Law School

Law School Basics

What Law School Is 

You may already know some or all of this, but just in case:

Law School -- Law school is 3 years of post-college schooling that is intended to prepare you to practice or teach law.

Accreditation -- Each state has a Bar Association, which is an organization that licenses lawyers who practice in that state. Every state bar association has rules about what kind of education a would-be lawyer needs to have to be able to practice law in that state. If you have the required education, you are eligible to take that state's bar exam (a long, difficult licensing exam for lawyers). Most states only allow people to take the exam if they have graduated from a law school that is accredited by the American Bar Association. As of 2012, there are 202 ABA-accredited law schools in the United States. All states allow graduates of any ABA-accredited school to take their bar exam. Some states also allow people to take the bar exam who have graduated from schools that are not accredited by the ABA but are accredited by the state. California is such a state, and there are 18 non-ABA, state-accredited law schools in California.

Why ABA Accreditation Matters -- Two reasons: mobility and employability. If you go to a non-ABA-accredited school in California, you will be eligible to take the CA bar exam. If you pass, you will be able to practice law in California but only in California. If you want to move to another state, it is highly unlikely that you will be eligible to take that state's bar exam, and you will not be able to practice law there. In addition, the legal job market is highly competitive (we explain that in more detail on another part of this site). In general ABA-accredited schools are seen as being "better" schools. Whether that's true or not doesn't matter--the perception affects the job market. Even if you are at the top of your class at a non-ABA law school, you will be competing for jobs with people who went to ABA-accredited schools, and in general you will find it harder to get a job than they will.

For proof that not all law schools are created equal, take a look at the CA Bar's statistics on who passes the bar, broken down by what school they attended. These numbers should make it perfectly clear where you do and don't want to go to school. Even more importantly, take a look at these statistics on how many graduates of various schools get law-related jobs--for some accredited schools, it's as low as 10-20%!

For more information about bar admission requirements in all fifty states, see The National Conference of Bar Examiners' Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements

What the Practice of Law Is

Lawyers do one or more of the following things:

  1. represent people in court;
  2. offer people legal advice (for example, about how to adhere to employment laws, or whether it's worth it to file a suit);
  3. draft legal documents (like contracts or wills);
  4. conduct negotiations on behalf of other people (for example, during a divorce or a business merger).

If you become a lawyer, you will spend your work time doing some or all of those things. (Though note that many lawyers never appear in court, but rather concentrate on the other tasks.) If a life of doing these things sounds good to you, that's a reason to think that law school might be for you. If a life of doing these things sounds bad to you, law school is probably not for you (right now, anyway).

Of course, while most lawyers practice law, some teach law to future lawyers. Getting a tenure-track job teaching at an ABA-accredited law school is extremely competitive. Most people in such jobs graduated near the top of their class from top-10 law schools.  

Should You Go to Law School? 

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Law school's only purpose is to prepare you to practice or teach law. If you are interested in studying the philosophy of law, or if you would like to learn more about how laws are made, or about how the American judicial system works, law school is a bad choice for you.  If you think law school might come in handy in the future, if you aren't sure what you want to do with your life, or if you just like school and think law school might be interesting, law school is a bad choice for you. The only reason to go to law school is because you want to practice or teach law. 

If you decide that law school is not for you, you may find these resources from Cal Poly Career Services helpful: data on the jobs/graduate degrees that graduates from various majors have actually gotten; a list of possible careers for Political Science majors. There are also a number of careers that are related to law but do not require a law degree.

The Case Against Law School

Even if you are sure that you would enjoy practicing law, there are a handful of reasons why going to law school is a very, very bad idea for some (perhaps many, maybe even most) people. Here are the basic issues, with links to online resources that document the facts and figures:

  1. Graduating with a law-degree, even from a top-tier (i.e., top 50) law school, is NOT a guarantee of getting a job as a lawyer. There have been plentiful recent news stories about JDs from good schools who cannot get legal work.
  2. The further down the rankings of law schools you go, the worse the job prospects. If you are planning to attend a third-tier, fourth-tier, or non-ABA accredited law school, there is a significant risk that you will never find a job as a lawyer.
  3. Most people need to borrow large amounts of money to pay for law school. If you are not able to find a good-paying job after you graduate, you may be saddled with that debt for a long, long time. As you'll see in the next section, you could easily be paying more than $1,000 a month for decades.
  4. Of course, some people who graduate and get good jobs ultimately discover that they don't like being attorneys. In general, the higher the pay, the longer the hours and the higher the stress level.

