The Gatekeeper To The Duke University School of Law

by Maya Itah on



When asked how Duke Law School has been faring since the beginning of the law school crisis, Director of Admissions Mark Hill seems momentarily confused, as if he has to remember what the term meant. That’s not particularly surprising, because institutions like Duke have evaded the worst of the storm. While many schools struggled to attract applicants, Duke got 5,014 and turned most of them away. Its acceptance rate is 19%. The bar to get in is high: The entering class of 2013 had an average undergraduate GPA of 3.77 and an average LSAT score of 169. Though the school is located in Durham, North Carolina, most of the class is from the Northeast (26%) and the Mid-Atlantic (also 26%); 21% hailed from the West, 11% each arrived from the South and the Midwest, and the remaining 5% came from outside the United States.

How did Hill come to be the person admitting all these students? “Uh, well, I was an unhappy graduate student,” the North Carolina native admits. “There was a time when I thought I wanted to be an anthropology professor. It didn’t take me too long to realize that though I think anthropology is really, really interesting, it wasn’t what I wanted to do for my career.” What he did love was his undergraduate experience at Duke. “That got me interested in working in a university setting,” Hill says. “I think that’s what attracted me to admissions in the first place—just the chance to help people find a good fit for their interests and what they hope to get out of an institution.”

Hill started his career in higher education working with chemistry graduate students at Northwestern University. But when an opportunity at Duke Law’s admissions office popped up, he jumped on the chance to go back to his alma mater. Did he imagine staying in the law school world? It wasn’t a given; unlike many law school admissions directors, he’s never been a lawyer. (Then again, he’s never been a chemist either.) But he’s now worked in Duke’s admissions office for 12 years, and “it really is a pretty good place to be,” he says. Most people equate law school with stress and misery, but you wouldn’t guess that from speaking with Hill.

What do you think makes Duke stand out from other top law schools?

The students who are excited to come here value the combination of a top-flight legal education and a pretty relaxed environment. If you look at the objective statistics from the top schools, there are minor differences here and there in terms of employment and things like that, but that’s not necessarily the biggest differentiator for a lot of people. What really makes Duke a good fit is the knowledge that folks here can get a very strong legal education and have good job prospects all across the country—but they can get all that somewhere where class sizes are small, where the cost of living isn’t insane, and where they’re really going to get to know their classmates very well and enjoy the full experience of being a law student.

Let’s say you’re talking to a perfectly good applicant, but you don’t think that applicant will be happy at Duke Law. Would you address that with him or her?

I do think Duke’s a good fit for lots of people, so it’s rare that you would directly say, “Look, this just isn’t going to work for you.” It might be that an applicant has some particular academic interest that isn’t as well-developed here. Somebody asked me about maritime law, and there are schools located near water that have resources in that area, but that’s not necessarily something that’s super standout in our curriculum. But I think a lot of it relates to lifestyle rather than just academic choices. For the right kind of person, Duke’s a great fit, but Durham’s not a huge metropolis. If you want to have a place where you can really be focused on your studies and really be a full-time law student, it makes sense, but if you really have to be in a place where you can you get Chinese food at two ‘o clock in the morning, you might not be as happy here.

What we try to do, with applicants and especially with admitted students, is make sure they get the information on what the experience at Duke is like, what our graduates do, and all of those kinds of things, so that they can make their own choices. That’s what makes this community its strongest: when people come here because they’ve made informed choices and not because they thought it was something else—they’d get here and kind of go, “Oh, I don’t like this, actually.”

How has the law school crisis affected admissions at Duke?

I don’t think it’s affected Duke nearly as much as it seems to have affected a number of other schools. As far as applications go, there was an across-the-board decline three years ago. Last year and this year, we didn’t see as many applications as we did before the decline, but we’ve seen increases. Our career services office is certainly working hard, and there’s more individual work with students than there was seven or eight years ago. Not everybody can just sign up for on-campus interviews and take that route. You need to work with individual people to help them really craft a plan to find a good job.

But we’re still finding that students are getting employed. Duke is not unique in this; there’s a level of school that continues to be appealing to employers, and I think applicants are becoming increasingly sophisticated and informed about outcomes and what they’re getting themselves into, such that they’re looking at Duke and similar schools as good bets. I think that’s one of the reasons our application numbers have at least stabilized. As I said, we’re seeing some increases.

I’ve heard a lot of admissions directors talk about wanting to see candidates who are all very different from each other. What does that mean to you?

We would not want a class of 200-some people with exactly the same academic or personal background. When our professors talk to us about the kind of teaching experiences they want, one of the things they mention is being able to have a discussion where one student can say, “Well, from an economic perspective, you can look at this issue in this way,” and somebody else who has a background in sociology can give a different take on it, and a third person who has extensive work experience in a related field can draw on that. They tell us—and it makes good sense, and I’ve always believed it—that the range of perspectives really enhances the educational experience. When you’re a school with a relatively small and close-knit community, you want people to be able to interact in productive ways, so we definitely do think that’s an important part of assembling our classes.

Are there some non-academic differences you look for?

Different kinds of work experience, different socioeconomic backgrounds—I mean, one of the things I think about when I’m reading applications is the kinds of opportunities people might have had. It’s great to see people who have had interesting internships and volunteer experiences, but I always try to be mindful of the people who had to work to pay for their tuition during the summers or during the school year. I definitely feel like that’s a perspective well worth having in a student body, especially when those applicants have thoughtful things to say about their experiences.

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