Podcast: "Safety Schools" and Making a Law School Backup Plan

In this episode, Mike and our consultant Danielle Early (former Associate Director of Admissions at Harvard Law School) talk about safety schools and backup plans. How do you choose the right range of schools where your worst-case scenario is an outcome you can live with? For some that might be a law school where they're well above both medians; for others that might be taking a year off to continue their job or gain new work experience. If you take a year off, how will you strengthen your application? Should you plan to matriculate to a safety school but then transfer out? When is too late in the cycle to add a safety school to your list? Mike and Danielle discuss these possibilities and the factors to consider when you make your backup plan — which everyone applying to law school should consider, especially in a competitive cycle.

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Full Transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions. Today would be in the law school category, and it's something we haven't really hit on before which is, how do you broaden, if you want to, if the cycle is competitive, how would you broaden and choose to broaden your list of law schools to your benefit? And also, how would you, if you hit an inflection point where you aren't getting the results, or for life reasons you're thinking about applying the next cycle, what would that inflection point look like? And then what could you do for six months, eight months, a year to strengthen your application?

Who knows how the competitiveness of the pool will be next cycle, but there's a lot you can do in your control to broaden your list of schools or broaden your experience so that you're a more competitive applicant. That's what we’ll talk about for about 20 minutes. And without further delay, let me hand it over to my discussion with Danielle Early.

Hi everyone, this is Mike Spivey. I am joined by one of my business partners, Danielle Early, who really wanted to do what I think is an important podcast on which schools you apply to, when you can apply to them. Danielle, do you want to take over from here?

Danielle: Sure. Hi everybody. One of the conversations that I have with a lot of clients and a lot of people throughout the year is what their goals are and what their dream schools are and all about what we would call probably the top end of their list. What can they do to make those things work out for them?

And sometimes having that conversation has to lead into, but what are your ultimate goals, not just your dream goals, but what do you want to be doing? And talking about how to round out your list. Making sure that you've got a plan if those ultimate reaches, those dreams, don't end up working out for you. Whether that's because you don't get in or because the financial aspect of it doesn't work out.

And for a lot of people, having that conversation about what the other half of their list looks like can be a little intimidating or can be something that they avoid. So I wanted to hop on and chat with you a little bit, to give people the authority and control over that part of their list and some ways to think about it.

Mike: One of the frustrating, stressful, anxiety-producing parts of the admissions process is there's so much you can't control. We have talked about before what you can control, you control your personal statement topic, you can control how you prepare for an interview. But something we haven't really talked about, which is ultimately in your control, is you get to control what schools you apply to.

Danielle: Absolutely, absolutely. And so thinking about that is something that you should be putting a fair amount of thought and time into.

Mike: Yeah, I've never once told a client of our firm’s, and hopefully this is true throughout our firm, they couldn't apply to any school. I once had a client with like a 2.7 GPA, a super high LSAT score apply to Yale. And I knew the data, which was the odds of you getting into Yale with a 2.7 are 0.00, but it's not my job or role to say — unless it's going to psychologically harm you and I can somehow assess that, which I can't, to hear no from Yale, go for it.

But what I think so many people focus on are those homeruns. Those lightning in the bottles, when it happened. Someone gets into Princeton Law School, the number one ranked theoretical law school and they only have a 3.0, but what we don't focus on is the need to have a plan in your control on both ends of the spectrum of schools. And that's what I think you wanted to talk about, the other side of the spectrum.

Danielle: Yeah. I often tell my clients, reach for the stars. Just keep your feet on the ground while you're doing it. And so this is more of a conversation about when your feet are on the ground.

Mike: And so essentially, we are talking about safety schools. I know you don't like that word.

Danielle: I hate that word.

Mike: I've already — I’ve come up with an analogy for why it's not really a fun word. There's a movie called Safe Room with Jodie Foster and Forest Whitaker. And these, like, criminals come into their house and they have to spend the entire movie in the safe room. Well, no one wants to spend their entire cycle in the safe room.

Danielle: I go with “backup plan.” Because actually I think “safety school” eliminates what some people are also doing. So I think you have to ask yourself, “What do I want next fall to look like?” And next fall for different people can look very different. It can look like being at a different school than you were hoping for. It can also look like staying at the job that you're in this year and maybe taking on some new projects. It can look like getting a job. It can be doing a Master's degree. It can be something different than a safety school. And so I think — thinking about it like a backup plan, rather than just talking about it as a safety school.

