Diary of a Law School Applicant's Cycle: Episode 1 (Pre-Submission)

In this episode, Mike interviews a current applicant (who we'll call "Barb") about her application process so far. Barb is a splitter with a 176 LSAT and a 3.1 GPA, and she's also a non-traditional applicant with 10+ years of full-time work experience after college. In this interview, we talk through her motivations for going to law school, her school list, the three different personal statement topics she's debating between, and more.

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Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions. I’m your host, Mike Spivey. Today I’m going to be interviewing “Barb,” who — incidentally, we are going to change a few things about Barb just to keep her anonymous through the process — but we’re going to do a four- or five- (roughly) part series. Barb has yet to apply; she’ll soon be applying. She’s — we talk about this — she’s choosing between different personal statement topics, she is a non-traditional student, a “super splitter” you might call her, 176-ish LSAT, 3.1-ish GPA, with 10 years’ work experience.

So we don’t know how Barb’s cycle’s going to turn out, she is not a client of our firm. I am going to hopefully give some help during this interview process, and I hope it doesn’t just help Barb, I hope it helps everyone applying. I hope a good deal of this advice that we talk through as we talk through her cycle at important inflection points, I hope is universal for a lot of people applying to law school this cycle.

We’ll click on the data of the cycle and what schools are doing on her application decisions, and this is not the only time we’re going to talk to Barb, so it’s going to be a four- or five-part episode, enjoy episode 1.

Hi, I am joined with Barb; I’ll let Barb introduce herself. Hi, Barb.

Barb: Hi!

Mike: Tell me a tell me a little about like — when did you first start firing neurons, “I’m going to think about law school”?

Barb: Yeah, well I finished undergrad 10 years ago, and it was something I had considered then. It had been recommended to me, I considered it, but it seemed like a lot of work and frankly a lot of money that I didn’t have as a college student then. So I entered the workforce, had some thoughts about it, and with COVID shutting things down, being at home more, it made me reassess my priorities, and I decided to just start off by studying and taking the LSAT and seeing how that went. So I started that almost a year ago now, fall of 2020.

Mike: Correct me if I’m wrong, but 10 years ago when you graduated, were you at a top 10 top 20 college or not?

Barb: Absolutely not.

Mike: Okay. This is interesting Barb, about 30 years ago or 20 years ago, most admissions decisions were made by faculty admissions committees. And U.S. News rankings weren’t so prominent and faculty admissions committees weren’t so numbers obsessed. So if you had gone 15 years ago or 20 years ago to a Princeton or Stanford or Harvard, you might get a substantial bump. Now if you went to an Ivy League school or a top 10 school — I went to Vanderbilt they are like 14th — maybe if I applied to law school having gone to Vanderbilt it would give me like, a feather on the scale. So you can not worry sort of much about that. Plus your 10 years removed.

Barb: Yes exactly, exactly.

Mike: Correct me if I’m wrong, 10 years ago we were still kind of in the legal employment recessive hiring economy, is that right?

Barb: Yeah, I graduated into the Great Recession.

Mike: So you found a job.

Barb: Yes, I went to work for the government right out of college, and there were certainly attorneys around, there was legal work going on, I wasn’t doing it. And over the years, I continued to work in different government roles attorney-adjacent. So it was something that I was exposed to slowly over time. I really gradually learned and saw and experienced a lot of different ways that attorneys or folks who’d gotten JDs were using their education for government work, and that is what I’m interested in doing, is government work.

Mike: Do you have a mentor or mentors who are attorneys?

Barb: In my current role we have two counsel attorneys, and I am fairly close with both of them, and one of them in particular has been helping guide me through this process.

Mike: Yeah, I get nervous when I hear that. There are some incredibly well-meaning attorneys who give horrible admissions advice. We’ll try to give you some free advice here though hopefully.

Barb: To be honest, they are both leery of someone going to law school because they are both the types that went straight from undergrad or nearly straight from undergrad, and in many ways I think were the opposite of me where they didn’t necessarily know what they were going to do with it when they finished and graduated with a bunch of debt, and kind of had to struggle to get into the market. And it was kind if a long difficult path for them. So I think they worry about someone replicating their path.

