Interview With Elisabeth Steele Hutchison

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Elisabeth Steele Hutchison

BETTER KNOW A DEAN

"Deciding when to apply to law school is a little like deciding when to show up at a ‘party.’" - Elisabeth Steele Hutchison - Director of Admissions & Special Projects, U Hawai'i Law School

Elisabeth Steele Hutchison is the Director of Admissions & Special Projects at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Carleton College and law degree from the Yale Law School. Before moving to Hawai’i, Elisabeth was Special Assistant to Director James Lee Witt of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She held several positions in the Clinton-Gore White House, including Director of Special Projects in the Office of Cabinet Affairs and Legislative Assistant to the Vice President. In addition to her responsibilities at the William S. Richardson School of Law, Elisabeth teaches courses about gender and law in the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

AD Thanks so much for your time, Elisabeth. Before we begin, though, I have to ask you: is that really a wave I hear breaking in the background? Wait a minute, are you at the beach right now?!?!? I must say that I find those seagulls to be very distracting!
EH Ha, I wish! That’s just my Brookstone white noise maker. It’s set to “Ocean Surf.” Sometimes I forget it’s on in my office when I put my phone on speaker. Sorry about that!
AD Thank goodness. I was starting to get a little depressed as my seasonal effective disorder kicks in! I’m actually staring out my window into a gray fall day in New England, I can’t imagine what the weather is like in Hawai’i right now. Make me jealous: what do you see when you look out your window right now?
EH Sure. I’ll email you a picture. Here you go:

University of Hawaii School of Law
AD Seriously!?!? C’mon! What are you trying to do to me!
EH I'm sorry -- I know how you feel. I used to live in Connecticut.
AD I noticed. According to your bio, you graduated from Yale Law School in 2003 so you know how hard law school can be. The nice thing about the dreary New Haven winters is that the weather is very conducive to studying. I would imagine that going to law school in Hawai’i can be difficult given all of the distractions. How do your students maintain their focus? Is the library a windowless, cinder block structure?
EH [Laughing] Not at all! Law school is challenging. And our law students are not so different than those on the Mainland in this respect. They have tons to do and just as many distractions – they may just be a bit different. Instead of completing their Legal Research and Writing memo, our students have to deal with the temptation of the surf and the sand.

The clear benefit of the weather in Hawai’i is that despite the urge to be outside, because it is nice every day, you don’t feel like you are missing something by staying inside to finish a memo or prepare for class. I can almost guarantee that the day after the brief is due is going to be just as beautiful as the day before it is due. We’re very lucky that way.
AD I would say – you sound very lucky. Prior to attending Yale, you spent some time working as an aide to then-Vice President Gore during the Clinton Administration. What a phenomenal experience! What was that like?
EH Whenever anyone asks me about this, I see the Star Wars opening crawl in my head. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far way….” – but it was an incredible experience. I got a White House internship when I was in college and that internship turned into another internship, which turned into a job, which turned into another job. I worked with smart, funny, ambitious people at The White House. But I feel like I do that now, too. This is a great gig.

AD Did you work on Vice President Gore’s campaign that got him . . . ummmm . . . “elected” in 2000 or had you already begun your studies at YLS?
EH No, I missed working on the campaign because I started law school in 2000.
AD Having worked so closely with Al Gore, and then enrolling in law school, you must have had some pretty strong opinions about the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore. Do you want to take this opportunity to vent or is it still a little too early given that only a decade has passed?
EH Ha! There are no hard feelings and I’m a fan of former Associate Justice Souter on Facebook. ( I think it is TOTALLY hilarious that someone made a Fan page for the famous Luddite.)
AD Aside from the obvious, what brought you to Hawai’i? It seems like a very big move for someone with ties to the Midwest (Carleton College) and the East Coast (DC and New Haven). Are you originally from Hawai’i?
EH I grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, but I have roots here. My mother’s family came to Hawai’i in the 1800s. She lived here as a child, and we have family on O’ahu. I came to Hawai’i for the first time as an adult in 2004 and decided to stay.
AD Interesting. Let’s talk a little bit about the economy in Hawai’i. I’m not sure if the news reached you yet, but there’s a little recession taking place on the Mainland. What’s the economy like in Hawai’i, especially for newly minted lawyers?
EH We haven’t experienced the same big highs and lows here in the legal market. In large part, we don’t have Big Law here. Compared to what the East and West Coasts have experienced, we’ve been very fortunate.

