Podcast: How Important is Work Experience in Law School Admissions?

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike discusses a question we receive often (especially lately, in light of the most recent U.S. News law school ranking methodology changes that significantly emphasized job outcomes over admissions metrics)—just how important is work experience in the law school application process?

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Full Transcript:

Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. Today is mostly going to be law school admissions. The title of this podcast is, how important is work experience in the admissions process? I say "mostly" because I have a feeling I'm going to talk a little bit about how to get a job. I also used to be a Dean of Career Services. So hopefully I'll throw in some of that. But let's talk about the admissions process.

Obviously there's been change, which is why this is the topic of the year almost it seems like. I mean there was the SCOTUS change but the change that elicits this conversation is mostly around the fact that U.S. News just eviscerated what they call selectivity, which is the three measurements of inputs: LSAT, GPA, and selectivity itself. And they skyrocketed outcomes, mostly the bar passage rate importance and the employment importance. Got rid of one of the employment categories but dramatically increased the weight of employment. First, you have to make an assumption that schools care about U.S. News & World Report rankings. Let me assure you that the vast majority of schools care deeply about U.S. News & World Report rankings. It's how they fundraise, student morale increases, faculty morale increases, you can hire more faculty, etc. when you're higher ranked. And there's a lot of pressure from your board, from your President, who you report to, or the Provost, to at least at minimum hold par on rankings but most often to improve in rankings.

So I've worked with 35 different law schools in various capacities. There's only one law school I’ve ever worked with that couldn't care less about rankings and it's because they were on ABA probation. All they cared about was improving their bar passage, which they did dramatically because their Dean was a wonderful person who had really good strategic thoughts on how to improve the law school and they did. And they got off ABA probation. Every other law school to some extent has expressed, “hey, it would be great if we went up in the rankings.”

So if you make that assumption and you look at the increase in the employment category of U.S. News & World Report rankings, your first thought is going to be, “well okay, what correlates the most with jobs?” It’s an interesting question because the answer from an objective data point is going to be LSAT. Maybe. Because it's a squiggly line and I'll tell you what I mean by that. I used to have all these numbers memorized particularly when I was in law schools. The LSAT is a pretty good predictor of first-year grade performance. It’s a better predictor than undergrad GPA, which might be why U.S. News values it 1% more than undergrad GPA in the weight category. Nothing's a great predictor.  

I think my best guess is if you average LSAT over many years, LSAT plus GPA predict about 50% of your first-year GPA. Why is it only 50%? Because you cannot test for motivation, you cannot test for people who are mature, I'm a good example of that. My undergraduate performance at Vanderbilt many years ago when I was a student was not great, but when I went off to business school, I think I graduated if not at the top, near the top of my class. Because I went out and worked for a year and I said, “wow, now it's time to get your stuff together.” And I came into business school a totally different person than I was in undergrad. I didn't care about hanging out with my friends and playing video games. I was in the library till - right now it's four a.m. in this house and it’s because I get up at three. When I was in my 20s I probably stayed up till four and then slept, but either way I was working hard and grinding.

So here's where the squiggly line comes in, and yes your first-year performance predicts OCI jobs very well but nationwide only about 10% of students get jobs through OCI. Which means on-campus interviews, which means firms are coming and recruiting you in various shapes, forms or manners, whether it's in-person or over video interviews. Now obviously that varies from school to school. An elite school maybe like 40% of their students get jobs through OCI and then maybe at some of the schools it’s 5%, but nationwide the average is 10%.

So again, let me just stress the most important part of the admissions process - and this will ring true this cycle although it's going to be a little bit less important particularly as the cycle drags on - is your stats. You always want to have strong stats, they can't hurt you and very likely they're going to help you. Particularly the early admits. Admissions officers are entirely used to admitting based on this objective data and then reading thoroughly your application but the objective data is what they look at first, it’s what they sort by. So you want a strong LSAT score. You want a high GPA ideally. If you're listening to this podcast and you're applying this cycle, there's probably not much you can do about your GPA but put forth your best LSAT score. If you're going to throw money into the process, throw it into your LSAT prep first, of course.  

But if 20% of the class is hired through OCI, the top 20%, it’s irrelevant if that school's median LSAT is a 156 or a 176. What do I mean by that? LSAT does predict first-year performance but if the median LSAT is centered around any bandwidth, the top 20% are going to be the top 20%. Which means 80% correlated with your LSAT score are going to be getting jobs not based on their first-year GPA OCI. See what I mean by squiggly line?

