That’s the gentle hint I was recently given by a dear friend. Coincidentally, this friend also has the power to fire me. In another striking coincidence, I immediately started writing a post. Eerie, almost.
But it’s summer, the time for travel. So I’m gadding about. Come find me over on the Spivey Consulting website, where I’m answering random questions posed by strangers, funneled through Mike Spivey himself. We’re having lots of fun!
And while I have your attention—if you’re thinking about applying to law school (and if you’re not, why are you reading this?), and you’re living in one of a number of major metro areas this summer, consider coming out to one of the LAWS events, hosted by some top law schools. This is our second annual go-round, and we should be getting good at it at this point. For more information and to register, visit the LAWS website.
It is a sin and a shame that the pharmacological industry has so thoroughly co-opted the acronym ED
, because we here in the admissions industry need it. To us, of course, it means “early decision,” and I really can’t think of any creative terminology or reordering of wording that will eliminate the unfortunate implication. (Acronyms are tricky. About four years ago, we reorganized and renamed the then-Office of Career Services and Office of Public Service as the “Office of Career Planning.” The head of the office at the time swiftly rejected my initial suggestion of “Office of Career Development” on the grounds that lawyers already have enough issues with OCD.)
In any event, the question whether to apply to a school early decision is a thorny one that many are grappling with at the moment, given that most schools’ early-decision deadlines are in mid-November. I have mixed feelings about the wisdom of applying early decision as a general proposition; I think it can make a lot of sense for some applicants, but I worry, in my maternalistic way, that many applicants don’t ask in advance the questions they need to in order to ascertain whether it makes sense for them. So let me do my best to answer some of those unasked questions. (To be clear, I’m only talking here about binding early-decision plans, where you commit in advance to attend if admitted; some schools have non-binding early-action plans, and that’s a different beast entirely.)
Some possible advantages of applying ED are obvious and incontrovertible: If you are admitted, your plans are set in stone early, and you can relax. You can, perhaps, forego applying to a bunch of schools you are less interested in (unless you are sufficiently Type A as to want to get all the applications out of the way ASAP—see supra, the Type A personality is not unknown among lawyers and would-be lawyers), thus saving yourself time and hassle. (To defend the mindset of the Type As, I will note that when I applied to college, I applied early decision—and then somehow, about a week before I was due to find out the answer, tumbled to the appalling realization that if I didn’t get in, I was going to really have to hustle to come up with an alternative plan. Happily, it was unnecessary, but I think the intervening week of anxiety may have permanently shaped my personality into the diehard Type A mold I currently occupy.)
Some disadvantages of the ED process are likewise incontrovertible: You cannot compare schools from the more comfortable and discerning perch of the already-admitted, and you cannot compare financial aid offers at all. These are not nothing. Of course, there is much research that can take place prior to applying, but people ask different, more probing questions of schools after they’re admitted. And I am informing exactly no one of anything at all when I observe that the financial questions underlying the law school choice are of considerable concern to most applicants.
Which dominates in this equation, then, the good or the bad? Keep in mind that the equation as I’ve set it forth thus far doesn’t even speak to the singular aspect of early decision that likely outweighs all others for the typical applicant grappling with the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I question: Will applying early decision make it more likely that you will be admitted? The answer certainly changes the balance, and yet it is certainly the hardest to confidently know.
Still, let’s start by examining what we can know for sure.
First: How sure are you that this school really is Your Dream School? Have you done what we lawyers like to call your due diligence—are you sure that its allure is real and not mere blandishments? Have you thought broadly and critically about which factors are likely to make you happy in a school? Or have you simply run your finger down the USNWR rankings and picked the highest one where the LSAT and UGPA medians aren’t too terribly unlike your own? Have you investigated other
schools thoroughly, and are you sure that they cannot offer the perceived advantages of your dream school? Perhaps most importantly, have you rigorously tested your own presuppositions—e.g., that you are definitively tied to a particular geographic area, or that you certainly want to pursue a particular area of legal study? If your honest answers are the right ones (very; yes; yes; no-of-course-not-what-do-you-take-me-for; yes; and yes), then okay, first hurdle, cleared. But if even one of your answers is a bit ambivalent, take your finger off the trigger and keep considering. (I recognize that is a mixing of metaphors. I want to be clear that it is my firm opinion that it is irresponsible to compete in a race while holding a gun
Second: How sure are you that whatever financial aid is offered, or not, will be acceptable? If you think you will be disappointed or even materially disadvantaged to receive a financial aid package that consists exclusively of loans, you better know in advance everything about the school’s financial aid policy for early-decision admitted students. At some schools, if you are admitted early decision, you are simply ineligible for any grants. That may in fact be the case at most schools—it seems to me that schools are pretty tight-lipped about their approach to this question, and that you have to wade pretty deep into the impenetrable web prose to unlock the answer, if it’s even available at all. At others, you are guaranteed some pre-set grant amount if you are admitted; that gives you certainty, albeit with a set ceiling and floor. And at others still, like Michigan Law, we simply pledge that whatever our financial aid awards are in the application year in question (policies that are not determined until early in December, after the prior year’s data have been thoroughly crunched), early-decision applicants will be treated on exactly the same terms as regular-decision applicants, whether with regard to need- or merit-based aid.