Tough Love

You should seriously consider NOT going to law school if any of the following apply to you:

  1. Your best LSAT score is below 145 (roughly 25th percentile). (See Ann Levine's blog post for more.)
  2. Your undergraduate GPA is near or below 2.5. (See another Ann Levine blog post for details.) (One partial exception is if you ace the LSAT--like getting 165 or better. That might be enough to get law schools to take a chance on admitting you.)
  3. You have been convicted of serious academic or criminal misconduct. (See Section 08 for more.)
  4. You have only gotten offers from fourth-tier ABA law schools (i.e., schools ranked below 150th) AND you will have to borrow a significant amount of money to attend.
  5. You have not gotten into any ABA law schools and are considering attending a non-ABA-accredited law school.
  6. You did badly in (lower than a B-), or did not enjoy, the law-related classes that you have taken at Cal Poly.

Relevant Online Resources

Can You Afford to Go to Law School? 

This should be obvious, but just in case: you can only afford to go to law school if you either have enough money in hand now to pay for it, or if you have good reason to believe that you will earn enough in the future to pay back the loans you will need to take out.

Law school is extremely expensive. In 2011, the average tuition at a public law school for in-state residents was more than $22,000 per year. For non-residents, it was more than $34,000 per year. At private schools, the average tuition was more than $39,000 per year. Average living and book expenses for a single student living on campus were more than $14,000 per year. (All statistics are from the American Bar Association.) Do the math: The lowest average total cost for three years (resident rates at a public school) is $108,000. At a private school, the total average cost would be $159,000.

There are lots of online loan calculators, which can help you figure out how much it would cost you to repay your loans. Just as an example, if you borrowed $159,000 at 6.8% with a 30-year repayment schedule, you would pay $1,036 per month (or $12,432 per year) for 30 years. At the end of that process, you would have paid a total of $373,162, which represents the principal of $159,000 plus interest payments of $214,162.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean salary for lawyers in the U.S. in 2010 was $112,000 (before taxes). In general, the lower the prestige of the school you attend, the lower you are likely to be on the salary scale. And don't forget: statistics about lawyers' salaries only count the people who found work as lawyers. Many law school graduates are unable to find such work, and thus don't get counted.

Loans that you take out to pay for law school can only be discharged through bankruptcy under very unusual (and unpleasant) circumstances. (See this article, as well as this one.) 

How to Prepare for Law School 

If you are serious about applying to law school, you should start as soon as possible. Ideally you would start this process in your freshman year.

Pre-Law Major? -- There is no "prelaw" major at Cal Poly, and law schools accept people from many different majors. Your best strategy is to major in something you like and will do well at, and to take rigorous courses that will demonstrate your skills and abilities both to law schools reading your transcripts and to your professors, who will eventually be writing you letters of recommendation.

Regardless of your major, you should take as many law-related classes as you can, so that you get a thorough exposure to what law is about and whether you like it.

If you are a Political Science major, you should consider completing the major's Pre-Law Concentration (this site also contains a list of Cal Poly's law-related classes).

If you are not a Political Science major, you should considering completing the Law and Society Minor. (See a list of Cal Poly's law-related classes, which can count as electives for the minor.)

Clubs and Activities -- Cal Poly has two main extracurricular activities related to law: the Undergraduate Law Association and the Mock Trial team. We strongly encourage you to get involved with both, not because that will make much difference to your chances of getting into law school, but because both provide extensive information and activities that will help you figure out whether law is the right career for you.

Internships? -- Probably don't make a difference to your chances of admission (unless the internship is really, really impressive), but are extremely helpful in showing you whether the practice of law is for you or not. See more information on the Political Science Department webpage.

LSAC Forums -- Consider attending an LSAC Law School Recruitment Forum. 

