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Michigan Dean Says Law Schools Are Looking Beyond LSATs

Vivia Chen

May 14, 2013

I was at a cocktail party full of lawyers (not cool, I know, but I've accepted my fate) when I heard this exchange between two lawyers whose sons are about to graduate from college:

"Do you think Sam will go to law school?"Zearfoss 016.jpg (1)

"He's thinking about it. But I'm not pushing it. Unless he gets into a top school, I'm not sure it's worth it."

"Oh, I don't think he has anything to worry about. Anyone can get into a top law school these days. Believe me, they're desperate!"

We know that law school application rates are plummeting, so it's no secret that it's probably easier to get into a better school than in years past. But the question is, how much easier?

We're posing that question—and more—to University of Michigan Law School dean Sarah Zearfoss (on right), who heads the school's admissions, financial aid, and career planning.

The admissions process is over, and the accepted students have answered yay or nay. So you must be in total chill mode now.
It's slower, but we're already planning for next year. We're working on the wait list now. That sometimes goes on until the minute we start school.

Ah, the wait-listers. They must be calling you constantly about how they're ready to cut off their right arms to get in.
We don't want any one to cut off their limbs! We know the process is stressful enough.

Given the drop in applicants, hasn't the competition cooled off a bit?
Nationally, the numbers [of applicants] are dramatically down—in the last three years in particular. At Michigan, our experience was not so dramatic; it was down by about 3 percent. But I'm very conscious that there are fewer great people in the pool.

So is the rumor true that getting into a good law school is a lot easier?
People who had two or three schools to choose from in the past are now choosing among six to seven.

Wow. And I assume you've seen a real drop in LSAT scores too.
LSATs are lower than in previous years. There's been an arms race with LSATs and GPAs [among top law schools], but I think the shrunken pool has forced admissions officers to think about what we really need in our class, and it's not just the LSAT. I think we are choosing substance over LSATs.

"Substance over LSAT"—that's radical. I thought numbers were destiny for law school.
I don't thinking focusing on scores is the way to go. It's not fair to the individual. It's not fair to the institution. Students think it's just grades that will get them jobs, but we're seeing employers taking more of an in-depth look at other factors. But some New York firms—I won't say which ones—are still famously grade-conscious.

You are hearing directly from employers that grades aren't everything? Do you collaborate with the placement office?
I actually supervise career planning, and have done so for a couple of years, and so yes, we work very, very closely together.

I've never heard of admissions and placement being a one-stop shop—though I can see the logic.
It’s fairly unusual, but because of the economic contraction, the dean thought it makes sense for the two offices to coordinate. . . . [We're asking ourselves:] What do incoming students care about? What do they need to know?. Should admissions be looking for certain characteristics, and should career planning be more proactive for some students? We joke that we should call it the office of comings and goings. 

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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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