If you have made your peace with the financing, then ask this third question: Are you sure that you can submit a high-quality application by the deadline? I’m not talking about your LSAT and UGPA here; they are what they are. (If you don’t love your LSAT, you can submit your application and simultaneously sign up for the December test; maybe you won’t need that score, because maybe the school will love your existing LSAT more than you do—otherwise, the school will get your new score once it comes out, and then it’s a whole new ballgame. If you’re still in college, of course, the same is true for UGPA and this semester’s grades.) I’m talking about all the bits of the application that are directly under your control: your essays, your choice of recommenders, your resume. On the one hand, if you are not admitted early decision, most (all?) schools will put your application in for consideration with the regular pool, which will give you a little time to submit an additional essay or letter of rec, or an updated, spit-polished resume. On the other hand, if you’ve submitted a slapdash personal statement, you can’t take that back. You could submit a revised copy, which would likely be included with your existing materials, but that won’t undo the initial impression created by the first version, if it was sloppy. That whole “you only have one chance to make a first impression” bit of wisdom gets repeated a lot for a reason—namely, that it’s true.
Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: What difference to the outcome does applying early decision make? A lot, a little, none at all? Particularly with undergraduate schools, you will see data suggesting that the admit rate is much higher for the early decision pool, and yet those schools will stubbornly adhere to the party line that this offset does not reflect that it’s easier to get in early decision, but rather the superior talent of the early decision pool. I’m pretty sure that’s humbug, and I can think of two reasons that schools might perpetuate it. One is benign: They might want to deemphasize the outcome importance of early decision because they don’t want to inadvertently increase the application insanity/anxiety—they don’t want to make aimless 17-year-olds feel coerced into prematurely committing. The other potential explanation is more cynical: Elite schools are understandably very dedicated to protecting their “brand” of being extremely selective. I tend to think the actual explanation is a little bit of both; but whichever is at work, I note that the claims are never accompanied by comprehensive data about the metrics of the two pools, and that the term “talented” is subject to many varied, subjective, and idiosyncratic interpretations.
The real reason I think the claim is humbug, though, is because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. First, why would a majority of the most talented students consistently want to apply early decision? Second, that story elides over the fact that early decision presents a benefit to a school, just as it does an applicant. The principal benefit is obtaining advance certainty that the applicant will enroll, allowing schools to more accurately predict and manage enrollment, and to admit fewer people to fill the class (which is an element, for both law schools and undergraduate schools, of the rankings). Because a school gets a benefit, it makes sense that there would be some trade-off. I don’t mean in the slightest to suggest that schools admit people under early-decision plans who are wholly different from those whom they admit under regular decision, and that it’s just open season—auto-admit galore! But every admissions decision is a weighing of the various components of an application, and at a selective school, small factors can make a difference: you’re looking for variety in your class, and you’ve already admitted a number of candidates who are like this candidate, so this candidate is less appealing; you’re looking for strong academic performances, and this candidate’s undergraduate transcript reflects a lack of depth, or breadth; this candidate has a strong record, but the letters of recommendation are a little bland and lacking in detail. At the early decision stage, the additional peppercorn
weight of early decision is a material advantage, and it means that small weaknesses in an otherwise strong application are less likely to lead to a negative outcome.
