Podcast: Law School Admissions Reddit AMA with Anna Hicks-Jaco

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, current applicant and Redditor Extension_Ad_1432, who we call "Julia," interviews Spivey Consulting's new President, Anna Hicks-Jaco—unscripted and unprepared, "Ask Me Anything"-style—on anything and everything that was on her mind. They discuss factors impacting this cycle, advice for applicants who applied early but still haven't heard back, weighing law school choices between a higher scholarship or a higher ranked school, scholarship reconsideration, public interest career goals, and more. Huge thank you to "Julia" for some insightful questions and a great conversation!

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Full Transcript:

Anna: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions. Today we're doing something a little bit different that will touch on all three of those topics, though mostly focused on admissions. Mike Spivey put me a little bit on the spot here. He got someone from Reddit, Extension_Ad_1432, who we’ll be calling Julia, to come on our podcast and ask me a bunch of questions, totally unprepared; she could ask me anything. I’m glad she didn't ask me about my opinions on sports or something, because I wouldn't have been able to answer. She kept it very professional and on-topic, and I think she asked a lot of great questions that many of you are probably wondering about.

We talked about whether the much-cited slow cycle is actually panning out that way now that we're midway through, thoughts and advice for applicants who applied in September/October but still haven't heard back yet, how this cycle compares to past cycles, tips for scholarship reconsideration or scholarship increases, and a couple of questions about choosing a law school. You know, should you choose a higher-ranked school or a school that offered you more scholarship money? How should you approach choosing a law school if you're hoping to pursue a career in public interest (Julia's career goals are in public interest)? We talked about my time as an applicant, my time as a law student a little bit. I thought this was a really interesting conversation. I had a great time meeting and talking to Julia, and I hope you all find it helpful. So, without further delay, here is Julia!

Julia: Hi, my name is Julia. I'm a current applicant this cycle, I'm a K through JD candidate, and my Reddit username is Extension_Ad_1432. I'm excited to be here today to talk with Anna.

Anna: Alright, I'm excited to meet you and to talk to you, Julia; I have to remind myself; that's not your real name, if you're going out there and trying to find Julia. I'm interested to see—we haven't talked about any of the questions you're going to ask me today; we’ll see if I can answer your questions. What were you hoping to talk about?

Julia: Yeah, so I thought I would start off with, I know you've brought a lot of experts on the podcast to talk about this, so I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I was curious, I think—especially at the point of the cycle we're in, where maybe a lot of people are still waiting for decisions—if you could talk about some of your favorite wellness tips for applicants as they are waiting to hear back from schools.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. Honestly, my number one is status checkers. Especially at this exact moment in the cycle, it is so understandable and so easy to just become, like, a compulsive status checker and just be constantly doing it all of the time. And I think that has a tendency to just keep admissions and keep the fact that you haven't heard back from this school, that school, top of mind just all the time, which I don't think is helpful for people, you know? To the extent that you can be going out there and hanging out with your friends and hiking in the mountains, doing things that are just not related to admissions, now is the time. Because I have to tell you, once you get to law school, law school is going to take up a lot of your time, a lot of your day. Assuming you're not in some job where you're working 90 hours a week or something like that, this is the time when you're able to do some pleasure reading and go outside and do whatever it is that you might not have the time to do in law school.

So I think during this time, when being very engaged in the admissions process for a lot of people is not actually productive, it's not actually helping their chances, to the extent that you can try to separate yourself from the admissions process, I think that's going to be beneficial for your mental health. Probably one of my favorite, if not my favorite, episode that we've ever done with a mental health expert was with Dr. Guy Winch, who talked a lot about rejection in the admissions process, and about how a law school cannot reject you as a person—you as a person are much more than the 10, 12, 15 pages that this law school has about you. Moreover, law schools every single year deny people who they know would do well at their law school, who they think would be excellent attorneys, but they just have limited spaces. So I think engaging with the idea and setting yourself up with the expectation, that is very true, that the vast majority of applicants are going to get at least you know one, two, a few denials, and setting yourself up with the expectation that that is not a reflection on you as a human being, I think is really helpful. Just prepare yourself mentally for that.

As I said, my main thing is just stop checking the status checkers. Much easier said than done. I have to tell you, my 21-year-old self applying to law school would have thought I was being very hypocritical right now, but, you know, that's what I've learned over the last decade—benefit of hindsight. Is that helpful?

Julia: Yeah, thank you so much. I think another thing, too, that I've been seeing a lot on the forum is, everybody talks about this as a slow cycle. So I'm curious, has this cycle really been slow, how slow has it been, and if so, when do you expect it to speed up?