Mike: Most attorneys are a little — to begin with, they’re trained in worst case scenario-ing things. Number two, I think most attorneys, when someone approaches them and says like, “Hey, I’m thinking about law school,” They start with, “Let’s talk about why you shouldn’t.” I mean I’ve heard this conversation thousands of times. They start with, “Here is why you shouldn’t, but if this is your passion, go for it kid.”

Barb: That’s a conversation I had so many times over the years, and any time I would speak to someone that had gone to law school, I feel like a lot of them, if they had to do it over, they wouldn’t go to law school probably. So to be honest I spent the better part of 10 years trying to not go to law school. I really didn’t think I needed it, so it’s a surprise to me even that I’ve gotten to this place. But it really does feel like the right step for me.  

Mike: Was there a — I call this “David Goggins” moment. Do you know who David Goggins is?  

Barb: No.

Mike: Well, you don’t have to. He had a job killing insects, he was 300 pounds and he claims he — and I believe him — that he looked in the mirror after watching a documentary on Navy SEALs, and everything switched. And he lost I think 150 pounds; you know, ran every day more and more, got incredibly committed, incredibly committed to learning. Now I think a psychologist would say that actually didn’t happen in the moment. Did you feel like there was a moment for you where you just said, “Alright, I’ve been trying to avoid law school for 10 years, now I’m looking in the mirror, here’s that moment.”

Barb: I don’t know that there was a single moment like that. I think professionally I had a lot of little moments where I would be on projects or on teams and there would be work we were doing, and as someone that didn’t have a JD there would always be a point where work would continue or there would be more interesting components of it and it was like a door was shut. You know, parts of the work or the job were closed to me no matter how badly I wanted to do them, no matter how many reports I read, there’s just some things you can’t do without the credential. But I think the closest thing I had to that is — and I suspect a lot of folks were in the same place as me maybe for different reasons — but COVID made everyone rethink everything. And I know it did for me, and it was more of a “don’t waste the time that you have, because you just don’t know what’s around the next corner,” and sort of the time and the space thinking back. If I am looking back on my life, what could I possibly regret that I didn’t do, that I didn’t try?

So for me it was even the process of attempting to go to law school was something I just wanted to know that I’d done. And if it didn’t work, if it didn’t pan out, and even still if I feel like I hit a wall and it doesn’t turn out to be the right path, I will move forward almost with a sense of peace knowing that I tried it. I don’t have to wonder because I’m doing it.

So I think it was just the pandemic causing me to rethink priorities and think about what I want to achieve personally and professionally.

Mike: Certainly the COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation periods changed a lot of things both for the better and the worse. We’ll say you are 30, I don’t know how old you are but we’ll say 10 years out, you’re 30. So people would say, okay well why would I spend three years going to law school, then I’ll be 33 when I graduate? Well, you’re going to be 33 in three years anyways. I would flip it around and say the exact opposite, now is the exact time to go to law school. So I applaud that. How did you discover Reddit? We put this on Reddit. Obviously, you didn’t discover Reddit law school and then decided to go to law school, it happened in the opposite order. How did that happen?

Barb: I mean, I think I first got on Reddit maybe three or four years ago now. Various subs, you’re just enjoying the discussion, right, and you sort of realize for better or worse that there is a subreddit or two, or three, or five about pretty much everything. So when I started going down the law school path I just — you know, you kind of search around, you find what’s out there and spend some time on the LSAT sub and now in the law school admissions sub. It’s a resource, it’s good some days, less helpful on other days, but it is nice to know that there is a community of people that are all attempting the same thing.

Mike: It’s fascinating, on Monday I’m interviewing Dr. Anna Lembke at Stanford who was featured in The Social Dilemma. I don’t know if you’ve seen that documentary.

Barb: Yeah!

Mike: So Dr. Lembke is one of the experts they interviewed. She’s the one who they interviewed her two kids right after they interviewed her about how much time they spend on their phones.

Barb: Yeah.

