Interview With Karen DeMeola

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Karen DeMeola

BETTER KNOW A DEAN

"The reality is that we have not played the “rankings game”. We have not diverted millions to buy the median and continue to honestly report..." - Karen DeMeola Assistant Dean for Admissions and Student Finance, UConn Law

Karen DeMeola is the Assistant Dean for Admissions and Student Finance at the University of Connecticut School of Law. She received both her undergraduate degree in psychology and JD from the University of Connecticut. After graduation, Assistant Dean DeMeola was a civil rights litigator focused primarily on employment discrimination, police brutality, and housing discrimination. She is admitted to practice in Connecticut and the Federal District Court, District of Connecticut.

Assistant Dean DeMeola began her tenure in admissions as Assistant Director for Admissions at Western New England College School of Law. She returned to UCONN Law in 1999 as Director of Admissions. In 2003 she was promoted to Assistant Dean for Admissions and Student Finance. Assistant Dean DeMeola has presented on numerous panels, conferences, and symposia on diversifying law school populations; the intersectionality of race, class, gender, religion, and sexual orientation in the law school admissions process; challenges and changes in admissions; and numerous pipeline programs. Additionally, Assistant Dean DeMeola has served on the executive committees of the National Network of Law School Officers and the Connecticut Lawyers Group. She also served on the Law School Admission Council Subcommittee on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues, and as a member of the Board of Directors (Secretary) for True Colors, Inc., a non-profit organization which focuses on at risk GLBTQI youth. Finally, Assistant Dean DeMeola also serves as an adjunct professor teaching Critical Identity Theory.

AD Hi Dean DeMeola, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today – are you ready to answer some hard questions?
KD Sure. Bring it!
AD Let’s talk about Kemba Walker. Touted by many as the best college basketball player in the country in 2010-11 – and a large reason UConn won the 2011 Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament -- he decided to forego his senior year at UConn and was drafted during the first round (ninth overall) by the Charlotte Bobcats. How the hell is UConn going to make up for his absence in the 2011-12 basketball season?
KD Thanks for hitting me where it hurts. Honestly, I am not quite certain how we are going to fare this year but I bleed Husky blue so, of course I think we will rock. We lost two greats Kemba Walker and Maya Moore (on the women's team). Losing Kemba is certainly a huge blow to the men’s team. Obviously, Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriaki finished last season strong and hopefully will come back even stronger. That said I hope Shabazz will come into his own and finally show us all that he has to offer - the risk of course is he too will leave bucolic Storrs for the NBA. I am eager to see the new recruits on both the men’s and women’s teams. I think DeAndre Daniels and Brianna Banks (women’s team) will have an incredible impact on their respective team. As a double Husky with some delusions of grandeur, I of course believe we can make it to the Final Four.
AD In the fall of 2010, The National Jurist listed UConn among the best value law schools – particularly if its students wish to practice in the public interest field. In your opinion, when students are deciding whether School A is a better value than School B, what factors should they be considering?
KD As the market shifts, so do the concerns of prospective students. It is true that despite the fact that the rankings are promulgated by a for-profit magazine and rife with controversy regarding methodology and reporting, many applicants still place confidence in rankings when making decisions. This year however, there was a shift; more students supplemented their analysis with alternative rankings to determine which school offered the best education for the lowest cost. Financial aid and scholarship packages were key this year.

When looking at the value of a school, students should be mindful of the overall cost of attendance (tuition, fees, books, room & board, transportation, etc.) for each institution; be clear about scholarship terms and conditions; ask questions about job placement and median salary information; and be very certain that they can afford living in certain locations. In addition, students should look at the programmatic offerings of each institution and whatever reputational factors are important to the applicant.

At UConn Law we offer three rates of tuition; Connecticut, New England Compact and Out-of-State. As a public institution we offer a signficantly discounted rate of tuition for residents of Connecticut when compared to the out-of-state rate. For all New England residents without an ABA approved law school, we also provide a discounted tuition. After one year in state, anyone can become a Connecticut resident, and provided they follow the relevant statues as well as our institutional guidelines, it is a relatively painless process. This benefit has greatly reduced the debt of our law students and with an average debt rate of $65,639, we are affordable for many students.
AD UConn Law has made some very calculated (some would say strategic) moves in recent years by establishing its Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship Law Clinic and its new Energy and Environmental Law certificate. Can you give our users some ideas about why it took this steps – are you guys trying to create “Silicon Valley East?”
KD LOL! I love that tag line – can I use that? Dean Paul is a visionary, plain and simple. (He’s reading this right?) Honestly, we are very fortunate to have a Dean that is mindful of the growing necessity for specialists in these fields.

As a land grant institution, the University of Connecticut, plays a key role in creating and supporting economic growth in the state. The University emphasizes, among other things, entrepreneurial education, research, and business partnering. The IP&E clinic is certainly in line with the University’s academic mission. It helps that Connecticut is home to some of the major biomedical, pharmaceutical, media, technology, and defense corporations and firms in the country. Partnerships with such corporations and firms has a tremendous impact on our ability to offer a wide variety of courses and experiential learning opportunities for our students.

