In our spare time (Hah!), a handful of us at a variety of law schools scattered throughout the wide expanse of the country decided we wanted to tackle a series of questions posed to us by a certain publication in a different format than what was asked for. Sure, we could each answer the list of questions posed to us. But where’s the fun in that? The idea hit us that en masse we could probably do something just as informative, but much more efficient time-wise and with a very likely increase in entertainment value since we could obviously be a tad more informal in our blogs as opposed to an official response. So, dear reader, this one’s for you.
I’ve thought of this exercise as being like speed dating. Just for the record, this is a guess on my part because I’ve not been a participant in any speed dating experience – I found my husband the old fashioned way. [When I told him about this comment in the blog, he asked what the “the old fashioned way” meant.] But, back to speed dating…We each took a turn at being the lead person on a question and then sent that response and the original question on to the next person on the list and so on and so on until each of us had answered a series of nine questions. Now, keep in mind that this was going on as we were all still reading files, hosting Admit Weekends and putting together waitlists. Deadlines were imposed and I, on occasion, took full advantage of the fact that something due at the end of the business day occurred three hours later in Palo Alto than it did in New York. I imagine the question “When will this be over?” went through our minds more than once. Now that we’re done with it, I have to admit it was a good experience and I hope the end result is something you will find of value as you think about applying to law school. You’ll see only a portion of the questions here on the Stanford site. By visiting the Columbia blog, the Michigan blog and the Yale blog you will have the entire exercise at your fingertips.
Schools participating in this speed dating extravaganza are Stanford, Chicago, Columbia, Michigan, NYU and Yale. You may notice that I’ve listed everyone in alphabetical order except for Stanford. I list SLS first because, well, just because this is my blog. Now, let me introduce you to my fellow speed daters in alpha order by school – Ann Perry, Nkonye Iwerebon, Sarah Zearfoss, Ken Kleinrock and Asha Rangappa. I think they’re pretty darn good speed daters, but I can’t be absolutely certain because, you know, I’ve never actually speed dated.
Enjoy the readings and let me know what you think.
Which component carries the most weight: LSAT, GPA, work experience, or recommendations? Which carries the least weight?
Stanford: You’ll love the vagueness of my simple answer. It depends. Let me explain. As an applicant you need to take stock of where you are at the start of the process. What is your profile as you come to the application process? A senior applying directly from college? An investment banker applying after a fair amount of time in the workforce? A Ph.D. in English who wants to make a career transition? Determine your profile (and I’m not talking numerical profile here). Then, approach the application as though it were a puzzle. You have certain puzzle pieces and as an admissions officer I have to see how these pieces fit together. If you’re a senior coming directly from college, your puzzle pieces are your academic record, (notice I did not say your GPA as I am more concerned with how you created your academic record), your LSAT score, your letters of recommendation and your personal statement. If you are returning to school after some time spent in the workplace, then you have an additional puzzle piece – work experience. Coming straight from college, you have fewer puzzle pieces so are able to move the pieces around and try to make them “fit” if some pieces are weak is somewhat constrained. If your LSAT is your weak piece, then every other aspect in your file must be strong in order for us to say that the LSAT should lessen in importance. If your LSAT is strong but your personal statement is poorly written and there is no evidence that you’ve taken any courses where serious writing was required, your file may not get very far. What if your academic record is stellar, but you’ve done nothing outside of the classroom? A puzzle piece is missing here so you might find yourself being held and compared to a larger group. If you’re an electrical engineering major I may be more concerned about your writing as evidenced in your personal statement than if you were an English major. I’d also pay closer attention to your letters of recommendation to see if your recommender comments on your writing skills. If your grades aren’t strong and you are a senior, then I would hope that we’d see academic letters written on your behalf that would allay concerns we might have about how you would handle the work in law school. What happens if you are the candidate who has been out of college for a number of years and now wants to take that experience and expand on it by going to law school? Imagine that you’ve spent the last six years as a labor union organizer. Imagine further that your undergraduate record is not one to jump up and down about. Do you just get a cursory review? Of course not. The question I’d ask myself is whether those six years of real-life experience are enough to compensate for an academic record that is not stellar. In this specific example, the academic record recedes in importance and the work experience takes on greater importance. Remember, then, that the puzzle pieces have to fit and how this is accomplished is based on your particular profile.
NYU: Dean Deal’s thoughtful analysis is excellent. The bottom line? There is no magic formula that highly selective law schools use to reach our decisions. If there was, our work would be much easier. Decision making is hard work – a process that requires us to consider a variety of factors and to view each applicant individually.