Our economy is related to tourism – world tourism. And we’re experiencing an uptick in tourists from Asia – Japan and China, in particular, and with more and more people coming from South Korea, too.
AD Where do most of your graduates find jobs and how are they faring in what is clearly a very difficult legal hiring market?
EH The Graduating Class of 2010 is pretty typical of our recent graduates. Within nine months of graduation, 82% of the class was employed or pursuing a graduate degree. One third clerked. One third went into private practice. A sixth went on to do public service law. Another sixth worked in government. You can find the nitty, gritty details for the six most recent classes at on the law school’s website (here).

For the most part, the folks who choose to go to law school here choose to stay here. There is a real appeal to practicing law in a place where people know you – if not personally, by reputation. We live on an island. We will see each other again.

We just don’t have that Big Law Mentality. There is an understanding that if your child has a soccer game, you will do everything you can to be there, even if it means going back to work after the game.

So, where are our alumni? They are in Hawai’i and in the Pacific. Our graduates practice in American Samoa, Palau, Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Given our strong certificate program in Pacific-Asian Legal Studies, we also have alumni in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Bangkok, Seoul, and Tokyo.

On the US Mainland, you can find our graduates in the Washington, DC area; NYC; Northern California; and the Pacific Northwest.

AD Thanks – I think it’s important that students who are planning to attend a school have a realistic understanding of the employment opportunities available when they graduate. On that note, there’s a lot of talk about transparency in the numbers that some ABA-approved law schools report regarding their employment statistics – there have even been a few lawsuits. Do you have any thoughts on the topic and expect any reforms implemented to help prospective applicants make more informed decisions about whether (and where) they attend law school?
EH I think it is clear that there will be reform, and we welcome it. I advise applicants to become informed consumers. This will mean looking at the numbers and asking tough questions. How many graduates responded to the employment survey? Is this a representative sample? How many respondents reported their salaries? Applicants should be aware that graduates with lower salaries may not be inclined to report them. Are graduates working at permanent jobs that require a JD? And, how are salaries distributed across the class? The average salary many schools report often means very little.

Lucky for us, this information has not been difficult to collect and share. Of the 82 2010 graduates surveyed in 2011, 81 responded, and 79 (98%) reported salaries. Our website reports our graduates’ employment statistics are reported on a micro level – so that they have real meaning for applicants interested in learning about their real options after they graduate.
AD So, if you were applying to law school, knowing what you know now as an admissions dean, how much stock would you place in the USNEWS Law Rankings?
EH Very little!
AD Wow! Tell us how you really feel, Elisabeth!
EH I’m serious. We are a small school with a unique mission in a special place. We are very good at what we do, and our community recognizes the high quality of our graduates. And, if that weren’t enough, our students are actually nice to one another.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t think our core strengths are measured by US NEWS & World Report.
AD OK, well that’s a nice lead in to my next question: Hawai’i’s USNEWS rankings have been all over the map the past four years (from #82 in 2008, to 3rd Tier in 2009, to #72 in 2010 and, most recently, #95 in 2011). These sound like inconsistent golf scores – what gives, especially with regard to the 23-point slide in 2011?
EH Yeah, right?! We do “seem” to be all over the place. This says more about the rankings than it does about us. The rankings suggest that our Law School has changed dramatically in the last 6 years. We have not.

