An Interview With Northwestern's Forward-Thinking Dean

northwestern law 2When and why did Northwestern decide to start interviewing all its candidates?
I think it started roughly a decade and a half ago. In spite how important grades, LSAT scores, and letters of recommendation are for all law schools—there’s no question that those are the central criteria that go into admissions—we felt that interviews gave us the ability to look at the whole candidate. It allowed us to understand how they articulated their goals and objectives; we were able to engage in a dialogue with them and to learn more about what brought them to this stage of their careers.
Interviewing candidates also enabled us to start building relationships with them early on. Submitting a law school application is cold and informal, especially now, when with the flip of a switch, you can apply to 20 schools without much additional energy. We were trying to kind of leapfrog over that impersonality by developing this rapport. We found that once students enrolled, a lot of them said, “You know, the interview with Northwestern is what started building this relationship for me. I really thought this was a more human place.” Employers tell us that we have students who are not only more social but who are really engaging. Now, I don’t think that means other schools don’t have engaging students, but we learn a lot from the interview process.
Northwestern Law seems more concerned than other law schools in its cohort with admitting students who’ve had work experience. Why is that?
We do put a very substantial thumb on the scale for students who have had work experience. In the last couple of years, over 90% of our entering class—sometimes it’s been as high as 95%—has had work experience between college graduation and admission to Northwestern. This approach is very common among top business schools; most business schools have long required at least two years of work experience. So, when Northwestern began putting a strong emphasis on work experience about a dozen years ago, in some ways, we were taking a page from the playbook of leading business schools. Quite simply, we find that this additional experience brings an interesting maturity to the student body. The diversity of experiences they’ve had in the workforce gives them a significant leg up in their study of law. Last but not least, I often hear from employers that they greatly value the emphasis we put on work experience, and that they would like to see all law schools develop that same emphasis.
I think you’ll find that most law schools (if not all law schools) in our cohort have been going in that direction. Each year, Harvard Law School is enrolling a larger number of students with work experience. Just today, one of my colleagues told me that Georgetown was publicizing the fact that 60% of its entering class has had work experience between graduation and law school. That’s not anywhere close to Northwestern, but it’s a trend.
Another thing Northwestern does differently is offer alternative programs like the two-year JD and the accelerated JD/MBA. What made Northwestern decide to move in that direction?
We were the first law school to create a three-year, fully integrated JD/MBA program. It’s about a dozen years old, and it’s the largest program of its kind: We admit anywhere from 25 to 30 students every year. We wanted to take the opportunity to build a collaborative program with a top business school—the Kellogg School of Management—and to do so in a way that maximized the value for the students. Getting a JD and an MBA in three years is enormously more efficient. The proof of this program’s value is in the pudding; the students who graduate from it are doing extraordinary things. About half go into business—consulting firms, major corporations, et cetera—and about half go into law firms. They all get employed.
The two-year JD program has been around for a shorter period. We’re about 5 years into it. That program responded to a sense that there was a tremendous market opportunity available. Many students were anxious to either move back into careers they had before law school or, in some cases, to embark on their careers—and they didn’t want to take three years to do that. Again, we admit about 25 to 30 students into the program. We now have a cohort of students who’ve graduated from the program, and they do very well in the marketplace.
I think you’re going to see more peer law schools start versions of this program and the JD/MBA program.
In his speech at William & Mary, Justice Scalia lamented the fact that the law school curriculum is becoming more condensed and more customizable. Do you agree with his assessment?
Whenever a supreme court justice—certainly someone of Justice Scalia’s stature and experience—comments as thoughtfully as he did about law schools, we should listen. There was much of the speech I agreed with and much I disagreed with. A common criticism is that the third year’s a waste and we could lob it off without making any sacrifice. I think that’s hyperbole and a problematic strategy, and I think Justice Scalia was right to raise some concerns about it. (I’ll note that our accelerated program is three years of law school condensed into two.)
As for the point about the curriculum, let me just say this: If I could, I would ask the justice, “Well, do you think the law clerks that you have are less well-trained than they were 20 years ago? Do you think they have less information, less knowledge, less experience and expertise?” I doubt he would say that. And they’re the graduates of just the law schools he was making fun of.