What All Law Schools Look For

“I’m waiting for when I finally will have started admitting my second generation of individuals,” says Janice Austin, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at the University of California, Irvine School of Law (UCI). Austin has worked in law school admissions for almost 30 years; UCI is her fifth school. “My professional life has been spent in legal education, admissions, and financial aid,” she says.
Those decades have given her a perspective that can only be described as historical: In personal statements, she’s seen applicants address everything from the Wall Street crash in 1987 to the September 11 attacks to Hurricane Katrina. “Longevity and experiences at public, private, not-so-elite, and elite schools really just gives me a greater reservoir, so to speak, in terms of helping to manage the process,” she says. “I think that was particularly useful as I joined UCI, which is a relatively new school.”
UCI has been around for just about five years. The school’s newness makes Austin’s job all the more rewarding: She enjoys the feeling of building an institution from the ground up. “The University of California system is world-renowned, and there’s an enormous amount of attention drawn to us, and people looking to see what the outcomes will be as we move forward,” Austin says. “It gives you somewhat of an incentive to move forward in a very positive way.”
How does an admissions veteran operate in a brand-new school? In a thorough interview with TippingTheScales.com, Austin touched on rankings, the value of work experience, and how to demonstrate potential when you don’t have a high GPA.
What do you think makes UCI stand out from other top law schools?
We have a desire to be innovative, but we also recognize that there is a level of tradition that is expected in elite law schools. We offer a small-school setting in a lovely part of the country. And everyone from the top down—leadership, faculty, staff, and our students, of course—selected this institution because we’re very interested in doing the heavy lifting to start and sustain the legacy of an institution that will ultimately outlive all of us.
Why isn’t UCI ranked by U.S. News?
U.S. News only ranks fully accredited law schools. We’ve had our provisional accreditation since 2011, and the earliest any law school can reach full accreditation with the ABA is five years from the date the first class graduates. We anticipate being before the ABA council for the vote this summer. Everyone has kind of followed this process for several years, knowing that as soon as we become eligible for full accreditation, we’ll be in the very next U.S. News ranking. Nonetheless, U.S. News does rank us in some of their subcategories. This past year, they ranked our clinical program #20, and they ranked us fifth for diversity.
How would you describe an ideal candidate?
All law schools look for the exact same thing: Really talented people. That’s the bottom line. The definition of talent has always been subjective, though. Many people would say that it’s only about your LSAT score and GPA. At UCI, we do try to look beyond the numbers. This is California: We know our demographics are very different here, and our challenges are different, so we look for students who accomplish great things in non-standard ways. We look for people who have extraordinary potential, who would excel when they are placed in the right atmosphere.
But, you know, we compete. There are two other terrific law—USC and UCLA—along with other solid law schools in Southern California, so it’s not surprising that much of our applicant pool overlaps extensively. At the end of the day, we look for students who feel that the experience we offer resonates with what they’re seeking from their legal education.
How should applicants demonstrate potential if their grades or LSAT scores aren’t stellar?
What applicants can control is their writing. In addition to the general personal statement, we ask applicants to write more succinctly about why they’re interested in UCI, and we hope that that permits them to really outline and articulate why they believe the school is a good fit for them.
Applicants can also demonstrate potential through letters of recommendation. I will admit that they get to be pretty standard after you’ve looked at thousands and thousands of them over the course of a career, but certain buzzwords and pieces of information can be teased out. When applicants ask, “Well, who should write my letters of recommendation?” I always tell them to go with the people who know them best. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should ask the next-door neighbor you babysat for; more likely, it means you should ask an academic instructor who’s had you in more than one class, or an athletic coach. If that person can compare you with people they’ve known who’ve gone to law school, that’s always very useful.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.