So, yeah, the honest answer, at least from my personal experience over the course of 12 early-decision admissions seasons, is that applying early decision helps an applicant gain a positive decision. It is my distinct impression that most early-decision applicants are well aware of this, the protestations of some admissions officers notwithstanding. Still, the majority of early-decision applicants would likely get in if they applied regular decision, and I have never admitted someone early decision who I wasn’t excited to admit. We’re talking about only a peppercorn here.
And of course, knowing that there’s a small but real potential outcome advantage doesn’t answer the ultimate question. If you end up thinking that committing early was a bad bargain, because the school wasn’t what you thought or because you feel like you can’t afford to go, that apparent advantage will turn out to have been illusory.
Bottom-line: Only apply early decision if you’re really sure (1) the school in question is for you, (2) you’ll be okay with the financial award, and (3) you can submit an application you’ll be proud of. Otherwise, take your time.
Not long ago I was in Los Angeles for work, taking a walk in the sunshine in order to introduce my body to the idea that it was three hours earlier than it had been five hours before, and came across this bon mot graffiti'ed on an electrical box:
Am I alone in finding this hilarious? I love the idea that someone felt compelled to share this sentiment—which may be the pinnacle of passive-aggressive advice? or maybe it's just aggressive-aggressive—with the world. It's so mean, and yet it definitely makes me want to say, "thankyouverymuch I think I will, in fact, stick with my stupid dreams." Kind of a double-reverse puppeteer move, psychology-wise.
Anyway, ever since I spied that tidbit, I've been diligently trying to think of a way to shoehorn it into a blog post, and I've decided that it isn't too much of a stretch to give some advice about advice. Receiving advice, specifically.
Because, I mean, to be honest, I sympathize with this person's compulsion to share his/her views with the world. After all, as I have had occasion to observe, I am myself rather fond of giving advice. Indeed, one of the things I love about my job is that people will ask for my advice, which is convenient. The absence of being asked is often no impediment to my offering it, but it is nice to be given permission. Sometimes I'm asked about things I'm really not qualified to talk about (e.g., undergraduate admissions), and sometimes about things with which I have some passing familiarity (e.g., law school generally). And sometimes I'm asked about something that is 100% in the dead-center of my wheelhouse (e.g., what does Michigan Law like to see in a personal statement?). Weirdly, the proportion of people actually taking my advice (or, at least, pretending to take it) seems fairly constant, irrespective of my qualifications in any given instance—which has led me to come up with a list of three mistakes people make when it comes to advice.
- Mistake One: not asking for advice
- Mistake Two: asking the wrong people for advice
- Mistake Three: not taking good advice
Mistake One is kind of cut and dried. Sometimes you want to puzzle something out on your own, and that's fine. But if you find yourself in a prolonged struggle about what to do or how to do something, you should probably cast about for some external help. Two heads = better than one, etc. etc. etc. Speaking from personal observation, I will note that you are always free to ignore advice you don't like, so why not take the plunge?
Mistake Two is a little trickier. Who is the right person? You could just crowd-source it, on the grounds that the right answer will make itself evident by dint of volume. I'm not a fan of this method, because it means you're probably going to catch up in your net some people who are themselves terribly misguided, or have an agenda that is at cross-purposes with your own, or are reluctant to tell you what they think you may not want to hear. A majority-rules answer might have nothing to do with some larger truth if you have enough examples of any or all of these advice-giving variations in your pool.
Let me come up with a random, purely hypothetical consider-the-source example involving a high school senior who may or may not live in my house. Suppose that person wants to take physics and the school website says that calculus, which that person is not taking, is either a pre- or co-requisite for physics. How to determine how seriously to take this edict? That person could ask his mom, who has a job in the field of education and who loves him dearly and who has been heavily invested in his happiness and well-being for 17 years. Or he could ask some other high school kid. I think you know where this one is going. Well, actually, in my hypothetical example, the high school senior asked both people. He simply chose to ignore the mother's advice (take calculus) and to instead act on the other high schooler's advice (NBD). That's cool. That's fine. I hardly even mind anymore. I mean, it's not about me. I know this. Really, I do know this.
