Narrative

If you followed my original post, you should be well on your way to compiling the components for your application and getting them sent to your dream schools. With many of the top schools, such as Harvard, having deadlines in just over a month I thought I would put out a new post. This post deals with what candidates need to have to stand out: a compelling narrative.

A Compelling Narative

One prospective LL.M. student whom I provide admissions consulting to asked “how am I going to get into Harvard and Stanford”? He proceeded to proclaim that after looking at the class profile there were “judges”, “chief justices” and former “supreme court clerks” vying for the limited spaces. My response to him was simple: “you need a compelling narrative”.

Lets be clear: what that narrative is does not matter. Whether its saving orangutans, a weird fetish for aviation law, or some bizarre interest in the Second Amendment, the admissions committees at these top schools want to see a clear, committed, and compelling narrative that jumps out of your total application. What do I mean by this? You need to craft and position your materials in such a way that shows you have been committed to this interest/passion, how the LL.M. is going to further this passion and interest, and what you think the next few chapters of your life are going to look like.

Why is developing a compelling narrative difficult? Because, to be frank, very few people have a single, burning passion; in other words, must of us are bobbing around through life trying different things, seeing where the wind takes us, and just getting jobs that can pay the bills. However, you need to sell to the admissions committee that you have a single, burning passion and the only way to quell this fire is with an LL.M. from their school.

So, you’re asking: “LL.M. Sherpa, if I don’t have a compelling narrative, how do I create one?”. Obviously, you cannot create one from nothing, but you should take a deep look at what kind of narrative can you create from your résumé. Essentially, it will be about emphasizing some parts of your resume, and minimizing others, to try and draw out the narrative you are trying to sell. Thus, your resume, your essay (if applicable), your personal statement, and your recommendations should all tell a story.

Example

Thus, if your resume has all human rights work experience, you write your essay on an animal law topic, and your personal statement states your interest in criminal law, and you get your commercial law employers/professors to write your references, you are not likely to convince the LL.M. admissions committee that you want to be a top human rights lawyer. Instead, you are going to look like a person who has no clue what they are doing with their life (while most of us have no clue what we are doing with our life, the admissions committee does not need to know that!).

Instead, ideally: your resume would highlight (not embellish) your human rights work (and minimize other work that would detract from it, such as working for a tobacco or firearms company); you would write your personal statement on a fascinating human rights topic; your personal statement would explain your interest in human rights law; and, ideally, your recommendations would come from human rights professors or someone that supervised your doing human rights work.

Concluding Remarks

Obviously, a compelling narrative can be hard to create. There is a fine line between embellishing (for the avoidance of doubt, very unethical) and emphasizing certain parts of your resume to create a certain, compelling narrative. If you need help creating a compelling narrative or telling your unique story, get in touch: I offer competitive packages and can help your application stand out.


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LLM Application: Basics

This first post is aimed at providing a quick roadmap for those thinking about applying for a Masters of Law (LL.M., Legum Magister) in the United States.

As a general guide, applications close in November/December/January for the academic year starting in the following Northern Hemisphere Autumn/Fall (August/September).

Before I go any further, I would like to emphasise one thing: start as early as possible! While you may be able to scrape together a decent application at the last minute (i.e. October), if you truly want to ensure that you are giving it your best shot, I would say, as a general rule, get the ball rolling in April/May. This gives you six months to hone your perfect application and give you the best shot at getting into your dream law school.

There are many components to the LLM application process in the United States (both bureaucratic/administrative and those requiring introspection/analysis). Here is a breakdown of the major components.

1. LSAC (Law School Admissions Council)

LSAC is a central administrative body that administers most United States law schools’ application processes. While there are a few law schools that do not require you to submit an application via LSAC or use LSAC’s services (e.g. Harvard), most do.

Think of LSAC as a central repository for most of your important documents (transcripts, references, TOEFL scores). Instead having to send verified copies of documents to every law school, applicants can send the documents once to LSAC. LSAC then verifies the documents and sends them to the law school(s) when an applicant applies. These services are called the “Document Assembly Service” and the “International Transcript Authentication and Evaluation Service”. Both of these cost a total of $220 USD. While it is a pain to set up, it helps ensure there is no duplication of effort later down the track!

Depending on what calibre of schools you are applying for, LSAC also has a helpful tool called the “candidate referral service”. Basically, once you have entered biographical information, law schools will come looking for you based on your stated program of interest, years of legal employment, country of first law degree, and any stated preferences to study in certain geographic locations. However, and to be perfectly blunt, I was not interested in 99% of the schools that emailed me. Most are 3rd/4th tier Law Schools trying to fill remaining gaps in their classes. Thus, if you are going after the likes of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, NYU etc., the candidate referral service will be of little-to-no use to you.

a) Transcripts

If you sign up for LSAC’s services, you will be required to send your official academic records from every tertiary institution and law school you have attended. Importantly, any documents sent to LSAC need to be sent in a sealed envelope (so make sure to emphasise this to the administrative body that you are requesting your transcript from).