How to Apply to Law School

You Want to Go to the Best School You Can Afford -- The more prestigious the school, the better your job prospects and the better the financial aid offers (generally). If you are hoping to have a high-powered legal career (clerking for a federal court, working as a US Attorney, eventually being appointed to the federal bench, teaching at a top law school) you basically have to go to a top-10 law school. The most important ranking of law schools is the one done annually by U.S. News.

Admission is Intensely Competitive -- You will be competing against the best students from the best schools in America. If you want to go to a top school, you have to be in the top 5% of students nationwide. If you aren't in the top 5% at Cal Poly, you aren't in the top 5% nationwide.

Factors that Influence Admission -- In this order: (1) Your score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT); (2) your undergraduate grades; (3) your letters of recommendation; (4) your personal statement. All of these topics except grades are discussed in later sections of this website. About grades, the advice is simple and obvious: you want the best grades you can possibly get.

The Law School Admission Council  (LSAC) has an excellent website that will walk you through the whole application process, and has links to additional resources. You should start there.

You may find this timeline for applying to law school helpful.


Studying for the LSAT should not be taken lightly. You should allow yourself at least several months of sustained, focused studying in order to achieve a score you’re happy with. The LSAT is a skills based test—it tests reasoning skills, attention to detail, logic, and critical thinking. These are skills that can be improved over time but only with practice. The LSAT is not an IQ test—so you should not attempt to take it without preparation—and it is not a knowledge-based test—so you can’t cram the information into your brain in a few weeks. You’ll want to practice, practice, and practice to develop these skills in the same way you would for a sport; consistent practice is the only way you’ll be ready for game day.

Studying is time consuming. As such, you want to utilize that time in the most beneficial way. First, make studying a priority and write it into your schedule. Study over the summer break or take a lighter class load. Try to minimize other commitments and avoid distractions. You should plan to study for several hours each day. Clear the clutter and stress from your life to the extent possible. Second, practice using real LSAT problems. Don’t use problems that are written by a company other than LSAC (the test publisher). This will help you learn the patterns and style of the test writers, and better prepare you for the real thing. Third, take a prep course. Participating in a course will help keep you focused on the test, will get you talking about the test, will give you comradery with other studiers, and will help keep you accountable for your preparation. If taking a course isn’t feasible, make a schedule that someone else can hold you accountable to or make a study group. Establishing a structure for your process will keep you on track. If you do take a course or purchase study aids, be sure to vet the sources. Read reviews, ask for recommendations, and check the qualifications of the source. There are a lot of prep companies out there, but some programs focus more on gimmicks than on teaching students to understand the test. Finally, take diagnostics. Many people get nervous about taking full-length practice tests, but this is the best way to build your stamina and speed for game day. It will also make the test more familiar and less scary during the actual exam. However, don’t just take another diagnostic without thoroughly reviewing the previous one—each practice test is an opportunity to figure out where you’re making mistakes and what you could improve. Think carefully about the problems you got wrong, figure out why you got them wrong, and make a plan for how you will avoid that mistake in the future.

Most importantly, try to have some fun with the process, as hard as that may be to do. You’ll be more likely to stick to your program and to learn the skills if you enjoy what you’re doing. Incorporate study breaks, rewards, and study groups into your plan. View the test as one giant puzzle to be solved. Also, remember that the skills you build for the test will be important in law school. Look at your study time as preparation for your career and not as a mere prerequisite for getting into law school or earning a scholarship. 

A few important points:

