Zen LSAT Featured in The Atlantic

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Caroline Kitchener from The Atlantic about the Logic Games section of the LSAT and broader concerns about the test prep industry. Her article just went up, and is well worth a read. 

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/10/the-lsat-is-rigged-against-the-poor/504530/

Simply put, there are too many barriers to entry for the LSAT and the legal profession. This is one of the reasons I wanted to start this website - to point toward free and available resources that my students and others can take advantage of, and to begin developing and distributing my own resources. 

I'll be writing again toward the end of the week with larger thoughts on Caroline's article, where I think the conversation about legal education needs to go, and the next steps that we'll be taking here to keep lowering barriers to the LSAT. So, stay posted! 

Back to School, Back to Tutoring!

Hello! David here (yes, I'm still alive)! 

I put Zen LSAT on hiatus for the summer since I knew I couldn't commit to taking on more students for the September exam - because I'm starting my own law school journey at last!

Since September I've been digging into the 1L curriculum at NYU Law and applying all of the lessons I had hoped to apply from my time teaching and writing about the LSAT. I'm really looking forward to sharing how my expectations about law school (as intuited by the test) match up with the reality of working in law school - and also excited to take on students again! 

So, stay posted. I'll be firing back up the weekly blog machine, picking up loose ends from the May build-up, and re-committing to helping you manage your journey toward law school very soon :) 

 

Resource Roundup! May 23

As Chance the Rapper would say - "and we back"! We're in the final stretch for the June LSAT, so here are a few treats to guide you through the final days. 

THE SHORT READ

1843 Magazine, from the Economist, is back with their second issue! Definitely check out this brilliant piece on how smartphone tech and changing consumer appetites are changing the fashion industry. If you're like me, you're...less-than-knowledgeable about the current state of high style, and reading about it in this piece will stretch your horizons. 

THE LONG READ

I have a bad habit of starting several books at once and reading through them in parallel - a chapter here, a chapter there. Thankfully, my current books all stand out from one another, and none more so than Wanderer, Sterling Hayden's delightful, rambling autobiography. Part tell-all of one of Hollywood's greatest leading men (and greatest critics), part memoir of a year spent as a fugitive at sea, Wanderer will keep your head spinning (and deciphering Hayden's nautical lexicon will drive you to focus on structure and make you apply your reasoning skills). 

THE ENDORSEMENT

Sleep! I mentioned this last time, but I can't stress it enough - getting enough sleep is crucial, both for your prep and test-day performance. Plenty of studies talk about how sleep deprivation yields the same effects as drinking for motor vehicle use, and you wouldn't take the LSAT drunk, would you? So, grab some over-the-counter sleep aid ("Melatonin +" by Nature's Own is great), and hit the hay. The test prep will still be there when you wake up. 

THE ENDANGERMENT

Psyching yourself out before the test can happen in a number of ways, whether it's letting one bad prep-test get to you or hearing about somebody else who choked. But the inverse can also happen; getting cocky and sabotaging your prep can be just as dangerous. 

The only way to avoid these pitfalls is to take the long view. You've been preparing for the test for a long time - while it's never to late to sharpen up, you need to recognize that the best thing you can do is let yourself run the race you've been preparing to run.

So, stay sharp, get enough exercise and sleep(!), keep your mind calm, and crush it out there. 

Your moment of Zen

When confronted with the enormity of the world, you can either shrink down or stand up. Confront it with the live stream from the International Space Station, and stand up to do great things!

"Why law? Why now?" Part 1, The Wrong Answers

Hi readers! I'm starting a series on the big questions I've faced in the pre-law process, and am proud to present part 1 on "WLWN". Check back next Wednesday for part 2. 

Almost every aspect of my application process circled around my response to two fundamental questions - "Why do you want to study the law?", and "Why do you want to do this now?"

While academic qualifications come first, law schools are similarly focused on whether their applicants are mature and motivated to handle the rigors of a legal education. (And if a school isn't asking these questions somewhere, steer clear - they might be more focused on collecting your tuition than building your career). 