Columbia: I agree with much of Dean Deal’s thoughtful response and Dean Kleinrock’s “bottom line.” The truth is that there is no easy answer, which is why the evaluation of files is necessarily holistic.
Michigan: I love Dean Deal’s example of the union organizer with a less-than-stellar academic record, because I vividly remember a candidate exactly like that six years ago; I thought she was fantastic, but asked our faculty committee chair to take a look too, to get his read on whether I wasn’t attaching enough significance to the college grades. He sort of rolled his eyes at me and said, “She’s amazing! I’m not going to nitpick her college record at this point in her career.” Done. She’s long since graduated and gone on to be an alum of whom we’re very proud.
Chicago: My colleagues have done an excellent job of explaining in a couple of ways that there is no magic formula in the application process. We have a holistic review of all applications. If it was strictly a formulaic approach, then I would have hired someone many years ago to write me a computer program (since I was a political science major, I have no idea of how to write such a program) what would tell me who to admit and who to deny. However, that is not the case nor would it be the best way to put together a law school class. We need to review every part of the application before a decision is made since our mission is to bring an interesting group of students together every year.
Yale: Ditto on all the above. I’ll add that applicants really overestimate the importance of the LSAT. In my opinion, your LSAT is informed by the rest of your application, not the other way around. So a great LSAT cannot make up for an otherwise mediocre application, and a low LSAT won’t break an otherwise compelling one. So stop freaking out about it. I’d also say that if any single part of your application is weak, you need to BRING IT in the rest of your application. Remember that every piece of your application provides us with information. So, to use the LSAT, that is a predictor of your first-year grades in law school. If you score low, then you have to make a case that your LSAT score is underpredictive in your case. You do this by 1) having an amazing undergradate record with very challenging courses; 2) having superlative academic references attesting to your academic promise and intellectual potential; and 3) “sealing the deal” with a thoughtful, thorough, and error-free personal statement. I will say that a poor undergraduate record is very difficult to overcome, even with a lot of experience. However, I do not define a “poor record” by your cumulative GPA – you might have a low overall GPA, because you had a hard time adjusting at first but have a significant upward grade trend, or because you got low grades in hard science classes while getting straight A’s in writing-intensive, liberal arts courses. Things like this are taken into account and won’t be held against you. At the same time, a 4.0 with a very easy course load, or with courses that don’t really demonstrate a potential to succeed in the kind of work you’ll do in law school (like fine arts, or all science/engineering courses) may not help your application. So, we’re back to that terrible word applicants hate to hear: “holistic.”
What are the strengths and weaknesses of your school? Who would be happy? Who wouldn’t be happy?
Chicago: This is a tough question to answer because when deciding which law school to attend, students need to really do their own research to find the right fit. At Chicago, students are happy who are ready to take an active role in their legal education. The Socratic Method is used so there is a continual exchange between professors and students inside the classroom. There is also learning that takes place outside of the classroom, during lunchtime lectures and alumni presentations (and of course lunch is usually provided!). At Chicago we offer a lot of classes in a lot of different legal topics. Happy students are those who take advantage of the many ways to interact with faculty. Hard to say what a weakness would be but I guess some people will complain about the weather. Yes, in Chicago we do get all four seasons. But I would hope students wouldn’t use this as a reason to forgo a wonderful legal education!
Yale: Our strengths are our size, our location, and our flexibility. Our weaknesses are our size, our location, and our flexibility. It really depends on what a student is looking for. Students who thrive at Yale are those who like to be in an intimate setting, where they can have small classes and get to know almost all of their classmates and work closely with faculty. These students are able to enjoy what New Haven has to offer, which is a great social scene including fabulous restaurants and theaters, and where they can contribute directly to the underserved populations through the Immigration Clinic or the Landlord-Tenant Clinic, among others. Yale also offers a lot of academic freedom, in terms of choosing courses in and out of the Law School, taking clinics, or pursuing independent research, so it’s great for students who want to tailor their legal education to a specific interest or explore a lot of different options. Of course, there are students who prefer a larger school environment and who like a little more anonymity – Yale may not be the best place for them. Yale may also not be the right place for people who don’t like an urban setting or prefer very large cities, where they can “disappear” into a different social scene at the end of the day. Finally, Yale might be overwhelming for students who like a more programmatic approach to areas of the law, rather than one where you choose your own adventure, so to speak. I agree with Dean Perry that prospective students should take the time to visit and speak with lots of current students to see whether the school would be a good fit for them.
