Earlier this week, Vivia Chen wrote a piece on the American Lawyer’s Careerist blog, summarizing a long (and very enjoyable) conversation the two of us had the other day. The conversation covered a fair bit of territory—law school applications nationally and at Michigan in particular; waitlist activity; binding early decision plans; administrative structures at various law schools; legal hiring trends; and so on and so forth (getting pretty far afield onto topics like children and their college decision-making). The boiling down of about 60 minutes can be read in full here, Michigan Dean Says Law Schools Are Looking Beyond LSATs—but what has intrigued me is the way that boiled-down version got further boiled down by blog-reprisers to one takeaway about the LSAT, namely, something along the lines of my saying: “The LSAT sucks, and I am breaking free of its fetters.”
And here I thought I was making a wholly uncontroversial observation. In a period of a shrunken national applicant pool, in a world where there are a finite number of high LSAT scores, many, if not all, law schools will be increasingly faced with a choice of dropping the median LSAT or admitting at least some candidates whose sole appealing characteristic is a high LSAT score. Given that, I believe law school admissions offices are likely to make the choice to take a lower LSAT that is coupled with everything else they seek in an applicant, rather than to be fixated on the LSAT, to the exclusion of every other consideration.
Let’s start with the shrinking number of high LSAT scores. Think about it this way: If 200,000 people sit for the LSAT in a given year, 2,000 people will be in the top 1%; if 100,000 people sit, only 1,000 will be in the top 1%. So, when you have fewer people sitting for the LSAT, you will have roughly the same percentage of people getting any given score—say, a 172 or 173 and above, which typically corresponds to the 99th percentile—but you’ll have a smaller number of people with that score. In 2009-10, the high water mark, more than 170,000 sat for the LSAT. Last year saw a drop of about one-third since then: almost 60,000 fewer people sat, for a total of about 110,000. Ergo, about 1,100 were in the top 1%—roughly 1,100 people had scores of 172 or 173 and above.
Combined, the top 15 law schools alone have seats for more than 1,000 people.
Now, some of the 1,100 people with tippy-top scores won’t apply at all. But of the ones who do, some of them will have zero work experience. Others will write personal statements suggesting what might be gently called “challenging personalities.” Some of them will have a couple of felonies. Some of them will have truly catastrophic UGPAs. And so on.
In other words, because there’s a serious shortage of high LSATs, there’s going to be an even more dire shortage of people with high LSATs who are overall strong candidates. Recognizing this, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that a law school that commits to maintaining an LSAT median at all costs will soon find itself constrained to admit candidates who are palpably lacking in other respects.
Now, the tendency of law school admissions directors to over-rely on the LSAT has long been criticized. I personally have been called an LSAT w**** on more than one occasion. (Then again, I’ve also taken some flak for a willingness to experiment in a limited way with foregoing the LSAT as a matric. I’m tricky.) Being an ornery lawyer, when so accused, I am very comfortable firing back with a strong defense of the LSAT: It is, in my view, unquestionably the best admissions test out there, and if you told me I could only use one criterion in making admissions decisions, I’m pretty sure that would be the one I would choose.
But! It ain’t perfect. And not just because some test-takers will get law school grades outperforming what their LSAT scores would have predicted, but also because it is not designed to be perfect, from an overall admissions perspective. The Law School Admissions Council itself, in its Advice to Law Schools on Use of LSAT Scores, is quite forthright about the limits of this unique criterion’s utility: “[W]hile LSAT scores serve a useful purpose in the admission process, they do not measure, nor are they intended to measure, all the elements important to success at individual institutions. LSAT scores must be examined in relation to the total range of information available about a prospective law student.” Likewise, LSAC advises, “[s]cores should be viewed as approximate indicators rather than exact measures of an applicant's abilities. Distinctions on the basis of LSAT scores should be made among applicants only when those score differences are reliable.” Thus, even the most diehard LSAT supporter has to acknowledge that it is a misuse of the LSAT to rely on small score differences as the basis for a decision. For this reason, the LSAC publishes “scorebands” for each test result: six-point bands designed to quantify the extent to which “[t]he LSAT, like any standardized test, is not a perfect measuring instrument.” Each individual score should properly be viewed as plus-or-minus three points, which is the standard error of measurement.
And yet: admissions officers do in fact assign weight to even one-point differences. The degree to which this occurs varies among offices and among application years, but the standard explanation for the behavior is that admissions officers generally report feeling subject to enormous external pressures to maximize each entering class’s median LSAT. Some of this pressure is blamed on the omnipresent rankings, but honestly, even in the absence of rankings, I believe there would exist a certain compulsion each year to equal or better the past year’s median.
The current relative dearth of high scores, though, provides a new, strong countervailing pressure. When there are a lot of high LSAT scores, there are a lot of applicants who have both a high LSAT and interesting qualities. Making admissions decisions in that case requires fewer hard choices: You can maintain your median LSAT and have an interesting class.
But no competent admissions director, in my view, wants to enroll a class with a high median LSAT accompanied by a high median vacant stare and a high median inability to string words together into a sentence. Lawyers need to be able to write, to communicate orally, to interact well with people. Law schools, to fulfill their educational missions, need students who have something to share, experientially, with their colleagues. I have yet to have a faculty member compliment me on getting someone with a high LSAT, but they frequently express excitement about their students’ useful and instructive pre-law-school-life experiences.
I’m sure I’m not alone in my views. My informal observations this admission season suggest that my colleagues at other schools have been much more likely this year to admit the well-prepared and interesting student with an LSAT score that is a couple of points below last year’s median. When the push of tough decisions faces the shove of the rankings, I believe that most admissions officers at most schools will admit the students who, taken as a whole—with the LSAT as one component of that whole—they think will be most likely to make the institution proud in the long run. To me, that’s just common sense.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
The potential paths to satisfying legal employment are many and varied, but one standard piece of advice is to network. Whether you’re looking for a 1L summer job or hoping to make a lateral move as a seasoned lawyer, connecting with lawyers who are already doing the sort of work you hope to do has the potential to get you where you want to go. But it only works if you make a successful
connection. Now, even the most charming email written in the most targeted way won’t always create the kind of spark that inspires the recipient to invest in your job search, but everyone can get aboard with this attainable goal: Don’t annoy the hell out of the recipient.