But having answers to "why law, why now?" (WLWN) isn't just important for the instrumental purpose of getting admitted to a good school. In my opinion, your future is on the line. Your answers to WLWN aren't just part of your admissions outcome - they can direct the entire shape of your career and your ultimate happiness. 

Of course, having answers doesn't mean that you have "the right answers". What do I mean by this? Consider the following: 

  1. Becoming a lawyer is not a blanket guarantee of achieving a good economic outcome. The public perception is that lawyers, like doctors and many other "prestigious" professions, are almost uniformly well-paid for their work. Many students assume, then, that becoming a lawyer is a path toward economic stability and prosperity. 

    This has never been less true in the modern era. 

    For one thing, technological advances in the field have outpaced our perception of lawyering. Legal tasks that were once handled by humans, from sorting through evidence in discovery to incorporating companies, are increasingly automated and disrupted by commercial SaSS platforms like e-discovery and LegalZoom; technological displacement is on the rise, and we're only seeing the beginning of its effects. 

    While lawyers at the biggest firms are still compensated well for their (grueling) hours and many other lawyers find pathways to success in niche areas, the idea that there's important legal work for every lawyer created simply isn't true any more. Simply go on www.lstscorereports.com and examine the employment outcomes for law students at schools outside of the top 20 to see what I mean - there's a lot of un- and under-employment. 

    For another, the legal job market is no more insulated from economic turbulence than any other field. While not strictly true in certain fields - there will always be crime, for instance, and therefore always a need for prosecutors and defense attorneys - many legal practice areas are intimately tied to economic activity, and the need for lawyers in those areas rise and fall with the economic tides. A lawyer who has specialized in transactional work for startups isn't going to have a good time if (or, perhaps more accurately, when) the next tech bubble bursts. Even worse, they'll be less in control of their ability to rebound compared to, say, a web developer (who has "freestanding" skills that aren't strictly reliant on the work of others) or a tech HR employee (who can simply apply their HR skills at another non-tech company). 

    All of this is to say that stability isn't a foregone conclusion - the law isn't necessarily any more stable or high paying than many other professions. 
     
  2. A JD isn't the "generalist" degree it "once was". When I would ponder pursuing law school earlier in my life, my parents and teachers regularly echoed the refrain that "you can do anything with a law degree". The conventional wisdom has been that learning to "think like a lawyer", as law school allegedly teaches, is a prima facie useful skill to develop that can be applied in almost any area of government or business. 

    The trouble with this common wisdom is that it no longer represents a common reality. The growth in number and quality of MBA and other specialized business graduate degrees along with the primacy of short-term post-college business rotational programs, like the two year "up and out" programs at management consulting firms or major banks, have led to no shortage of talented people who have actually acquired business-ready skills directly out of college without any legal "finishing" done on their minds. 

    Combining this increased competition with Reason #1 - the public perception that lawyers have many good, high-paying career options - and it's not unreasonable to see why a company would be reticent to hire a lawyer for a non-legal position. While you still "can do anything with a law degree", it's no longer a given that "a law degree enables you to do anything" - even Harvard graduates, by some accounts on TLS, struggle to enter the "business world" after graduating. 

    Plus, it's even harder to justify going against these factors when...
     
  3. Law school is extraordinarily expensive. The Volokh Conspiracy ran a deeply troubling post based on the work of Paul Campos, a contrarian law professor, showing the drastic and absurd increase in the real price of a legal education over the past 40 years. Even prestigious public institutions like UC Berkeley or University of Michigan have had an almost unfettered rise in law school cost since the 1970s. 

    While rampant expenses in education aren't confined to the law, there are factors unique to a legal education that are concerning.

    For one, acquiring a JD is a three-year endeavor, which not only entails paying three years of tuition (as opposed to two for an MBA or many professional masters degrees), but sacrificing three years of your productive working life. While it might not matter if you're working in a field that you hate and desperately want to pivot out of, or aren't qualified to work at all without a law degree (which is almost never true), sacrificing three years of earning isn't something to be taken lightly. 

