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Are Berkeley Law Students Cooler than Average?

Vivia Chen

July 1, 2013

©-Peter-Atkins---Fotolia.comWe are continuing our chats with admissions deans at major law schools. (Last spring, we talked to Sara Zearfoss, who leads admissions at the University of Michigan Law School.) Today, we're getting the inside scoop from Edward Tom (below), dean of admissions at University of California at Berkeley School of Law.

Let's cut to the question everyone wants to know: Is it a lot easier now to get into Berkeley? Put in another way: How much have applications dropped for the incoming class?
Applications shrank by 3 percent. At the peak of the recession we got 8,000 applications. This year we got 6,000. There's been a three year slide nationwide.

Are you digging deeper into the waiting list?
A bit deeper. Some years we've only taken five [from the wait list]. This year, we will probably take more than 50. There is more competition for the the best candidates. You know, it's like a Pachinko machine where you don't know which of the balls on the top will land.

Are you seeing a real decline in the quality of applicants?
The number of people with the strongest GPAs and LSAT scores remains the same. We lost applicants more at the bottom or lower part of the pool.

That sounds counter-intuitive. I would think weaker ones would be jumping into the pool if there's less competition to get into law school.
Some of those applicants disappeared this year because they think that Berkeley is so [academically] strenuous and so expensive. The cost of education has gone up dramatically, and people are very concerned. Also you have all that bad press about [the difficulty] of getting a job.

I know bloggers like me are the culprits. In any case, the odds must be better than ever for getting into a good school.
The next few years are the time to apply because the applicant pool is declining. But my biggest piece of advice is make sure you want to go to law school.

Tom_Ed_BerkeleyAssuming you do, why pick Berkeley?
Because it is the Disneyland of law schools. Our curriculum is so wide that we have something for everybody. We have very low levels of neurotic people—that’s borne out by comments of alums and students. Students are bright but don’t have attitudes. [Our grading system consists of] high honors, honors, and pass—and that alone creates a system without class rankings or GPAs. We have 13 law reviews, 12 of which you can walk onto. No one is chosen on the basis of grades.

Wow. That sounds almost like utopia—very Berkeleyesque. What do you look for in this kind of environment?
We have a four-page personal statement. I'm looking for their voice. LSATs and GPAs only go so far. We have a holistic process. What's important is intellectual curiosity, drive, creativity, courage. Our goal is to give people the opportunity to become leaders and policy makers.

Do you feel a lot more pressure to find the right candidate these days?
I don't think it's tougher; I think it's getting back to normal. When I began here 30 years ago, the typical pool was 3,000 to 5,000 applicants. Then it peaked in the nineties. The pressure gets ugly because U.S. News & World Report's rankings are in the background. But Berkeley always has a strong sense of place in society.

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I went to Boalt, and with all due respect to the dean, that place is full of neurotics who continue as such through their career. Yes, the HH/H/P translates loosely to A+/B/C, and yes, the competition is fierce and it is curved (5% get HH, etc.). In my class there was a study group that checked out all of the professor's past exams from the library then kept them through the semester so no one else could use them. There was also a student who wore suits to exams to "psyche out" his classmates. Less neuroses my ass.

Liked the interview very much. But, "low levels of neurotics?" I get a bit concerned about clinical psychological diagnoses from a law school Dean. Plus, I am a little skeptical about the joys of the high pass, low pass, etc., system - sounds like another way of saying everyone gets As, Bs, or Cs. That said, it sounds like Berkeley is moving in the right direction of humanizing the law school experience and bringing more focus on the emotionally intelligent student. For this I applaud them.

Dan Bowling
Duke Law School

There is an inconsistency between Edward Tom’s statements about the percentage and the integers regarding Boalt's decline in applications. The percentage, so what? The integers are dramatic. As usual, it is good to have integers. They tell the dramatic story here.

Bottom line: go to law school if you want to be a lawyer. It is no longer an easy way to enter the upper middle class.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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