But that brings us nicely to Mistake Three, the trickiest of all—evaluating the advice and figuring out whether to take it. Well, technically, maybe we're still at the Mistake Two stage: When you're figuring out whom to ask, in addition to asking someone well-informed, make sure you ask someone with whom you don't have other, say, "issues" that might make you irrationally unwilling to take the advice. Right? I can't be the only person who knows the somewhat shameful feeling of hearing what is clearly good guidance from someone whom, for whatever reason, you have a tendency to impose some kind of mental deduction. "Yep," you say to yourself. "That makes sense. And yet, no." Now, sometimes this is a totally valid reaction. Hell, you know yourself and your circumstances better than anyone else, and so you have to be the one to decide whether advice truly makes sense. But when you feel yourself reluctant to take seemingly sound advice, you need to take a step back and reconsider. Maybe your reluctance is telling you something significant and valid. Or, maybe you're just being an idiot. Try to ask someone who you really trust, to avoid that whole problem.
But okay, I've been blabbing in generalities for long enough. Let me try to give this post some patina of relevance and talk about law school admissions. Try this one: You applied to law school in a prior year and didn't get in. You want to reapply. Whom to ask for help? Arguably the least useful source is the commonly employed one of asking a bunch of strangers online; they will likely be some combination of well-intentioned but imperfectly informed along with imperfectly informed and weirdly hostile.
I recommend the direct course. (See what I did there? Giving advice! Again! Unasked!) Ask a law school admissions officer or a pre-law advisor, or, ideally, both. The admissions officer has the advantage of being the horse's mouth, as it were, and the pre-law advisor, while one step removed from admissions, has the probable advantage of having talked to lots of horses.
The pre-law advisor also has the considerable advantage—or at least, potentially has this advantage—of actually knowing you. This gives the advisor the edge over the admissions officer, in most cases. Usually when I'm being asked for advice by applicants, it's at a stage in the process when I'm relatively, or wholly, ignorant about their situations. As a result, it is hard to be entirely confident that I'm giving sound advice. Likewise, it is a lot easier to give frank (and therefore useful) advice when you have an established relationship with someone. (One student and I have a long-running debate about whether you ought to tell someone when they have something stuck in their teeth, but however you come out on that question, it is clearly less stressful to do that with someone you like and who knows you like him or her.) Finally, I'll note—the prelaw advisor's principal mission is to help you get into law school. He or she is acting as your advocate—your lawyer, if you will. The law school admissions officer's mission, on the other hand, is to put together a class for the law school; the admissions officer is acting, in essence, as a judge. Depending on the nature of your question, therefore, there might be a conflict of interest in getting lawyerly advice from the admissions officer. (But you can trust my advice! I swear!!)
For all these reasons, if you have a prelaw advisor you can call upon, that is the best place to start. There are a lot of great prelaw advisors out there. (When I first wrote that sentence, I was tempted to start listing the all-stars I know, but it got to be a ridiculously long list, and therefore irritating to read, so I'm skipping it.) In fact, I have a lot of prelaw advisors come to me with questions from their advisees, and that is probably my favorite advice-giving format. Having my advice be mediated by someone else, who has an established relationship with the person who needs the advice and can present it in a tailored and appropriate way, is the best of all possible advice-giving worlds.
The second-best advice source? A meandering, free-styling blog, of course.
But remember: Ultimately, the control is in your hands. So if someone tells you your dreams are stupid? Take my advice, and seek a second opinion.
Recently, it was drawn to my attention that NBC has begun promoting the use of #A2Z. This was momentarily thrilling—I mean, not as thrilling as if HBO were promoting it, but still, kind of thrilling; who knew television networks were interested in law school admissions? Will they be proposing a TV show, reality or otherwise, based on my blog?! Will Gil Seinfeld play himself, or cajole Nicole-formerly-known-as-Snooki to do it!?!—until the second sentence of the email, in which I learned it related to some new TV show involving, like, on-line dating. Cue sad trombone music.
A sense of outrage quickly followed the emotional desolation. I'm not going to say the blog is famous, but is it nothing that two, sometimes three, people a month tell me they have read it? And anyway, what about the time-honored principle that I was totally there first? I have smilingly, even munificently, tolerated the virtually endless incursions on the name in other contexts, see, e.g.,
but hell, we just started using Twitter (possibly ensuring the end of Twitter), and it is not inconceivable that I might have wanted that hashtag.
So of course I had to dig a little deeper. What did I discover? I discovered that none other than Will McCormack is the executive producer of this new show. Yeah, THAT Will McCormack. The Will McCormack who is the little brother of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. Who teaches at Michigan Law School. And—
The Will McCormack whose big sister once brought him over to my house for dinner.