Learning from the mistakes of others is always nice, combining all the advantage of self-improvement without the need for any pesky personal missteps. A non-Michigan Law grad lawyer friend—yes, I have those—received an inquiry from a recent graduate of the same alma mater. The recent grad’s email conveyed just three bits of information: (1) she had learned of my friend from a third alum; (2) she is “based in” a city that is not where my friend lives; and (3) she would like to talk to my friend. Other than the shared alma mater, she didn’t proffer any reason why they would have anything to talk about. She described nothing of the work she sought, and gave not even the briefest description of her own background. Nothing in the email suggested why my friend might a good resource. And, in fact, given that one of her three sentences implied that she was looking for work in a different legal market, the reasonable conclusion would be that my friend wouldn’t be of any particular assistance.
The gentlest characterization I can come up with for this email is that it was a bit . . . lackadaisical. The writer appeared to have taken no time to do any research about the person she was importuning, and didn’t personalize the communication in the slightest. Presumably, the email was a template that she had sent to zillions of lawyers, but it is unfathomable to me that any of the emails ever elicited a positive response. After all, how many advertising circulars do you read with close attention? And at least those are selling something that theoretically may be personally beneficial to you; in our scenario, the person is basically soliciting a donation to an unknown cause.
Volume emailing is just no substitute for effort. At a bare minimum, you have to signal to the recipient what, exactly, you are seeking. How much of a donation to this unknown cause do you actually want? Any open-ended request to “talk” is likely to fill the heart of any legal professional with dread. Most lawyers measure out their lives in the coffeespoons of one-10th of an hour increments, and all of them feel understandably leery about starting any conversation with a stranger that might lead to their devoting three or four or five coffeespoons before they can extract themselves.
I would not have been surprised had my friend chosen to ignore this email entirely. But she instead wrote back in a noncommittal but friendly way, suggesting the recent grad keep an eye on her firm’s website and providing a link to the section where jobs get posted. She added that she’d be happy to talk if it would be helpful, but that she doubted she had any advice that was much different from whatever advice the emailer had already received from the alumna who had punted the connection to my friend in the first place.
While that response could be seen as a brush-off, it definitely left enough of a crack in the door to suggest to an assiduous job-hunter that the interaction was even yet salvageable. (The fact that the very minimal email overture elicited even this much of a response actually, in my view, speaks to the reflexive inclination of many, if not most, people to be helpful when asked.) She could have recovered her earlier fumble (NB: that was a football analogy! I thought of it all by myself!) by saying, “Thanks so much for your kind response. Here’s why I’d like to talk to you: your background in XYZ makes me think you would be perfect for advising me about ABC,” or something along those lines. A well-turned compliment would not have been misplaced. An acknowledgment that her correspondent is a very busy person might have been well-received.
That is not, however, the tack she took. She instead went the unusual route of berating her would-be helper: “One wonders if at the time that you graduated, you, too, were directed to a website and if that was helpful to you in finding your first position? I always ask myself if the senior, settled, lawyers of today recall at all what it was like for them when they were finding their first position with a firm? Moreover, I am uncertain if you have knowledge of what others may have suggested to me. Many thanks.”
Now, I have been known to indulge in sarcasm from time to time. Like, 60 times an hour during most of my waking moments, more or less. But one must consider one’s audience! What on earth can the indulgence in a fit of pique do for the job-seeking cause? Rather than putting this job-seeker on a short list of talented potential future associates, my friend instead went back to the initial alum, who allegedly steered the recent grad to my friend in the first place, to ask, “Who is this person, and why did you saddle me with her?” She thereby learned that the recent grad had found the initial alum through the magic of Google, and that the initial alum likewise had no particular connection with her; she told my friend that as far as she was concerned, my friend should ignore the recent grad, and she would plan to do the same.
When one email leads two different lawyers to resolve never to help you, your networking attempt has gone awry. That’s, like, the anti-job search. And it was an outcome that was eminently avoidable.
Right as I was about to put the finishing touches on this post, I happened to notice an apropos piece in today’s ABA Daily e-Journal, referring to words of wisdom in a similar vein from law admissions consultant Anna Ivey. (Thank heavens I’m not writing law review articles here, allowing me to view Ivey’s contribution not as preemptive, but as external validation.) Ivey actually recommends largely eschewing email, and doing all networking in person, but I wouldn’t go that far. I tend to think that because lawyers are often introverts, many will actually prefer email as a gentler, more manageable initial interaction—and in fact, I can think of an enormous number of job-search successes that stemmed from an email exchange (often, frankly, with no more connective tissue than a shared alma mater and an interest in the same legal field). But the email has to be well-done; while most people lack the sheer chutzpah that will get them irrevocably placed on a do-not-hire list, an email that elicits enthusiasm will require effort and thought.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
A decade is equivalent to about a century in Internet years. I think back to the way electronic communication was being used at the beginning of my time in admissions (2001) with a sort of amazement. The contrast between the relative stasis in other aspects of my life since that time—I haven't grown any taller, for example; I have not improved my running speed; I have not developed new hobbies or excellent character traits—and how dramatically antediluvian it feels in terms of the webworld is striking.
