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:
It has not at all been haunting me that I haven’t written a blog post for almost a year. That is not at all what the title of this blog post refers to.
No, I’m thinking about the bar exam. July may be vacation season for most of the country, and waitlist and transfer season for law school admissions offices, but for the population of folks who just graduated from law school, it’s bar-prep time. The bar exam is offered even less frequently than the LSAT: a mere two times per year, during the last week of February and the last week of July. The infrequency of the offering is both good and bad. On the one hand, it does tend to add to the anxiety level for the test-takers, who know that if something goes awry, they will have to walk around with the knowledge that they failed the exam for a half a year before they have the opportunity for a do-over; on the other, it minimizes the numbers of times per year that those of us who aren’t taking the exam have to watch the drama. So there’s that.
When you’re studying for the bar, the amount of stress you feel as the approach to late July ramps up is wholly out of proportion to the probability of disaster. It’s not unlike nuclear war—not terribly likely to occur, but really really unfortunate if it does. Even people who are typically sanguine about standardized tests start getting a little cranky, and the person who reports a completely restful sleep the night before the first day of the bar exam is, I submit, a big fat liar.
The result is anxious former 3Ls all over the place in July—I mean, if “the place” is defined as a law school. I see them hunched over Bar-Bri books in the Commons or nibbling on pencil stubs in the Jeffries Lounge, earbuds in place for the delivery of a hopefully mellifluous voice monologuing about commercial paper. I see them in pairs or threes in seminar rooms, staring up at a Wizard of Oz-style giant head on the flat screen TV. Occasionally one will pass me in the hall with a slightly demented expression on her face, and express her sincere conviction that she will certainly fail. People who do that don’t really seem to be seeking reassurance; they shake off all placating attempts with dire remonstrances of “it does happen, people do fail.”
That happened yesterday, and in my vain effort to cast a warm glow of perspective about the amount of suffering that flows from bar prep itself, as opposed to the suffering that is self-inflicted through obsessive focusing on the consequences flowing from a negative outcome, I happened upon an analogy: Bar study is a lot like being on maternity leave. It feels overwhelming, simply because it is all you can think about. But you have to re-set your standard. With a newborn, the one task in life you’re really truly responsible for during that first three months is having that infant with you at the end of the day; feed the baby, change the baby, nap when the baby naps. Anything else you achieve is gravy. Likewise, with the bar exam, studying for the exam is the one thing you’re responsible for. Just put in the time; listen to the tapes or watch the video and do the practice exams. Sleep. Wake. Repeat.
True, this analogy has some flaws. Some babies are more challenging than others; sometimes people have to hold down a job while they’re studying for the bar. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the reasonably okay. The point is to try to focus on the relatively narrow scope of what needs to get done, rather than fixate on the possibility of doom. Lower the bar, if you will.
Is it sensible to choose a law school based on the likelihood that you will find love there? Probably not, but in the absence of any data—and, indeed, in the absence of any plan or concept of how one would effectively gather the data—I am going to make this claim: If you were inclined to choose a law school based on the likelihood of finding love, you should pick Michigan.
Now, I recognize there is a counterargument here—that there are some in this world who think a law school setting likely to lead to love is one to be avoided, or, perhaps, outlawed. That would be the view espoused in Adam’s Rib, in which one character opines that “[l]awyers should never marry other lawyers; . . . from this comes idiot children . . . and other lawyers.” I’m the lawyer offspring of two lawyers and am married to a lawyer, so, you know.
But let’s just assume we’re all in favor of love, even lawyer love. Sure, an unsupported, dataless claim might be viewed by today’s cynical youth as not particularly persuasive. Still, I have anecdotal evidence to beat the band.
Earlier this week, a 2008 alum sent me a link to an excellent blog post she had written for the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, the central point of which was to encourage Illinois lawyers to participate in professionalism-focused orientation events at various Illinois law schools. But at the outset of her exhortation, she indulged in some nostalgic recollections of her own orientation at Michigan Law: On the first day, she met three women who would become extremely close friends, along with her future husband. Not a bad lifetime haul for a single day’s effort.