It's the moon landing all over again. By which I mean it is an obvious conspiracy, as opposed to a triumph of American vision, ingenuity, and engineering.
I understand that one of the characters in this new show is a lawyer. If that lawyer is not a Michigan Law grad, consider me permanently incensed.
Another Michigan Law class has entered the fold of future alumni, and so it is the duty of the admissions office to begin the process of seeking the next group. That entails, of course, leaving the happy confines of South Hall for a temporary life on the road, visiting hither and yon
Now, while it sometimes feels, when one is eating one’s third dinner in a row from Chipotle (don’t mock me! It’s delicious! It’s nutritious! It’s reliable!), that we are diligently covering the entire United States, the fact is that we are picky, picky, picky. We turn down invitations to many more law fairs than we ever attend—not because we think it is impossible that those schools will offer up interesting candidates, but simply because this traveling about is expensive and time-consuming, and it only makes sense to visit schools where history and data reveal a sufficient volume of candidates to make the considerable human and capital resource investment a sensible one.
Of course, I should note that in the post-2010 world of an ever-shrinking applicant pool, the calculus has become somewhat different. My first recruiting trip will take place tonight, and I live in fear of loneliness
So while there are many promising venues we don’t visit, you can rest assured that if a Michigan Law representative is showing up at your school, it’s because we think well of it.
Perhaps this seems implicit—that we recruit at institutions because we are interested in the students there. But I have yet to have a recruiting season where I wasn’t asked, on multiple occasions, if I really, truly liked applicants from the school in question. Usually, the balloon gets floated from students at a school that is somewhat smaller, or regional, or both: How many students does Michigan really admit from this institution? How do we view grades from this institution? And so forth. But sometimes, a slightly different set of inquiries is thrown out by students at schools fairly universally viewed as powerhouses: How much do we take into account the strength of the cohort? If a student has a B, is that the same as an A+ at some less resplendent institution?
The students may be approaching the question from different directions, but underneath, the point is the same: They want to know if they made a good choice for undergraduate school. They are seeking some certainty about the law school application process, and possibly hoping for a hint that they are in like Flynn
, all thanks to the alma mater
they are on the cusp of claiming.
When we’re assessing academic records, we certainly do take into account the academic strength of the cohort at a given institution—but we also take into account the degree of grade inflation, and often a competitive cohort goes hand in glove with a lot of grade inflation, so that it’s a bit of a wash. But more importantly, there’s just no particular formula we employ in considering the value of a particular GPA earned at a particular school, and so there’s no certainty that we can convey about the role a given school will play in an admissions outcome. But one of the things I have always loved about Michigan—both when I was a student and now that I’m in admissions—is the wide variety of undergraduate schools
represented in the student body. So this much certainty I can give you: whatever undergraduate school bushel you are hiding your light under, we are on the lookout for you
By virtue of my job and the age of my children, I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who ask me questions about undergrad admissions. In truth, I am not very well-suited to answering these questions, for the most part. It’s a little like a foot surgeon saying, “How much different can a hand really be? Let’s open it up and take a peek! Wait, what’s that bone there?” (Actually, maybe feet and hands are totally interchangeable, surgery-wise; I know even less about anatomy than I do about undergrad admissions. Let’s just assume that’s a reasonable simile, though, and move along.) But I can never resist giving advice—hell, I don’t even need to be asked! Just stand still a while in my vicinity, looking quizzical, and I’ll offer something up. So my lack of actual knowledge about undergrad admissions has never made me hold back too much from giving advice.
Here is one thing I know about undergrad admissions—and it’s completely different from the law school process, at least at schools like Michigan and its peers, where the size of the applicant pool remains reasonably healthy despite an overall downturn in application numbers: Undergrad admissions offices care, a lot, about facetime. When admissions officers visit high schools, they keep track of who drops by to see them. When prospective applicants visit campus, they keep track of that too. When applicants visit their website and fill out forms, or go to college fairs, or, I don’t know, accost Tina Fey on campus, track is being kept. Frankly, I don’t know how they manage it all, but they do, and so if you’re interested in a selective undergraduate program, you’d be well-served to let them know. Coyness is not the right move.