Anna: Yeah, it definitely has been a slow cycle. I think a few schools moved more quickly than I was expecting, and maybe to some extent they were being strategic about that, knowing that a lot of their peers would be moving slowly. Maybe they thought, “Oh, this is a perfect opportunity for us to be super quick and then everybody will love us.” But I do think, at the vast majority of schools, things have been moving really slowly.

I mean, you have law school admissions officers, admissions deans who are telling people, "we're moving more slowly." All of the applicants online love to put together all the data, but a lot of schools just demonstrably are moving more slowly in their application process if you compare it to last year, in terms of when they are sending out interviews and things. In general, I try to advise people to steer away from taking the small amount of data that is available from online applicants, who are not typically super representative of the whole application pool, and extrapolating that. But in this case, if no one online has posted, “Hey, I got an interview at Cornell,” for example—not to pick on Cornell—until January, probably Cornell is just not sending out interviews until January, like, probably it's not just the case that nobody who got those interviews was online. So I do think that there's evidence that we can see that things are moving more slowly at the majority of schools.

This is the time. I think things are going to start to pick up January, February, March; we're going to get into deadlines. I do think we're going to have a pretty robust waitlist season. Things might speed up in that a lot of people are getting waitlists; we'll see. But I do think we're at that period of time. It's been really slow, but I think we're speeding up right now.

Julia: I think I see, like, a meme a day from like September/October applicants who have not heard back yet. So I was curious for those applicants, if they're missing the acceptance waves, but also the rejection and the waitlist waves, is that a good thing, a bad thing, does it not mean anything at all? Do you have any insights on that?

Anna: Let me ask you first, when did you apply? Can you tell us a little bit about, when did you apply, have you heard back from a lot of schools? No need to give any specific school names or anything like that. But where are you sort of in your process right now?

Julia: Yeah, so I applied most places in late October and early November. I applied to 10 schools total, I was accepted to five of them, waiting to hear from five more. I'm feeling really lucky with my cycle. This question was from a friend, hoping he gets an acceptance soon, bored-dude.

Anna: Congratulations on those five admits. That's awesome; that's so exciting. For people who have not yet been admitted to a bunch of law schools but maybe applied earlier than you, I certainly understand how that can feel, “Hey, what gives? Like you've had my application for months now. Just give me some sort of decision.” It definitely is a positive sign that they haven't been waitlisted or denied. If the law school had made that decision that they were not going to admit you outright, I can't speak for every single school categorically, but I believe most schools by this point have had at least a deny wave. I think it's a positive sign if you weren't in those. Obviously, if you are still waiting, you're not a part of the very first groups of admits at most schools. And I don't think that it's a hugely negative sign about your application; it does not mean, for example, that, oh, it means your personal statement wasn't strong or some aspect of your application is a negative. I think it just means that you didn't necessarily jump out as, “Oh, this person ticks every single box.” I think in large part, it tends to be the people who tick every single little box who get admitted at first. I would say to try to be patient, try to remember that it is this very slow cycle. I do think there are going to be lots of people who applied in September/October and do get outright admitted, don't have to go through the waitlist process, but just get it a little later than they might have in prior years.

Julia: I was curious, too, like the competitiveness of this cycle compared to like past cycles. Like, I see people make these really, really creative graphs, which I personally cannot put together with, like, LSAT number and all that kind of stuff. So I’m curious how you think the competitiveness of the cycle has been?

Anna: I don't think I've seen those graphs. What are the graphs look like?

Julia: They're comparing LSAT ranges to past years within the different score bands and speculating about medians.

Anna: Okay. So as I said, I have not seen those graphs, so I don't know what they look like right now. But I would guess that things might look potentially more competitive at some schools at this point in the cycle. And I suspect that that will also normalize to some degree if that is the case as we move forward because of the nature of the slow cycle, because of the nature of what I was just talking about, where the first people who get admitted tend to be the people who tick all of the boxes, so probably that's largely higher numbers people, and maybe the people with lower numbers are going to be getting decisions a little bit later in the cycle. But that doesn't necessarily mean that there are not going to be admits. If it is the case that those graphs look that way, more competitive at some schools, I think that probably will trend a little bit more downward as we progress.

I will say, from my perspective, I would be shocked if a cycle were as competitive as the 2020-2021 cycle. That one was really just unlike anything that any of us in admissions had ever seen, especially with the LSAT-Flex, which for a little bit there, that was a three-section test. You still have the option to take it at home, you still have the option to take it at a time that is not 8 AM at your local university, which I suspect that probably helps people out relative to how it used to be, but you now have the additional section. But for a while there, it was really only three sections, and it was at home, and they hadn't worked out all of the details of all of that. And I think that ended up with these very high LSAT scores that we’re still seeing the residual effects of now, but I do think we're still on the downward slope from that.