Mike: And we are going to talk a good deal about — I feel like people applying to law school, in some sense you need to be online, but it can be incredibly harmful too. Not just from a biochemical perspective, which Dr. Lembke is going to talk about, but just from a bad advice perspective.  Let me give you an example, Barb. So last year someone started a thread, “Hey, I’m a Dean of Admission at a top 14 law school, and I can’t out my school, but I’m going to give good advice.” Within minutes, our firm could tell this was a fake because the advice they were giving was not good advice, but it took a hundred and something like a hundred and something like twenty-one or thirty-one questions before Reddit moderators figured it out and shut that thing down. That’s 131 people who were sitting around thinking of stressful, mindful, important decisions they make, and some random kid, some troll is giving just made-up advice. How easy is it for you to detect maybe what — someone aggressive in the moment, someone faking things, etc. — on the Reddit LSAT, Reddit admissions?

Barb: Yeah, I think some of it for me is knowing my own limits. I’m someone that’s prone to anxiety. So for me I know, I noticed being on those subreddits is actually really not healthy for me at night if I am trying to get towards sleep or if I’m having trouble falling asleep or if I’m already having a stressful day. So I think, for me, I just try to kind of assess where I’m at before I engage with the forum. I kind of lost myself in the LSAT one, you know, and the thing about studying for the LSAT is that there is data and there is matrix and it feels like this puzzle that you can crack almost, if you study hard enough, long enough, learn enough, all these kinds of things, learn one more strategy. And the first time I took the LSAT, I was on there every day waiting for my score, and it was just not healthy. So I’ve just tried to set boundaries that way. I’ve also tried to you know, sometimes I’ll filter by the top posts, and I maybe only go on a couple times a week, that seems to help just trying to keep my wits about me, but man it’s hard. It’s hard when you are so invested in a process and this feels like the one place you can talk about it.

Mike: You hit on a good strategy, a couple times a week filtering on the top posts… now, you’re going to see a bunch of funny memes.

Barb: Yeah, which is great honestly, you know, the ones about Georgetown having the best law center in the country cracked me up every time. Dumb, but they make me laugh.

Mike: Reddit’s gotten a lot more aggressive these past two years — and I don’t blame a single soul on the planet — the last two years because of the social isolation people were more stressed. Reddit used to be just this incredible source of amusement for me. The memes were just outstanding — they still are there’s just not as many. I think more people were willing to vent, again understandably.

Okay, so you’re applying. It’s 10 years ago, what’s your LSAC computed GPA? And what’s your LSAT roughly? Just those numbers.

Barb: Yeah, my undergrad GPA is a 3.1, and my LSAT score, my top LSAT score is 176.

Mike: Okay, how many times did you take it?

Barb: Technically three, but the first time I took it I had major technical issues so my score was canceled, and I was registered for the next testing date, so I have two scores.

Mike: I think the average is something like 1.9 or 2.whatever points better, because people get more comfortable, they’ve seen game day. Are you six or seven points higher on your second take?

Barb: Yes.

Mike: So you probably want to write an addendum.

Barb: I will. When my score was canceled, I was only offered one date to retake the test, and it happened to coincide with an extremely busy period at my job, so it was just poor timing. I never would have chosen that date for myself.

Mike: It can be a one paragraph addendum. Just with a little bit of ownership but also talk about how your life was crazy. The schools will care about the 176 particularly this cycle where scores 170 to 180 are down versus last cycle, and they are going to keep going down further I would predict. Obviously, I can’t make 100% predictions about the future, but I think that they are going to keep going down. I think we are going to see 170 to 180 down pretty significantly from last year. Maybe 10% down from last year, that’s significant.

What’s interesting is, I look at the individual data points — this is not for you Barb; this is for sort of everyone else — 169 right now is currently up 18%, it’ll be interesting to track that number to see what happens. Okay, so you have a 176 high, a 3.1, what are some of the schools you are applying to?

Barb: I’ll be applying to Ohio State University, University of Wisconsin, applying to some schools in the Chicago area. I do currently live in the Midwest; we have family around there so that’s why those schools are in play as well. I’ll be applying to some of the Boston schools, Boston College, Boston University. With the LSAT score I was able to get, I’m going to throw in some reach schools too, Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago, University of Michigan. My GPA is on the low side, but my LSAT’s high and I figure I’d rather hear “no” from the schools directly than decide for myself before they have a chance to look at my application.  

Mike: It’s a good way — everyone has different financial situations. If you can, you always want to apply to the stretches. I think, you know, with a 3.1, Yale and Harvard are going to be pretty significant stretches.

Barb: Oh yeah.

