Q&A with Michigan Law Admissions Dean Sarah Zearfoss (ongoing series updated June 24)

June 26th update and joint answer

There seems to be a perception that law school admissions are the most numbers-oriented of the professional graduate schools (i.e., law, business, and medical). Is there merit to that view? If so, why do you think that is?

Mike Spivey Response:

I was recently asked this from a B-School admissions consultant, sans the medical school allusion, so I am going to jump in with my response to her which I hope will address this question, albeit without reference to medical school admissions.

In the world of business school rankings there is no one hegemonic rankings source. In other words, the rankings schools look at are more diffuse – USNWR, Forbes, Bloomberg, Business Insider to name a few. By contrast, with law school rankings USNWR reigns supreme and has for many years. Before then there was the Gourman Report (which incidentally if you have issues with USNWR you should have seen Gourman’s rankings and lack of any discernable methodology) which also was the one and only ranking champion.  At no point has there been nearly the collective group of rankings among law schools as there has for B-Schools.

What this means, or at least has meant, is that many law schools focus very much on USNWR rankings across numerous departmental goals, admissions being just one. LSAT/uGPA as calculated by LSAC, and selectivity (keeping in mind yield goes into the selectivity equation), take center stage early in the admissions process as these are the USNWR inputs that factor toward rankings. By comparison, the different business school rankings use different methodologies and thus no single factors from a single ranking source has to take center stage. In this sense, the notion that law schools may be more numbers oriented because there are immediate numbers they will be ranked on.

Two other possible contributing factors would be the business school focus on work experience and the historic and sustained decrease in law school applications. Having graduated from business school, I can attest first hand that you work together in groups and submit group projects for grades in nearly every class. With this in mind, B-Schools place a high premium on students learning from each other’s experience and therefore an equally high premium on distilling work experience and work diversity from a business school application. Also, as we have been beaten over the head with and probably all know by now, law school applications are way down. Indeed, they have decreased by more than 36% between the 2009-2010 cycle and the 2013-2014 cycle and 16 of the last 19 LSAT administrations have seen decreases in the number of administrations. The margins are more razor-thin now and arguably less leeway to take people early cycle below medians.

With all of this said, the above entirely ignores a growing trend in law admissions that favors qualitative factors – a more holistic admissions approach that looks at throughput and output (especially) as part of the admissions equation. This too may be a function of rankings, as the great recession showed law school deans that employment could no longer be taken near for granted. The message to admissions offices was “you are no longer in an LSAT/GPA silo, we need to admit people who will come here (selectivity) and who are capable of securing employment (USNWR employment rankings metrics) when they graduate. So what has happened with this decree? Every cycle more schools ask optional essays and more schools use some form of interview platform to seek to ascertain employability. So while one ranking source, USNWR, may still reign supreme, it is impacting “soft” factors like writing, experience, and interpersonal skills that is causing, at least from my perspective, a resurgence in qualitative factors in law admissions that seems to gain more footing each cycle.

SZ addition:

These are all great and valid points. I would add just one more: Although the LSAT is not perfectly predictive, it is the best standardized test going. I am pretty sure the psychometricians at LSAC would turn up their collective noses if asked to compare the GRE or the GMAT to the LSAT. I think the confidence that law schools have in the validity of the LSAT has been part of what has led admissions officers to overly rely upon it.

That said—I want to end by echoing the “growing trend” observed by Mike, which I have commented on as well, on several occasions. When an admissions officer faces the need for making hard decisions about a surfeit of obviously qualified candidates, the temptation to get lazy and lean on the LSAT becomes greater. The national downturn in the number of candidates, particularly in candidates with the highest scores, means that admissions officers have to approach their task with a bit more nuance and scrutiny.

*We will be taking a bit of a break from this series, so please catch Dean Zearfoss at her blog.

June 25th update #2

Do admissions officers actually read the ‘writing sample’ from the LSAT, and if so, how much stock do they put in them.