LSAT matters for employability but it matters because one, the schools with the higher LSAT medians are going to be the higher ranked schools, so more of their students get jobs through on-campus interviews. And two, because it correlates with first-year performance and the top 10, 15, 20% of students tend to get jobs through OCI. But now because of this U.S. News change as a proxy in admissions for employability, schools are going to be looking at other things. And we see this already in the application changes, we're going to see it some this year. And I think the biggest - other than LSAT score and GPA - now your application, and particularly work experience expressed in your application, is going to be used to determine “is this student employable?” Because again employment outcomes matter more than ever before. Am I saying, “hey Spivey, I'm KJD, do I have to go get a job?” No, do what you want to do. Certainly don't do what I tell you to do.

But what I am saying is you’ve probably had a job, I've waited tables all throughout college and then I worked in housekeeping at a hotel. Unbeknownst to me at the time, if I had applied to law school those would have been two great work experience jobs. One, housekeeping at a hotel is a little bit of an outlier for a college student. Two, waiting tables, when I was in admissions, I loved the people who had service jobs because you're used to dealing with customer complaints which means over time it gives you the ability to see things from the other side and you're a little bit more maybe less apt to be combative in law school because you can see something from another person’s perspective. Which is also important because what do lawyers do if not have to see things through their clients’ perspective, not just their own.

Long story short, probably the more work experience the better. And Anna Hicks-Jaco who is our COO, but who just came off a Dean of Admissions stint, a job outside of Spivey Consulting for a year as a Dean of Admissions, she just mentioned this on the last podcast. There are so many personal statements and essays out there that read like resumes, don't do that. But if you can out organically fit in your work experience, they're going to see it on your resume anyway. If you could talk about it, then I'm going to ping on the intangibles, if you can talk about it in the interview process you're probably going to stand out a little bit more this year than ever before in my 25 years of doing this because of those U.S. News & World Report changes.

So there's the flat data points of having work experience and then there's the organic data point of building your application. We're going to put some new sample personal statements up on our website before too long that are more work experience-focused because of this whole change. Those organic data points flowing through your application with work experience, that's going to give you a boost in the admissions process But there's intangibles too. If you have work experience and again I’m assuming most people do even if they’re KJD, at the macro level you're probably going to have a little more to talk about in an interview because it's probably going to come up. You know about your work experience. I don't care if you worked at Disneyland at a roller coaster over the summer, you can talk about that to the person on the other end of the phone. I love interviews, they're so easy because they're asking you about you. Only you know about you, only you know about your work experience. So you can talk very naturally and organically. If someone asked me about my career, how easy would it be for me to explain what I've done because I know about my career but they don't. So your interviews by definition are probably going to be a little smoother. You've probably learned from that work experience, particularly if you have multiple years of high-stress work experience or high-professional work experience. You've picked up from your mentors, you've picked up from people around you and that's going to stand out.

And let me tell you again as much as I still think stats matter, having a professional attitude when you interact with admissions is going to matter a ton. Being professional, being humble, being upbeat, all these things are going to matter a ton because at the end of the day later in the cycle when schools are looking at their budgets and they're looking at the U.S. News changes and they're saying, “okay well, we're plus 30 people above our median LSAT,” and here is what I mean about that. This is something probably most people don't think about if you haven't done admissions. But when you're in admissions you run daily reports to see how many because it’s median not mean, how many of your seat deposits - the people who have paid and said they are coming - are above your median?

So let's just say, and I'm not saying I know this, but let's say most schools this cycle say, “okay we're just going to hold par on LSAT.” Then they run a report in the summer and they are plus 47 people above their target LSAT which is holding par. So in other words if your LSAT is a 166 you would have to lose 47 people to go from a 166 to a 165. Guess who it is they are going to turn to, and this is a punch line of the whole podcast 14 minutes in and I'm finally giving the punch line. The people in the admissions process who have impressed them as professional, ebullient, upbeat, employable people. Guess who the most likely of that batch are? Probably people with some work experience. Not always but probably employability matters more now, admissions officers are being asked by their bosses, the Dean of Law Schools, to look for signals of employability. And guess what law schools call me about for consulting, “how do we intertwine, how do we interlock, how do we get in sync our admissions offices and our career services offices which historically have operated entirely as silos?” This is a side note, but to me it's interesting. You're going to see more positions in law schools that are something like an Associate Dean of Admissions and Career Services because law schools are going to be looking, and this pings exactly on this notion of work experience mattering. Law schools are going to be looking more at, “okay, how do we make upstream admissions decisions that correlate or relate to downstream employability?”

This is why I think this cycle is going to be a little bit more normalized. I apologize if people are misreading things I've said. Change happens slowly in legal education and the data although it's right in front of law schools as far as the weight of the metrics, it’s actually when you start putting in numbers like Justin Kane, our U.S. News expert and data genius, does, today it’s actually much more pronounced than it looks like. So here's what I would expect. I would expect this year, schools are mostly going to make their early decisions based on numbers and there's going to be a little bit less of that right angle of death. What I mean by that is again if you have 47 people above your target LSAT, and it's June, you can start admitting people outside that sort of inflection point of the right angle. Unlike years past we saw no admits of people below that inflection point, you're going to see more admits outside that right angle. So for lack of another word, I think now it’s being a curved angle of death, but it will be that pronounced this year.