    Finally, some students trick themselves into not worrying about cost because they debt finance their education with the intent to have their debt forgiven under Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) or a school's Loan Repayment Assistance Program. This is fine -- except for the tenuous ground on which PSLF is built at the moment, and the fact that it requires students to project their careers 13 years into the future. 

    So, law school is expensive in absolute terms and in relative terms. It's a tough sell. 

Based on what I just wrote, you might expect my WLWN answer to be a cynical laugh and a withdrawal of my law school applications - "not law, never".

This is far from the case. I think there are a number of extremely important reasons one could have to study the law now - but they need to be better than "I want to make more money" or "I'm good at school and could use more education". I'll get into my answer to WLWN next week, in Part 2!

Resource Round-Up: May 9th

Resources! Resources! Get 'em while they're hot! Now on Mondays!

The Short Read

A few weeks back, The New Yorker published Madness, a difficult, gripping read on the abuse of mentally ill prisoners in Florida. It's a narrative that will both expand your empathy and provide another perspective on how far the criminal justice system still has to come. 

Also, if you aren't getting the Opening Statement newsletter from the Marshall Project, now's the time to sign up. You'll get a hit of top-notch, public interest reporting on the law and criminal justice, every morning. 

the long read

Last Friday, I got on a plane to visit family, and began reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs, and didn't put it down throughout my hours of layovers and plane time. Hobbs tells the story of his Yale roommate Robert Peace, a brilliant man who struggled to define himself throughout his tough Newark upbringing and was tragically murdered at 30 due to his involvement in the drug trade. It will break your heart, but it's a must-read. 

The endorsement

Exercise! No, seriously - don't forget to take seriously good care of yourself as you prepare for the test, especially now that we're exactly one month out. This entails getting enough sleep, getting the right nutrition, and staying active - your mind will thank you as much as your body. 

The endangerment

Listening to too many recommendations about how to prepare for the LSAT can be a real drag on your enthusiasm and performance on the test. The only thing that matters on your test-prep journey is finding what works for you. If you've found it, and you're seeing good gains in your score, keep at it. If you're still not sure what works, keep looking - but don't sacrifice what works for you just because it's not what your friend or someone online (like me) recommends. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again - you have to run your own race. Keep running. 

Resource Round-Up: April 24

Hello again! David here, comin' at ya with some more LSAT resources. We're a little more than a month out from the June LSAT, so it's not too late to diversify your study habits and materials. 

The Long Read

In the depths of LSAT studying and applying to law school, it's easy to lose sight of whatever answer you have for the constant question: "why law, why now"? If you need a reminder, and want to boost your EQ while you're at it, pick up EJI founder Bryan Stevenson's gripping memoir Just MercyThe book covers Bryan's fight for justice for wrongfully convicted death row inmates in Alabama and is a moving plea for mercy throughout the law. 

The Short Read

In honor of her recent Pulitzer Prize, check out excellent television criticism from the New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum. In particular, her October 2015 essay on commercialism and television "The Price is Right" is a superb piece of cultural criticism that will both expand your reading comprehension skills and give you a new outlook on our culture. 

Also, while I assume anyone reading Zen LSAT is already a follower, it's never a bad time to check out SCOTUS BlogWhether you want to read a decision, a transcript of oral argument, or just get caught up on the courts, SCOTUS Blog is a resource that you need to be aware of. 

The Endorsement

If you haven't come across 7Sage yet, go check out their site. It's full of explanations to LSAT questions, and in-depth discussion of the test on their forums. While I don't endorse their particular approach to problem solving (I think it's a quick way to overwork during your prep), their explanations and resources can be valuable tools to explore. 

The Endangerment

Along the same lines as TLS is Above the Law, or ATL, a popular blog covering news in legal education and the legal industry. If you're able to take the snark and cynicism with the many grains of salt necessary, you'll gain some new perspectives on what the current issues (and gossip) in the law are. 

However, with ATL, as with TLS and most LSAT and application resources, I think you have to also stay mindful of the fact that a belief considered orthodox on one corner of the internet is not the only valid belief. It's pretty easy to fall into particular echo chambers online and have your thoughts replaced with their thoughts; you always have to be careful to do your own processing and make your own decisions. 