  1. The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) is a standardized, multiple-choice test that takes more than four hours and consists of five thirty-five-minute sections. It does not test your substantive knowledge of the law. Rather, it is designed to test the academic skills that one needs to be a successful law student and lawyer. The sections include logical reasoning (x2), reading comprehension, analytical reasoning (logic games), an experimental section (testing new questions for use in the future), and a writing sample. The latter two sections are not scored. The LSAT is administered four times per year (in February, June, September/October, and December). Most Cal Poly students study for it over the summer and take the October LSAT. Usually, you will receive your score electronically about three and a half weeks after you have taken the exam. Your score is good for five years. You may take the exam more than once, and these days, almost all law schools take your highest LSAT score (though they will see all of your scores). You cannot take the exam more than three times in two years.
  2. Your LSAT score is the single most important factor in determining what schools you get in to.
  3. The best possible LSAT prep is spending four years in college working hard in your classes. Seriously: no 8-week class could possibly improve your basic skills as much as four years of working hard in school.
  4. The vast majority of people will benefit from taking an LSAT prep class. Unless you test unusually well (i.e., unless you scored in the 90th percentile or higher on the SAT), you should plan to take a prep class. Major prep companies include Test MastersStanley Kaplan, and Princeton Review and Blueprint.
  5. LSAT prep classes are expensive (roughly $1,200), but you should think of the expense as an investment. Getting into a better school probably increases your lifetime earning potential, and probably increases the amount of scholarships/financial aid you may be offered.
  6. Given how expensive and important LSAT prep is, for goodness' sake, take the class seriously. Prep classes are an enormous amount of work. You could improve your score dramatically, but only if you work hard in the class.
  7. Just taking a class isn't the end of your LSAT prep. You should plan to spend time on prep right up until you take the LSAT. The class may give you additional prep resources (workbook, website access, CD-ROM). If not, you should plan to buy them and make a strict schedule for using them.
  8. Free LSAT online test prep exams can be found here.

Personal Statements

A personal statement is a story that you tell about yourself with the purpose of persuading the law school admissions committee that they should admit you to their law school. It is not an account of someone else’s life, analysis of a legal topic, or random thoughts about life. It is a story about you. You may refer to others but use them to talk about yourself. Do not list all of your achievements. That is what a CV is for. After reading your statement, the admissions committee should have a much better sense of who you are as a person, that is, what you care about, what motivates you, and why you are interested in attending law school and becoming a lawyer. Be as specific as possible. Avoid generalizations, platitudes, and the excessive use of adverbs and adjectives. Make every sentence and every word count. Edit out anything that does not relate to the story that you are telling about yourself. Do not try to impress by using big words that no one, with the exception of an academic, would ever use in a conversation. The first sentence should hook the reader in the sense of motivating him or her to want to read more.

Above all, before writing, you have to be crystal clear about what point you want to make about yourself. This is the hardest part of putting together a decent personal statement. Make use of a life experience, which was meaningful to you, and use that experience to illustrate that point. That point must involve your uniqueness. You do not have unique in the sense that there has never been another human being like you in the history of the world. Rather, elaborate on how you can contribute something of value to the first-year class. In this sense, you are selling yourself, but do not make it obvious. The point, which you are developing about yourself, is the thread that holds the entire personal statement and makes the case for your admission. Be sincere. Be likeable. Do not brag. Do not be melodramatic. No one has to die or face a shark attack in your personal statement. Do not write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. If you do, you will probably come across insincerely. Do not write about something so controversial or so out there that you might alienate the reader.

Different law schools have different prompts and length requirements but with some editing, you should be able to reduce your final four-page, double-spaced draft to three or even two pages if need be. Pay careful attention to each school’s particular directions and answer its prompt. Normally, it will be open-ended enough so that you can tailor what you have written to fit the prompt. It should go without saying that your personal statement should be technically flawless. No spelling, grammatical, syntax, or punctuation errors. Proofread it with great care. Each sentence should be clear and concise. Each paragraph should transition smoothly to the next one.

Last, do not wait until the last minute to begin your personal statement. As the saying goes, a thing worth doing is worth doing well. You should start writing it at the beginning of the summer so that you can write multiple drafts. For most Cal Poly students, it takes a considerable amount of time to produce a decent personal statement. It is not easy to write about oneself and to do so in a manner that makes you stand out in the right way. Normally, as a variable in the admissions process, your personal statement is not as important as your numbers --i.e,-your LSAT score and undergraduate GPA. However, that does not mean that the personal statement is unimportant. In fact, in close cases, the quality of your personal statement may determine whether you are admitted or not. Treat it with the respect that it deserves.

