Considerations for Prospective Law School Applicants

Considerations for Prospective Law School Applicants

More than a year before their desired enrollment date, many prospective law students begin preparing for the admissions process.  Various factors drive an applicant's initial decision to apply, including hopes for a steady job, the desire for respect, long-established dreams of becoming a lawyer, or even the lack of other options.  Once an applicant makes this initial decision to apply, the desire to remain consistent will influence the applicant's actions and increase the likelihood of future enrollment.  The consistency principle states that once a person makes a commitment, there is a natural tendency for that person to behave consistently.  Those who have already decided to apply to law school will therefore continue to act in ways that justify that decision.  After convincing themselves that they have made the right choice, applicants feel better and more confident about their plan.  Others may view consistency as a sign of intellectual strength and see inconsistency as an undesirable personality trait.  

Deciding to go to law school is a complex and difficult decision, but remaining consistent provides applicants with a convenient, efficient method for dealing with new information.  Working in concert with the confirmation bias, the consistency principle allows applicants to filter masses of information pertaining to their future and select those pieces that support and justify their career path.  Rather than reassessing their life decision on a regular basis, prospective law students can focus their time and energy on applying.  Because it is a preprogrammed method of responding, consistency can supply a safe hiding place from potentially troubling realizations.  Optimistic applicants may come across data that suggests that not all lawyers are able to pay off their debt.  However, these applicants' desire for consistency, in combination with the social proof principle and the effects of confirmation bias, overwhelms any inconsistent data.

The commitment and consistency principle operates most strongly when commitments are public, active, freely chosen, and effortful.  The law school experience strongly exhibits each of these factors.  First, it is public.  A prospective law student often makes a public commitment to go to law school simply by telling his friends and family that he is thinking of applying.  Whenever a person takes a stand that is visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person.  Even though such statements might seem trivial, they will increase the likelihood that the individual will follow through with the larger hurdles ahead, such as researching schools, taking the law school admissions test (LSAT), preparing applications, writing application essays, procuring recommendations, and ultimately enrolling in law school.  Prospective law students will likely communicate with friends and family throughout the application process, giving them status updates about how the process is coming along.  These discussions reinforce the applicant's initial commitment, driving the individual to continue down the path towards law school and maintain the appearance of consistency.  Once enrolled, a law student demonstrates public commitment every day by going to class.

Second, law school requires progressively active, freely-chosen steps.  Once the applicant takes an active step, such as signing up for the LSAT, the odds are even greater that the individual will complete the remaining actions leading to enrollment.  The initial commitment to consider going to law school begins a chain of actions that eventually leads the applicant to alter his or her self-image.  People often use their own behavior to decide what they are like, and they experience internal pressures to bring their self-image into line with their prior actions.  After signing up for the LSAT, for example, an individual will examine his action and reshape his self-image accordingly.  He now has evidence that he is a future lawyer - someone with the drive and dedication to complete the application process and enroll in law school.  After enrolling in law school, each act of studying, attending class, and completing exams represents active, freely-chosen steps that deepen commitment and further shape self-image.

Third, the law school experience demands exceptional effort.  According to psychologist Robert Cialdini, "the more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater is its ability to influence the attitudes of the person who made it."  The pressure to be consistent with our freely chosen, effortful commitment pushes us to rationalize the struggle we chose to endure by convincing ourselves that it was worth it.  Just as the military, fraternities, gangs, and tribes use hazing to cause initiates to esteem membership and strongly associate it with their self-images, the law school experience causes individuals to esteem their status as future attorneys to justify all they have chosen to endure.  Effortful investment begins with the LSAT, which often requires months of preparation and potentially expensive cram classes.  But the LSAT is nothing compared to the boot camp of 1L year, where professors haze students by purposely embarrassing them in class and assigning them inordinate amounts of reading.  Surviving this experience becomes a source of pride no less important to a law student's self-image than surviving a grueling initiation ritual is to a member of the military, fraternity, gang, or tribe.

The commitment and consistency principle, then, helps explain why Michael Wallerstein, the heavily indebted law school graduate documented in a recent New York Times  article still believes he made the right choice even though law school caused him extreme financial hardship.  In his own words: "It's a prestige thing.  I'm an attorney."  One can imagine similar statements from others who have linked their self-concept to memberships achieved through experiencing sacrifice and hazing: "It's a prestige thing.  I'm a Marine (or a Dekesman, or a Norteno)."  For Wallerstein, the enhanced self-identity achieved by enduring law school is sufficient to outweigh the destruction of his financial health.  Preventing the psychological distortions caused by the commitment and consistency principle is difficult since it gradually transforms of one's self-image.  One solution may be to question often whether the reason for taking the next step is to simply remain consistent with past commitments.  While this may be difficult, it may also help avoid path-dependent decisions.   

Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at

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