The Center for Energy and Environmental Law (CEEL) is another step in the right direction. Ignoring the energy crisis and the demand for policy change would be a mistake. We have the benefit of support from the University, legislature, major corporations and firms. The program is in its infancy but will no doubt continue to flourish under the leadership of Professor MacDougald the director of the CEEL.
AD In June 2011, your Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship Law Clinic received some exciting news – can you expand on the significance of the Cinic earning its first patent?
KD Actually, we now have earned two patents on behalf of clients. And we are going strong. This is exciting news on two fronts first, the reputation of the clinic and second the validation that we have a student run clinic that can provide IP legal services to a varied client base.

AD Since 2009, UConn has dropped in the USNEWS Law Rankings (from #46 to #56). What reasons do you attribute for this drop?
KD I knew you would go there. Of course, any answer that I give will appear to be self serving. The reality is that we have not played the “rankings game”. We have not diverted millions to buy the median and continue to honestly report all of our numbers. Do I wish we had millions to give to the incoming class? Yes! Would I buy the median with those dollars? Absolutely! As the economy continues to plague the legal community, financing a legal education has become more and more important to prospective law students. Unfortunately, we do not have the funding to offer free rides, renewable scholarships, or large stipends.

Does this mean the quality of our education has changed, of course not! Our faculty has published more in the past 3 years; we have more experiential learning opportunities for students; our graduates are rising in the ranks of their profession; our career planning center has expanded their programming to meet the needs of our students and graduates; and our students continue to excel. The rankings of a magazine have not changed the quality of our program.
AD How much weight do you think a prospective student should place in USNEWS Law Rankings? If you were applying to law school, how would you use the data that USNEWS compiles to assess prospective law schools?
KD I am still shocked when the first question a prospective students asks is “what is your ranking?” I realize that for better or worse, US News is a primary motivator for students; it drives where students apply and where they ultimately enroll. I caution students however, to not overly rely on the magazine. Walking in the hallways of many firms, courthouses and corporations are graduates from schools in the top tier and the bottom. I think that students should not feel that they are “less than” if they do not attend a school in the top tier, nor should they believe they are losing out on something if they do not attend a top tier school.

US News was not a factor when I applied to law school in the early 90s. If I were applying and used the magazine I would use it as one of several factors. As I mentioned earlier, the financial landscape has changed for law students; tuition is going up and subsidized loans will disappear in 2012. It will become more expensive to attend school and students should pay particular attention to financial aid packages and cost of attendance.

Students should also visit as many schools as possible and/or talk to as many students at institutions to which they have been admitted. Prospective students should be able to imagine themselves at a particular school; should feel comfortable in the environment; and not settle for attending a school simply because it was ranked higher than others.
AD How many applications did you receive for the Class of 2014?
KD We received 2025 applicants this year. This year’s pool is just about the same size as it was in 2008 just as the economy was starting to turn, but 15% down from last year.
AD How did that compare to the prior cycle (those applying to the Class of 2013)?
KD We saw a 15% decline, which was not a bit surprising end result given the economy and the negative press law schools have received of late.
AD Given all the negative press that law schools have received over the past 12 months from major media outlets like New York Times (see here, here and here) and the Wall Street Journal (here), did you see a significant change in the makeup of the applicant pool?
KD We did see a change in the applicant pool. As mentioned above we were down 15%. The biggest change however, was in the types of questions students asked. I spent more time explaining career planning numbers and scholarship requirements than ever before. The articles surely made for more sophisticated questions. We have been transparent with our numbers for quite some time. I just wish it did not take a scandalous summer to prompt applicants in this way.

By the way – I blame US News for all of this!

AD Do you think David Segal’s (New York Times) or Nathan Koppel’s (Wall Street Journal) assessment of the current law school environment (and some schools’ use of questionable recruiting tactics) is fair?
KD I think that the articles shed light on an unfortunate reality. US News does play a significant role in the minds of applicants, students, alumni, faculty, administrators and deans. To ignore the magazine and its importance in the market place would be a mistake. In the race to the top, it is not surprising that people were pressured or chose to engage in questionable tactics. We all want to meet our revenue targets, increase our medians, and employ 100% of our graduates. As the market shifts it is harder and harder to maintain, let alone increase our numbers. This has an impact on US News and thereafter on the class both in terms of quality and quantity.

Law school is worth it. Sure, it is expensive and there are no guarantees that a graduate will make $160,000 and it has become even harder to secure coveted positions at the top firms. But there were no guarantees before. Students should be mindful of all of the costs associated with attending law school while at the same time nurturing their passion for the law. We need attorneys now more than ever to help us as we rebuild our economy and communities devastated by natural disasters; to serve as public defenders in cities woefully under-served; to write and implement environmental policies; and to secure and protect intellectual property. Prospective students who are passionate about the study and practice of law, should not be dissuaded by this recent news. There remains a need for highly qualified and intelligent legal minds.
AD There has been a large push from recent law graduates (and even the ABA) for greater transparency in the way that law schools report their employment statistics. Many have used the “F” word (fraud), to describe how some schools have artificially inflated the employment opportunities available to their graduates. What are your thoughts regarding the call for greater transparency?
KD Did I mention I blame US News for all of this? There is so much pressure on law schools to increase their US News rankings. Admissions and career planning offices tend to be at the forefront of the discussion because our numbers are the ones we can allegedly “control”. So, am I surprised that schools have taken creative approaches to reporting? No.