I wish this cycle were just going to be, you know, not competitive. I do think it's still a very competitive cycle. But less than a couple of years ago, so you can be happy that you're not applying a couple of years ago.

Julia: That is true!

Anna: Silver linings, right? I have to tell you, things are so much more competitive, though, from when I was applying to law school. It boggles my mind to see some schools’ medians nowadays, honestly, especially at the top. We're still waiting for a school to have a 4.0 GPA median.

Julia: I'm not applying that cycle. So, selfishly, I wanted to talk a little bit about public interest law. A lot of the law school admissions Reddit and maybe some of the information out there is very tailored to biglaw. So I was curious with students who are interested in public interest, what they should be looking for when choosing a law school? So I hear like a lot about loan repayment programs, but maybe what specifically in those programs should they be looking for? And then also, what is a good way to kind of ascertain employment outcomes from different law schools if you're interested in public interest?

Anna: Yeah, definitely. I would say, and this goes for a lot of sort of things that you're interested in, things that you are looking for in a law school. Oftentimes, a great way to get at the heart of what's really going on right now at the law school, present day, as opposed to sort of looking online at the various offerings they have and student orgs and things—talk to someone who's actually at that school and wants to do what you want to be doing. They'll be able to tell you in reality, are these four public interest-related organizations that the law school has on their website—are those actually functioning? How often do they meet? How robust are they? Are they actually putting you in touch with connections that are in the industries that you want to be in? How helpful actually are these various programs that the law school is offering? And are people actually utilizing them in a way that's effective in a way that's getting them where they want to go?

As I said, I think that this can apply for a lot of different things that you want in a law school, that you're looking for in a law school. Talk to an actual human. Even if you don't know someone at the law school—which I think most people probably don't know anybody at the law schools that they're applying to—find someone on LinkedIn, find somebody who went to your undergrad and say, “Hey, you know, we're both alums, and I'm interested in this law school.” Just cold messaging people on LinkedIn, I think a lot of law students are more willing to help out than you might think and more willing to just talk to you about their experience. You can ask the law school admissions office to put you in touch with a current student who's doing things that you want to be doing, has goals that are similar to yours. That's my first piece of advice in terms of the support that the law school is actively giving to students. Talk to someone, see what their actual experience has been like, someone who ideally is trying to do something similar to what you want to do.

Loan repayment programs are also obviously a significant part of what you should be considering, especially if you're considering taking on substantial debt. I'm not the world's biggest financial aid expert. I would talk to the financial aid person at the school to talk about, you know, how many students actually are taking advantage of this, what issues do they run into? People are often really willing to talk you through the specifics of what you're looking for and the questions that you have, especially once you've been admitted to a law school, they want to put you in touch with a student; they want to put you in touch with their financial aid person. They're trying to recruit you. They want to talk to you about their law school. So I would talk to the financial aid person, I would get in touch with a student, whether that's via LinkedIn, via someone you know as I just mentioned. Those are probably my biggest recommendations.

It's harder to give standardized advice for people who are interested in public interest because it's a less standardized hiring process. One of the big benefits of biglaw, contrasting with things that are very difficult about biglaw, is the fact that it's such a straightforward hiring process. The fact that you can go into your 2L year with basically a post-graduation job all but guaranteed—and there really is no analog for that for public interest for the most part. So it is a more complicated road and a more individualized road, less categorical. So that's why I think it really can be extra helpful to talk to people who are actually in the shoes that you are going to be in. I hope that's helpful even though I'm not a financial aid expert—sorry!

Julia: Less time on the status checkers, more time with the financial aid office. Got it.

Anna: Yeah, I think that's fair.

Julia: And then following up on that for public interest students, but also for all hopeful law students in general, when is it worth it to attend the higher ranked law school versus a lower ranked one with a higher scholarship?

Anna: I tend to be very debt-averse as a person, and I think that people have different levels of risk, different levels of debt that they feel comfortable taking on, and I really think it is pretty individualized. But one thing I would say is that, if you think of yourself as someone who is okay with taking on a lot of debt, don't just look at that big number of what the debt is going to be. Actually map out financially, figure out, okay, what would your actual loan payments look like on a month-to-month basis if you go to this law school? Take into account tuition increases, take into account interest, and figure out, okay, what are your actual payments going to look like? Because it's one thing to say, you know, "I'm okay with taking on $200,000 of debt," for example, and to have it be this sort of big abstract number that—most people going into law school have never really dealt with $200,000 in a real concrete way. So instead of making it that sort of abstract big number, break it down into, what is this actually going to look like on a monthly basis? How much of my paycheck is going to be going toward loan payments? And am I going to have the budget left over to live the life that I want to live? That's really my recommendation if you think of yourself as someone who is not super debt-averse.