Sometime around the very beginning of my admissions tenure, I had a conversation with a law student in which we were musing about the issue of anonymous postings in law school admissions forums. She had been an active participant throughout her admissions process the preceding year on an early incarnation of law school discussion boards: the sarcastically titled xoxohth, self-described as the "most prestigious law school discussion board in the world"—and had some lingering anxiety about the possibility of being unmasked to the world of legal employers. At least at the time, you see, the conversations on xoxohth were perennially . . . well, let's call them edgy, often devolving into wildly racist and sexist and generally loathsome rants. (The site is still alive and kicking, but it seems to have been more or less supplanted—in any event, I cannot report on the current tenor of the conversations.) My law student pal had not been (at least, this is what she told ME) one of Those Sorts of Posters, but she was aware that the unfortunate tone might imbue even the PG-13-rated participants with a certain redolence. Her position was that admissions officers (and, now that she was a law student, prospective employers) ought to avert their collective gaze from xoxohth, and certainly ought not ever to try to determine who anyone was.
On the one hand, I would happily sign a pledge about never trying to determine who anyone is—who has time? And really, who wants to know even if they do have time? But I told her that whatever the merits of her argument from an ethics standpoint, I thought it was completely unrealistic to think that the bulk of admissions officers would be able to resist the lure. Any sensible poster should consider that likelihood in framing her comments. I mean—it's called the worldwide web. Come on.
Putting that question to the side, though, I parted company with her on the argument that admissions officers ought not look at all. Now, even back in those days of my relative youth I tended to want to avoid direct contact with that kind of forum because it made me feel cranky—but I would often ask the more equanimous Admissions Office staffers to check in periodically and let me know if there were any conversational trends that affected our work. That system worked beautifully, because the cleaned-up Reader's Digest version I would hear gave me helpful intel without plunging me into misanthropic despair. (Note: In keeping with today's theme of the passing-of-time, it occurred to me that law school applicants may not be familiar with Reader's Digest—and indeed, a quick Google search revealed that a mere 26 minutes earlier, a story had come out about a new round of bankruptcy petitioning for the magazine. That suggests both that no one will know what it is AND that I am incredibly timely.)
Anyway, I explained all this to the law student and asked her if she really thought admissions officers should avoid a forum where the consumers of their work were opining about the effectiveness of that work. Wouldn't it be actually professionally irresponsible to pay no attention? After all, I said, if law school admissions officers constructed an anonymous forum in which we recounted the best and worst of our daily interactions with applicants, I would expect any sane and on-the-ball applicant to be checking it out, trying to gauge tips for increasing the chance of admission. (And PS, almost certainly trying to figure out which poster was Asha Rangappa and which was Faye Deal….).
I cannot now recall the outcome of that exchange of views—did I persuade her even a jot?—but that conversation nonetheless came rushing back to me the other day when an admissions colleague (I shall not reveal the identity!) sent a link to this little tumblr gem from the world of undergrad admissions:
Now, I have not so thoroughly reviewed the site as to be able to assert whether I think every offering is reflective of the views of a minority or a plurality or a majority or an overwhelming near-unanimous supermajority of admissions officers, but I can say for sure that it's pretty fantastic. I share it now as a philanthropic educational gesture. Enjoy.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
Last week, we got an email from an admitted student asking us to withdraw his application because he was headed instead to another school. He mentioned that one element of his decision was that, having been admitted to the summer start1, he feared that it would be harder for him to get a job. His concern stemmed from something on our admitted student site, written by former summer-starters, about what they saw as the advantages of the summer start. (If you’re an admitted student, you can log in to read the communication in toto.) In the course of their lengthy exegesis, the summer-starters debunked some anti-summer myths they had heard, including this: “Because lots of other schools have conditional-admit programs2 that begin in the summer, employers will think you’re in some kind of remedial program in you’re in Michigan’s summer start.” In response, they espoused their anecdotal theory that it might actually be easier to get jobs as a summer-starter, but in so doing acknowledged that, as students, they weren’t in a position to “deal with ‘facts’ and ‘data’”—matters better tackled by Admissions and Career Planning administrators.
The withdrawing student read the student-authors’ eschewing of facts and data to mean that the Law School itself was affirmatively unwilling or unable to support the students’ claims with facts and data. This reading—quite understandably—gave him serious concern. But his reading was wrong. Now, if someone were to write the breezy little “facts and data” comment today and hand it to me for review, my antenna would go up, because I have been thoroughly sensitized to the many issues about outcomes and data. My sensitivities were quite different, though, when the letter was written a few years ago, before the massive paradigm shift occasioned by the economic contraction. Further, until our withdrawing student, no one had advanced any concerns about either the phrasing on the website or the overarching question. Further still, while the difference between starting in the summer and starting in the fall can be a weighty consideration for individual enrolling students, those of us within the institution don’t experience the summer- and fall-starters as fundamentally different, and therefore don’t break down data along those lines. In other words, while I feel more than a little abashed that our annual scouring of the website didn’t unearth this as something worthy of updating, all I can say is—better late than never?! Not to mention, thankyouverymuch to the withdrawing student for raising my consciousness.
I’m happy to illustrate now, with the aid of actual facts and data, the bearing out of the anecdotal intuitions of the authoring students. Below are the most recent three years’ worth of data on graduating students, broken down by year and term, as well as aggregated for all graduating students, all graduating summer-starters (who graduate in December), and all graduating fall-starters (who graduate in May):
Arguably, the summer-starters are consistently a bit more interested in doing public interest work than are the fall-starters, but that’s the sole category where I can discern a potentially meaningful difference.
Feeling that 2011 data might seem a little old (the data on 2012 grads is still being crunched, and won’t be ready for another month or so), I also pestered Career Planning for a little data on the 2L summer jobs of this year’s 3Ls (i.e., the jobs that the December 2012/May 2013 grads had in the summer of 2012), on the theory that one’s 2L summer job is a decent predictor of one’s immediate post-grad job. Now, bear with me as I engage in a little reflexive distancing of myself from the argument I’m about to make: I am most certainly not of the mindset that private law firms are the universal Great White Whales of legal jobs. Of the 2L jobs I saw listed for the summer of 2012, I personally was pretty intrigued by Harley-Davidson and the Farm Animal Reform Movement (and I noticed several people on the list who had been signed up to go to formerly über-fancy and now-imploded Dewey & Leboeuf, but who had to turn on a dime during finals to line up an alternative). As a general category, the happiest lawyers I know work for the ACLU and various U.S. Attorney’s offices. All of which is to say, please do not read what I’m about to write as an argument that the only worthy post-law-school job is one at a private firm.
