Interview With Michelle Rahman

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Michelle Rahman

BETTER KNOW A DEAN

"The strangest personal statements I’ve read are the ones written in the third-person voice from the perspective of the writer’s obituary..." - Michelle Rahman - Associate Dean for Admissions & Financial Aid, Richmond Law

This is the 12th installment of our 224 part series, Better Know A Dean. Today we posted our interview with Michelle Rahman, Associate Dean for Admissions at the University of Richmond School of Law -- The Fightin' Richmond Laws!

Dean Michelle Rahman has been director of Admissions at the University of Richmond School of Law since 1990, and has been associated with the Office of Admissions since 1985. In her position, Dean Rahman manages the full admissions process, from recruiting prospective students and evaluating applications to facilitating decision-making with the Admissions Committee. She also administers financial aid and scholarships for the law school in addition to arranging on-campus housing for law students. From September to November of each year, Dean Rahman travels the entire country, personally meets thousands of prospective students on the road, as well as hundreds more in her office.

AD Since our interviews are done in the spirit of Stephen Colbert’s “Better Know A District” series, I’m compelled to ask: In your opinion is AdmissionsDean a great place to research law schools, or is it the greatest place to research law schools?
MR I believe this remains to be seen. Feel free to ask me again when you become as popular as Stephen Colbert.
AD Fair enough. We're gaining quite a following so I’ll circle back to you in a few months.
MR [Laughing] Please do!
AD Your website states that Richmond’s mission is “to instill in students the values that will help them lead good and meaningful lives and to inspire students to live lives guided by the highest traditions and aspirations of our profession.” As you know, the profession already has enough unhappy lawyers – so I support your mission! What steps does Richmond Law take to achieve this mission and make sure it is doing more than just churning out students who are able to pass the bar?
MR That’s a great question. I believe it starts with picking the right law school – finding a place where you feel like the culture and environment suit you, the faculty and staff support you, and you are in a position to shine. It’s all about outcomes, isn’t it? Reality should match expectations. At Richmond, we know the value of being part of a close-knit community; it’s why we keep our first-year class size around 150 and our student/faculty ratio low at 10:1. Classrooms are interspersed with professors’ offices, and the professors’ doors are always open. The dean is always accessible to the students. Career services, admissions, library staff, clinicians – we’re here for the students, not the other way around. Richmond Law has a history of producing lawyers who love what they’re doing; and it starts in the classroom, in the belief that the student has chosen Richmond in part for its wonderfully supportive, collegial environment, as well as the abundance of opportunities available to our law students by virtue of being situated in the capital of Virginia.

Additionally, our Career Services office sits down with each law student individually – beginning in the fall of 1L year – to explore each student’s interests and career goals, with the objective of pointing them in the direction of employment that really fulfills those interests and leads to a happier professional life. Our students believe in work/life balance, which is why many don’t opt for BigLaw and untenable billable hours – the pressures of which often produce those unhappy lawyers you speak of.
AD Richmond has long been ahead of the curve and is seen as an early adopter of technology to improve student learning by, for instance, being the first law school in the country to require its matriculating students to own a laptop computer. How is technology incorporated into the academics and pedagogy at Richmond today?
MR Richmond is at the forefront of the use of technology in legal education. Every classroom is equipped with the full panoply of digital teaching tools, and professors take full advantage -- PowerPoint presentations, movie and music clips, document display, real-time Internet searching, and even polling software that can instantly survey the students in the class. Professors also regularly use Blackboard, TWEN, and blogs to answer questions and distribute materials before and after class, in a wide variety of media.