I think a lot of people are very debt-averse, and law schools do give decent merit-based scholarships. You know, there are lots of programs that don't give huge merit-based scholarships. So there's the opportunity to graduate from law school without having this huge amount of debt for most people, depending on the types of schools that you apply to, the types of schools that you're interested in. Obviously, employment outcomes are a huge thing that you want to be considering. You know, a full scholarship at a school that has 1% of their graduates going into the type of outcome that you want after law school, it probably doesn't make sense to choose that over taking on some debt for school that might have 20, 25, 50% chance at getting into that field. So definitely, I think, look at employment outcomes. Another way that law school applicants are very fortunate is that there is standardized data out there. There are disclosures that law schools have to put out there that give you a ton of really, really helpful information. So go look at those ABA required disclosures, go look at NALP, figure out, "What do I specifically want to do in law school, and how are the law schools that I am looking at performing in terms of getting their graduates into those types of positions?" I think that's super important.

So I think those are my two biggest pieces of advice. Employment outcomes, obviously, I think that's the big one. Anyone will tell you, go to look at law schools’ employment outcomes. But my other big one is, actually figure out, what does that amount of debt that you'd be taking on, what does that look like on a day-to-day, month-to-month basis?

Julia: Awesome. And then once a student has been admitted, what are your best tips for maximizing scholarships for maybe a student who hasn't received scholarships at other schools, but still wants to negotiate or just wants to maximize their chance of getting a scholarship?

Anna: So my first piece of advice is to not approach it as a negotiation. I think that the most productive you can be in terms of getting an increase in scholarship is to approach it like you and the law school are on the same team. The admissions officer in that law school who, you know, it's not coming out of their pocket; they're not giving you any money, it's a discount. But you both want you to be able to go to that law school and be happy at that law school and have an outcome that you want. So I think approach it collaboratively. Admissions officers are humans; they're people; if you talk to them about your financial situation, what you're considering, the various considerations that are going on in your life, approaching it in that human way—if you do have, for example, family obligations, you need to help your family financially, maybe you're married and have children and you have to take care of your children—actually speaking with people in admissions and talking about these various circumstances, I think you can approach it in a way that is collaborative. That's my sort of first point, is to approach it in a way that is not combative, not adversarial, because it's usually very unproductive, I will say.

And then the other thing is just keep checking in. Don't check in every week. Don't check in every two weeks. Probably don't check in every three weeks. But you've been admitted. They're not going to rescind your admission for being annoying and pinging them too many times via email. I say not to reach out every week or two weeks because that might decrease their likelihood of actually giving you an increase. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with reaching out. If they tell you, “Sorry, we don't have the money in our budget to give you an increase,” reach out later and say, “Hey, you know, has any money freed up?” Especially after deposit deadlines is a good time for this. That's when a law school gets a real idea of, “Okay, of the people we admitted, who's coming? How much do we actually have in this scholarship budget now?” A lot of it is theoretical before then, and things start to become concrete numbers after their first deposit deadline, after their second deposit deadline. Those are good times to reach out if you're waitlisted, but they're also good times to reach out if you're looking for scholarship money. That's the other thing that I would say. Be persistent, but always be professional, always be polite, always be friendly and grateful, and approach it like you're on the same team, because in many ways you are. Approaching it in that way, where you are being collaborative about it, can really be helpful. Even if you don't have other offers, even if you're not saying, you know, “I have X offer from this school and B offer from that school”—I'm mixing up my variables.

Julia: And then, I know you've been in the law school admissions industry for a pretty long time, actually also went to law school yourself.

Anna: I went for a year before Spivey Consulting poached me, actually.

Julia: Was law school that bad?

Anna: No! Actually that's one thing that made me feel really positive about my decision to leave law school permanently for Spivey Consulting, was the fact that I actually had a great time in law school. I went to UVA, which is known for having a positive culture, which, I found that to be the case while I was there. I was having a ton of fun; I made a lot of friends. I enjoyed my law school experience a great deal, honestly—I think more than a lot of people do. That made me feel comfortable in the fact that I wasn’t running away from law school, I was running into something I was excited about, which was working with applicants. During my admissions process, I became very obsessed with the admissions process. I got really, really into it. And you know, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I just really liked admissions. Admissions is fun!