As a school that remains transparent, of course I think requiring more transparency is an important step. I have started recruiting for the 2012 entering class and I was struck by the number of people who have told me they applaud me for being so honest in reporting career placement numbers. Do I want to report that one of our graduates is making just over $15,000? Yes! I want prospective students to know what the possibilities are and I want to be able to talk about the exciting opportunity that particular graduate is pursuing.
AD What, if anything, is UConn Law doing to improve how it reports its employment statistics to prospective applicants?
KD I hate to sound like a broken record, but we have been transparent for some time. That said, this year we broadened what we report to include not just the median salary but the salary range and we have reordered the data a bit so that it is clear how many of our graduates are employed in legal positions.
AD The last few years have presented a very challenging legal hiring market to recent grads. How has UConn grads fared in this climate?
KD UConn grads have fared relatively well in this market. The class of 2010 saw an employment rate of 86%, 9 months after graduation. Of those students 47.7% work in private practice, 20.3% in business, 13.4% in government, and 9.9% in judicial clerkships. I encourage students to analyze our Career Planning Center salary statistics

Despite the numbers, it is tough out there and our graduates have certainly felt the sting of the market. Three years ago, our Career Planning Center initiated some amazing changes to their services; requiring 5 legal experiences while in law school, individual counseling, practice area specific sessions, and a host of initiatives in addition to traditional OCI and recruitment fairs.
AD Are you finding large legal employers returning to campus for OCI recruiting?
KD Yes, large employers have returned to campus and continue to participate in our Washington, D.C., Boston and New York OCI events. Some are admittedly looking only at second year students or have changed the size of their classes but they are back.

AD Do most of your grads stay in Connecticut and the northeast, or are there other geographic areas that you see UConn Law alums gravitating to?
KD Most of our students come from Connecticut and there is no surprise that most of our graduates stay in Connecticut. The next biggest markets for us are Boston and New York.
AD Is the admissions process at UConn based primarily on the numbers (e.g., LSAT score and UGPA)?
KD We take a holistic approach to the application process. LSAT and GPA are certainly the most heavily weighed criteria. But when I look at the class at the end of the year, I realize how many outliers we have. We have so many students for whom the personal statement made a strong impact on the admissions decision.
AD What are you hoping to find when you pick up an applicant’s personal statement?
KD I really want a well written, clear, concise piece with some depth. I am tired of reading the essays about being inspired by (insert popular television drama here). Of course I was inspired by Hollywood dramas and I appreciate that people are inspired by television but most students barely scratch the surface when writing such essays. Why are you considering law? What about it put the fire in your belly; what about the law ignites that fire and makes you want to go to law school? That is what I want to read.

I also love the compelling, relevant, and well written narrative. I really like getting to know a bit more about an applicant – something that gives me some insight into who he/she is.
AD What role does an applicant’s letters of recommendation play in your admissions process? How much weight do these letters really carry?
KD Letters of recommendation are certainly important in the process. They too can make an impact on our decision. I am always surprised when I read a horrible letter of recommendation or I read the same recommendation from the same recommender saying exactly the same thing (and often unedited) about multiple students. Applicants should think critically about who they ask to write a letter and should ask whether or not the writer will write a positive tailored letter.
AD Does UConn’s reduced, in-state tuition make it an attractive choice for potential applicants?
KD Yes it does. We are the state law school and as such we offer a reduced tuition ($21,240) for Connecticut residents. New England residents without a state law school receive a reduced rate of tuition; and out-of-state residents pay a higher tuition. The great news for non-Connecticut residents, is that it takes one year to gain Connecticut residency which is a savings of approximately $23,000.

AD How many transfer applications did UConn receive for the fall of 2011?
KD We experienced a slight decrease in transfer applicants this year. Last year we received 46 and this year 40.
AD How many folks did you ultimately admit, and of those students, how many actually matriculated?
KD We admitted 26 of those applicants and 12 matriculated.
AD Are there any particular law schools from which you regularly receive a lot of transfer applications?
KD We typically receive the vast majority of applicants from the northeast.
AD What factors do you consider when determining whether to admit or deny a transfer applicant?
KD We look primarily at an applicant’s transcript, class rank and letters of recommendation from law school faculty.
AD Presumably, a student seeking to transfer to UConn did very well as a 1L at their home institution. Do honors like Law Review and/or class rank transfer? How does that work?
KD Unfortunately for the transfer applicants, honors like Law review, class rank, and GPA do not transfer. Students must in effect start over at UConn. We do allow transfer students who are admitted on time, to participate in our write on competition. In addition two of our four journals have an alternate write on competition open to transfer students. Transfer students must add their GPA from their original law school to their transcript (for OCI purposes) but will not be ranked with UConn students until they complete their first year at the Law School.

AD We’ve covered a lot of ground today – thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.
KD Thank you! It’s been fun! GO HUSKIES!

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