Blah blah blah. Forgive my digression. The point I was leading up to is this: Noting the percentage of people going to private law firms is a reasonable way to gauge the kinds of opportunities graduates from particular schools have available. To be sure, you may very well choose to do something different with your freedom of choice—more than one student has had me urge him or her to resist mindless prestige-seeking behavior (hi, BC!)—but having some freedom in the first place is the key. To that end, it is worth noting that overall, two-thirds of last year’s 2Ls went to private firms—and while a very respectable 63% of the fall-starters did so, a whopping 78% of the summer-starters did. (Now, that would seem to contradict the public-interest pattern of the summer-starters from the immediate prior three years of graduates, but maybe these summer-starters will bear out my do-something-different-with-your-freedom scenario and choose to pursue other opportunities after graduation.)
In short: A case cannot be made that outcomes for summer-starters are materially different, let alone materially worse, than outcomes for fall-starters. There are many reasons an individual might prefer either a fall or a summer start, but concern about finding a law job ought not to be on the list.
And now, a plea: if you have a question or concern—whether prompted by something on our website, or by something else entirely—by all means, raise it with us! The student who so helpfully asked the question that prompted this post suggested that he knew other admitted students who shared his concern, but that they were reluctant to ask lest they appear rude. One of the things you are trained to do as a lawyer is to think critically and ask a lot of questions; it is, perhaps, the lawyerly trait most likely to drive non-lawyers crazy, and that may be why 0Ls, not yet lawyers, would worry that it is rude behavior. Certainly, you can ask questions in a rude way, but the mere fact of asking is not, to my mind, even remotely rude—and in general, a group of lawyers is probably the last group of people to get their backs up. So, please: ask!
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
1Approximately one-quarter of every entering class at Michigan are summer-starters, while three-quarters are fall-starters. Applicants indicate at the time they fill out their application whether they’re willing to enter in the summer and if not, we don’t consider them for a summer spot. A student who wants to change his or her enrollment term after admission has to make a request to do so, and proffer a reason.
2A few law schools offer conditional-admission programs, where a formal offer is contingent upon a student’s successfully completing a term, often in the summer, prior to full-fledged enrollment. We do not offer that kind of program.
I spent a lot of time reading Edna St. Vincent Millay during my romance-addled teen years. The random thoughts in my head this morning made me think of her figs—so below, without St. Vincent Millay's rhyming or elegance, a few figs:
When a résumé has a section for "interests," I always get a little excited—it's like a tiny little piece of chocolate at the end of the meal. But if you're going to list your interests, for crying out loud, make them interesting. The "interests" section has a dual purpose: one, let the reader know a little something extracurricular about you, and give them some basis for a connection. You can serve the former purpose with the barest-bones of descriptions, but not the latter. "Reading, sports, and travel" might tell me something I didn't otherwise know about your predilections, but it doesn't make you stand out, nor does it give me a basis for starting a conversation. "Nineteenth-century English literature, Tigers baseball, and hiking the Appalachian trail"? Much grabbier, and now I know what I'm dealing with. Specific is good. Tell me pinochle, not card-playing; badminton, not sports; amateur auto mechanic, not cars.
As we sometimes do, assistant dean Susan Guindi and I chatted yesterday with Kyle McEntee of Law School Transparency, asking him a few stray questions about data collection and best practices and so forth. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned that only 33% of law schools have adopted what was LST's signature cause when the group was founded: the posting of NALP reports online. In some ways, this cause has taken on less prominence as the ABA has expanded its reporting requirements and, in turn, required schools to post the results. But still. Posting the NALP report is a tiny little baby step—the smallest of voluntary gestures toward a commitment to transparency. Having now done it for almost two years, I can attest that the roof did not cave in as a result. Sure, it did lead us down a path to thinking about how far we could push the envelope: what information we could share without making incursions on privacy. But schools don't have to go so far as to declare such specifics to the world as having a sheep farmer and a professional poker player in their graduating class to make some salubrious steps toward being a bit more forthcoming.
We're doing it again: Twitterpaloozafest redux. Sure, last time, our foray into the diminutive rage in social networking coincided with Hurricane Sandy—but gripping tightly to the thought that mid-December does not appear to be prime-time for extreme weather events, we are, with some trepidation, going to try again.
I am, frankly, nervous even writing that, lest the weather gods are paying attention.
All law schools ask questions about previous incidents of misconduct. Specifics vary—arrests, or just convictions? Criminal, or civil infractions too?—but the basic point of the inquiry is the same: Are you someone to be trusted in a professional setting where there is a lot of latitude for doing harm to vulnerable clients? (And, in most cases to a much lesser degree, are you going to have any trouble becoming a member of the state bar somewhere?) To that end, all schools ask that a "yes" answer be followed up with "details." What we mean is—what did you do? We want the story, the narrative—not a citation to the section of the state code you violated. I mean, you're welcome to provide that too, but if that's all you provide, you're missing the point, and you end up sounding defensive and evasive. Tell me, "In my first year of college, on the second day of orientation, I went to a fraternity party with everyone on my floor. They served beer, and I drank it. When I left the fraternity house, I walked straight into the arms of the local police, who were waiting for naïfs like myself. In retrospect, attending that party was monumentally poor decisionmaking on my part. I pleaded guilty, did yada yada yada in the way of punishment, and learned several important lessons." Telling me, "On August 25, 2009, I was charged with violation of Section 436.170 under the Michigan Liquor Control Code of 1998, Purchase, consumption, or possession of alcoholic liquor by minor. I pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to blah blah blah as punishment, and have had no prior criminal convictions since that time," is not telling me anything particularly illuminating.