Over here in law school land, however, we’re more of a whacky, laissez-faire, laidback operation. We simply just do not track information like this. Our failures may simply be a function of relative staffing size, because undergrad admissions offices tend to be much larger than law school admissions offices—or maybe law school offices have smaller staffs because they don’t keep copious notes on stuff like this. Chicken, egg. Or maybe we’re made of sterner stuff, without desire for ego-stroking. (Well. Probably not that.) But I can tell you that while there may be good reasons for you to visit a law school you’re considering applying to, or to which you have applied but haven’t yet heard, getting brownie points for showing up does not number among them; same goes for showing up at law school forums. If you have questions, if there’s information you’re hoping to learn—by all means, go. Nuggets of wisdom might be imparted. But don’t go simply because you think not going will be a sign of lack of interest, and are concerned that a lack of interest will be held against you. Because that is just not part of the process.
For that reason, I typically tell candidates that if they can bankroll a visit only one time, they ought to wait until after they know where they’ve been admitted, and attend an admitted-student event if possible. More about those events on another occasion.
Now, I don’t mean to make too grand a claim here. Law schools, naturally enough, take into account apparent interest, to the extent they can discern it. But that’s relatively simple to signal in the application materials. Likewise, if you do visit, law schools very well may notice if you are a tremendously wonderful person, or an unbearably obnoxious one. And schools that offer interviews to applicants do so because they are trying to gauge your commitment. But Michigan and its peer law schools don’t have the kind of sophisticated customer-relationship-management systems in place for counting each “touch” during the pre-admissions stage, and don’t plug your interactions into an algorithm that determines your fate based on your perceived level of interest.
So, if you’re so inclined, come see us. But no need to break your neck to do it, or to stress that a failure to visit is going to be the thing that dooms you.
I have been asked a thousand or so times since Detroit was taken over by an emergency manager—and only sometimes with a soupҫon of snark by an admissions officer at another law school—what the events transpiring in Detroit mean for the larger southeast Michigan region as a whole, and Michigan in particular. (The snarky comments stand in stark contrast to the very good-natured congratulations I recently received from a coastal colleague, on the occasion of LeBron James’s return to Detroit. Wrong Midwestern city, I said. That’s Cleveland. “Are you sure?,” was the response. Yeah. Pretty sure.) Sometimes, these inquiries come from within; one student returned the admissions survey I distributed last fall to the entering class with the following comment:
Detroit's decline seems like a strong headwind against our brand. While most folks are aware of the law school's reputation, nearly everyone I talked to second-guessed my decision to move to Michigan. Seems like only the people who have lived in or visited Ann Arbor had good things to say about it. Most everyone else thought we were moving to an urban wasteland.
The commenter concluded by encouraging the Admissions Office to “demonstrate A2's vibrancy and vitality to prospective students,” while conceding that the job probably falls within the purview of the "Pure Michigan
" initiative (or possibly Eminem
). (And of course, some students
choose Michigan precisely because
of its proximity to Detroit.)
Actually, whenever someone asks me about Detroit, here is what I say, and mean: This is a great time for Detroit. Detroit has had troubles for a long, long time—real troubles, to be sure (my husband, who happens to have been born the same year as Target et al., vividly remembers crossing back home into Detroit from Canada following a 1967 family summer vacation, and seeing tanks in the street and soldiers with guns
; his parents’ stunned reactions suggest to him, in retrospect, that they must not have had a car radio), as well as the resulting PR troubles. (My own first memory of Detroit when I arrived in Michigan for law school in 1989 was, more or less: Huh. Look at all the buildings, and people. Restaurants and whatnot. Nothing on fire at all. Not what I expected.) Now, at last and at least, something dramatic is happening. We seem to have crossed some Rubicon where serious brainpower and energy are being devoted to solutions and changes. (For the seven years I worked in Detroit, I put my money on the proposed blind-optimism solution painted on the wall of the pizza place
across from office building: “Say Nice Things About Detroit.” And in fact, that sunny spirit seems to still be part of the fix-it plan
.) Notwithstanding the reasoned criticisms of the emergency-manager system as anti-democratic, in my mind, the bankruptcy isn’t a sign that something has gone wrong in Detroit; it is a hope that something is going right.
Which brings me back to the beginning, and my observation about times of zeitgeist. The big players in this drama are Governor Rick Snyder, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan—all of whom found themselves in Ann Arbor in the first years of the 1980s, thinking about law. (U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, on the other hand, was there a decade earlier.)