For more information and examples of both good and bad personal statements:

Letters of Recommendation

You will need to submit several letters of recommendation (usually at least two academic letters) with your application:

  1. Long before you ask anyone to write you a letter, you should realize that if none of your professors know you very well, or if they are likely to have formed a bad impression of you, you are going to get mediocre (at best!) letters. Get to know your professors and let them get to know you. Speak up in class. Visit their office hours. Ask them questions about things that interest you. Stop and chat about current events relevant to class. Get involved with relevant extra-curricular activities like a pre-law club or mock trial team. The better your professors know you, the better their letters will be.
  2. Very roughly, given the realities of grade inflation, a B- (82) is now the median grade in many classes. That means that if you got below a B-, you ranked in the bottom 50% of the class. If you got a B- or B, you probably ranked in the 50-75 percentile range. A B+ puts you roughly at 80%, while an A- puts you at 85-90%, and an A at 90-95%. Many professors key their letters of recommendation to the grades they gave you in class (since that's their main source of information about your knowledge and skills). Don't bother asking for a letter from someone who gave you lower than a B-; their letter will be so tepid that it won't do you any good. (One possible exception is if you did badly in one class with that professor but better in other (hopefully later) classes.)
  3. If professors were thoughtful, they would tell students explicitly how strong a letter they could expect. But professors do not always offer this information, so you should ask them directly: How strong a letter do you feel you could write for me? An A? An A-? A B+? You should be ruthless about getting the strongest letters you can--no professor's feelings should be hurt if you decide not to ask them for a letter after all. This is your future we're talking about here.
  4. Even a professor who knows you well and wants to write you a good letter may not have all of the details of your past interactions fresh in their mind. You should send them a detailed reminder, listing all of the classes you took from them (including title, number, term, and final grade). You should remind them of anything special that happened in those classes--your famously embarrassing presentation, that they used your paper as a model assignment, that you won a mock trial award that year, and so on. This is not the time to be shy or to assume that they remember everything--lay it all out clearly and thoroughly.
  5. You should also send your recommenders a brief explanation of why you want to go to law school. 
  6. Be sure to send any other information that you think may be relevant. For example if you had personal problems one term that hurt your grades, you might want to explain that to you recommender. They may not include that information in their letter (or may refer to it only very indirectly), but knowing it will help them craft the best possible recommendation.
  7. Finally, get the logistics right. Send them the LSAC recommendation form electronically, or deliver a hard copy. Give them an addressed, stamped envelope to send the letter in.  

How to Explain Past Misconduct

Your law school application will ask you to disclose any past misconduct (arrests, penalties for academic dishonesty, etc.). Here are a few important things to bear in mind:

  1. Tell the truth, and the whole truth. Lying on your application can get you thrown out of law school, and in any case you'll have to answer the same questions to get admitted to practice law. If your past misconduct is going to be a problem, it would be better to find out before you spend $150,000 and three years on law school. Further, lying on your law school application is itself grounds for being denied membership in the bar association (meaning that you cannot practice law), and yes, the bar associations do go back and look at your application (check out this news article).
  2. Don't assume that your past misconduct will prevent you from going to law school. A lot of people have been convicted of relatively minor offenses and gone on to long and happy careers as attorneys. Obviously, the more serious the past misconduct, the more significant a barrier it may pose. In any case, ask the admissions office of the law school you are hoping to get in to whether your particular misconduct will be a problem. DO NOT assume that it either will or will not be a problem. You need facts, not guesses. You should also check out the moral character requirements of the bar association of the state in which you hope to eventually practice. Here's a link to California's requirements. For information about the requirements in other states, see The National Conference of Bar Examiners' Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements.
  3. Note that schools generally require that you report ALL past misconduct, even if it has been expunged from your legal record or occurred when you were a minor. 

Next Steps 

Now that you've reviewed the basics, it's time to start the application process (or decide that that $150,000 would be better spent some other way). Ideally you would start doing the following no later than the beginning of your junior year.

  1. Double check that going to law school is really the right choice for you.
  2. Double check that you want to go to law school right now. Even if law school is definitely the right choice for you, perhaps you'd be better off waiting for a few years before going. Waiting a few years does NOT hurt your chances of admission. In fact, if you do something interesting during those years, that almost certainly increases your chances of getting in.
  3. Create an LSAC account and take advantage of the extensive information available on their website.
  4. Figure out when and where you will be doing LSAT prep. There are sometimes classes in San Luis Obispo, and there are frequently classes in Santa Barbara. The major prep companies are Test MastersStanley Kaplan, and Princeton Review.
  5. Start identifying law schools that you plan to apply to. Just like with college applications, you should identify Reach schools, Likely Schools, and a few Safety schools. A general principle is that you want to go to the best law school that you can get into and afford. If you are interested in practicing in a particular area of law, you might look for a school that is strong in that area (for example, one that has a clinic or law journal focused on that issue).
  6. Start identifying who will write your letters of recommendation. When it comes time, be sure to ask them well in advance of the due date.
  7. Start thinking about what you want to say in your personal statement. You will need to write several drafts (maybe many drafts) to get it right. Leave yourself plenty of time.
  8. Make a plan to keep track of the many deadlines involved in this process. You will be competing against the best students from around the country. You want to give this process your best effort, not do an all-nighter just before the deadline and hope it all works out.