Yesterday, the legendary J.J. White taught his last class. Our tradition is that faculty, administrators, and staff file into the classroom for the last ten minutes or so, and then clap the professor out of the room at the conclusion. Because I am a completely sentimental sap, I started nearly hyper-ventilating just upon entering the room, and it was very hard not to cry. OK, I did cry. (Lindsey Stetson '05, assistant director in Admissions, has similar sappy tendencies, and she made sure not to stand near me, for fear that we would set each other off into actual howling.) It was an absolute inspiration to contemplate how much of an impact this one individual has had on the lives of so many students—and colleagues, for that matter. What is it about J.J. White that allows him to call me "a pushy broad" with the result that I feel even more affection for him? Mysterious.
Sometimes I will unexpectedly stumble across an item I wrote at some point in the distant past, and upon rereading, I'll be thrilled to discover I still like it. That's a wonderful feeling—very self-affirming.
That is not the feeling I get when rereading my law school personal statement. More accurate adjectives include "shame," "revulsion," and "horror."
After a couple of seasons in this position, way back in 2003 or so, I got up the nerve to go dig out my application file from the huge storage room hidden deep in the recesses of Hutchins Hall. Given the weight I put on personal statements when I read them, going back to check out my own seemed like a clever idea. Without actually remembering, I'm going to guess that I expected a nice self-affirming experience, but alas, no. I loathed my personal statement to such a degree that I had the Looper-style existential crisis of realizing that if I had been my own dean of admissions, I would not have admitted myself. I returned my personal statement to the vault, resolving never to speak or think of it again.
But as Freud got famous for observing, repressed thoughts have a tricky way of coming back on you. My stupid personal statement would worm its way into my brain every once in a while, and finally, about a year and a half ago, I got the idea of tearing it apart for this blog: part philanthropic, educational gesture; part exorcism. It took me another year or so to get the nerve to go dig out my application file folder again, and yet another six months to beat back the waves of nausea that washed over me every time I peeked at the essay inside. But here we are. I think I'm ready. Let's just tackle this horrifying task bird by bird.1
Often I am asked, "What's a good subject for a personal statement? Do I have to explain why I want to attend law school?" No!, I unambiguously respond. (I say it just like that, with an exclamation mark.) While your life path to law school might very well be in the background of whatever you write, it is certainly not necessary—and usually not desirable—to make it an explicit rendering. Often, even well-considered reasons behind wanting to attend law school are fairly mundane and simply expressed, not to mention shared by many candidates, with the result that any essay focusing principally on them is not particularly compelling. Occasionally, candidates will have very targeted, well-established career interests (e.g., the emergency room doctor who wants a career in health law; the school superintendent who wants a career in education law), and those make for compelling essays. But "I would like to have intellectual challenge in my career; I like unraveling problems; I like research and writing," are such bland—though completely valid—explanations that they inevitably fail to engage the "personal" part of the personal statement mission. So, while those motivations might be the undercurrent of a personal statement, constructing the essay as an explicit "because A, then B" endeavor is not likely to be riveting.
Another bit of advice I frequently give along those lines is that people who have had experiences very early in life that set them on the path toward law should focus instead on something of more recent vintage. Don't tell me about how you got an idea as a child about wanting to be a lawyer—I would prefer to know why, now that you're an adult, your application is in front of me.
Given my standard advice, how much, on a scale of 1 to 10, do you think I loved reading this opening line? "My interest in law school began when I was eight." Really, just terrible.
From there, my long-ago self went on to explain that that was the year my mother went to law school. Now, my mother's move was a pretty bold one in 1972 for a 38-year-old mother of three in Main Line Philadelphia, and 40 years later, I still find it admirable and inspiring. I may have just finished generally criticizing this sort of theme (and this shows the danger of general advice), but it seems not impossible that this could have been an interesting topic. Yet, for reasons mysterious to me now, I seem to have made a deliberate choice back in 1989 to explore my topic in the most ham-handed imaginable way. (And let's just politely avert our gazes from my having identified my mom's degree, in the second sentence, as a juris doctorate.)
Mostly, my personal statement is hard to read because of the hyper-formal tone I took. I can dimly remember writing with my unknown audience in mind, and picturing them as super, super, super stiff and humorless and scary—also, for some reason, I pictured at least 10 of them simultaneously reading my application. Unsurprisingly, writing to please an audience like that turns out to make for clunky prose—not to mention really awkward, unnatural phrasing.
The whole thing is peppered with words that seem a little—off. I don't remember doing this, but it reads as if wrote it out normally and then went back to up the syllable count, substituting five-dollar words for my
daily quotidian vocabulary, like some horrible Google translate feature gone awry. Here's a little writing advice from Stephen King on that score: "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule."2 (I would have been better served to use a dictionary, given that on at least one occasion I misused a word completely: "disinterest," which means "lack of bias," when in fact I meant "lack of interest.")
Doubtless, it was this same classing-it-up impulse that led me to quote Judge Learned Hand, whose work I had never actually read. Again, I don't remember doing this, but I presumably combed through a book of quotations to find something inspiring. (Remember, this debacle occurred pre-Internet; I actually had to go to a lot of effort to produce such an unreadable mess.) I'm going to take as an article of faith that, however much you may love the one sentence you have stumbled upon, quoting people whose work you do not actually know is always a bad idea.
My personal statement is also tedious; it is totally expositive, completely devoid of detail or anecdote. I could have told the funny story about the time I got dragged along to a meeting my mom had with her scariest professor, and announced upon exiting (while still in the doorway, mind you) in my loudest eight-year-old voice, "I think he's NICE!," and segued from that to something about how I should be admitted because I had already gotten over Paper Chase-style neuroses. Or I could have told the story about how I once got dragged along to class and sat in the back row next to one of her classmates, another non-traditional student (Episcopal priest turned Vietnam War protester turned would-be lawyer), who gave me whispered explanations of everything that was going on in the discussion, and credited him with some inspirational force. Or I could have told the story about her very young study group partner, who pulled me aside one day (in our living room, mind you) and whispered, "Go away, kid; you bother me," and explained that I was devoted to the cause of a jackass-free law school. And so on. But I chose instead to explicate in ponderous prose that I was Called To The Law. Shudder.