Julia: That's relieving to hear, because, like, most law school hopefuls, whenever you talk to a lawyer, they tell you not to go to law school or they tell you about how much they hated law school. So this was a really refreshing perspective.

Anna: I had those conversations too, I remember. It is strange how lawyers do that. Law school is hard, but you can thrive under that pressure in the right circumstances. I really do think that fit is such an important thing that people can discount, oftentimes, when they’re choosing a law school, but your comfort level, like, how you feel you fit into the community, the support that you receive that is separate from those employment outcomes and things like that—that can play a big part in how you end up performing in law school, how you end up doing grades-wise, which itself has a big impact on your employment outcomes. So I do think fit is an often-discounted component of deciding on which law school you want to attend.

Julia: So I was curious, with all of the experience you have, and obviously there's been the recent unfortunate SFFA decision, and then also all the switch-ups—so I was curious, is there anything you’ve seen in this cycle so far that has surprised you?

Anna: There really are so many factors at play this cycle. Pretty much everyone in admissions and anyone who was paying attention knew that that Supreme Court decision was coming and were trying to prepare for it. So I don't think necessarily that anything there has surprised me, because I think law school admissions were preparing for it and trying to figure out how they were going to address it a long while before the actual decision came out.

Earlier, Mike interviewed Dean Blazer, and I think they talked about this exact question about what surprised them. I can steal Mike's answer, which actually—okay, here, let me clarify this for the record, I am actually not stealing Mike's answer here, because he actually stole that answer from me when we were talking about it before that interview. So I'm stealing it back, because that genuinely did surprise me, was the logistical issues with the LSAT this fall. I've never seen anything like the number of people who were just flat out not able to take the test or had these huge significant issues with proctors. LSAC did a great job, as Mike said in that episode, pivoting to the virtual LSAT when they needed to, you know, in 2020. And they didn't have issues even slightly resembling this at that time, and they had to pivot really quickly. So I was very surprised at that and very disheartened. I talked to a lot of applicants who had to majorly shift parts of their application processes as a result of that, and that's a real shame. So that surprised me, but I do think law schools are understanding of it, and if you wrote an LSAT addendum talking about a bad experience during one of those administrations, I think they're really going to take that into account and hear that given how widespread those issues were this fall.

Julia: And then, for the anxious status checkers at home, what month or kind of timeframe do you expect maybe the decisions to speed up? So if that's like when applications close or just kind of, when do you expect decisions to start rolling out a little bit more?

Anna: Yeah, I mentioned that I think things are in the process of speeding up now. I definitely think we're going to get good amounts of decisions in February, definitely are going to have lots of decisions in March, I think you're probably still going to have decent numbers of decisions in April, and then you start to get into waitlist season. I have to tell you, every single year there are people who apply in September and then don't hear back at all until May, which always baffles me (you could have at least waitlisted this person, like why didn’t you give any decision at all?). So that will happen for some people. But I do suspect that the bulk of the decision-making for people who applied during the fal—lobviously if you're applying in March, you're not going to get a decision by February—but for people who have applied already, for people who have submitted their application already, we're in mid-January right now, I think next month, February, is going to be big; March is going to be big; April to some extent. Those are the three big months I would anticipate. I'm probably not as good a timing oracle as people on Reddit, frankly, you know, analyzing all of this data. Maybe just push it back a little bit for this slow cycle if you're basing it on historical data.

Julia: Yeah, no, the calendars that I’ve seen are so detailed, and I'm like, “Don't take me; take them.” They clearly have skills I don't possess.

Anna: The ingenuity of applicants—it impresses me all the time. Very frequently.

Julia: Yeah. Okay, well, those were all my questions! Thank you so much for taking the time.

Anna: This has been a really interesting conversation. It's been nice speaking with you; it's been nice talking to an applicant. I always like talking to applicants who are not like clients of our firm, are people who are just out there applying on their own. It wasn't Reddit when I was applying to law school, it was top dash law dash schools. But what are people up to on Reddit nowadays? I met several people who I talked to on Top Law Schools and was, like, friends in real life for like years. Do people meet up anymore?

Julia: I haven’t met up with anyone in person, but I've had like, shared DMs with people and stuff like that. So, nice people. A little neurotic.

Anna: Yeah, if you're in online spaces of law school applicants, people are going to be a little neurotic. It comes with the territory. But you didn't come across as neurotic during this interview. So this has been a very nice conversation. I really appreciate your time.

Julia: Thank you so much!