Mike: But we see people catch lightning in a bottle every cycle, including last cycle, so you never know. You have 10 years work experience maybe in a niche field, that itself is highly differentiating. I never talk anyone out of applying. I had someone with a 2.7 apply to Yale. I can’t exercise agency over that person; they have free will. If they want to apply to Yale, go for it. All I can do is say I’ve never seen someone under a 3.0 get into Yale before, but who knows, you might catch the right person on the happiest day of their lives.

Barb: Yeah.

Mike: So you’ve got the stretch schools, it’s going to be a stretch but again it’s possible. You have the schools that geographically make sense.

Barb: I’m also going to apply to the University of Colorado and the University of Washington. I have family ties in the area, so they would be places that I would be happy to end up and happy to be tied into those professional networks geographically too.

Mike: Okay. I’ll be on Colorado’s campus next week. I have a principle about not like, dropping people’s names to help them obviously, but I wish I could. If I can write your initials in a tree, you think it will subconsciously help someone?... well, you know. You haven’t submitted a single application yet, correct?

Barb: No, I have not.

Mike: And you are still grappling with, my understanding is from — I think Anna mentioned it — you have three separate personal statements.

Barb: I do.

Mike: So you say you want to disclose broadly, sort of, the themes, feel free to.

Barb: Yeah, I’d be interested to get your take on sorting through some of these topics. So thank goodness for Google Docs, I don’t know how people managed this process before those existed. So one of the ones I have written, it’s a little bit out in left field, I entered and won a competition in a state fair. I won a blue ribbon for, let’s call it a “home ec” discipline. The second one I’ve written is an in-depth dive into a very specific, very relevant project I’m working on related to congressional redistricting in my current job, it’s a really unique opportunity. So kind of writing just one deep dive snapshot into my role on that project, and it does tie in a little bit to why I want to go to law school. It’s just a closer example of a project where there is work that I can’t do that I would love to be a part of because I’m not an attorney, well that’s number two.

And then number three would be two different snapshots of projects. One for my first job out of college, one for my current job, a different project where I’m making substantial contributions, I’m getting things done. But they both kind of got me to a place where there was a limit on what I could do in my role and then sort of tying those two examples into kind of explaining why law school now. Because I think if someone is looking at my application, they may wonder why now? My realm of professional experience is very much in the wheelhouse of law school, so that one would be more of an opportunity to explain why now. How I got to this place right now.

Mike: This is interesting. Let me give you the other side of things, the admissions side of things, which this is why we do these podcasts. It’s so important for applicants, when you are in admissions you are reading — the days you are reading files, which are the days you’re not flying and recruiting. Today is the Atlanta Forum, so they are not reading files today, tomorrow too. So on Sunday, you might be reading 100 files. That is tough to stay locked in and focused, and some people are really committed to doing it and they do it well. But even the best of us, I remember back when I read files and I was reading on a Sunday, my significant other would be saying something, “Could you do this now?” Or the football game would be on the background, whatever.

Barb: Yeah, you’re human.

Mike: Exactly. And of the 100 I devoted that day to reading, the 75 that were all similar would be the ones that I would be most likely to turn and watch five plays of the Tennessee Titans game or say to my significant other, “Hey Sarah, yeah let’s go for that walk now.” You do not want to be in that 75, you want to be in the 15 or 25 that you have that person’s full attention. It is really important; this is straight out of what these people who designed apps get you hooked on, it is really important you have the full attention throughout your full file. So I almost already tip towards one or three versus two for you, because those are more differentiated. I don’t think you need a why law, I don’t think anyone needs a why law. But if you have two things that really organically bring you to law school, then that could be a very differentiated and compelling personal statement. I always bring up the example Jazzy the cat, which was this client of mine whose cat got taken away from her when she was six. She was six, you don’t need   there is no date, your state fair could have been when you were 12 where you won the blue ribbon.

Barb: Actually, it was three or four years ago! I’ll just tell you. I entered a couple pies, and I won a first place and a third place ribbon for my pies at the state fair. And the reason that story has jumped out at me is while I was making them, I thought it wasn’t going well. I thought when I was making them it was going very badly, I almost didn’t even take them to enter, because I felt like they weren’t going the way I wanted, but I decided to push through. I had spent all this time. I saw it through, I entered them. I ended up getting two ribbons, and I think it’s a unique story. It’s obviously not me working as a paralegal or working with an elected official or some of those more, like, classic law examples, but I think told the right way the story communicates the way I commit to something I start, that I gather information, I learn as much as I can, I try to course-correct — that even when it was difficult, and you know, for those moments I did think it wasn’t going to be worth it, I decided to see it through, and it ended up paying off.