Mike: Let me just be upfront about this. The cycle is very much trending — as you know, I just looked at the data — things are trending in the direction we really thought they would, and it's the direction we were hoping they would trend in for applicants. Which is now every LSAT bandwidth from 160 and above is down, and applications are only up 1.3%. Now, they started this cycle at 12%, and I would bet any amount of money they're going to end this cycle down from last cycle.

So if you just read the Above the Law article, I know a lot of the people at Above the Law and I'm friends with some of them, that recent article about how this cycle is going to be just as competitive as last cycle. It's not. It really is likely not going to be as competitive. But it's still in the grand picture of the 30, 40 years’ experience between the two of us, this is still like an 8.5 competitive cycle. If last year was a 10, this is still an 8.5.

Danielle: It's still probably going to be more competitive than the cycle before it.

Mike: Correct. The cycle before last.

Danielle: Yeah.

Mike: So one bucket would be expanding your list of schools, in the other bucket would be expanding what to do if you don't get into those schools you really wanted to go to and it doesn't involve law school for a year or more.

Danielle: Yeah, absolutely. I think there are a few questions that a person can ask themselves, you know, “Which way do I want to go?” And one of them should be, “Do I want to see myself in law school next fall no matter what?” If you do, safety schools are something you should really be thinking about. If the answer isn't yes to that, though, then asking yourself, “Okay, if I were to reapply, what would I be able to do to make my application a little bit stronger?”

Some people can retake the LSAT again and really increase their chances, but they don't necessarily have the time to do that studying during this cycle. So that's something that would increase your chances. Some people haven't been working at all, you know, they're coming straight out of undergrad, they don't have the strength of a resume that some of their competitors in this application process have. So if you could get a job and work for a year or even two, not only are you increasing your chances at the law schools, but you're actually strengthening your resume for post-law school as well. So it's not a negative to work for a year or two.

And then some people may sit there and say, “Okay, well at my current job, I'm actually really happy. I'd love to continue doing this for a little while longer.” Or “there are some great opportunities that I'd like to explore within that.” But having a conversation with yourself and maybe some other people in your world about what the next year or two could be like, may actually help you realize that you could be enhancing a lot of parts of your career path. If you were to say, “You know what, a safety school isn't the right way for me. Maybe the right way is to do this other thing.”

So what I would say is, if you don't see any way in which you're going to strengthen your application, so you're not going to change your scores, you're not going to change your resume or your experience, you don't have control over the rest of the applicant pool. So if you're just hoping that next year will be easier, that's not likely to get you a completely different set of decisions. So I think if you're looking at which bucket you want to fall in, a safety school, or maybe work or something like that, you do want to ask yourself the question, “What would I be doing to enhance my chances?” as well.

Mike: And so let's talk about the first bucket then. You conclude you do want to go to law school this cycle. I think for some people that's a fair conclusion because if you can’t retake the LSAT, can't get a great job that would enhance your resume, and like you said, it's November 2021, predicting what the 2022, 2023 cycle is going to be like really difficult. It's difficult for us and we've done this for many, many, many years.

Let me give you — I'm going to use the word safety school, even though we don't like it. I have a different definition of safety school than I think most, which is as follows. It's a school you're highly, highly likely based on the data, because you're above both medians, going to get admitted to — this is important to click on and no one ever talks about that; that's probably not going to give you scholarship negotiation leverage for your top set of schools; don't just arbitrarily apply to it thinking a full ride at Spivey Law School is going to get you a scholarship negotiation at Princeton Law School — that you would go to and not just apply to it as for the sake of having a backup plan that you wouldn't go to. So you could see yourself attending not just one year, but three years at that law school. That is my definition.

Danielle: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is one of those places where you mentioned it at the beginning, you have control over what your list looks like. Your safety school and your backup plan, whichever way you want to call it, it's highly individualized. So we're talking to the masses right now through this podcast. But the truth of the matter is that there is no one-size-fits-all for everybody, and that's the case for the safety school as well.