The flaws are not merely stylistic and thematic. The specific content stinks, too. I veered wildly between being braggy in a quite direct, unnuanced way, and talking excessively about other people, without clearly explaining the significance of those other people to me. And, as if I had never, ever been taught anything about constructing an essay, every paragraph is essentially a stand-alone endeavor. I did not seem to have any particular point I wanted to build to—I was, instead, largely throwing out separate thoughts that seemed potentially persuasive. Focusing on one particular thought or event, and developing that thoroughly, would have been likely to be more productive.
Have I mentioned it was awful?
In retrospect, I have a pretty good idea of how I came to write something so misguided. What I intended to write was something like this: My mom went to law school when I was young. It was an unusual move, and I admired her. In fact, though, she ended up absolutely hating being a lawyer, and then she died when I was in college, still hating it. That combination of circumstances made me really second-guess my previous certainty that The Law Was For Me. I therefore took some time to work in a law office and experiment with some other activities, and consider what I wanted from a career. Mission accomplished, and here I am, Michigan Law School. So, why didn't I just write that? Because at the time, I was really uncomfortable with the idea of writing about my mom to strangers; even four years after she died, it was still very much an open wound for me, and I was leery of in any way exploiting it. So, instead, I wrote in a completely elliptical way, and never connected the dots—to the extent, weirdly, that I never even said that she had died, just that she had gotten sick. There were two possible solutions for my fundamental writing problem: either pick some less-fraught subject or force myself to be direct.
The good news is, the hot waves of mortification that wash over me when I read it carry with them some helpful perspective. The personal statement is very important, but it is just one piece of the puzzle, balanced by the considerable amount of information elsewhere in the application. (At a completely practical level, this is one of the great virtues of the optional essay prompts we provide; for people tormented by the task of writing a free-form personal statement, the direct, focused questions often lead to a much better result.) Even though I retain a hard little nugget of disdain in my heart for my 24-year-old self, I have learned to be more generous to others. Knowing how badly I flubbed it makes me very admiring of those who don't, but also more forgiving of those who do. (And very thankful to Allan Stillwagon for having been forgiving of me.) Approach your personal statement as a five-minute conversation with a normal human being, at the end of which you hope the normal human being is thinking, "This person would be well-suited to be at XYZ law school when fall (or, perhaps, summer) comes."
And for heaven's sake, go easy with the thesaurus and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
1 Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott is my all-time favorite book on writing. Shout-out to Lisa Rudgers, who recommended it.
2 Stephen King's On Writing is my second-favorite book about writing. I have to dissent a bit from his anti-thesaurus edict, though. As one blogger noted, "Actually, I can think of one exception to this rule. I generally don't pluck words I don't know out of a thesaurus unless I'm trying to be funny, but if a word is on the tip of my tongue and I can't for the life of me think what it is, the thesaurus is a good way to find it."
I’ve been thinking a lot about women and law school lately. For one thing, tonight is the Jenny Runkles Banquet, and last week the committee that selects the annual recipients of the associated memorial scholarship met to consider the nominees. As is typical for this award, I was blown away by the strength of the pool. (Embarrassing truth: I feel very smug when I’m part of selection committees like this; inevitably, the other committee members are praising the amazingness of the students in question, and I feel about the same as I would if I had personally given birth to them all. It is not normal, I recognize, but at least it cannot fairly be said that I’m not invested in my job.) Now, the Jenny Runkles scholarship does not necessarily go to a woman; the criteria for the award are “selfless commitment to improving the Law School community and society as a whole, through devotion to public interest and diversity,” a wholly gender-neutral description. But nonetheless, the pool of nominees is typically dominated by females, and only one of the 21 recipients since the award’s inception in 2003 has been male (represent, Jay!). I’m sure one could construct a lengthy exegesis about what’s going on with that pattern, but I will decline to do so, and will instead simply observe that Jenny Runkles was herself an amazing young woman, and it is heartening to see kindred souls, of whatever gender, tread in her footsteps year after year.
But that theme of one gender winning all the goodies in a particular realm came up in a different context recently. My favorite publication for light-hearted legal gossip, the ABA e-journal (unlike me, those people really know how to write a blog, because everything is an easily digestible six sentences or so; LOVE that), ran an intriguing piece noting that “[o]nly 31 percent of ABA-accredited law schools have female students as law review editors-in-chief,” and that “[t]he number drops to 29 percent at U.S. News & World Report top 50 law schools.” I haven’t read the underlying study—what with it being longer than six sentences and all—so I can’t report on whether it actually looked only at law reviews per se, as opposed to all the student-run journals at a given institution. (What’s the difference?, might reasonably ask someone not steeped in the minutiae of law school hierarchies; the law review is typically the oldest student-run journal at a law school, and typically publishes more issues per year than other journals, and typically has a more selective membership application process than the other journals.)
In any event, my mental-health issues (involving inappropriate levels of competitiveness) made me want to do some digging. Where does Michigan stand? In a very good place, at least if you’re a woman, thankyouverymuch for asking. Looking at five of our journals (the Journal of Gender and Law employs a non-hierarchical structure without EICs, and our two provisional journals don’t as yet have a sufficient track record to be included) for the last five years shows that 15 of the 25 EICs were women—or 60 percent, about double the national average; the Law Review itself has had a woman at the helm 80 percent of the time. Michigan is single-handedly skewing the stats!