So that’s the story that came to mind as far as kind of a unique situation goes. So that was why that one just popped in my imagination a little.

Mike: It has gravitas, you stared at the void and then you jumped in. You had insecurities, you had self-doubts and you overrode them. And lo and behold to your surprise, you went in thinking these things weren’t even worthy of the person next to you, and you came out with the best pie in the — I don’t know how many they were.

Barb: 50, I think.

Mike: So it’s a little bit of a tricky personal statement. You want to have a narrative arc that ends on the upbeat positive note that brings you into law school and how you could represent your clients. Trust me when I say you could do that with that topic. You could do that about your self-doubts and also how your clients are going to have self-doubts approaching cases. I don’t want to write your personal statement for you just in case one admissions officer is listening to this, but that could be an A+ topic, I’m not kidding. I’m going to do you a favor, don’t use the word unique, you’ve used it three times. Don’t say this is a unique tale. There are so few unique stories in admissions and also other people have won blue ribbon pie contests. So it’s a very differentiated story. Very differentiated is very helpful in the admissions process.

Barb: I didn’t even notice I was saying that word because I hear people — you’ve said it, other admissions folks have said it. That’s one of those words that’s used so much, it’s trite — I didn’t even catch myself using, I feel so silly!

Mike: Well, it’s funny, because from an admissions perspective these things pop, some things pop for me in a really good way, but when you’re in admissions you are looking for things that pop in both good and bad ways. You said “really unique,” which is qualifying a word that can’t be qualified, that pops to me. Now it’s not going to pop on Reddit to your typical Reddit user, but for another Dean of Admissions it might have the same negative consequence. I wouldn’t over-worry about this, and please don’t beat yourself up!

The thing that really stood out to me when I used to read files was sentences that start with “I.” And I had a maximum where if someone had like 10 or 12 sentences that start with “I,” I would significantly downgrade their personal statement. I’m not saying every admissions officer has that, though every admissions officer probably has something. There’s 35 people in my firm, we’ll get on these Zooms and we’ll talk about what are our pet peeve words. So Karen, one of my business partners, she hates the word hone. When she was at Harvard Law, if people were talking about honing their skills, boom, boom, boom, down, down, down with their applications status.

Barb: I think this is the part that has been tricky for me to figure out how to navigate is that, for so many of us, when we learn to write academically or professionally, cover letters are the most frequent type of personal writing that you do once you get out of college. And in many ways, it appears, you might think, that a cover letter and a personal statement are serving a similar purpose, but they are not the same. Going back to what you were saying, the pet peeve about the word hone, I think of that as being a word that you use in cover letters a lot. You talk about “honing” a certain skill in a workplace, or you worked in a “unique” environment or something like that. And I think differentiating between a cover letter and a personal statement has been one of the bigger struggles about working on my application materials and something that has been very surprising for me that it is so difficult.

Mike: Think of it like this, a cover letter is like a business school assignment. It’s got bullet points, so it’s objective, and it’s points in time. With your personal statement, let’s say your write about your state fair, you don’t want it to be data points in time. You want to put the file reader in that moment. So what you want to do is, you want to go back in time in your head.

Barb: It’s a time machine.

Mike: Yes, sensory — what did you sense, what did you smell? What did you feel? Now that’s not going to be your entire personal statement or else it’s overwrought and you’re trying too hard. But for your first two paragraphs, literally like, smelling the blueberry pie next to you is perfectly fine. Again, don’t go overboard with that, but go back in time, do the time machine. Writing is a time machine. And I have a book deal, I have two and one’s on admissions, I’m not going to back in time on that one at all, but the other one is on, sort of, motivation and self-growth, and that one’s a time machine for me. I’m talking about stuff I did when I was four. This is so interesting, and this is very relevant for personal statements, particularly those that are 3 years old or 10 years old or happened 15 years ago, you think you can’t do it, and I thought I couldn’t go back in time when I, as I write this book, and believe it or not, you can. You can close your eyes and some days you’ll find yourself in that moment and you’ll find memories of that moment you never thought you had. It’s unbelievable the brain’s ability to retrieve things at random times.