Most people that I talk to when they're starting to think about what the bottom of their list may look like, they tend to just go further down in the rankings and say, “Okay, this is the first school that I'm above both medians. That must be my safety school.” But the truth of the matter is that might not be the right safety school for you. So if I, for example, was thinking about my long-term career goals and I want to be in the South, I want to be a lawyer who's somewhere in the South — Vandy, UNC, Emory, Alabama might be great safety schools for me, if I was hoping for the T14, rather than UCLA or Notre Dame. Because I might be getting myself a stronger opportunity within that location if I'm looking at schools that are connected in that way. Similarly, Fordham is a great safety school if you want to be in New York City, but maybe it's not the right one for you if you really want to be in California. So location can have something to do with it.

You should be looking at the programs that the schools have. If you are really interested in a particular type of law, just because the next ranked school that you're most likely to get into exists, doesn't mean that they have the programs that you most want to do. So really looking into those schools and making sure that they're a great match for you. Because a lot of people will look at safety schools and say — and I want to chime in to something that you just mentioned — they'll look at their safety school and say, “And then I'll transfer out of it.” That's not a plan that works for everybody. It does work for some people, and it's awesome if it does, but you're highly likely to graduate from the school that you start as a 1L at. And so if that isn't the school that you can see yourself getting into the career path that you want to do, doing the type of work that you want to do, then it's not the right safety school for you. A safety school is not always a stepping stone as a transfer into other programs.

Mike: I'll shade in that part because I was a Dean of Career Services as well, and the students had to come meet with me if they were going to transfer out. One student saw me in the hallway and she came up to me and said, “Dean Spivey, I'm going to transfer to Harvard Law.” And then she turned and ran down the hall and went.

Danielle: Does that count as her meeting with you?

Mike: Yes. I like didn’t know; I didn’t take it —

Danielle: She just —

Mike: It's so funny because I never took people transferring out of our school personally, of course not. But let me fine-point this thing about a lot of people who transferred, and I know you were at Harvard where our WashU students would transfer to. Some would hit homeruns, and I would get a really happy e-mail six months later or a year later. But a number would say, “You know, I really struck out in the interview process because the firms interviewing me, the employers interviewing me, had nothing really to compare me with against my classmates because I wasn't in a comparable group. And, you know, I was top 5% at WashU and Dean Spivey, boy I wish I had stayed at WashU because I feel strongly I would be at —”

And I heard a lot of those stories. And we have a blog about that. It's an old blog. It was one of the first ones I wrote about the dangers of transferring, the mythology of transferring. I think what you said was spot on. You can't bank on even getting into these elite schools, let alone then going and having this amazing success. Now, there’s great reasons to transfer, but there’s also very cautioned reasons for that to be your plan. A safety school is a school you could be at for three years. Any other thoughts on extending that list of schools before we sort of click on other things you can do for you?

Danielle: So the one other thing I would say, and I know that it sounds like me being Pollyanna-ish, but realistically, get excited about that school. Treat every single school that you're applying to with equal focus. So look at the things that they're telling you about themselves. Go ahead and follow them on Instagram or Facebook or whatever it is that you're using to follow those schools that are your dream schools. Because if you're excited about that school when you're admitted to it, and maybe it does end up being the school that you end up going to, I want you to be happy with that. And I don't want it to have been hidden in the corner the whole time and then something that you had to accept that you're going to. I want you to be excited about it. So let yourself think.

Again, you've got control over it. So much of this podcast that you do, Mike, is about psychology and how people look at the world. And realistically, this is one of those places to be positive about. At worst, you're going to law school, you're becoming a lawyer. That's a pretty great thing. So don't relegate it to a bad choice or anything like that. Have a positive attitude about it.

Mike: It's not an apples to apples comparison, but years ago, you may remember this. I know Anna will remember this. South Dakota Law School contacted me, they were looking at a study to whether they should move their whole law school campus. And I remember when I engaged with them, I was looking at flights and I'm like, “Oh my goodness, the only flight there is Frontier Airlines and that's like a bus and I have to like pay for them to print out my ticket.” And as it turns out, the whole experience was fascinating. I got to speak in front of the State Legislature and the Governor was on Zoom or whatever it was at the time, Skype. And it was a new experience. My negativity going in was a bias that I shouldn't have had.