The same technology-friendly dynamic continues outside the classroom. Everything from registration to professor evaluations is online and automated, and wireless access is available throughout the entire school. The Richmond Journal of Law and Technology was the first student-edited law journal in the nation to be published exclusively online. And the library has a vast collection of electronic materials, is a founding member of the Virginia Law Libraries Digital Collections Consortium, and is ranked thirteenth in the country in spending per student.
AD According to your bio, you’ve been working in law school admissions for 25 years – all of them at Richmond! What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in Richmond students/applicants during your tenure, and what things about them have remained timeless?
MR Gosh – a man who really reads a bio!!!
AD I do what I can.
MR [Laughing] Well, I truly long for the days when we could admit applicants without such an over reliance on LSAT scores as we have today in the “race for the rankings.” Can you imagine the luxury of simply being able to trust your “gut” in making admissions decisions? I’m really fortunate that at this law school we are able to do that still but in a much more limited way than when I began this marvelous career. What has not changed over the years is our notion of the very “personal touch” – of being a “school with a heart.” It’s in our DNA and we’ve been blessed that over the years every faculty member we’ve had and every dean has carried the belief that our students come first. The law school is hugely invested in our students in every way from initial contact throughout their lives actually. We tend to say “yes” to student requests and then figure out how to make their requests a reality. No dean in my time here has told me that I can’t impart a hug to our students and so those hugs are timeless…and free. Everyone needs a hug some time…even our most non-traditional student.

Probably the biggest change for us is the huge increase in applications from all over the country and the world but what has remained timeless is that really nice people choose to come here. Students continue to pass down from class to class their belief in a collegial law school experience and truly promote this ideal year after year. Thus over time our culture has not changed: a rigorous law school experience in an environment that supports everyone in the pursuit of their own goals.

AD Since you’ve been working in law admissions for so long, I’m sure that over the years you’ve seen some pretty creative applicants. Does any one applicant stand out– perhaps a creative (or comical) way he or she tried to get your attention, and did it work?
MR Yes, there are many stories in this “naked city.” Some years ago I really took to task a young man who calculated (correctly as it turned out) when we’d move to our wait list. As it happened we’d decided, that very day, to admit him but hadn’t yet notified him. Flowers arrived and I called to tell him that now he’d never know if he got in because of his talent or because of the flowers. I was NOT happy and very nearly changed the decision. It’s become pretty standard to receive arms, legs, and other “booty” in hopes that a favorable decision will be rendered. Here’s the secret: homemade goodies work best.
AD According to a recent press release, when Virginia Governor Tim Kaine’s term ends in January, he is going to start teaching at the University of Richmond and subsequently join the law school faculty in the fall of 2010. Do you know what subjects he’ll teach? And what impact do you expect his presence to have on the law school?
MR We are very excited to welcome back Governor Tim Kaine to the law school faculty! Prior to his election to public office, Governor Kaine taught courses at the law school including Professional Responsibility. We haven’t finalized Governor Kaine’s curriculum but expect he may teach courses related to his governmental work. Governor Kaine’s extensive career as a practitioner, notably as a civil rights lawyer, as well as his vast experience in government and politics, will bring an unparalleled richness to our students’ examination of the legislative and policy issues that impact the development and interpretation of the law. He will no doubt be a significant asset – both as an educator and a role model – in the professional development of our students.
AD Does timing ever affect (positively or negatively) an applicant’s file? Assuming an applicant is NOT applying by the 12/1 early application deadline, is there any advantage to applying earlier in the cycle rather than waiting for the regular application deadline?
MR We actually do not maintain a 12/1 deadline unless one is applying for the binding early decision option – otherwise, applications are evaluated on a rolling basis throughout the admissions cycle. The binding early decision option, in which applicants commit themselves to Richmond if they are admitted, has a deadline of 12/15, with decisions being released by 12/24.