Now, what meaningful effect does this apparent dominance of women in our journals have? Hard to say. When Justice Kagan came to visit in September, I was struck by her assertion that being a woman has really made no difference in her approach to judicial decisionmaking; maybe that’s right, maybe not. But I will say this: it was Law School ladies who were behind the organizing of the recent (second annual) sex ed trivia contest. BUT, then again—two-thirds of the hosts were men. Working together—that’s the Michigan way.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
Readers of this blog may have noticed: short-winded I am not. See, supra, Everything I’ve Ever Blogged. And no one has ever seen my handiwork on the Law School’s Twitter account, @UMichLaw.
So who wants odds on whether I’m going to be able to conform to Twitter standards when it’s time for our giant Twitterpaloozafest? If you’re a law school prospective applicant, come see the trainwreck for yourselves: Monday, October 29, 8-9PM; follow #AskUMichLaw. The only thing that will be worse than having my head explode as I try to keep my answers to 140 characters or less (for the record, I feel strongly that the length standard for Twitter should be referred to as 140 characters or fewer, not less—but as far as I can tell, only NPR agrees with me, and even those paragons of rectitude revert to “less” in the URL) will be the sense of despair and desolation that will descend if no one asks anything at all.
Or, rather—let me put it this way:
I write a lot of words. Twitter will be hard: 140 characters or fewer?! Prospies, come C 4 yourself: @UMichLaw, 10/29, 8-9PM, #AskUMichLaw.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
I know, I know. This title is completely wrong. The phrase properly is, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck. I know this. But still, it is the wrong phrase that keeps running through my head.
Today is my first day of reading applications for the 2012-13 admissions season; up until now, the pace of fall recruiting travel has made cuddling up with application files impossible. (Our system is old-school; we still use tough-to-transport paper. Just think of the potential checked-bag fees!) It is an indicator of my suitability for my job, or perhaps of mental illness, that I was so excited to spend the day reading that I was wide awake and out of bed at 5 a.m., coffee in one hand, file in another. This early start meant, I am sorry to say, that several members of the admissions staff started their days with pesky emails from me, inquiring about this or that apparent small processing anomaly; generally, I think it is kind to let people have 15 or so minutes of adjustment to the work day before haranguing them, but alas, I just couldn’t wait. I was excited!!
Often, I am asked how long it takes me to read an application. My answer is necessarily vague, for a variety of reasons—the principal reason being that the length of time varies a great deal depending on the particular application. Is everything straightforward and consistent? Does it all make sense? Does a once-through read leave a clear impression of the candidate? If so, whether the outcome is positive or negative, it’s pretty quick. (In the first year or two of reading files, there are a lot of start-up costs; you have to figure out where on each page to look for certain information, and how information is typically presented. After 12 years and roughly 70,000 files, this much I have mastered.)
But when a file raises questions—What exactly does this employer do? Why does this person even want to go to law school? What should I make of this inconsistent record—is this person capable of doing the work here or not? What on earth was going on for this 18-month blank spot? Why does my read of this personal statement lead me to the opposite conclusion of the first person who read it?—one has to devote more time: to figuring out whether to chase down answers and/or actually doing the chasing down, and then, to figuring out what one thinks once one has the answers in hand.
Reading application files for the first time each season feels a bit like cranking up some old piece of crusted-up machinery. Or perhaps, because I love my running analogies, the first mile after a long hiatus. You have to get things going, get into gear. How do we do this, again? This morning, the ratio of questions to answers is . . . suboptimal. I have stared at individual files, trying to make up my mind, for far too long; I have gone back to re-read individual files far too many times. The pile of files I have set aside to revisit is tall; the pile of files where I have made decisions is dishearteningly short.
And thus the phrase running through my head: How much wood does a woodchuck chuck? Not much, and very slowly.
* * *
Happy news. I wrote the above during my first break from reading. Now I am on my second break, and I can feel the cobwebs coming off. This task is becoming comprehensible to me again; I’m on metaphorical mile two or three, and the number of files where my reaction is, “I love this person!” has multiplied astronomically. Time to go back and re-read that first round with clear eyes.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing argument in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, and so tackling for the second time in a decade the question of affirmative action in higher education. The decade saw its first examination of the question in 2003, with the University of Michigan’s vigorous defense of two different admissions policies: one in use at the Law School, upheld in Grutter v. Bollinger, and one in use for undergrad admissions, struck down in Gratz v. Bollinger. Combined, the Court’s two opinions stand for the proposition that the University has a compelling interest in pursuing racial diversity in the student body, but that to do so, the admissions policy must be holistic, treating race in a nuanced way, as one of many factors. Just a few years later, the Law School rewrote its policy despite the Supreme Court victory, because Michigan voters—as those in several other states—passed “Proposal 2” (not Proposition—that’s California’s terminology), a ballot initiative prohibiting public universities from “grant[ing] preferential treatment to . . . any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of . . . public education.” So, now our admissions policy, while broad and holistic, is race-blind. We are required by federal law to collect race data, but the page with that checkbox is removed from the application file until after a final decision has been reached. While applicants may very well write about race or ethnicity in their essays—as people frequently do about religion, disability, family status, and a host of other background characteristics that do not serve as the basis for admissions decision—we do not treat race qua race as a factor.
One thing we do treat as a factor, though, is socioeconomic status. Although the term “diversity” is frequently employed as being coterminous with racial diversity—by both detractors and proponents of affirmative action—it of course actually means almost the opposite: a multiplicity, a variety of traits. We care a lot about academic background, for instance; EE degrees and classicists provide needed enrichment; math majors tend to think about problems in ways wholly different from art history majors. We care about rural backgrounds and urban backgrounds—one recent great admit had the kind of urban upbringing where she had never seen stars in the night sky until college, and I’m hopeful she had some interesting discussions with that class’s fourth-generation rancher. We care about viewpoint diversity, because there is nothing so boring as a conversation about a legal issue that is also an au courant political hot potato where every single person in that conversation thinks the same damn thing; we want the lovers of Limbaugh and the minions of Maher. And so forth.