Let's talk about timing. If you're extending your range to schools you’re more likely to get into, I would say you can keep extending at least up till March based on normal cycle patterns, who knows, it's hard to say for this cycle. But March is certainly not late if your numbers are strong relative to the other schools you apply to.

Danielle: If you apply on the deadline with a 4.0 and a 180, even Harvard is still looking at you at that point. So the stronger you are, the less the early bump is something that you're needing to rely on.

Mike: Yeah, a school will always make room for a strong applicant if they have room to make. I had a client get into Harvard who applied in June — I mean it was just in a down cycle.

Danielle: I will throw the caveat in on that one that “too late” is probably after their deadline, which June for Harvard would be way after their deadline. But we are in a cycle where there are way more applicants than there are necessarily spaces everywhere. And so if you're looking at as kind of like, what the market is, the market is more towards the law school side of it. So you do want to be thinking about it that way. And when it's a down-market, hey, June may work for you for some places.

But realistically, if the school's deadline still hasn't passed, and you're looking at it as a safety school, you’re probably a good shot for it. But I will throw out a caveat to that. You've probably heard about schools that yield protect. They're looking at people and saying, “The likelihood that they're going to come to our school is very low. Let's put them on the waitlist,” or something along those manners.

When you are filling out your application for a safety school, treat it with the same respect that you did for that school that was your reach school. If they asked you to write optional essays, write the optional essays. Don't put together an application that you haven't looked at to make sure that all the spelling mistakes are taken care of or things like that. So don't submit a safety school application that's riddled with errors, because you're telling that school, I actually don't have as much of an interest to you. So you could be putting yourself in a position to be yield protected especially if you're applying really, really late in the cycle, even for their application. So treat all the schools equally. Get excited about all of them be equally. But also make sure that you're treating them well when you're filling out their applications.

Mike: I’d even add even one more degree to that, which is if you're applying in March, it’s somehow signaling your application, “There's a reason why I'm applying in March. I like your school, and I always wanted that extra LSAT, or whatever.” But give them a reason it’s March and not September.

The cycle could go in two directions, multiple directions. But one direction would be, it could fall off the cliff as far as getting easier and easier. But it also could stabilize and be that 8.5 or 9 out of 10 competitive. And maybe if it stays at an 8.5 or 9, there's a number of people listening who are going to say, “Okay, I didn't get in at these five schools I really could see myself. I don't want to be at any other school but these five.” And this is a question we get, as you know all the time. “What can I do in my year off to strengthen my application for next cycle?”

Danielle: I think that's a great question. And it is going to be a little bit strategic based on the applicant, of course. But I think some of the questions that a person needs to ask themselves are obvious. Like, “Could I do anything for my stats? Can I retake that LSAT? Can I get it stronger?” Look, if you are above the 75th percentile of the schools that you want to go to, getting a higher LSAT score isn't going to make a difference anymore. But if you are below the 50th percentile, getting that LSAT score can absolutely make a difference for you.

The second question that you want to ask yourself is, “What type of experience does my resume show” right? So if you are straight out of college this year while you're applying to law schools, you probably don't have the work experience that the majority of the people that you're competing against this year have. And so going out and getting a real full-time job is something that is going to enhance your chances.

You know, if you're taking on, say, tutoring or something where you're working for yourself, you're probably not making yourself as strong as if you were to go and work for a company somewhere. And the reason that I say that is because you may also be increasing your opportunities for letters of recommendation if you are working in a company as opposed to if you're working for yourself.

So I definitely think looking at your resume and seeing what you can do is important. If you've been out of school for a while, then maybe looking at your resume and saying, “When somebody looks at my application, do they understand why I'm applying to law school or do I look like I've been all over the place?” For example, if after you graduated from college you took on a couple of different jobs and they go into different industries and you're just trying stuff out, that's awesome. I have no problem with that. But if your application comes together and people still sit there and go, “I wonder why he's applying to law school,” maybe increasing your activity in volunteer work with some type of local legally-associated community activity or something like that might be something that can again enhance that resume a little bit. So it doesn't have to be, “I'm going to go and get a different job.” It can be, “I'm going to think about the ways that I spend my extra time.” So something along those lines. What other things are on your mind about what somebody can do during that year off or for two years off?