Resource Round-Up: April 12th

Howdy, students! Some creative projects and my gearing up for the June tutoring harvest have kept me from blogging as much as I'd hoped, so this post is the first in a casual installment I'm calling the Resource Roundup. A big reason I wanted to start ZenLSAT was my frustration over how difficult it was to find honest feedback on what LSAT resources were out there and how good they were.

As I write in Beyond the LSAT, however, I think there's a lot of value in utilizing non-LSAT-specific resources while you prepare for your test. So, whenever I find enough resources I like, I'll put them up here. 

The Long Read

I'm gearing up to write one-month fantasy novels with a few friends, which means digging back into the fantasy books I love and trying a few new ones on. Both The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Magicians by Lev Grossman detail the semi-magical education of their young protagonists, but they do so in very different ways than most books (and from each other).

Reading literary fiction is a great way to expand your vocabulary and build your empathy - and you'll also appreciate the protagonists' frustrations and trials as their magical learning parallels your less-magical LSAT learning :) 

The Short Read

I was very excited to receive the first issue of 1843, the new bi-monthly magazine from The Economist, in my mailbox the other week, and even more excited when I realized how well-suited its writing is to LSAT Reading Comp practice. 

1843's articles on culture, technology, and politics are engaging, but are technical enough that they also demand the kind of careful reading you'd need on an LSAT RC passage. I wouldn't be surprised to see both "Versailles in the valley" and "Rational reproduction" excerpted on future LSATs.

The Endorsement

There's never been a better time to brush up your logical reasoning skills, because now there are dozens of online courses that teach you computer programming languages. I recommend Udacity.

Learning a programming language is a really excellent and really different way to exercise your logical brain and to get practice with thinking in terms of logical structure because, unlike human languages, programming languages have to work very precisely. If you can't precisely wield your "if statements" and understand Boolean values, your program simply won't work. 

I've been taking CS101/Intro to Programming with Python on Udacity, and couldn't be more happy. It's 100% free and the instruction is very clear. Give it a try!

The Endangerment

There are a lot of LSAT / law school resources that can be double-edged swords in their ability to help and hurt you on your law school journey, and none fit the description better than Top Law Schools (or TLS).

TLS has an incredibly useful forum for people who are applying to law school to connect with other applicants, law school professionals, and current law students. I really would've gone mad without it.

However, it's also easy to go mad with it, because it's easy to get sucked into the vortex of talking and thinking about things that you can't necessarily control. It's also hard to decide which of the conflicting opinions on the site you can trust, and how many grains of salt need to be taken with each piece of anonymous advice you get. 

So, go! But be warned.

A Moment of Zen

While your LSAT journey may be stressful, it will never be as stressful as these dogs struggling with stairs. 

Kicking Off!

Welcome to Zen LSAT's soft launch! After a month of writing and structuring, I'm thrilled to offer up this new LSAT-learning and law school application resource. My aim is to help you regain a sense of agency over (and serenity during) your test-prep journey. 

While I'm still building up some of our resources (the battlestation will be fully operational April 1), most of our material is ready to go - and so am I! You should start learning what we're about by checking out our mission and our approach to learning. If you want to learn more about my own journey to the 99th percentile, you can do that too. 

Starting Monday, I'll begin sending out our weekly newsletter Keep Calm, which will be chock full of supplemental resources, links to hot takes on the test and the law, and my own musings on the eternal questions of "why law? why now?" Sign up here, and unsubscribe any time (thanks, Mailchimp!) I'll also do my best to answer questions from readers - email me at david@zenlsat.com to ask! 

So, welcome again. I say it better elsewhere, but - you should feel like you're in control of the LSAT, because your background, past experiences, and passion are just as important as your ability to plow through a test-prep book. I'm here to help you feel more in control. 

 

Welcome/Why I'm Writing This

As I often travel on the subway to and from Manhattan to teach my students the ways of the LSAT in a crowded midtown espresso bar, I like to download articles to my phone to read on the way. Typically, the articles I download come from a small handful of “lifehack” blogs - things on business psychology, the quantified self, how to improve your productivity, and so on. It’s a nice way to reorient myself to the day’s work as much as I can before I get coffee at the shop. 