Well, technically—Detroit is. Sometimes, when people not familiar with the Michigan area quiz me about the environs, I find myself clarifying that Ann Arbor is not actually all that close to Detroit—the Motor City is about 45 miles away. On the other hand, having worked there for seven years, I can also tell you that it’s a nice quick 45-minute commute from Ann Arbor on most days; freedom from traffic congestion is but one of Detroit’s hidden appeals.
Anyway, today I am embracing our sister city to the east, the one that is north of Canada. (That’s a little free geography lesson
for you out-of-towners.) Because another major non-drawback, it turns out, is the weather--specifically, its lack of weather hazardousness
. According to the whiz kids who put together actuarial tables, the Motor City is the place to be:
Detroit came out way ahead in all of our criteria, with only 3 major disaster declarations and four total declarations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the last 10 years. Detroit’s position on Lake Huron regulates extreme weather patterns . . .
Last week's inaugural L.A.W.S. events were, as I've already mentioned, terrific successes. The element that I thought was potentially most helpful for attendees was the panel of admissions deans giving advice at the outset each night. (In an effort to convey exactly how much knowledge undergirded the opinions, one wag added up the total years of employment of all the admissions deans at the attending schools; it was a truly appallingly large number that I choose not to repeat here today.)
But when it was my turn to be on a panel, the moderator's query as to what would be my one bit of counsel about what NOT to do drew from me only a mortifying blank stare. I have excuses for this. For one thing, I don't always love the what-not-to-do format1 (although I really loved the timeless advice of Dean Post from Penn not to begin emails with "'Sup"); it sometimes ends up sounding shrewish or smug. (The Wheel of Fortune contestant application, for example, instructs: "Don't tell us that being on Wheel is on your bucket list." That just seems unnecessarily rude to the enthusiastic Wheel aficionado. It certainly discouraged me from applying.) Also, the panel had already doled out some advice on the what-not-to-do theme, and I just couldn't think of anything new. The result? After a few beats, I came up with, "Don't panic."
What with being in the midst of panic myself at the moment, I could tell that panic was not helpful. L'esprit de l'escalier hit me about 15 seconds later, though, and has been with me ever since, with an ever-lengthening list of advice I could have given.
One bit I'm particularly sold on has to do with letters of recommendation; I found inspiration in the worst letter of the past season. It begins like this: "I have known Josephine Smith2 for 11 years." Sounds promising! But the next sentence snatches away the apparent affirmation of Ms. Smith, making clear that the letter-writer only barely knows her, from her acquaintance with the letter-writer's child during secondary school. What did the letter writer learn about Josephine through this pretty attenuated connection? Not a whole heckuva lot. Boiled down, the letter is a list of general adjectives and vaguely supportive statements, such as, "She makes people around her better." All told, the letter was 13 sentences, concluding with these three: "Josephine Smith is a person who will be very successful. I am sure of that. I cannot assess legal aptitude but I know winners when I see them."
This input is not helpful to a law school admissions decisionmaker.
The kicker, though? The signature block:
CEO, Truly Gigantic Company, Inc.3
At the risk of being tiresome, let me be completely clear: Instead of a signature, the letter contained the bracketed phrase, "[Your name]." The actual name of the letter writer was, presumably, to have been substituted for the bracketed phrase, but oopsy daisy, that didn't happen.
On the one hand, I could mount a pretty strong argument for why this lame letter shouldn't be held against Josephine. She asked a powerful, high-achieving person that she had known for 11 years to write her a letter, and he said yes, from which she pretty reasonably concluded that he was going to put more than five minutes of effort into the undertaking. Contrariwise, she might have assumed that five minutes of effort from that kind of luminary was going to result in a letter that looked like a two-hour effort from a mere mortal. But on the other hand—I'm a lawyer, remember, so this one hand/other hand stuff is impossible to resist—come on, Josephine. This person obviously didn't know you well, and didn't ever supervise you or interact with you in a setting where he was comparing your performance or character or skills to those of your peers. You knew that. You asked this person to write your letter in the hope that admissions officers would be so wowed by the name as to look past the contentless fluff. To be sure, his failure to actually include his name undercut that tactic. But you knowingly assumed the risk.