But next year, when schools see what happens in the rankings and the schools that went up plus-one, plus-two LSAT but didn't improve their employability, they're going to go down in the rankings. We have already played out these scenarios, we've already plugged in the data in hypothetical scenarios. So then next year you're really going to see a shift I think towards Deans of Law Schools who have enormous pressure on them to improve the school rankings say to admissions and career services: our admissions numbers do not impact our rankings that much, it's almost a rounding error for raw score. Find those people who can get jobs.

For the record, these are just my instincts. And next cycle is out there in the future, the further you get out in the future the harder this stuff gets to predict, I've been wrong before. And even if I'm right in the static moment, U.S News & World Report could change the weights again or they could even change the metrics. We're going to keep updating podcasts, to be determined, this is not an absolute, this is just where things are trending right now. So this year I still think it's going to be a slow cycle because of all the changes in essays, there’s change in applications.

Someone asked why did the LSAC August virtual test debacle slow the cycle down. I think schools are going to want to see if LSAC releases data on the virtual test taker LSAT scores versus the in-person. And if there’s a dramatic difference, LSAC historically doesn't share that kind of data. Any sort of data that makes the LSAT look flawed, LSAC goes to great lengths to obscure not just from you all but from law schools and from pre-law advisors. At least there's a precedent for that, but I can't say that they're still going to do that. But if there's a huge score differential between virtual takers and in-person takers that’s statistically significant, law schools are going to want to know about that, because it doesn't necessarily mean that the virtual takers - let's say have a negative-four LSAT average that would be extreme versus the in-person - it doesn't mean that they’re four points less capable of scoring on the LSAT, it could be that they sat there in the chair for six hours traumatized because their proctor never showed up and LSAC never released a statement, so they couldn't move. So when they retook it in a week they had this psychological trauma and scored much more poorly because they're in their own heads which would be completely understandable. So that's going to slow down the cycle along with all the application changes. So slow cycle but early cycle admits are still probably going to be stats heavy, but then work experience is going to matter more than ever before at least ever before in my 25-year history because of these outcomes.

I'll say it again, if you're applying this is a good year to apply to stretch schools. And if you have work experience, how important the work experience matters that could be the thing that puts you over the top later this summer as far as getting off the waitlist much more so than years past. Even when you look at this past cycle and we knew the U.S News metric changes and we knew there was going to be a lot of waitlist movement which there was. A lot of schools were hedging the waitlist movement on LSAT scores. So we saw a lot of lower GPA higher LSAT scores admitted off the waitlist. Schools are going to figure out that is not impacting their rankings anymore, those LSAT scores. So when they figure it out whether it’s this cycle or the next cycle or three cycles from now, the people admitted later with lower GPAs and maybe lower LSAT scores are going to be the people with work experience. Work experience is important.

I’ll end on this note. What prompted me to do this was a thread that said something like ‘the reason why people devalue work experience is because most people on Reddit are age 18 to 20 or whatever.’ Maybe that's true or maybe that's not. I would say this, if you're 18 years old, you probably have work experience right, you deliver papers or mow people's yards or whatever. If you're 22 years old you probably have work experience. If you're 30 years old and you have eight years’ work experience, you're probably going to get a bump in admissions. But almost everyone listening to this podcast, I just think you want to put some sort of shine in your application. Some sort of putting your best foot forward towards your professionalism which also means just as a side note, if you're just constantly saying things on Reddit if a law school knew your name would reflect poorly on you, don't do it. Now is the time to be the most professional person you could be, because professionalism really does translate to employability and employability is the new name of the game.

I hope this was helpful, this was unscripted. Again, four a.m. On a side note, since we are talking about work, those people listening to this are going to have much more important jobs than I do, right? Every time I watch a Netflix documentary, I think you're going to be called upon to save someone’s life or life in imprisonment or get them out of prison or work for the government in high-level leadership roles. I bring this up because you're going to have a lot of four a.m. mornings too in your future. I cannot stand when older people tell younger people, “don't be a lawyer, it’s not what it used to be.” How do they know? You need to be a lawyer first and feel you know whether you want to be a lawyer or not. That said, I do think there is some importance to the awareness of you're going to have some long hours in your career and again you can express that you’ve done that already in your application. The more you can express that you’re a grinder and that's going to help you actually get through undergrad and law school and be more employable, probably the better. So this is Mike Spivey signing off at 4 AM—I hope this was helpful.