Now, socioeconomic status, or class, has been advanced by some as a substitute for racial diversity: schools are urged to eschew race and rely instead on class as the sole factor for attaining “diversity.” But the two criteria do not stand in opposition to each other; in the absence of a Prop-2-style prohibition, a school might well choose to profitably employ both factors simultaneously, as information worth considering about an applicant, to attain two wholly different types of diversity. It is worth noting that class diversity doesn’t ensure racial diversity: There are many more poor whites in this country than there are poor people of any other race, and taking socioeconomic background into account is not an effective proxy for taking race into account.
In other words, considering socioeconomic status as a factor in admissions is a worthy undertaking completely irrespective of whether a school considers race. A number of rationales underlie that claim; two of the most common are aptly summed up by Michigan Law alumna Angela Onwuachi-Willig, ’97, writing with Amber Fricke in Class, Classes, and Classic Race-baiting: What's in a Definition?, 88 Denver University Law Review 807 (2011):
A number of the arguments asserted in favor of racial diversity in Grutter v. Bollinger also may apply to class diversity. For example, just like racial diversity, class diversity among students can contribute to a robust exchange of ideas on legal issues. Additionally, to the extent that law schools represent the training ground for a large number of our Nation's leaders and to the extent that we want to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, class diversity, like race diversity, may signal to all citizens that the law school path to leadership is open to people from a broad range of class backgrounds.
Certainly, class is a quite salient self-defining factor, just like race. I have heard many reports over the years from students that indicate they are extremely aware of their class in relation to that of other students; indeed, this intuition has been borne out by explicit discussions during the Law School’s MAP pre-orientation program. Like race, class background is often felt as a taboo point of discussion—indeed, because in the very resource-rich environment of the Law School, class background has a way of becoming less apparent, more invisible, students have frequently reported to me that they are sometimes less willing to talk about their family income or class background than they are to talk about their race.
So the logic for having a “critical mass” of people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds is important for the same reasons that have been articulated in support of having a critical mass from different races. Faculty frequently report that classroom discussions are best with students from a wide variety of backgrounds; the lens through which students view and interpret the law varies considerably based on their upbringing, particularly with regard to assumptions students make about those whom the law affects. But that only works if those with the diverse backgrounds express their views—and the likelihood that that will occur when the background is one to which any discussion taboo attaches, like race and class, is significantly enhanced when there are others in the classroom who hail from similar backgrounds. Finally, having a “critical mass” of people from any given identity group means that there are far more likely to be differing opinions within the given group; that is, the discussion will not only benefit from the voices of people from some particular background, but will be more nuanced-- enhanced by differing viewpoints within and between backgrounds. A range of participants helps to eliminate the wrong-headed perception that there is a “black point of view,” or a “working-class point of view.” The concept of critical mass aims for both diversity of viewpoint and diversity of experience.
In any event, as a public institution, there are good reasons why this Law School in particular should be committed to looking for ways to expand access—and one effective way of doing that is considering class as an element in the admissions process. And in fact, we have long done so. When I revised the Law School’s application for the 2002-2003 admissions season, I included a question asking about the educational level attained by the applicant’s parents. (I did so, I should hasten to add, not because this very good idea came into my own head full-blown: I simply had the sense to take the suggestion of the excellent Beth Wilner, an assistant director who overlapped with me very briefly right after I began in Admissions at the end of the 2001 season.) Earlier iterations of our application asked about parental employment, but the answers there were unreliable: often ambiguous, not infrequently entirely blank, and simply not consistently giving us the information we were seeking. Knowing parental education levels would be a far more effective tool for insight into socioeconomic background, we believed, and so, beginning with admissions decisions made the year prior to the issuance of Grutter, we added it to our panoply of considerations.
To be sure, the question is only an imperfect proxy. Some people with high school educations go on to have great economic success, and the children of those people haven’t had to grapple with serious socioeconomic disadvantage. The best mechanism for assessing socioeconomic background would be detailed family financial information. An admissions office’s desire for lots of information, though, has to be balanced against an applicant’s reasonable interest in some degree of privacy. And it didn’t seem like a good recruiting gambit to make filling out the application seem a whole lot like filling out a tax return.
We didn’t begin tallying the data elicited by our new question until a few years after we started asking it. Why the lag? For one thing—fun admissions fact!—a not insignificant portion of each class has been deferred from a prior year; that means that for the first couple of years of collecting any new datum, we have an imperfect dataset as people from prior years’ admissions processes get rolled into the group. But honestly, I think the principal reason I didn’t count it up is that I just didn’t think to. There are many bits of data that we have to report to the ABA, and there are many other bits that people ask me about (“How many people graduated from my alma mater?” is a biggie, as is, “How many classics/physics/history/econ majors do we have?”). But no one ever seemed to ask about measures of socioeconomic diversity—in part, I imagine, because other law schools don’t seem to collect the information (although a number of colleges do), and so it just hasn’t been a standard part of the dialogue about law school admissions—and it did not immediately occur to me to expand my universe of computations.
But even after I realized that this information would be at least as interesting and useful to track as, say, the number of Fulbright recipients, I didn’t really do anything with it. I would include it in my annual here’s-the-class email to the Law School faculty and staff, and there it languished.
Let it languish no more! As the table below shows, roughly a third of our students have at least one parent without a degree beyond high school, and a third to a half of that group comes from a family where neither parent has a degree past high school. The data are consistent across both admissions regimes—that where race was a factor in admissions, and that where it was not. Enjoy.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
Surely the most important part of any writing venture is the title, right?
While there were a million reasons to resist the Communications Office’s
importunings to write a blog, the first and most enduring was my inability to
think of a good title. The best I could think of was just to recycle the
title of my sole post-law school law review article, which is pathetic under
any circumstances—but even more so if you know that it was my husband, and not
I, who came up with the title. But inspiration finally struck. A2 is the locals’
sobriquet for Ann Arbor, which cleverly avoids
connotations and trademark issues. And Z? Well, that’s me.