I have heard an extreme range of opinions about this from file readers at lots of institutions, with some claiming to put a great deal of stock in the sample, issuing paeans to it as the one reliable example of unedited writing. On the one hand, that’s a fair point. On the other, I am a little dubious, just because it is such a challenge to read most people’s handwriting. But I have seen many Michigan Law faculty members of the admissions committee devote a lot of discussion to assessing the writing sample, so I can attest with confidence that for some people, it carries a lot of weight. I sort of want to put palm-to-forehead in those conversations, mind you, because I’m well aware of how many applicants write it off (see what I did there?), and for whom it is therefore not a reasonable reflection of skill. But you can never be sure whether you’re getting a reader who takes it with a huge grain of salt, or a reader who approaches with red pen in hand. So here’s my advice: Don’t blow it off completely. Don’t write just half a page; don’t get creative, with drawings or repetition of song lyrics; don’t use it as an opportunity to formulate your personal Unabomber-style manifesto; don’t send missives to admissions officers, e.g., “I know you’re not reading this.” A good-faith effort, with a minimum of misspellings and wild grammatical mistakes, will be enough to allay the concerns of all but the most compulsive readers. Bear in mind that for some applicants—people who come from technical backgrounds without a lot of writing, for example, or people for whom English is a second language—the writing sample might take on more importance, even with a reader who is inclined in most cases to give it short shrift.

If not, are you or any of your colleagues at least discussing the possibility of dispensing with this part of the LSAT. Have you all engaged LSAC in any sort of dialogue regarding that?

The Law School Admissions Council is aware of the challenges of assessing a hand-written sample, and has undertaken, over the years, a lot of research into possible solutions. Everyone recognizes how important writing is to the practice of law, and everyone is frustrated that we don’t have a better objective way of measuring writing skills. LSAC has experimented with having a graded sample, and with a short-answer format, but those experiments have never yielded anything as reliable and predictive as the main test itself. Although I am not currently involved in the volunteer structure of the LSAC, it is my understanding that despite the historic lack of success, no one is giving up—the quest for improvement continues! At a minimum, I’d love to see this section of the test be typed.

June 25th update

How important are references? Do you all prefer to see academic references or work references. I’ve been in the workforce a long time, and am preparing my applications for Sept/Oct. I have several choices regarding references and am curious whether I should choose.

In my opinion, the ideal mix for letters of recommendation is two academic and one employer. There you go. A direct, unambiguous answer from an admissions officer—you thought that was impossible!

But of course there’s more, depending on the situation of the applicant. If you’ve been away from school for four or five years or longer, it may be pretty difficult to get an academic letter, and at that stage, most law schools’ expectations of receiving an academic letter will start diminishing anyway. If you can get one—great. Do that. But if you can’t, then concentrate on getting the best work recommendations you can. Those should be not from peers, but from someone who supervised you. Ideally, the supervisor can compare you favorably to other similarly situated employees—i.e., saying something like, “I’ve had 12 paralegals over the years who have gone to great law schools, and Mary is the best of the bunch.”

In contrast, if you’re going to be a senior in college, you may not have had the kind of work experience that leads to a powerful letter. The writer should be someone who supervised you long enough to get to know you well, and ideally, who knows the kind of things a graduate or professional school is looking for in an applicant. When I was in college, I worked in a law office for a time, and my boss there might have written me a good letter—but I also worked in a butcher shop, and I’m pretty sure my boss there would not have added much.

If you read the foregoing two paragraphs and despair—because you can’t get an academic letter, or because your supervisor is an idiot, or you’ve never had a job, or what have you—well, cheer up. Just do the best you can. I’m talking here about the ideal, not the required. I’d estimate that 10-20% of letters are really, really helpful—they will carry significant positive weight because they are so specific, so informative, so enthusiastic. Another 5-10% move the needle in the opposite direction: They are so muted, general, and unenthusiastic that I think, “Yikes. What’s going on with this person?” (One such letter probably won’t be fatal—but if all the letters are that way, well, that’s a problem.) But that leaves 70 to 85% of applicants with letters that make differences at the margin only. I’m not saying, don’t put any effort into this—you should exert quality-control over every element of the application you can! And you can never be sure what element of the application is going to add the peppercorn of weight that you need to move from a no to a yes. But a sense that your letters are at best at the median should not be something that keeps you up at night.