She and I then had a little back and forth about my unfounded yet diehard belief that Michigan Law fosters more such relationships than other schools. She was likeminded—by which I mean she was perfectly prepared to express a rock-solid conviction that this is true, despite our joint lack of evidence or means of producing evidence. She invoked two alumni with whom she works, who agree with us. This is how movements get started, people!
The next day I happened to correspond with one of the alumna at whose wedding I had officiated. Although our conversation had nothing whatsoever to do with her marriage, somehow her adorable Michigan Law husband got dragged into the conversation and, in an instance of near-sickening domestic bliss, they jointly shared photos of stuff they were growing in their garden, teasing each other affectionately.
Now I’m on the East Coast, attending a couple of summer networking events for alumni, current students, and incoming students. The first was last night, in New York. Attending were one couple who had just passed the all-important two-week mark in their marriage—if you can survive that, you’re all set. Like my blogging friend and her husband, they too met during orientation. And like others before them, they played “The Victors” as their recessional—beautifully book-ended with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” as their last dance, which, I’m told, is the traditional last song at Rick’s. Talk about storybook romance!
And lest anyone accuses me of heteronormative hegemony, I want to hastily point out that after the event, I ate dinner with a Michigan Law grad who is in a long-distance relationship with another Michigan Law grad that he better make an honest man out of one of these days. (They jumped the orientation gun by meeting during on a pre-enrollment visit to the Law School.)
Recognize that I am making a narrow argument. I am not marshaling as evidence the alumna who is getting set to marry someone from the B-school, or my best friend, who is married to a former Law School employee I introduced her to. And I won’t count as datapoints two of the couples I hope to be seeing tonight in DC, who followed each other to Ann Arbor after having fallen in love during their undergrad education. (But hey, at least they weren’t driven apart during their legal studies! That’s something! Partial credit!) (Ed. Postscript: Neither couple was at the event—but another couple, united in love at Michigan Law, was, with their five-month-old maize-and-blue-clad baby in tow.) And I acknowledge that there were two women at the New York event who had both been made unhappy back in the day by the same male classmate, so I don’t mean to suggest that it is all bliss, all the time.
I speak in a limited way of law-on-law love, and make the small claim that there is something about the Michigan Law community that fosters relationship development—friendships, to be sure, but love more frequently than you might guess. (Notwithstanding the slanderous portrayal of Ann Arbor as love-killing capital seen in The Five-Year Engagement.) It’s just one of many reasons I consider mine to be a fantastic job: There is a distinct possibility that I am building up karmic capital merely by performing my duties. Although, come to think of it, given that it is Dean Baum’s office that has responsibility for section assignments, he may be getting credit for the shidduch; which is the but-for cause, admission or section assignment??? I will simply assume that given our volume operation, there is more than enough glory to go around.
The other day, the Admissions Office had our annual office retreat, wherein we deconstruct the entire year in painstaking detail and find ways to improve. The topics are, as you might expect, scintillating: how’s the online scheduling system going?; is everyone clear on who in the office handles the task of processing the deposits?; how hard would it be to update our directory of applicants daily rather than weekly?; and, most excitingly, can we devise a system a lá the library, or the supermarket checkout, that will enable us to know in whose office, at any given moment, we may find a particular application file? Good stuff for the committed office geek.
But somehow, in the middle of the mundane, the topic of Michigan football reared its not-infrequently-omnipresent head. The genesis of the discussion is now a little foggy for me, but it may have been when one member of the staff suggested that we affix stickers denoting another Big Ten school’s mascot (if you can call a creature with a head that consists of the large shiny brown seed of the fruit of various North American trees and shrubs a “mascot”) to the files of applicants who have made themselves particularly troublesome in some way over the course of the season. (Come on. Don’t feign shock. You had to know there would be a few people every year whose behavior excites some disapproving attention by the Admissions Office staff as a whole, right?)
Usually, an outbreak of this kind of fervent football feeling would be quietly ignored (both because some of us as a general rule maintain polite detachment from this kind of partisan indulgence and because some of us are from Ohio) but somehow, this time—I think it was right before lunch, and people may have been experiencing some sort of calorie-deprivation-induced delusional state—various people in the room broke into song. The song was “The Victors,” naturally.