So that's something not to do: Don't ask powerful people who don't really know you to write you a letter of recommendation, because it won't serve the function a letter of recommendation is meant to serve: providing an external voice to validate your capabilities. And now here's some corollary to-do advice: When you ask someone to write you a letter, make sure you give that person an out. Ask by email, and say something like, "Do you think you could write a strong letter?" (That leaves room for him or her to respond, "Actually, while I think the world of you, I don't think I would be the best letter-writer in this context because, among other things, I cannot assess legal aptitude.") Say also, "I know you're really super busy so I will totally understand if the answer is no." That before-the-fact permission slip is a kindness and a courtesy.
Now, your instinct may be to reject this advice. You really, really want a letter from this person—you need a letter from this person! What do you care if you're a little pushy?4 In fact, however, you only REALLY want the letter if the person wants to write it. An unenthusiastic, undetailed letter is, at a minimum, not helpful, and depending on the other materials in the application, can actually hurt you.
There's a basically happy ending here, though. Everything else in the application (including two other letters of recommendation) was beyond reproach, and I admitted Josephine Smith. Alas, Josephine decided to go somewhere else—but at least now I don't have to decide whether to send Mr. Famous CEO a thank-you letter for his recommendation, which is my habit for all the recommenders of enrolling students. In his particular case, I might have made an exception.
1 I have been known to dabble in it, though.
2 Word to the credulous: Josephine Smith is a made-up name.
3 Truly Gigantic Company, Inc. is also a made-up name. See supra, Josephine Smith.
4 In an early episode of The Sopranos, Carmela browbeats the sister of a neighbor to write a recommendation letter in support of Meadow's college application. Watching this episode, I was fixated on the admissions issues. I wasn't interested in the theme of how Carmela was exercising a domestic version of Tony's coerciveness—all I could think about was whether the sister would say, "Sure, I'll write that letter"—and then write a really crappy letter. That's the passive-aggressive way to deal with mob pressure.
Thanks to the genius inspiration this spring of a couple of colleagues at a few law schools around the country, Tuesday night saw the debut of a new admissions event in Washington, D.C. Fourteen of us, representing institutions that we think have a great deal to offer and a great deal in common, set up shop at the end of the workday in a giant room at the National Press Club. Guided by the inimitable Dean Kleinrock of NYU, four of my counterparts (from Chicago, Harvard, Penn, and Virginia) kicked things off by addressing both a wide range of topics that we’d come up with based on the group’s considerable breadth of experience talking to prospective students, along with actual questions submitted in advance by attendees. The subjects ran the gamut from the broadest possible—say, the value of a law school education—to minutiae like, from whom should you solicit a letter of recommendation, and how exactly does one go about doing that?
While controversy might have made things exciting, there was almost total consensus on most topics. That format is considerably less likely to lead to a reality TV contract, but given that I largely agreed with all the panelists, I found it very affirming.1 Then, after about an hour, the panel dispersed and the attendees fanned out to talk one-on-one to the individual schools at tables we had set up in traditional law school fair style.
I’ll be honest: I was a big ole doubter about the potential success of this undertaking, particularly given that it followed the LSAC forum in D.C. by only a couple of weeks. This kind of misplaced doubting is why I haven’t ever cleverly gotten in on the ground floor of, say, a company like Apple. I make up for being a late adopter, though, by evincing the zeal of the converted. Tonight we head north for a reprise at the New York City Bar Association. That event is fully subscribed and registration is closed, but we’ll be appearing in Chicago and Los Angeles in early August; for details and to register, check out the L.A.W.S. website. (Fun fact: The single most challenging organizational aspect was coming up with a name; it required considerable discussion over the course of at least two conference calls. Sadly, I cannot remember what creative force came up with the L.A.W.S. backronym, and who then shoehorned sensible words into place, but I bow to his or her imaginative exertions.) And tonight, I’ll be one of the panelists—and while I don’t anticipate any major substantive disagreements with my fellow panelists, I think it is possible that I’ll get myself into trouble all the same. (And that’s why we’ve agreed not to post audio of these events online—our aversion to bootlegs is just one way in which we as a group differ from the Grateful Dead.)
1Now that I’ve broached the possibility of an admissions-themed reality TV show, though, I’m a little distracted. Let’s contemplate that. I’m intrigued by the suggestion of Stanford’s Dean Deal of a variant of The People’s Couch, with close-ups on the faces of admissions directors while they read applications. A typical day might be something like this:
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.