In 2009, our Law School made a significant data entry error regarding how many of our alumni were employed 9 months after graduation. This really hurt our ranking. They acknowledged the error on their blog, but the rankings had already been calculated.

And may I just add that US News ranked our brand new part-time program 28th out of 84 that year? While we appreciated the attention, our first part-timers hadn’t even finished their first year!

I think our 23-point slide in 2011 reflected a change in the US News methodology for employment rates for graduates. On the Mainland, many firms make offers contingent on bar passage. We don’t do that in Hawai’i. Typically, offers in Hawai’i are made after the bar exam results are released. This created a false impression of a change, when in fact it was par for the course (to build on your golf score analogy).

Many of us have pointed out the flaws in the USNews Ranking methodology. Check out Malcolm Gladwell’s critique of the US News & World Report College Ranking, “The Order Of Things,” in the February 2011 The New Yorker. In a recent study using core criteria suggested by Gladwell--index of value for tuition dollars (40%); LSAT scores (40%); and faculty scholarship (20%)--we ranked 30th in the country!
AD Very interesting indeed – we firmly believe there need to be other alternatives to the USNEWS Law Rankings and perhaps Gladwell will be able to provide that.

I’m not sure if you noticed, but AdmissionsDean has provided its users it the ability to select data points from the ABA-LSAC Official Guide in order to customize their own law school rankings. We believe that much of the problem with the USNEWS Law Rankings (and the emphasis placed upon them) is that most law school applicants simply look at the overall number without giving any consideration to the magazine’s methodology and/or what’s actually being measured.
EH Nice. I will certainly check out your “create your own law rankings” calculator. Thanks for helping applicants dig down and discover “the numbers behind the numbers.”

AD Despite the fact that USNEWS is the current “ranking” champion, there are other magazines out there that are making their voice heard in the law school rankings debate. For instance, Pre-Law Magazine named the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, one of the “60 Best Value Law Schools”, and ranked #16 in National Jurist rankings of the top 20 law schools that offer exceptional clinical training opportunities in 2011. How does it feel to have the recognition, and what are your thoughts on the recognition?
EH It’s great to be recognized for things that are important to us. Our deans, faculty, students, and alumni have worked very closely with the University to keep tuition increases relatively low. Our Board of Regents formally approved our proposed five-year tuition package last week. The percentage tuition increases that will begin next fall will be very modest.

We fought to keep tuition affordable so that our students can make the choices we want them to – notably to be of service to others. Our students imposed a public service graduation requirement – on themselves - in 1991. The Class of 1995 was the first class to graduate under this requirement and, since then, every graduate of our law school has completed at least 60 hours of pro bono work under legal supervision. The Class of 2011 logged 7,164 hours!

It should be no surprise that we are especially proud of our clinics. Topics include criminal law, family law, environmental law, elder law, child welfare law, Native Hawaiian rights law, and small business law.
AD In addition to the recognition you received from Pre-Law Insider Magazine, The Princeton Review recently ranked William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa #1 for “Best Environment for Minority Students”, #5 for “Most Diverse Faculty” and 7th for “Most Welcoming of Older Students” in 2011. Those are some high marks. Those types of scores don’t just happen overnight, there must have been a concerted effort over a long period of time to achieve those scores. What practices and procedures did the Law School have to put into place in order to receive that type of praise?
EH Well, I think they could have stopped at – Best Environment. Most Diverse. Most Welcoming. But I may be biased. (Big smile.) Our students and faculty reflect the unique diversity and values of this place. We have created a warm and supportive learning environment for our students.
AD Everyone is interested in saving some money these days, and many view law school application fees as a necessary evil. Do you have any tips or hints for scoring an application fee waiver at Hawai’i Law (or elsewhere)?
EH Funny you should mention that. Earlier this month, we visited more than 200 law school websites to find application fee waiver information for our university’s pre-law advising center. The result is not a definitive list, but we hope that it will be helpful for applicants to have all of this information in one place. You can find that list here. We used an unscientific process: If we found this information on the law school’s website, we added it to a Google spreadsheet. Applicants should contact the law schools individually for accurate info. You know what they say about getting the horse’s mouth and all that jazz.
AD Law school applications were down quite a bit nationally during the 2010-11 admissions cycle. How were the numbers for applicants to Hawai’i’s class of 2014?
EH We bucked the trend. We received 1,309 applications last year for 90 spots in our full-time class and 24 spots in our part-time class. This was an all-time record for us and an 11% increase over last year.