Now, I’m not a Football Person, but “The Victors”? That’s a really good song. Even if you avowedly maintain bemused and ironic distance from football fandom, it must be acknowledged that “The Victors” is a model of its genre. I refer the interested reader to John U. Bacon’s exegesis on the topic in Three and Out to support my claim: After setting out the history at some length (the song was penned by Michigan music student Louis Elbel in 1898 following a particularly exciting win; shortly after its inception, no less an authority than John Philip Sousa declared it “the greatest college fight song ever written”), Bacon then waxes rhapsodic:
One overlooked aspect of “The Victors” separates it from all others. Most school songs urge their teams to make a great effort in the hopes of winning. “On, Wisconsin!” ask the Badgers to “fight on for her fame … We’ll win this game.” “The Buckeye Battle Cry” exhorts the “men of the Scarlet and Gray . . . We’ve got to win this game today.”
“The Victors,” in contrast, celebrates a contest already won.
Hail! to the victors valiant
Hail! to the conqu’ring heroes
Hail! Hail! to Michigan
The leaders and best!
Hail! to the victors valiant
Hail! to the conqu’ring heroes
Hail! Hail! to Michigan,
The champions of the West!
There is no wiggle room in those words. No hoping, no wishing—just a clear-as-day declaration that the Michigan Wolverines are “the leaders and best,” and everyone else will simply have to deal with it.
Of all the trappings of Michigan’s vaunted tradition, the first is something you cannot see or touch. It’s just a song. But more than the marching band, big house, or banner, “The Victors” established the most important element of Michigan’s identity—confidence—which served as the North Star for all that followed.
But it is not just John U. Bacon who is around the bend on this topic. Within a couple of days of the impromptu retreat sing-along, one staff member (who asks that we all excuse the “auto-correct madness” exhibited in this iPhone post) shared this tidbit from her Twitter feed:
Before you say, “Yeah, she’s crazy,” consider this:
During services for Mr. Ford, the 38th president, over the next few days, the simplicity he sought will be on display in Washington and, later, in Michigan, where he will be interred. His coffin is expected to be carried into the Capitol through the House of Representatives, where he served for 25 years, rather than up the sweeping front staircase. A band will play a somber version of the University of Michigan fight song, a Ford favorite from his undergraduate alma mater, and a song he preferred to “Hail to the Chief” while he was president.
So, you know, arguably the entire nation has been dragged into this carmenferoxiousness (which is my Bruce-Frier-inspired coinage for a term denoting excessive love of one’s fight song). (And lest someone say something cutting about “The Victors” and funerals, I’ll point out that Michigan Law alumni Diann Kim and John Frank are probably not the only married couple who saw fit to make the song the musical mainstay of their nuptials.)
I have wandered far afield. Bringing it back to the Admissions Office retreat, imagine my surprise when I discovered that in the midst of this wild widespread love for “The Victors,” a full one-third of the people in the Admissions Office asserted that they did not know the lyrics.1 True, some were relative newcomers, with less than a year of tenure under their belts, but some … some had been in the office more than a decade! And moreover—come on! There are only 37 words total—and only 14 of them are distinct! One word is repeated eight times! It is not as if I were expecting people to have memorized Elizabeth Gaspar Brown’s seminal work, Legal Education at Michigan 1859-1959 (the Michigan Law School version of Hogwarts, A History).
The depth of my dismay about the failings of the Admissions Office staff was as extreme as it was wholly unexpected. It led me to realize that at some point during the last 24 years in Ann Arbor, I unwittingly turned some corner. My frequent and loud claims of ironic football detachment probably ought to be muted, if not shelved, in the interest of not being revealed as a giant hypocrite. Suffice it to say, though, we have been practicing “The Victors” at every weekly staff meeting since the retreat.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
1Wait, I need to wander off again. During the past admissions season, a few candidates have written emails to me in which they employ the term “Big Blue” to refer to Michigan. Michigan is not Big Blue; Michigan is size-non-specific Blue, as in Go Blue. I always thought Big Blue was IBM, but Admissions assistant director and resident GW Law grad Joe Pollak has alerted me that the GW fight song—which, as Joe points out, could conceivably do double-duty as the fight song for Crayola’s corporate softball team—uses the phrase “Go Big Blue!” I’ll let GW and IBM and whomever else duke that one out.
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 metric. 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
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.