Pen & Chisel Q&A: How Can I Shape My Non-Traditional Experience into a Compelling Law School Application?

Eileen ConnerWe’re delighted to welcome back law school admissions essay expert Eileen Conner, founder of Pen & Chisel, who has some advice on a topic near to my own heart: How to apply to law school as a non-traditional student. As someone with a really weird background (sociology, architecture, programming) who managed to get into law school, I heartily recommend following her advice!

I’m a nontraditional law school applicant. How can I best integrate my prior work and advanced degrees into my law school application?

Many nontraditional law school candidates are apprehensive about how the admissions committee will take their application. However, coming from a professional background (instead of straight out of undergrad) can actually give you some advantages in the application process. Let’s take a look at how you can use your career or academic experience to make the best possible impression.

Frame the Transition Positively

It’s vital to keep a positive tone as you present your argument for admission to law school. The last thing you want to do is to make the admissions committee think that you’re turning to law as a last resort or because you failed at your previous career. Even if you are currently coming off a failure, it’s important to phrase your shift in career goals positively.

Instead of dwelling on the bad parts of your current career or making excuses for changing your goals at a late date, consider how you can frame your experience as a challenge — or, even better, treat your experience as a necessary stepping stone along the path to law.

Show how your academic or career experience helped you discover a key problem you now want to tackle as a lawyer, or how you realized that you could apply your skills to help a greater amount of people through law. Emphasize your excitement over this new career opportunity and your confidence in your future success. You aren’t making excuses for giving up on your current career; you’re making a positive choice to move forward with a new opportunity in law.

Keeping your tone positive will go a long way as you begin to build a strong argument for admission.

Create a Narrative

You don’t need to make excuses for a change in your career goal, but you do need to show your reasons for that change. One great way to achieve this is by building a narrative about where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you hope to go. Narratives are a great way to build empathy and interest in your situation — and because you’re coming to law with substantial previous career experience, you’ll probably have a wealth of vibrant details to draw on that will make your story shine.

To begin building your narrative, think about why you want to change your career and what your new goals are. Where did these goals come from? What’s the connection between your current career and your future in law? Did you get the inspiration for a career in law because of an incident at work, or a persistent problem that raised its head again and again over several years?

For example, are you planning to use your current expertise to help you attack a particular niche issue in law? Let’s say you work in finance — are you planning to tackle a different aspect of money management or investment with your newly minted law degree? If you have a scientific background, are you planning to use your law degree to help scientists or research organizations patent and protect their discoveries?

Whatever your situation may be, do your best to encapsulate it in a narrative about where your career has been and where you now want it to go. Show your capacity for success in law with a story of an achievement at work, and use that story to show why law is your next step forward. Stories like these can highlight the skills you’ve acquired in your years of experience while simultaneously pointing to a specific reason for your career shift.

Pick Strong Recommenders

You may be wondering if it’s a good idea to ask your undergraduate or graduate school professors to write recommendations for your law school application. After all, professors traditionally write academic recommendation letters for their students, right? But before you contact your old professors, ask yourself a few questions.

First, how long has it been since you spoke to these professors? Are they familiar with your post-academic career development and skill set? Will they be able to write you a strong recommendation based on your current capabilities? Will they even remember who you are?

If you’ve been out of school for more than two to three years, it may be a better idea to ask your professional colleagues, supervisors, or mentors to write recommendation letters, or to ask a mix of academic and professional recommenders. Choose recommenders who have a good idea of what you will bring to the career of law and can clearly express this in writing.

If possible, have a conversation with them about what you need in a recommendation letter and how they can help most effectively. After all, it is much more common to get recommendation letters from professors, so your professional colleagues may not be familiar with the process. Let them know exactly what you need in a strong recommendation to get the best possible result.


You may be starting from an uncommon place — but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a convincing argument for a future law career. Think of it this way: you have a major distinguishing factor that differentiates you from all the new graduates who traditionally make up the bulk of law school applicants. With a little elbow grease, you can use that difference to make your application shine.

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Thanks, Eileen! Excellent advice.

More about Eileen:
Eileen Conner is the founder of Pen and Chisel LLC, where she specializes in helping law school candidates perfect their application essays. Her newest online course offerings, Launch: Personal Statement and Refine: Personal Statement, teach students to craft a great law school personal statement and to identify and fix common problems. A graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious creative writing MFA program, Eileen is the former Senior Editor for Law at Revision Editing.

Read On:

As you embark on your law school application journey, you might want to bookmark Applying to Law School 101: What You Need to Know to Succeed.

Then check out some of the rest of the Pen & Chisel Q&A:

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