If you do it on any of your personal statement topics, put the reader in the moment. Your second one I’ve read tens of thousands of times.

Barb: Yeah.

Mike: Put the reader in the moment, which would make it very differentiated.

We have about five more minutes, do you have any questions for me that would help you and hopefully help ideally people listening?

Barb: Yeah. I am a splitter, in many cases you might call me a “super splitter” for as much as the internet definitions of those terms mean anything in the actual admissions process. But I also have a Masters degree in Public Policy, and I did very well in that, and I am wondering — if you are someone that has split performance with a low undergrad GPA, how does that affect someone looking at my numbers? How much does that academic experience since that point influence the way they look at my GPA?

Mike: Yeah, I have good news and bad news for you, and the good news is a little bit less tangible than the bad news. And then I have a bit of trivia, we’ll start with the trivia. Applicants came up with the term splitter or reverse splitter, not admissions offices, I always think that’s —

Barb: That doesn’t surprise me at all.

Mike: But now admissions offices use it, so it flowed in the opposite direction. So here is the bad news, almost everyone does very well GPA-wise in their Masters programs, so that’s not calculated in U.S. News and World Reports rankings.

Barb: Right.

Mike: They could really help higher education make more money if they were to do that, but they don’t. But let’s say your Masters program was two years or three years. You might not recognize it, but that gave you two or three years of things to talk about in interviews, on your resume, in your personal statement, in school-specific essays that are going to highly differentiate you versus someone who was KJD. It broadens your ability to talk about differentiated topics. So the GPA not so much, the two to three years you spent there, that’s going to come out, you are a calm person, you are poised, you are collected. You could probably do one of those horrible video-recorded interviews very calmly, a lot of people can’t. A lot of people feel worse about the process, they feel imposter syndrome-esque versus Dunning Kruger-esque as they go through the process. And you are more immune, you are less apt to that because of your seven years’ work experience, three years Masters experience etc. So it will help in small ways that you might not even recognize.

Barb: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think if someone were to come to me, someone that was applying older or considering applying older — and I’m not even in yet, so you know, what do I know? — but I think the best part about applying now is that I have a much better sense of self, and I know that this admissions process isn’t actually a reflection on me as a person or my worth as a person. And I know, for me, if I tried to do this at 20, 21, 22, it would have wrecked me. So I think that has been a great realization to have in the process, and I think that’s something that older applicants may have a leg up.

Mike: Well to begin with, Barb, you are going to get admissions, you are going to get waitlisted, and you are going to get denied — with your phenotypic numbers that is very typical. So get ready for it.

Barb: Oh yeah.

Mike: You’ll have happy days and you’ll have down days. You mentioned not being able to do this at 22, some people are well equipped, and I wouldn’t be able to do it. I just remember interviewing Dr. Gabor Maté for our podcast; he is world renowned in what he does. And I remember when I interviewed him, I talked about handling a rejection, and I remember he said, “When I applied to medical school” — he is 78; he said, “To this day I don’t know if I could handle a rejection.” So at 78 this world-famous best-selling author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, who’s been on every talk show there is and if you Google his name 10 million things come up, he couldn’t handle rejection at 78.

So this is not for you, but it’s for everyone. This process has tremendous ups and downs. And I think the best way to end on is, most people in this cycle are going to have great days and bad days, and you’ll make it through the bad days, and when you have the great days, go out and celebrate, or live in the moment. Live in the present, take joy in them.

Barb: And on your bad days don’t go on Reddit. Don’t do it.

Mike: Yeah, especially don’t rant against the school, because the worst-case scenario is on your worst day you go rant against the school and you say things you regret saying, that school figures you out and there is an LSAC infractions committee. And if you say the worst kinds of things — you know, I’ve seen people harm themselves not just with one school but with all schools. It’s very rare but it can happen.

Barb: Yeah, don’t do it.

Mike: Okay, so we’ll end on a calm note. There are going to be good days, those are good days to post on Reddit, people will cheer for you and it’s wonderful. Thank you for your time, Barb.

Barb: Thanks for having me.

Mike: We are going to do a few more of these as your cycle progresses!