In addition, LSAC will want to know your class rank (e.g. 3rd out of a class of 302 students). If your law school does class rankings, a letter outlining your class rank will need to be sent to LSAC; if your law school does not do class rankings, LSAC requires a letter from your law school to that effect.

While LSAC advises you to send transcripts 4-6 weeks in advance of your first law school deadline, I would get this administrative hurdle over and done with in May/June (5-6 months in advance). This will give you ample opportunity to deal with any issues or queries from LSAC. For example, LSAC produces a report based on your academic record. When I first got my report, they misstated my class rank. While LSAC was happy to fix its mistake, it did take a few weeks. Make sure you leave enough time to sort out unforseen issues like this.

Based on your academic record (grades + class rank), in its report, LSAC will classify your academic standing as either “Superior”, “Above Average”, “Average” or “Below Average”. It is my understanding that you are classed as “superior” if you are in the top 5% of your class and you are classed as “above average” if you are in the top 20% of your class. I am unsure how LSAC delineates between those who are classified as “average” or “below average”. There is much debate online as to the significance of this classification by LSAC. However, it should give you a rough indication of your chances. While law schools will not likely follow these classifications blindly, they may use them to screen out candidates (for example, I would not be surprised if Yale, for example, automatically rejected those with “average” and “below average” classifications).

b) Recommendations

LSAC is also a central repository for your character references. All law schools require you to submit references.  Some law schools may limit you to two references (Columbia, for example) while others may allow up to five. I would (and did) have three referees.

Who you should get as a referee will depend on a number of factors, including: what law school you are applying for; how many years you have been out of law school; and your stated goals.

While this topic will be heavily expanded on in future posts, as a general guide, I would get two academic referees and one non-academic referee (preferably a past boss in a legal context). This is due to the fact that most US law schools want to know how you will perform in their rigorous academic environment; the people most able to provide the admissions board with an insight into your academic capability will be those who have taught or supervised you.

2. TOEFL/IELTS Scores

Applicants for whom English is not their native language will need to take a standardized test such as the TOEFL or IELTS. If you are choosing between TOEFL and the IELTS, do the TOEFL. While all law schools take the TOEFL, not all schools take the IELTS (e.g. Harvard).

As a general guide, for the TOEFL internet-based test, you should be aiming to get 100+, with at least 25 in each of the four subsections (this is Harvard’s minimum score – however, this is not an absolute. I know someone who was given a conditional admission to Harvard on the basis that they were able to improve their TOEFL score and get 100+).

3. Resume/Curriculum Vitae

As a part of the application process, you will need to provide a resume/curriculum vitae. This is a summary of your most important accomplishments and should compliment and match the narrative that you will be crafting  in your personal statement (this concept of a “narrative” will be discussed in a subsequent post).

Unless you have a very extensive career coloured with dozens of publications, I would limit your resume/curriculum vitae to one page.  While it is common in other countries for resumes/curriculum vitae to be long and thorough, law schools in the US prefer brevity and clarity. This is evidenced by the fact that, for example, Harvard law school suggests that their own graduates use a specific one-page format. This format can be accessed here. Use it.

4. Personal Statements/Essays

a) Personal Statements

This is the most demanding part of the application process. The personal statement requires you, in essence, to explain where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and why the next logical step in your career/life path is an LLM at the particular institution you are applying to. It is worth emphasising that there is no template for a personal statement; do not be tricked by companies or students online trying to tell you otherwise. This is because it is, well, personal. It is your story (“narrative”) and should be told in your voice.

Some exemplars of personal statements available here (a word of warning: these statements are written by prospective JD students who do not have a background in the law – as an LLM. student with prior legal study and possible work experience, your personal statement should be more grounded in your legal experiences rather than some personal anecdote/experience).

It goes without saying that the English/grammar in your personal statement should be impeccable. If possible, get an English  speaker to read it and critique your language and sentence structures. The first draft will not be perfect. In fact, it may take a couple of dozen revisions/versions before you are fully satisfied with it.

b) Essays

In addition to a personal statements, some universities require you to respond to essay prompts. Some of these essays ask you to describe a legal issue facing your country, region or the world, and to provide a legal framework/solution to this issue.

These types of essays let you demonstrate the strength of your legal research and writing skills. Ideally, the legal issue that you identify would fit with your “narrative” (for example, if you’re proclaiming to be a human rights activist, discussing the intricacies of commercial contracts may not gel with the narrative you are trying to sell to the admissions committee).

Summary

There are numerous components to the LLM application process. However, applying for an LLM is not an insurmountable mountain. With proper planning and preparation, you can give yourself the best shot at getting into some of the world’s best law schools.

This is the first of many posts. Feel free to get in touch with comments or suggestions.

Regards,

LLMSherpa


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