For the record, it is extremely unusual for a letter to be actually negative.

June 24th update #2

In the future, do you see more law schools being able to employ graduates in jobs outside of their immediate geographic region the way that Michigan does?

My crystal ball (now that I’ve used magic wands, I figured I’d branch out) leads me to think not.

As we all know, the legal employment market contracted radically and now is expanding a bit, but there is near unanimity in predicting that despite the rebound, even the largest, healthiest firms will have less of a need for associates than they did a decade ago, thanks to technology and restructuring and many other contributing causes. So firms can continue to be very choosy, and don’t have to stray outside their comfort zone. (They are, in effect, in the opposite position from law school admissions offices.) So there is no reason to think that they will start recruiting at a broader range of schools than they have in the past, and no reason to think they’re going to want to take a flyer on a student from a school they’ve never hired from in the past.

And now I’m going to go kinda far afield from the question you posed, and talk about what factors you should be looking for if you want to find a national law school, and have a degree that will be easily portable. (To be sure, not everyone cares about this. Lots of applicants feel a great degree of certainty about where they want to work. But if you are unsure about what substantive area you want to practice in, you may want more flexibility—New York is great for finance work; the Bay Area is great for IP; DC is the principal market for administrative law; and so on. And sometimes, you may find belatedly that you want the flexibility—I’ve noticed that the law school population tends to be in the age range where people fall in love, and that sometimes entails geographic compromises. Other compromises, too, but I have not yet branched into that kind of blog.)

There are a handful of schools that have a powerful record of national placement and as you note, Michigan is one. Of the top-ranked schools, according to the detailed ABA 509 reports of the last four years, only five schools send, on average, fewer than 60% of their grads to their top three markets. In other words, at those schools, no small group of metro areas has a lock on the grads—people are spreading out all over. Those schools are:

Michigan 44.6%
Duke 46.4%
Virginia 52.6%
Yale 54.5%
Harvard 56.3%

To be fair, you could pick whatever cut-off you want as being indicative of whether a school is “national”—maybe you think two-thirds is a better indicator, for example. So, if you take issue with my qualitative characterization, that’s perfectly reasonable—here’s a fuller sense of the quantitative data so you can make your own call! I like this grouping because there’s a big jump between Harvard’s 56.3% and next-in-line Chicago’s 62.9%. Chicago and the next five schools (Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Penn, Stanford) are clumped together, and then there’s another big jump between Stanford’s 68.3% and Texas’s 74.4%. At the top of the list are Berkeley, NYU, Columbia, and UCLA (the latter at 83.3%).

So, what is important to consider if you are trying to figure out whether a degree will be easily nationally portable? One factor is key: It has to be a school for which lawyers all over the country have some sense of its quality. Columbia may only be sending 20% of its grads to markets outside its top 3, but everyone knows that Columbia provides a high-quality legal education, and that its students have been heavily vetted before getting admitted. So to that extent, a Columbia degree should certainly be considered portable.

But part of what makes it more or less easy to move around the country is whether you will find a solid group of alumni already in your desired city. Networks are self-perpetuating, so having an established history of alumni moving to the relevant market will be very helpful—in the absence of such a history, it’s a challenge to develop anew the needed network. Having a network in place accomplishes a few different things. They are people for you to call upon for advice—what firms do the kind of work you’re interested in? What are some of the interview questions that tend to come up (because often a geographic area will have a collective bias, e.g., favoring “outsiders” or not)? What are common standards for pay and perks? What is a given firm’s reputation? And so on. They are people who can advocate for you—“Take a look at this great resume from someone at my alma mater.” And they create a reputation for the school–hopefully, a good one, that will incline employers in your favor. I mean, I hope all employers look at a Michigan Law resume and think fondly of some pal who is a Michigan Law grad. If there are only a handful of people from a given school in a city, you have to hope that the employer hasn’t run across only one of them, and that one happens to be a big jerk.