Stanford: We’re small – with one faculty member for every eight students. You’ll find a close-knit community where students, faculty and staff know each other very well and one in which we all look out for each other. There’s something to be said about being on the west coast where, as our dean has said, “tradition and the way things have always been done weigh less heavily” on us. We’re in the country’s largest, most diverse and most dynamic state and located in the heart of Silicon Valley. In other words, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and kicking so when you do your research on SLS it should not surprise you to discover students creating new and innovative programs – designing a curriculum for Afghanistan law schools or working on law and development issues in Bhutan. You’ll also find a distinct interdisciplinary approach here that you’ll not find anywhere else. Want to create a joint degree unique to your area of interest? It’s doable and in many cases in the same amount of time that you’ll take to finish the JD and at no extra cost. Weaknesses? Some will say our size is our weakness. We work hard, though, to overcome this perceived weakness by drawing on the strengths of the rest of the University. When you consider an offer from SLS, you really should also be thinking about how Stanford University fits into the picture because you will most definitely draw on the resources of the greater University as you make your way through three years here.
Ah, the happiness index. Here’s the secret about finding a place where you’ll be happy…it’s all about fit. Dean Perry and Dean Rangappa are absolutely right – visit the schools. Talk to current students. Talk to alums. Talk to faculty. Talk to administrators. See how you think you’d fit in. Do you envision yourself at a particular school? Do you envision yourself as part of the law school community? And, most importantly, do you envision yourself thriving? You’ll discover that you have a gut feeling about a particular place. Listen …and trust your instincts.
NYU: As my colleagues suggest, strengths and weaknesses of a particular law school are really in the eye of the beholder. We consider our size an asset. Students who are happy here are those who thrive on having a wide range of choice – be it courses, clinics, student organizations and groups. A larger student body and more course offerings means that students can explore a very wide area of study – everything from corporate/business law to international legal studies to philosophy to public interest law. Someone who finds this kind of array daunting might not be at home at NYU. Those who feel at home are people who enjoy living, working and studying in an energized environment – where the law school calendar is loaded with speakers, workshops, conferences and events for students to become engaged in cutting- edge legal issues. We are fortunate to have a fantastic location in a beautiful historic neighborhood that offers opportunities to enjoy all of the cultural pleasures of New York City. Students who are happiest here are open to new experiences, challenges and being part of a student body that is not homogenous. Thanks to our robust graduate program for foreign lawyers, our JD students work and live with other students from over fifty foreign countries. And yet, we are a law school that values the importance of community. Most of our faculty members live nearby, and many of our students live in Law School owned and operated residence halls. Students here are willing and able to seek out opportunities to work with faculty members on their research or in one of the Law School’s more than 25 research centers. There is abundant opportunity to build close working relationships with faculty because of the 9:1 student to faculty ratio. I think that students who prefer a quieter, more bucolic setting, those who are accustomed to a slower pace of life, or prefer a high degree of anonymity might find NYU and New York City quite an adjustment.
Columbia: I would concur with what has been said about strengths and weaknesses being primarily about the fit between an institution and a prospective student’s preferences. That being said, we think our size strikes the right balance between providing intense interactions between faculty and students, fostering durable relationships amongst students, and having the critical mass necessary to animate an extraordinary range of courses and extracurricular opportunities. We feel strongly that our clinical programs, externships, journals, international programs, student organizations and centers for research and study, must enjoy strong, consistent participation to be the impactful experiences we want them to be, and that our size makes that possible. We also place a high value on our presence in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York, which is both calm and urban, while providing proximity to not only some of the leading cultural institutions in the nation, but also to one of the most sophisticated legal communities and judiciaries in the world, as well as business, public interest and international organizations. New York is also just a fun place to live for our students and a fantastic backdrop for their friends and families to visit. Other strengths include the diversity and international nature of our student body and faculty, a group of professors that are really focused on the importance of teaching, and our access to the full range of resources of a world-class University. As for weaknesses, I suppose I would echo what colleagues have said about some people perhaps finding the pace and activity of a place like New York a little overwhelming at first. Of course my response to those people is that they should visit and see for themselves.
Michigan: Well, this is the worst question for going last! Saying “I agree with my colleagues” just doesn’t fly, does it? Beyond the strengths common to any top law school—a brilliant faculty who will get you to think in ways you never have before, and a brilliant cohort of fellow students who will expand you even further – I would identify our two principal strengths as career options and community. Geographically, our graduates spread out among the major US metropolitan areas and beyond, typically going to about 35 states—not to mention the significant number who start their careers overseas. That spread creates a lot of flexibility, particularly when you’re looking for a job in a tight market. And the jobs they get are highly sought after—placing well in clerkships, in academia, in the largest law firms, and in the most prestigious government and public interest organizations. But before you look for a job, you have to get through law school; for people who want to immerse themselves in the law school experience, Michigan is a great choice. There is a strong sense of connection among students, and between students and faculty, and that can be very rewarding. But that can be a drawback, too, depending on what you’re seeking: if you’re hoping to treat law school as a job, you may feel out of sync at Michigan.