Mike: There are so many, and it's so much about how you message what you do. What kept flashing in my mind is, when I was in college I waited tables, and I could actually literally write a personal statement that, I think, if I did it the right way, would be really standout about waiting tables, because this is how I would do it. I could probably start off with like an angry table of 16 screaming at me about stuff I didn't do wrong, and you have to smile. The money you're making depends on how much those people like you, which is a lot similar to how much your clients like you when you're a practicing attorney. So I can put the reader in the moment, use that work experience to talk about how it made me a much less flappable person under pressure. I could talk about how I would take those tips on, this is a true story Danielle, and I would put them in shoe boxes. The cash in shoe boxes under my dorm room bed. And eventually those shoe boxes, it was crazy. I went from one to like 12 full of cash. And then that could be my first-year law school living money, maybe not tuition money.

But you know, “I didn't get a job on the hill. I understand that, but I got a job that's going to help support me through law school. And I sat out a year so that I would have real living monies. So I wouldn't be as stressed out about my loans my 1L year.” You can see a personal statement where you crafted and that sort of a sentence where the admissions committee is like, “Man, that is a grounded 23-year-old.”

Danielle: A rare 23-year-old, but yeah, I mean, but you’re right. Like what you can be doing is actually setting yourself up better financially during that year. That's an awesome thing to do. And it's also going to relieve your stress once you're in law school. If you're going to take that time, if you're going to do a reapplication process, use it to your advantage in every way possible that you can, and that is a really, really great example of how you can do that.

Mike: And the macro level point for everyone is this: think through, “Okay, I'm going to do a year of X.” There’s so many things that whatever X is that could contribute to making your application stronger. It doesn't have to be your paralegal-ing at Cravath. That would be great, I'm sure, because of your letters of recommendation and your interviewing skills would amp up. But it could be something as small, which to me it wasn't small, but instructive as waiting tables, teaching English as a second language in a foreign country, anything that's going to give you interaction in the world out there. I mean, look, we talk about the psychology. We're living in a society where every year it becomes easier and easier to hole up in your place, to never walk out the door.

Danielle: There’s something wrong with that, Mike? (laughs)

Mike: Well, yeah, a lot of us embrace it, but if you're applying to law school, I would say one way — the vector of this thing is, if it gets me out into the world and gives me experience interacting, it's probably going to enhance my application the following year.

Danielle: Yeah, absolutely. I think that when you're trying to think about what your backup plan is or what you're going to be doing next fall, looking at it as how it helps you in the long term is really important. So whether that's the school that you end up going to or the plan that you make for a year off before doing the reapplication process or anything like that, make sure that you're looking at it in a way of, how do you take advantage of this? How is it good for you? That will help you make some choices about what to do.

Mike: And if you're in a leadership role, the way I define leadership, one definition is you’re making the decisions. You can't look over your shoulder and say, “Hey, can you make this decision for me because you're higher on the totem pole?” Then by definition you're a leader, and even if you aren't holed up in your condo for a year, if you're making decisions, that also is going to improve your ability to present your application in the following year. So you don't necessarily have to be out in the world. There are so many things you can do that would enhance your ability to apply the following cycle.

Danielle: Let me put it this way for you. If you find that you're almost never out in the world, the thing that you can do during that year is find some ways to be out in the world. But if you're having those types of experiences already or whatnot, maybe that's not what you're going to be able to do to enhance your application for the next year.

Mike: Agreed. Our next podcast is going to be, “When to Start Scholarship Negotiating.” If you're listening to this one and you want a notification, there's a subscribe button. I think you just click it. That podcast will be a week after this podcast. Do you have anything more to add for this one?

Danielle: No. Just take control over your application process and do the things that are right for you. Don't worry about what anybody else is doing. Just really focus on yourself and your plan for your future, your career, and be proud of what you’re doing.

Mike: Yeah, and I like ending on that theme. There are parts of the application process you can control. Look, every single one of you has free will. “I seat deposited, I withdrew from all the other applications. Do I have to go to Princeton Law School, you know, I signed my scholarship thing?” No, never, you have free will. You don’t have to show up. You can apply to the different schools next year. They can't have the authorities to show up and say, “You have to be a matriculate to our law school.” Applicants have more control than I think they realize.

Danielle: Absolutely.

Mike: Thanks, Danielle.

Danielle: You're welcome.

Mike: Be safe out there. Thanks everyone.