A related factor, and one that it is a bit harder to dig up good information about (because it’s not data that any organization collects, to my knowledge), is whether the school has a national student body. Obviously, some portion of the law applicant population will simply not be interested in relocating—they’re already living in a place they like, and they want to stay put, and if they have the good fortune to get into a good law school in that area, that’s where they’re going to head. And if a law school has a big proportion of students from the immediate area who want to stay in that area, there necessarily won’t be a lot of momentum for moving outside the immediate area. So, again, to use Columbia as an example—if a large portion of its class hails from New York City, and they chose Columbia because they liked being in NYC, then they probably also want to start their careers there, and so mostly, that is where they will stay. So it’s not a question of whether Columbia grads can move to another locale—they may just not want to. Contrariwise, having a student body from all over the nation is a reflection of a certain willingness and propensity on the part of the students to move, and that creates the momentum for spread.

Finally, you may notice a commonality among all the five schools I have identified as the most national: All of them are situated in areas that do not have large legal markets. Is this chicken or egg? Probably a little bit of both, but most people at the schools will, of necessity, have to find their jobs outside the immediate vicinity. And that means law firms will know to come looking for them! As alluded to at the very beginning of this answer, law firms can afford to stay in their hiring comfort zone, and they generally will only participate in on-campus interviewing programs at schools where they think they have a shot at hiring. A west coast firm may be perfectly happy to hire a student from an east coast law school, but if that east coast law school hasn’t historically sent people to the west coast, the firm is probably not going to bother to come visit. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a job there—but it means more of the onus will be on you to identify and reach out to and travel to possibly far-distant law firms.

June 24th update

If an applicant on DACA applied to a law school, how would the admissions committee view them? Would it be a positive or negative, and should it be disclosed on the application?

Funny thing about acronyms—I don’t always recognize them! (When I first started as dean of admissions, I learned that the office employs approximately one million acronyms; it was always a struggle to decide how often I should admit I had no idea what was being talked about.) So while I am in fact quite familiar with the Dream Act, I had to google DACA—and am now proceeding on the assumption that you are not, in fact, asking about DeAnza Cupertino Aquatics. If I am mistaken, I will trust that you will hasten to correct me.

This is definitely a question where I can’t respond with confidence about other schools, for a few reasons. Mainly, it’s still too new a phenomenon; it just hasn’t been a subject of discussion among my admissions colleagues at other schools. Further, frankly, it’s a controversial enough subject in some circles that I suspect people shy away from it unless they feel confident that they are reasonably well-educated about it, or are at an institution that has given clear guidance.

I have a reasonably good background on the topic, but more importantly, the University of Michigan has stated its position very forthrightly:

The University of Michigan encourages the application and enrollment of undocumented students who are academically excellent and accomplished in extracurricular endeavors.

The central Office of Financial Aid has provided fairly extensive guidance in the undergrad context, but it’s applicable in its essence to the grad and professional schools as well.

So I feel quite comfortable answering your question vis-à-vis Michigan Law: It would be a positive factor, and should certainly be disclosed. As a general proposition, for any sort of information about one’s background, we find more discussion helpful rather than less. That is, rather than simply disclosing that you are a Dreamer, it would be useful to explain what that means for you and to you and how that experience has affected your law school goals. (The same would be true if you are undocumented but not covered by the Dream Act.)

But—I am sure that not all law schools are the beneficiaries of such clear guidance from their parent institutions. I recommend, therefore, that you do a little research for each law school you apply to. If you find information indicating that the school is supportive of people in your situation, proceed as above. If you don’t, my risk-averse lawyerly nature would say, don’t mention it until after you have been admitted. You shouldn’t answer any question on the application dishonestly, of course—but if there is no question requiring a direct answer on this topic, then leaving it unstated is perfectly appropriate.

June 23rd update

First, let me say these are great questions. For those of you who will be attending some variety of law school fair or forum in the coming months, take note—these are the kinds of questions that admissions officers really ought to enjoy answering, and could get you started on an engaged and engaging conversation, much more than, “What is your median LSAT?” or “What is your ranking?” ever will.

What is the largest challenge admissions offices face today that they didn’t five years ago?