We aim for 90 full-time students and 24 part-time students in our incoming class. We look at much more than an applicant’s numbers. Admission is competitive because we are trying to get the right people. Our admissions committee is made up of faculty and students who want to make sure that we welcome smart, talented, and accomplished persons who are also generous and thoughtful.
AD It’s interesting that you invite your students to join the admissions committee and offer their input. How many UH Law students are chosen and how exactly do they participate in the admissions process?
EH The two 3L student members of the Admissions Committee are elected by the student body. Just like our faculty committee members, students read files and endeavor to reach consensus on each file.

AD Each admissions cycle, you obviously read a ton of personal statements that address a wide range of subjects. Can you list 3 of the most common personal statement topics, and perhaps one or two you think applicants should avoid at all costs?
EH Sure. I read a lot about: (1) Persons Who Inspired the Applicant; (2) Life-Changing Experiences; and (3) Overcoming Challenges. When done right, these topics make very strong personal statements.

I suggest applicants stay away from: (1) Odes to CSI Miami; (2) Essays that begin with inspirational quotes from Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Helen Keller, Lady Gaga (you get the picture.); and (3) I wanted to be a doctor, but I hate math.
AD Very funny (or not so funny I guess if people are quoting Lady Gaga!). How would you describe your ideal candidate? When you open an applicant’s file, what are you hoping to find?
EH I am hoping to find applicants who would have appreciated the vision of our namesake, former Hawai’i Chief Justice William S. Richardson. We all called him CJ.

Our law school exists because of CJ’s efforts to make legal education accessible to Hawai’i’s people. He was an extraordinary person -- wise, persuasive, humble, tireless, and effective. CJ was involved with our school and its students until he passed away in 2010. His vision for our law school continues to guide us.

And, if we are special – and I think we are – it is because we have held on to CJ’s vision to build a legal community of problem solvers, advocates, and leaders who seek justice. We look for applicants who will help us realize his dream.
AD Okay, is there a “best” time to apply to UHawai’i Law? Do you see any advantage of applying earlier in the admissions cycle?
EH Deciding when to apply to law school is a little like deciding when to show up at a “party.” The invitation says 9:00 pm (October 15 – when we begin to accept applications). I read a lot of chatter on the law school applicant forums about applying right when the application goes up. But if you show up at 9:10 pm, it’s likely that you will find six people standing around looking at each other.

We are definitely in the swing of things at 11:00 pm (the winter holidays), and then noise complaints shut everything down at 12:00 midnight (February 1 – our application deadline).

If I were applying to law school, and knowing what I know, I’d aim for 10:30 – somewhere between Halloween and Thanksgiving.
AD Interesting. Why do you feel that time is optimal? I’ve heard that admissions committees are typically more “liberal” and “generous” with admissions decisions early in the cycle. Do you find that to be the case?
EH I don’t think we are more liberal or generous, but there are more seats available in the class early in the cycle.
AD Once students do submit an application, how quickly do you typically turn them around and make a decision?
EH It depends. We begin reading as soon as the applications arrive. Some extraordinary applicants will receive decisions very quickly – within a few weeks. We may decide to hold on to others, before making a decision. We receive a lot of applications on or just before our February 1 deadline, and we do our best to read and consider each application carefully. Most of these later applicants will receive decisions in early March.