    A certain popular subset of these blogs focus on compiling and presenting the habits of successful people - articles like “The Work and Sleep Schedules of the Greatest Novelists”, or “This One Google Employee’s Life-Changing Email Philosophy”, or “The Six Habits of Every Productive Person”. The idea is that, if you read and implement the thoughts, tools and habits of these smarter, better, faster people, you too will become better (never mind your background or starting place), and that success often has common roots in certain definite practices. 

    Of course, if you’ve read any of these articles, only one commonality really stands out - that there is no common route to success, no silver bullet. All of “the greatest” in any given field have different habits and different practices because they lived different lives and had different personal and academic backgrounds. Yes, there are common values that we can all aspire to, but how we learn to live out those values in our day-to-day lives depends on a lot of factors that past a certain point we can no longer control. 

    The same issue presents itself in LSAT instruction, whether the teacher is a 400-page “study bible” or a 2L looking for beer money. At every level, the teacher must assure their students of the same thing: that their method works, that their method works in all cases, and that it works the best. Thus, the teacher’s reasonable need to reassure the student/client that their money and time are being spent on a worthwhile endeavor combined with the student’s stress over acing the exam mutates into a dogmatic and superstitious approach to learning.

    A few examples of this kind of dogmatic thinking in action, from my own test prep journey: 

    “I don’t know, can you move onto the questions? You’ve only completed part of your Deduction Grid (TM)”, says the teacher from Company X; 

    “I’ve seen [Company X]’s method do a lot of damage”, gravely intones the teacher from Company Y; 

    “This is my third time taking a class with [Company Y] - I’m sure it will stick this time”, a fellow student cheerfully self-deludes. 

    Now, I don’t dispute that most LSAT instruction “works”. The main areas of knowledge that the test actually…um, tests are often so neglected in modern education that even a crash-course style education in them from a weekend course or a short chapter in a guide book can go a long way toward boosting the score of the novice test-taker. On the flip side, other areas of the test’s design are arbitrary enough that understanding the ways in which the testmakers reveal themselves (which many books and tutors emphasize well) can bring those final score gains to a more advanced test-taker. 

    However, I wholeheartedly dispute that any single LSAT “ideology” necessarily works for every test-taker, or is definitively the “best” for all test-takers. Whether by chance or by the magical prowess of the placement office at my tutoring company, I’ve had the chance to work with many students who have been failed in part or in whole by dogmatic mainstream LSAT instruction. Often, these are incredibly sharp students from nontraditional backgrounds who have trouble adhering to a strict system or schedule of study, or students who have naturally keen logical minds but have trouble approaching a question from the angle that a student who’s been immersed in formal logic would take. In a few cases, I have had students who become so wrapped up in the anxiety of following a rigorous study method (and, of course, the anxiety of #winning on the test) that they question their own highly-functioning logical minds and excellent work, because that work draws upon their external knowledge instead of the dictates of whatever system they’re working on - students who, to borrow an old phrase, “eat the menu instead of the dinner”. 

    As I have taught these students (and thus invited myself to reflect on how to best teach), I realized the need for a new kind of test-prep writing, one that can be both a complement and alternative to the prescriptive methods now commonly in use. I see this site as a guide for the test-taker through the abstract skills that the test invokes (often, contradictory pairs like detachment and empathy, or understanding of logic and understanding of narrative), moving upward the meta-testual realm (why these skills? why these questions?), and ultimately inward, so that the student can understand how their own knowledge already relates to the test and how the prescriptive knowledge in other books represents deeper insight into the kinds of thinking that law school purports to teach. 

    A common palliative thought for aspiring lawyers is that the absolute toughest parts of the journey are the LSAT, your 1L exams, and passing the Bar exam. Many books embrace the LSAT’s reputation as this colonoscopy of a legal education - long and unpleasant, but you’ll get through it. My goal is to make it clear that, even when you’re in the shit, something interesting is going on. I hope this site helps.