Everything. At the annual LSAC conference in May, one of the sessions presented a preliminary report about the admissions profession, based on surveys LSAC had submitted to member schools. One of the questions listed a lot of disparate tasks—e.g., statistical analysis, designing of PR publications, group presentations, and so on—and asked responders to rate how important the task was to their job; every single task was rated a 4 or higher on a scale of 5, and most were rated a 5. That was not the case the last time LSAC gave the same survey!

At the most fundamental level, the national decrease in applicant volume (with applications numbers nearing half the number they were five years ago) has made it much more challenging to hit enrollment targets, but an important corollary to that is that the applicants themselves have gotten far more sophisticated. They are curious about far more than just the admissions process itself, and will ask detailed questions about curriculum, financial aid policies, and career outcomes. It is simply not prudent for an admissions officer to “wing it” when talking to a student or group of students. On the one hand, I think that is how it should be; on the other, this fundamental shift has meant the bar for doing one’s job well has been raised. A lot.

Do you see the admissions process becoming more splitter and reverse-splitter friendly year to year?

I think that for the top schools in particular, the shrinking of the number of high-LSAT-takers has meant a broadening of what admissions officers are looking for as they seek high-quality applicants. The LSAT has been over-relied upon by many schools, for a long time—US News may exacerbate that tendency, but I think the tendency exists completely independently of the rankings incentive, simply because some people see the LSAT as an unassailable indicator of merit. It isn’t; it’s a great tool, but it’s not a perfect one. And the tightening pool seems to have created an impetus to think more creatively and more flexibly about what a school is really looking for as it constructs a class. An offshoot of that seems to have been greater willingness to see the merit in candidates with split scores.

If you had an admissions “magic wand,” what would you change about the process?

Can I have 10 magic wands, please? The single biggest part of the process I would like to change is the methodology for awarding financial aid. I have grave concerns that because law schools are responding to what for many is an existential crisis, we aren’t approaching the underlying problems thoughtfully and carefully. I think a financial aid system should have clearly articulated goals, and be implemented consistently and fairly. I worry about a system that largely rewards the most persistent, and the boldest negotiators, and leaves others behind. I think the best possible financial aid system might be one that looks exclusively to post-grad earnings, and generously assists the lowest earners. But for that to be a good system, we would also have to ensure that tuitions are assessed optimally, and we would also have to force every school to abide by the system. So that’s three magic wands I’m going to need, right there.

What are admissions offices that are behind the curve doing wrong, and what are admissions offices that are innovative and staying ahead of the game doing right?

As we like to say in the law, see supra. A lot of my answer to your first question pertains to this question as well. But I think, as an overarching matter, the main stumbling block for some people has been an all-too-human aversion to change. I see a lot of people hunker down, bemoaning the head-spinning flux in our job descriptions, just hoping that things will change back. That’s a pretty depressing way to approach this challenge. The ones who are keeping up are the ones who can look at the situation with an entrepreneurial spirit. Likewise, keep your eyes open for what seems to be working elsewhere. Try out some new ideas—they won’t all work, but I can promise you that the same old process isn’t going to work either. Delve a bit into social media. Reach out to people in other parts of the industry and pick their brains (like, I don’t know, that Mike Spivey character). Shake up your recruiting events—put something new on the itinerary.

All that said, I think the single biggest thing that works well for the Michigan Law admissions office is something quite old-fashioned: Our desire to engage with applicants on a very individualized level. No phone trees when you call; no email auto-responses.

What is your least favorite part of your job as Dean of Admissions?

Not to sound hokey, but I genuinely love my job. As I’ve already expressed, the way in which law schools are tackling questions of cost keeps me up at night a bit, but it’s also a challenge that I would love to solve. Or at least improve. So I can’t honestly categorize that as a part of the job I dislike. And I don’t love talking to parents of applicants, but it happens so infrequently– once or twice a year—that it works out pretty well: It gives me a little something to complain about without actually ever ruining my day.


The answers here are the express opinion and writing of Dean Sarah Zearfoss of Michigan Law School and may or may not align with the opinions of The Spivey Consulting Group. But they probably do.