Can you describe the archetypical student for your school?
NYU: New York University School of Law is a large, dynamic community located in the heart of New York City and enrolls an entering class of about 450 students. We attract an extraordinarily diverse student body representing the widest possible range of students based on background, interests, experience and perspectives. While I could take this opportunity to turn on the usual viewbook noise, let me try to be more helpful and candid. NYU is an incredibly busy place. Thanks to our location in New York City with our 28 centers and 65 student groups the calendar is chock a block with events every week. Students who come here embrace the energy and dynamism and are able to balance many competing interests.
Columbia: Apart from being intellectually and academically prepared to succeed in what is a very challenging JD program, and having a record of engagement and dynamism, we actually prefer that our students have little else in common. The reason is simple: the strength of student body lies within its differences. Our students nevertheless value the sense of community derived from being among people with such varied backgrounds, experiences, and interests, while simultaneously sharing common goals of engaging in superior scholarship and training, as well as collaborating with and learning from one another. They also embrace the advantages of being part of a truly great University and an even larger campus—New York City. The end result of this emphasis on variation has consistently been a cohesive and vibrant learning community, and the prevention of anything resembling an “average Columbia Law Student.”
Michigan: So true! I have a sort of stock answer when people ask me to describe the typical, or the ideal, Michigan Law student—there’s no such thing. It is absolutely the case that it is precisely all the differences among our students that make the student experience here so rich and engaging. That said, to really thrive and be happy here, a student should be engaged both in intellectual life and in community life. This isn’t a great place to come if your ideal law school experience is attending class and then quickly departing to conduct the rest of your life; a huge part of the benefit of Michigan Law is active interaction with everyone else around here—the law students and faculty, and the greater University community. And one myth I have to bust: although we’re a public institution, only about 20% of our class is from the state of Michigan—the number of people relocating from the coasts outnumber the Michiganders themselves by a ratio of two to one, and even outnumber the people from the Midwest as a whole.
Chicago: I think our student body is one of the top reasons for coming to the University of Chicago Law School. We have a very diverse student body and I define diversity very broadly. We have ethnic and geographic diversity as we have students from all over the country and even world. They bring with them their history and experiences. We have many different ideologies present and active in the community include liberal, conservative and libertarian. Many voices get heard in the classroom which enriches that educational experience for each student. Chicago is a place where students take an active role in learning through the discussions inspired both in and outside the classroom. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences which furthers the goals of the legal education. Students hear many sides of a given argument while voicing their own perspective which is great preparation for the practice of law in a very diverse world.
Yale: I didn’t know Michigander was a word. Anyway, I think all of us agree that we can’t describe a “typical” student, because we each admit individuals, not characteristics. However, I will say that Yale is probably less structured than most law schools, with only one term of required courses. We offer a “choose your own adventure” approach to law school, meaning that people with similar interests will often take very different paths to get to the same goal, and that is encouraged. We don’t offer students a checklist of how to do x,y, or z, but we advise them on options. So I would say that a common feature of Yale students is that they are very entrepreneurial – a good number of our clinics, social impact projects, and even academic workshops are student-created.
Stanford: Let me echo what my colleagues have all mentioned – there is no such thing as a typical student. Students will choose us over another school for a variety of reasons – whether it’s because we’re on the west coast or because of our interdisciplinary focus or because of our size and the absolute ease with which you are able to build relationships with classmates and faculty that run deep and last a lifetime or because of the strength of the intellectual experience you will experience. Not surprisingly, you may find yourself admitted to all the schools – NYU, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago, Yale and Stanford. The overlap in admissions decisions is not all that unusual. The decision as to where you will end up is entirely yours. Maybe you’re accustomed to the urban life and Palo Alto is a bit quiet for you. Maybe you’re from a small town and want the big city experience. Maybe you want to be in an environment where you know each of your classmates. Maybe you want an experience vastly different from your small liberal arts undergraduate experience. All the offers are coming in and each school has some similar aspects and some different aspects. But, the real issue is this: What is it that YOU are looking for in the school where you will spend the next three years of your life? What is it about our school that resonates with YOU?