The stellar GPA is eminently redeemable. That might seem funny, because people often say, “Oh, but the LSAT is just one day—several hours on one day—and why should it carry so much weight?” whereas an undergraduate degree takes four years. But at the same time, the LSAT is very apples-to-apples. Everybody’s on a very similar playing field. In college, you have different majors; you have people who’ve graduated last year versus people who’ve graduated 15 years ago; you have people who worked 40 hours a week or were on demanding sports teams versus people who were only devoting themselves to school. There are just so many more factors at play.
One thing you can do is give yourself some distance. So, if you’ve just graduated from college and your performance wasn’t strong I would take time off and build up your credentials in some other way. Get work experience, volunteer—et cetera, et cetera. Do things that are interesting and add to your portfolio. Then, you have a pretty good story to tell about the ways in which you are different now.
It’s harder to come back from a low LSAT score. Again, we are looking for people who are interesting and smart, so if your LSAT score is weak, it helps if you have a really strong undergraduate performance; that way, you can show academic achievement in some arena. Great letters of recommendation are also useful in that context. If you have a history of non-predictive standardized testing, where you get low scores and then really outperform those scores, you should by all means let the admissions officers know so that they don’t put undue weight on your LSAT score. Plus, I can only speak for Michigan, but I can tell you that I put a lot of weight on the writing. If someone is expressing something interesting and expressing it well, I find that very compelling.
Do you remember a personal statement you really loved?
One applicant, an oboist, wrote a personal statement about why playing the oboe is great preparation for being a lawyer. That sounds so odd, but he spent a lot of time talking about how technically precise oboists have to be, and it was compelling. It made me really think, “Yes, this guy will be great as a lawyer!” It also taught me something. I liked learning about oboes! I admitted him, he ended up enrolling, and now he’s a graduate.
People often think they have to write something amazing to stand out, and that is just not the case. If you’ve started an orphanage, yes, you should write about that, but if you haven’t, I bet you have something interesting to tell me all the same. I see people try to impress me with their smarts, and that’s very alienating. You don’t really get to know someone who’s trying to do that; the reader should have a sense of who you are when he or she is done reading your personal statement, so don’t try to make the reader feel like you are smarter than they are. That’s not engaging. And I understand why people do that—they think, “Oh, I want to go to law school, I have to show them that I’m smart”—but there are ways to do that without being explicit about it.
How important is work experience, and what kind of work experience has the biggest chance of helping you get admitted?
There’s two ways in which work experience is important. It’s important in a very pragmatic, help-you-get-admitted way, but I’d rather talk first about the other way. It is very helpful to the candidate—for their own development—to have some work experience. Law is a big financial investment, but it’s also a big investment of time and identity. If you go all the way through law school and then decide you don’t like being a lawyer, it is emotionally difficult to step away from being one. I know people who struggle with that all the time. So, I like to see that people have put some real consideration into taking this step. It’s also very helpful when it’s time to do a job search. Legal employers like to see that you’ve gotten seasoning somewhere else, because they give their employees a lot of power and responsibility, and they aren’t eager for that to be your very first full-time job.
In terms of getting into law school, there aren’t certain kinds of jobs I particularly like seeing. Frankly, the jobs I think are most interesting in any given year are often the jobs I’d never seen before or wouldn’t have considered. One of the great things about law, one of the things that makes it such an interesting profession, is that it touches on virtually every aspect of modern life. For that reason, it’s helpful to get people with all sorts of work backgrounds. That said, if you think you want to go to law school but you really haven’t had any exposure to a legal employer, getting that exposure is a worthwhile way to spend at least a summer, if not a year or two. It’s good to interact with lawyers and figure out what the day-to-day is like in a law office. Is it appealing, or have you perhaps romanticized it such that you will find it very unrewarding when the time comes to start working?
Do you think the admissions process will change in the near future, or do you think it’ll pretty much stay the way it is?
We made a change last year, not in the admissions process itself but in one very selective scholarship, the Darrow Scholarship. For that, we have begun using video interviewing to figure out who meets our Darrow criteria best. But that’s a very small group. I can’t see expanding that tool into admissions generally. I guess I’m a little bit old-fashioned in terms of thinking that the essays give me enough information. I’m not a big fan of the idea of Googling students and trying to stalk them electronically; I don’t love that idea at all, so I can’t see us moving into that realm.
I’m sure applicants appreciate not being Googled.
You know, I have kids, and they’re college-aged, and I’ll look at their Twitters every once and a while. I know my kids, so I know when they’re being sarcastic and when they’re being hilarious, but I look at their feeds and sort of cringe because I think someone who doesn’t know them isn’t necessarily going to understand what they mean. I’ll maybe point that out, and they get annoyed at me. But that’s life. But my point is that I will not be able to read some stranger’s Twitter feed and have any kind of sense of who they are.
In light of the high cost of legal education and the high unemployment rate among recent law school graduates, have you found yourself talking applicants out of applying to law school?
I have. There has certainly been a big change in law school admissions over the last couple of years, and yet it’s sort of a difference in degree rather than in kind. I have always felt that people would be better off coming to law school with at least some idea of why they’re there, so I’ve probably been having these conversations for a long time—longer than some people, maybe.
This spring, I had a really good conversation with a young man from Michigan undergrad who hadn’t gotten in. I had met him and been impressed with him, so I knew he was disappointed about not being admitted, and I asked if he wanted to talk about next steps. He had gotten into some law schools, but they weren’t great for him, so I was really encouraging him to take time away from school, work, and see if this was really what he wanted to do. I didn’t want him to go ahead just because he had the idea that this is when you go to law school. It was funny, because he was really resisting me, and I was in this crazy position of arguing against law school. So, yeah, I do that at times. Law school is not right for everybody, and people often don’t want to hear that advice.