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Competitors and confidants

BY LISA HAIDOSTIAN
Daily Staff Writer
Published January 6, 2009

In the “Law School Acceptances, Denials, and Waitlists” section of www.top-law-schools.com’s expansive message board, a poster with the screen name jelifysh wrote in the University of Michigan thread: “gahh the suspense is killing me.”

Poster EmmyD, a Michigan Law student, replied: “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I'd be very surprised if you got in.”

It was Christmas Eve. Some posters jumped in to defend jelifysh (“let us dreamers dream!”) while others stood by EmmyD (“What’s wrong with honesty?”) Jelifysh responded: “Stranger things have happened, and I'm sure that a good essay could go a long way. Merry Christmas to you.”

Sure, there are fights and bickering. But for the most part, law school message boards are filled with love and support between anonymous posters either vying for the same few spots at prestigious law schools or already attending them.

Although law school is often deemed one of the most academic, stiff and competitive post-graduate programs, its online community presence out does that of other post-graduate degrees. The Top Law Schools forum has more than 16,000 members and the Law School Discussions website, which students say has lost considerable ground in recent years to Top Law Schools, boasts more than 37,000. Both boards have more than a million posts.

University students are flocking to these prolific law school message boards to seek and give LSAT and application advice and to simply revel in a community of (sometimes) like-minded individuals.

Ian Spain, a second year University law student, said the message boards are practically ubiquitous among young law students.

“Pretty much everyone has either browsed or posted at one point or another — but nobody really likes to admit it,” he said of his law school peers.

Spain said law school message boards might be more popular than business school boards, for example, because applicants are generally younger and more used to online social networking.

The collegial and helpful environment fostered on the boards is counterintuitive in such a fiercely competitive field. Students applying to the same law schools edit each other’s personal statements. LSAT takers share study tips. Law students spend hours responding to questions about their schools.

It isn’t all serious, though. The “off-topic” sections at both Top Law Schools and Law School Discussions are among the most popular. At Law School Discussions, one user starts a thread asking whether people prefer Whoppers or Big Macs. Another says “Finish this sentence: ‘I could not be friends with a person who thought...’" Message board regulars even meet up for bar nights.

But the bread and butter of the sites is geared toward admissions. On Top Law Schools, categories include the “LSAT Prep and Discussion Forum,” “Law School Admissions Forum” and “Choosing A Law School.”

The staggering popularity of the sites is correlated with how “convoluted” the law admissions process is, said University alum Cassandra Talley, a Top Law Schools poster who is applying to law schools right now.

She said that when she joined the message board before she took the LSAT, she “couldn’t believe what a resource (the website) was.”
“I think 90 percent of it is amazing,” she said, qualifying that the opinions offered must be taken with a grain of salt. “People are really supportive and they give really good information.”

Talley said that beyond gleaning basic information from users, one of the biggest benefits of the message board is taking comfort in others who are going through the same process. Right now, many law schools are in the process of getting back to applicants and the anxiety can be overwhelming for those still waiting.

“When you get your first rejection letter, it’s really nice to be able to go online and say ‘I’m not the only one’ — there’s like fifteen posts of people who got rejected the same day,” she said.

Kristen Flory, Michigan State University College of Law’s director of marketing and communications, said she regularly lurks around the message boards to get an idea of the hot topics in each admissions cycle.

“I can see that when students do post comments where they’re a bit nervous or afraid about their chances, it’s more reassuring for them to hear from another student who’s in the same boat,” she said.

Flory said the popularity of the boards and lack of discernable competition wasn’t surprising.

“This generation of law school students has grown up with this type of environment available to them, so they’re used to assuming that position where they can go on and offer advice,” she said.

While she said she has come across “a lot of misinformation” on the message boards, she thinks they are useful tools, so long as students use common sense when garnering advice.

“I think it’s kind of cool, actually,” she said.

Although the message boards seem to be geared toward law school applicants, many posters stick around far past matriculation.

“Once you’ve been through it, you want to help each other,” said Kerry Monroe, who is in her second year at the University’s law school and frequently posts on the boards.

She said a main reason why she takes time out of her studies to post is to make sure students have accurate information about Michigan Law School and to encourage them to apply.

“In law school, continuation of a really strong student body is good for everybody involved,” Monroe said, who graduated from the University of Georgia in 1998. “It’s the same reason why, at school, I volunteered to be a tour guide: I want to put a positive face out there for the student body.”

Talley said a downside was that many posters have a “very narrow view” of the qualifications one must have to get into certain schools. True to its name, Top Law Schools houses many users who poke fun of scores below the 98th percentile or schools outside the top twenty.
“It sometimes is a little soul crushing,” Talley said.

But most of the time, she said, the sense of community trumps the sense of competition.

“It’s so strange that everyone’s helping the competition, but I don’t feel like people look at it that way,” she said. “They could be future classmates.”

Spain, who said he got a “ton of help” on his personal statement from other Top Law School users, said students aren’t wary of helping each other out because by the time they hit the message boards, there’s hardly any way to improve their grade point average or LSAT score, the two main factors in law school admission.

“So much of the competition for seats comes down to factors that are already decided that helping kids out and giving them more information doesn’t really negatively affect your own chances,” Spain said.


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