AD Again, aside from the obvious, how do you think a student gets enriched by going to law school in Hawai’i rather than someplace just as sunny (like Los Angeles) on the mainland? And don’t just tell me that Hawai’i has less smog!
EH This is a special place. Let me give/show you three quick examples. Our students really go out of their way for each other. Each year, students nominate each other for our baseball-loving Dean’s Red Sox Award (literally, a pair of red socks). Submissions range from “My hero is _________. When my car stalled at the bottom of the Pali, _____ met up with me and waited with me until a tow truck arrived. I asked him not to because he had a final exam the next morning, but before I knew it, he was on his way.” to “My hero is _________. When my jaw was wired shut from the bike accident, she hooked me up with two packs of Ensure. Saved my life.”

Community is more than just a buzzword at the University of Hawai’i – it’s really defines us in all that we do. I’d encourage your readers to click through and check out pictures from our recent “Stew Day” – a day when the UH faculty and staff take a moment to honor our students by donning aprons and funny hats and serving them stew for lunch.

Another reason our law school is unique is because our small faculty-student ratio (8:1) creates a personal and productive learning environment. Unlike many larger law schools on the Mainland, Hawai’i Law’s faculty is both accomplished AND accessible.

Lastly, our alumni continue to play a big role in our law school. We must be the only law school where female law students battle alumnae each year in an annual flag football game, The Ete Bowl. And off the playing field, our alumni teach, coach moot court teams, and mentor current students. Additionally, because of our high employment rate in the Pacific Islands, our alums provide a very tight network of alums for students and graduates to tap if they are interested in practicing law in this part of the world.
AD When you’re making admissions decisions, how does an applicant’s LSAT score factor into your consideration? How much weight do you afford that piece of the application?
EH We generally approach an application in thirds although there isn’t a set formula taped to my computer screen. One third each – the applicant’s highest LSAT score, their cumulative undergrad GPA (although we do consider course selections and grade trends on the applicant’s transcripts), and “everything else.”

If there is a first among thirds, it would be “everything else.” I look for applicants who know why they want to go to law school and who are excited about studying at our law school. This can take many forms - significant work experience, meaningful community service, a passion for what they are doing.
AD What about letters of recommendation? Do you have any tips for prospective applicants who are just now thinking about who to ask for a recommendation?
EH I hope applicants ask for academic or professional letters of recommendation from persons who know them well. I know that some folks get hung up about having letters written by our alumni and/or by attorneys. I, for one, don’t think it matters.

I am more interested in what the recommender says about the applicant and the relationship to the applicant, and less interested in how famous the recommender is. For example, I prefer a detailed and enthusiastic recommendation from a teaching assistant to a brief (i.e., form) letter from the chair of the political science department at the applicant’s undergraduate institution.
AD Now, I would imagine that you receive quite a few transfer applications every year. Can you tell me how many you received for the fall of 2011?
EH Yes, we do get some interest from transfer applicants. Last year we had 20 people apply as transfers.
AD Are there any particular law schools from which you receive a lot of transfer applications?
EH Not really. Our transfer applicants come from all over the place.

AD What do you consider when accepting or denying a transfer student? How many transfers do you accept on average?
EH Last year, we admitted three of the 20 who applied for a transfer. The pools tend to be small, and each applicant is unique. With numbers this tiny, I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about ‘on average.’ And I am not trying to dodge the question, honest.

Our decisions boil down to three things – Would we have admitted this applicant in the first place? How did the applicant do as a 1L? Does this person have a compelling reason to study at our law school?

Some recent successful transfer applicants were Hawai’i residents we initially admitted, chose to attend a law school on the Mainland, and now want to come home. Others have partners in the military who have a new assignment in Hawai’i. These are some examples of what I would consider “compelling” reasons why a person might want to transfer as a 2L.
AD Well I think we’ve covered everything – thanks so much for your time and is there anything you think we missed or might want to add?
EH Not at all, I think we covered all the bases. Thanks for having me! AdmissionsDean.com rocks!

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