Otherwise, we encourage all applicants to apply by 2/15 for priority consideration for financial aid. My advice to applicants is to be the best applicant they can be rather than the earliest. I am always saddened when an applicant with a weak score is reluctant to take a later test which they could better prepare for (or retest if they’d had an unexpected result) simply because they feel it would be too late in the process. Sending in an application in this situation rather guarantees one will not get the decision they hope for, particularly when taking stock and “shoring up” an application in February may keep them in the ballgame.
AD I think readers would be interested in what goes on behind the scenes in Richmond’s admissions office. Can you briefly walk us through your application process -- specifically the steps you take from the first time you pick up an applicant’s file to the time you communicate your final decision to the applicant?
MR Sure. Nowadays applications come to us electronically so the process is much faster than it used to be when we had to wait for the mail and then do the data entry. A staff member retrieves the electronic application and checks to make certain all the “pieces” are there. She fills out a file cover with demographic information on the student. She will email an applicant if she notes something missing. Another staff member “tweaks” the application so that it adheres to the data entry standards of our computer system and “uploads” the application into the University’s integrated computer system. The file is put in a drawer if incomplete -- if applicant is taking a future LSAT, etc. -- but if complete the file is ready for review. This is when that application file ends up in my office for review. For some, the decision is made by me and for others, by the admissions committee. When a decision is final, the applicant is notified.
AD How do you evaluate a candidate’s undergraduate GPA, LSAT score report, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and other relevant factors? Do you assign a specific weight to each part of the application?
MR We weight the UGPA and LSAT just about equally. We like the personal statement to be just that – when I’m done reading it, I want to know something that I didn’t know from anywhere else in the file. I want to see some passion and commitment. I want to know the applicant. For me, this statement is vital. We expect letters of recommendation to be good and when we see one that isn’t – and, trust me, we do see those – it’s BAD. It speaks of a student’s judgment and perhaps lack of planning when we do get those letters. There is no specific weight to any part of the application; rather it’s viewed in its totality.
AD Do applicants from traditionally underrepresented minority groups receive special consideration in Richmond’s admissions process? If so, how does that typically affect their candidacies?
MR Every year we are looking to build a diverse class of highly qualified students. Diversity in our class takes many forms – age, geography, race, ethnicity, gender, and life experience, to name a few. Standing apart from the pack – whether by age, or ethnicity, or a cool life experience (for example) – is always a positive in the admissions process. There is no “formula” for building a diverse class, but we do our best to find balance among the multitude of talented and accomplished applicants who apply to Richmond Law.
AD Applicants seem to have a lot of questions about when addenda to their applications are warranted. Do you have general rules of thumb that they can follow?
MR Keep the personal statement positive – the addendum is the place for the negatives if there are any. Also, if they feel like they have something to share that is not covered elsewhere in the application, applicants are encouraged to write an addendum! Addenda can be very useful in that they give the admissions committee insight and context while providing the applicant an opportunity to explain a particular issue on his or her own terms. An applicant does not want to leave an admissions committee wondering. The takeaway for applicants should be that more information is better than less! However, I tell applicants to use their good judgment – five addenda (I’ve seen it) are almost never warranted. But a well-written addendum that gives us additional insight into the applicant’s life experiences allows us to make better-informed decisions. It can also help an applicant to move through the process more seamlessly, because if they don’t address issues we spot, oftentimes we have to contact the applicant for more information or, worse, we don’t contact them and decisions are made without information that might have helped the applicant.

I often tell applicants to step back from their completed application and to put themselves in my position. What questions might I have when I read the file that they’ve not addressed? Address them – trust me – I won’t miss those “weak spots” and I don’t want to make assumptions.
AD If you accept an applicant to Richmond and he or she subsequently comes down with a severe case of senioritis, causing their final semester grades to slip substantially, is there a risk that Richmond will revoke the offer?
MR That would have to be one heck of a slip! Our primary concern would have less do with the overall GPA and more to do with the individual’s circumstances causing the slip. If we are talking a semester’s worth of failing grades due to a severe case of senioritis (and not, say, due to a family emergency), I would be concerned about the individual’s judgment and readiness for the rigors of law school. We certainly might have a chat about whether Richmond Law is the right place for that individual.
AD If an applicant has a criminal record, what should they disclose (and how)? What if an applicant has a juvenile criminal record (subsequently expunged): Should this be disclosed in the application (and how)?
MR They should disclose everything via an addendum – the details of the incident (date, time, what happened) as well as the outcome (court appearance, fines, sentence, resolution). Frankly, showing a little humility never hurts, either – displaying maturity is always a positive. Always answer the exact question asked – on our application, for example, we want to know if an applicant has ever been charged, regardless of whether the record has been expunged. And in the case of undergraduate institutions, many will inform us of even the most minor incidents that occurred while the applicant was a student there (even if the applicant believes his or her collegiate record has been expunged). Better safe than sorry; often, not disclosing an incident can be more harmful to an applicant than the incident itself.