Recommended Reading 

There are many good books on the profession of law, law school, and the application process. These are books that are both good and current:

  • Ann K. Levine, The Law School Admission Game (2009) (about the law school admissions process)
  • Ann K. Levine, The Law School Decision Game (2011) (about whether you should attend law school)
  • Brian Z. Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools (2012) (about the flawed economic model of legal education and unethical behavior by law schools)
  • Thomas D. Morgan, The Vanishing American Lawyer (2010) (about how the nature of legal work and being a lawyer is changing)
  • Andrew J. McClurg, One-L of a Ride (2008) (about how to be a first-year law student)
  • Robert H. Miller, Law School Confidential (2011) (about the law school experience)
  • Richard Michael Fischl and Jeremy Paul, Getting to Maybe (1994) (about how to take law school exams)
  • Nancy Levit and Douglas O. Linder, The Happy Lawyer (2010) (about achieving a better work-life balance as a lawyer)
  • Anna Ivey, The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews, and More (2005)
  • Richard Montauk, How To Get Into Top Law Schools 5th Edition (2011)
  • Princeton Review, Law School Essays that Made a Difference, 4th Edition (2010)
  • Paul Bergman, Patrick Goodman, and Thomas Holm, Cracking the Case Method: Legal Analysis for Law School Success (2012) Vandeplas Publishing
  • Back to top of page

How to Survive Law School 

Law school is much harder than college. Here are some sites that have helpful information about making the transition to law school and surviving there:

LSAT (Law School Admissions Test)

The LSAT is a critical part of the application process and is often considered the most important variable in the admissions process. The LSAT is a half-day exam given in six parts. The exam is comprised of approximately 100 multiple-choice questions with one section of reading comprehension, two sections of logical reasoning, one analytical reasoning section, and a trial section that is unscored. Students are not told which section is the trial section. Students will also do an unscored writing sample at the end of the exam, which is submitted with the LSAT score to the schools the student applies to. The entire test lasts about three and a half hours. The test is scored based on the number of questions answered correctly, which is then converted into a scaled score ranging from 120 to 180. A percentile score is also given which indicates performance on the LSAT compared to that of other test takers. Because doing well on the exam is almost always contingent on preparation, preparatory classes and practice exams are strongly recommended. 

The LSAT is administered four times a year, usually in June, late September or early October, December, and February. Those who plan to attend law school during the 2014-2015 academic year, for example, should take the LSAT no later than December 2013. Test dates for Cal Poly can be found at the test office web siteRegistration for the LSAT can be done online at or by phone at (215) 968-1001. The test office also offers a hard copy official LSAT information and registration bulletin, which includes a mail-in registration form. The official LSAT booklet is available at the test office in Building 124, Room 121. Further information on taking the LSAT can be obtained through the Cal Poly Undergraduate Law Association.

TestMasters course for LSAT prep at Cal Poly 

TestMasters is a LSAT prep course and well known in the industry. [The following paragraph and monetary discount on the course tuition below is from TestMasters promotional materials.]

We have helped tens of thousands of students achieve double-digit score increases and gain admission to the nation's top law schools. Our course features over 100 hours of live class time, printed materials that contain every LSAT question released since 1991 (over 7000 real LSAT questions), instructors who have scored in the 98th percentile or higher on an officially administered LSAT, an instructor-staffed academic helpline, and an online resource center that includes personalized diagnostic scoring and analysis, thousands of pages of written explanations, and more than 80 hours of video instruction by TestMasters course author Robin Singh, who holds the world-record for perfect LSAT scores (12 perfect scores).

 We’re offering all Cal Poly students a $300 discount on the course (total tuition would be $1150).

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