P.S. Boot Camp: Don't Argue
OK, it's time to kick off my promised Personal Statement Boot Camp, which is designed to help you avoid some of the major mistakes I see in law school applications, and hopefully give you some ideas of how to make your P.S. better. I'm going to start with the theme I most dread reading every year, which I mentioned in one of my panel answers in a previous post: the "I Love to Argue" theme.
I can only guess that there is some book, or some group of misguided counselors, that has the mistaken impression that "I Love to Argue" is 1) an original theme for a personal statement and 2) something that is actually going to help your candidacy. If so, nothing can be more wrong on both fronts. I'd say roughly 300-500 people a year write some form of the "I Love to Argue" personal statement, which makes them 1) totally cliche and 2) seemingly clueless about why they are going to law school and/or too lazy to think about it deeply. (If you want to rat out the sources/people who are telling you to go this route, feel free to do so in the comments.)
In case you're one of the fortunate applicants who isn't familiar with this theme, the "I Love to Argue" personal statement goes something like this: first, the applicant starts off with some anecdote, usually from preschool, which amounts to having a temper tantrum over something really dumb. The adult in said anecdote (usually, but not always, the mother), instead of giving the applicant a good spank, is totally impressed by the temper tantrum and says, "You are going to be a great lawyer!" This forms the basis for the applicant's desire to apply to law school sixteen years later.
Sometimes, the applicant manages to redeem him- or herself by immediately leaping from this very bad opening into substantive reasons why s/he is interested in law school. More often, however, the applicant proceeds to follow up with more anecdotes illustrating how s/he loved to argue with various other people in different stages and ages of life apparently in the hope that, two pages later, I am going to proclaim, "This applicant is going to be a great lawyer!" That never happens.
Why is this theme so wrong? Let's first start with your mom. I'm sure she is a very nice person, but when it comes to law school admissions, please note that she has zero credibility. Don't mention any assessment she makes about your potential lawyerly ability in your P.S. Ever.
Moving on...on a conceptual level, the "I Love to Argue" P.S. seems to be based on the mistaken notion that it's actually good, or relevant, that you love to argue. It's not. Going on and on about how you love being confrontational and argumentative with each and every person in your life is a major red flag for the reader of your file. It's a character flaw. If you love to argue, and even admit that you do so over petty, irrelevant things, you suggest to the reader that you are reactive, a poor listener, unable to relate to different perspectives, and that you are generally an unpleasant person to be around (and to have in a class). The fact that you think it's an asset suggests that you lack self-awareness and are going to have problems getting along with others. In other words, you are going to be a social and administrative (if not academic) nightmare. Not so good.
More importantly, ILTA shows a shallow understanding of what being a lawyer is about. You see, arguing is not the hallmark of a good lawyer. It's true that many lawyers are skilled orators, but that doesn't mean that they argue. In fact, the best way to find yourself with a losing case streak and a dwindling client list is to constantly argue with other lawyers or worse, the judge hearing your case. Legal communities are insular and well-connected; most lawyers, even those who litigate, have good relationships with the lawyers they oppose in court every day. This means that they can pick up the phone to resolve an issue, rather than having heated arguments in court. And if you've ever watched an appellate case, you know that the only people who should be arguing (if you're doing your job right) are the hearing judges, who are going to pick apart your case and ask you pointed and potentially snarky questions. You politely answer them.
In fact, I'd er-, argue, that one of the most important jobs of a lawyer is not to argue at all. Take, for instance, the most important lawyer (and oralist) in the country, the Solicitor General of the United States. The S.G. represents the U.S. government before the Supreme Court in all cases where the United States is a party to the case. Uniquely, however, the S.G.'s role is more of an advisor to the Court (for example, the S.G. is always allowed to present an argument even when the government is an amicus curiae, rather than a party, to the case) -- hence she is known also as the "Tenth Justice." To this end, the S.G. has a mandate that most lawyers don't have, which is to "confess error" when the government's position is unjust and to advise the Court to overturn the lower court's decision. Clearly, this means that the S.G. is required to do more than just blindly crank out a zealous argument in favor of the government's original position; she has to think carefully about the position,its implications on the parties in the case and on policy generally, and sometimes, if warranted, concede that the other side has it right.
Which brings me to the big picture. Good lawyers don't argue, they construct good arguments. There's a difference. So, for you to show me that you'll be a good lawyer, you have to make a good argument for yourself through your personal statement. This is done not by asserting that you possess certain (unverifiable) skills, but by illustrating through experiences, influences, and ideas that you have the qualities that we want to see in future lawyers from Yale -- critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, substantive interests, the ability to see different points of view, to name a few. In fact, it doesn't matter if you hate public speaking, or even if you're bad at it. Making a legal oral argument, like any skill, is one you can learn...and in any event most lawyers never see the inside of a courtroom (or the light of day, for that matter). By contrast, we can't teach aspects of character, so getting those to shine through in your personal statement is much more important from an admissions perspective.
So, to sum up: avoid writing about how you love to argue, quoting your mom, or mentioning anything from preschool, and you'll be ahead of 10% of your peers from the get-go. That's it for this Boot Camp. More to come!