AD In general, do you recommend that students apply to law school immediately after college, or work for a few years before applying?
MR The answer depends on the student. Many students feel mentally prepared to continue their education immediately after college. For others, time off is a valuable way to recharge the batteries, make some money, obtain real-world experience, explore various career paths, etc. These are all good reasons to take time off between college and law school. A bad reason to take time off is in the belief that doing so, in and of itself, makes one a stronger applicant to law school. In terms of admission at Richmond Law , one or two years off between college and law school generally does not provide an applicant a distinct advantage over an applicant who elects not to take time off.

Of course, there are exceptions – if you find yourself on a Fulbright scholarship or in the Peace Corps, for example, that gap year or two may add true value to an application. Otherwise, an applicant should apply to law school whenever the applicant feels personally, emotionally, mentally and financially ready to do so. It is good, however, if one elects to take time off to remember the goal and live accordingly. Often major financial commitments undertaken during that hiatus prevents one from going back to school (new car, credit card debt). Law school is tough enough without having huge financial concerns because one lived like a lawyer before becoming one.
AD As a follow up to my previous question, given the current economy, I expect that you will be seeing a lot of people who may have been laid off return to get a law degree. When does work experience count in their favor, and can it offset less-than-optimal GPA or LSAT scores?
MR As mentioned before, generally, a few years between undergraduate and law school does not make an applicant a significantly different candidate for admission than if he or she had applied straight from undergrad. However, if an individual has taken 5 or 8 years off (or more), they may well have considerable work or life experiences that really bring something “extra” to their application file; one of the many aforementioned diversity factors that go into an admissions decision. In such cases, we are less concerned with the individual’s undergraduate GPA, as it not necessarily the best (and certainly not the most recent) reflection of that individual’s ability and achievements. The LSAT – that great leveler across age, undergraduate institution, major and GPA – would still be an important factor in the admissions decision, more so than a far-removed GPA.
AD Can you briefly describe the worst personal statement you’ve ever read – something that really stands out as egregious? What missteps should applicants avoid at all costs when crafting their personal statements?
MR The strangest personal statements I’ve read are the ones written in the third-person voice from the perspective of the writer’s obituary. I tend to get several of those a year, if you can believe that. Why is that egregious? Beyond the morbid factor, those types of statements talk about what the writer has done in a fictional life. With the personal statement, we are truly hoping – expecting! – to get a sense of the person behind the transcript and LSAT score. We’d like to know something interesting about the applicant, something we wouldn’t otherwise know from the application file. I encourage applicants to avoid reiterating their resume in their personal statement.

Another bit of advice – re-read your personal statement before turning it in. Make sure someone else – your roommate, your English professor, your mom – reads it as well. Grammatical mistakes and referring to us by another law school’s name is a sure way to turn off the admissions committee. My favorite error from last year included a final sentence that said, in part, “…which is why I’d give my right arm to attend [insert school name here].”
AD What does it really mean to be waitlisted and how often do you admit someone off of Richmond’s waitlist?
MR A waitlist decision means that we believe the individual is a competitive applicant who would do well at Richmond, and we hope to be in a position to admit that student to the incoming class. The number of waitlisted candidates offered admission truly does vary with each cycle, and depends substantially on the decisions made by those offered outright admission. Because of our small size, we must be careful not to over-enroll and actually plan our process to be able to move to our wait list fairly quickly each year and most years do so. We encourage a personal approach and invite waitlisted candidates to contact us throughout the process if they remain interested in Richmond. Nothing charms an admission committee more than to know the applicant well and truly wants to be at their law school!
AD So, as a follow up, can you offer any non-harassing strategies to help a student get off a waitlist?
MR Sure – keep in touch with us. If you are genuinely interested in Richmond as a top choice, please let us know. I tell applicants to use their good judgment; don’t call every day, but touching base every couple of weeks is absolutely welcome. If your LSAT appears to be the cause of your waitlist status – go back and take the June test. What do you have to lose and it just might get you moved up (or off) that list.
AD Richmond offers the John Marshall Scholarship – a pretty sizable sum of money. How many folks were awarded the John Marshall Scholarship last year and what qualities did they possess which led to their awards?
MR The John Marshall Scholarship (JMS) is worth $25,000 per year, or $75,000 over three years. John Marshall Scholars are awarded $10,000 for the scholarship, but each scholar is also granted an additional $15,000 annual merit-based scholarship as well. The JMS is our most prestigious scholarship, and applicants are invited to apply based on academic merit; JMS applicants possess GPAs and LSATs around our 75th percentile. We have approximately 12 John Marshall Scholars per year.
AD I’ve read that JMS scholars receive (non-financial) other benefits as well. Can you briefly describe them?
MR Yes. In addition to the scholarship aid, the true value of the program lies in the unparalleled opportunity John Marshal Scholars have to interact with and learn from a Justice on the Virginia Supreme Court, in addition to networking opportunities they are afforded during their time as John Marshal Scholars. The scholars engage in a weekly seminar that supplements traditional class-based learning. The seminars focus on cutting-edge legal topics and developments in the law and include speakers who are experts in their respective fields. Thus, the John Marshal Scholars are placed in a close-knit, interactive setting with experienced legal scholars, where they have the opportunity to truly explore the practical applications of the law.
AD For the most recently reported ABA data (Class of 2011), you did not give any full tuition scholarships. Is there a policy at Richmond that you do not award full-tuition grants, or was this an anomaly?
MR At $25,000 per year, the John Marshall Scholarship is our largest to date, although every year we do revisit the method in which scholarships are awarded. While we do not have a policy against giving full tuition scholarships, it has been our practice to try to award at least some funding to as many as we can to extend affordability as widely as possible. No school has unlimited resources and thus we want to make the resources we do have go as far as possible to help defray costs for as many students as possible.
AD According to the most recent ABA data, in the last admissions cycle Richmond accepted 18 transfer students (and lost 11 students as transfers to other schools). What qualities do you look for in a transfer candidate, and when should 1Ls interested in transferring begin that process?
MR With transfer students, a prime consideration is the student’s first-year grades. The LSAT is used in part as a prediction of first-year academic success in law school; in the case of transfer students, we have the evidence of their first-year academic success in their transcript. Standing out in the first-year class gives a transfer applicant a competitive advantage among other hopeful transfer applicants. The transfer applicant’s current law school, whether the applicant is in good academic standing and eligible to return to that law school, LSAT score and undergraduate GPA, and personal statement, among other factors, are all considered in the evaluation of transfer applicants.

A transfer applicant may begin the process in the spring of their 1L year, though we require a complete year’s transcript – two full semesters – before considering transfer applications. Thus, transfer decisions are routinely made during the summer, after the applicant has completed a full 1L year. On rare occasions we will consider giving a transfer decision early consideration based on one semester’s grades, but typically that decision will be conditioned upon the spring semester’s grades being similar to the fall semester’s grades upon which the decision was based.
AD Last spring, teams from Richmond defeated teams from some other pretty impressive law schools, winning two national championships in two separate competitions: the ABA’s National Representation in Mediation Competition in New York City, and the ABA’s National Student Trial Advocacy Competition in Chicago. How do you select students for these Richmond teams?
MR The individual organizations (Trial Advocacy Board, Moot Court Board, etc.), which are run by the students themselves, organize and host rigorous intrascholastic competitions where teams square-off in a “tournament” (think NCAA basketball) style competition, with a winning team advancing through each round.

The individuals or teams placing highest are invited to join that group’s organization as members. Generally, the executive board of an organization asks its members to rank the competitions they would prefer to compete in, and then selects the members they believe would make the best team. Some competitions work differently – for example, the Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition and the Admiralty Moot Court Competition maintain separate tryouts, and the coach of those teams selects which competitors will represent Richmond on the national level.
AD Dean Rahman, I know that this is your busiest time of year so I truly appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today.
MR No problem, and good luck becoming as popular as Steven Colbert!

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