This is the fifth installment of our 224 part series, Better Know A Dean. Today we posted our interview with Ann Perry, Assistant Dean of Admissions at UChicago Law — The Fightin’ UChicago Law’s!
Dean Perry received her J.D. from University of Illinois College of Law and was an associate at a Chicago-based law firm where she practiced insurance defense litigation. Dean Perry left practice to return to the College of Law first as the Associate Director of Development and, later, as Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Financial Aid where she oversaw the admissions office, awarded scholarships and other financial aid resources, advised student organizations, and handled other student issues. In 2002, Dean Perry joined the University of Chicago community as the Assistant Dean of Admissions at the Law School.
AD: Dean Perry I know that this your busy season so I really do appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today and answer some questions that prospective applicants might have about admissions to, or life at, Chicago Law.
AP: Not a problem, I’m happy to do it.
AD: Chicago Law is consistently among the very top law schools in the USNEWS rankings. How much emphasis do you think a law school applicant should place on rankings when deciding which law school to attend?
AP: The USNEWS rankings, are one source – but they are certainly not the only source – that prospective applicants need to consider when choosing which law school to attend. In addition to the rankings, I think students need to focus on other factors, for instance, the faculty, academic reputation, career placement, and course offerings at the schools they considering.
AD: Would you say then, that the overall rankings, while helpful may be less important than USNEWS’s rankings of schools’ programs or concentrations in, say, tax law or environmental law?
AP: Not necessarily. Again, whether you are talking about the overall rankings or USNEWS’ rankings for a particular field or concentration, there’s a lot that goes into a student’s decision and what USNEWS has to say about a school is just one factor. They really need to look beyond the rankings to make sure that school X is ultimately going to be the best fit for them. I really think that when deciding which school to attend, an applicant has to go through some basic (but critical) steps to make sure they arrive at the correct choice. Once students narrow down their top choices, I encourage prospective students to visit those schools, talk to current students and faculty – even reach out to alumni – so that they can fully understand exactly what each school has to offer and what their options will be upon graduation.
AD: As someone who is intimately familiar with the law school admissions process, what do you think of your colleague’s, Chicago Law’s Brian Leiter’s, law school rankings?
AP: Once again, Professor Leiter’s rankings are simply one source that students can and should consider. Because of Professor Leiter’s extensive knowledge of law schools generally, the programs they offer, job placement for their students, and, specifically, the faculty teaching at many of the top schools, his rankings offer a compelling alternative to the USNEWS rankings. I feel that given his expertise, Professor Leiter’s rankings offer insights that USNEWS cannot offer – mostly because USNEWS doesn’t ask the same questions that Professor Leiter asks.
AD: If an applicant receives an offer from Chicago Law as well as several other peer law schools, why should he or she choose Chicago Law over its competition? That is, what do you think distinguishes Chicago Law from other law schools at the very top of Tier 1?
AP: I always like to point out three things that make us different from our peer schools. First, is our faculty. We have a very engaged faculty whose first love is teaching and really enjoy working with and mentoring students. The faculty-student interaction that we experience at UChicago is not something that I see easily mimicked at other top law schools in part because of our size. UChicago is a smaller law school, and we have resisted getting bigger over the years, traditionally admitting an entering class of between 190 to 195 1Ls.
The second thing I think is different is our students. We have an incredibly accomplished and engaged student body that actively participates in our learning environment. At Chicago, we provide students with learning opportunities both inside and outside the classroom. We have three or four conferences every quarter that our students can get involved with, for example, by presenting a paper with a faculty member on a panel. So, as I like to say, we really do try to foster a culture of “active learning” here – a place where students who want to get involved can extend their personal or academic development beyond a traditional classroom setting.
The third factor is being part of the greater University of Chicago community. Being on such a tremendous campus really helps foster our interdisciplinary approach to the study of law. Our students can take advantage of courses in other departments to help develop their interests. There are cross listed courses with many departments on campus like the Economics, Business, Public Policy and International Relations.
AD: It sounds like your students are offered some pretty fantastic opportunities to work with faculty — people who are truly leaders in their respective fields. Do 1Ls have similar opportunities to get involved in these conferences and present with faculty members?
AP: They can get involved, but realistically since they are new to UChicago and are just getting their feet wet, 1Ls are more often tend to be attendees at these conferences than actual presenters/participants. But if a student has a keen interest and the time, their involvement is welcomed – first year students will get to know their faculty well as soon as they begin classes at the Law School.
AD: When you meet Chicago Law alums, what are some of the common threads of comments you hear as they reminisce about their time in law school?
AP: We are very fortunate to have an active, enthusiastic alumni base. I’ve been here for eight years, so I have attended a lot of the alumni events, and I’m always impressed not only by the large turnout, but also by the collegial feeling and fond memories our alums seem to have of their time at Chicago. I think it stems from the smaller size of our classes – when you offer that type of “close knit” environment, it tends to foster lasting friendships and a sense of community that may be more difficult to replicate at a law school that has 400 or more students in a class. Our alumni always comment on the strength of the intellectual energy and classroom experience at Chicago, in addition to the long-lasting relationships they have developed with their classmates and faculty (many of our alumni are still in regular contact with their teachers from their time at Chicago).
In fact, the positive experience our alums had at UChicago often helps us when recruiting new students. We get our alums actively involved in the recruiting process by personally contacting admitted students so they can offer new admits their unique perspectives and explain the difference that UChicago has made in their lives – both in law school and later in practice.
AD: There are already enough unhappy lawyers. What advice would you give to someone who is just considering law school so that they don’t end up regretting their career choice later on?
AP: While I think that law school provides a wonderful education no matter what career you ultimately decide to pursue, the decision of whether or not to attend law school is not something students should take lightly because it involves a substantial investment in both time and money. So, I would do considerable research ahead of time – and there are plenty of places people can turn to find out if law school is the right path for them. People should talk to lawyers or their pre-law advisors if they are still in school or, at the very least, scour the Internet to help them arrive at the right conclusion.
I also like to remind people that there’s certainly no rush and you owe it to yourself to be cautious and investigate all your options. I promise that law schools are always going to be there; so if there is something else besides law school that you think you may want to do, try it out now for a couple of years. Once you start in law school and begin pursuing your legal career, things start moving quickly, and it’s very easy to open your eyes and find yourself out in practice for 8 years doing work that you may not find all that fulfilling.
AD: Given the current economy, what trends are you seeing in law school applications? Do you expect the 2010-11 admissions cycle to be particularly competitive?
AP: I do. We actually saw a 7% increase in applications last year which is on the higher end of what our peer schools experienced. Although it’s still early, right now we’re on target to match the number of applications we received last year — but the difference is that last year we didn’t see a real jump in applications until January or February. So, given the current flow of applications, and the volume we’re seeing at our recruiting events, I’m expecting a greater number of applicants during this admissions cycle.
As for how competitive the overall applicant pool will be, we won’t really know that until much later in the process. I bet, however, that there are some folks who are currently unemployed who have some pretty impressive resumes and credentials and they may be considering law school as an option. The current economy has definitely thrown many very qualified people a curveball, and it will be interesting to see how that affects the strength of the applicant pool. My best guess is that we will see a more competitive applicant pool this time around than we have in the past few years.
AD: Many big law firms that have been major recruiters for graduates at Chicago Law have significantly downsized and even cut their summer programs. What short-term and long-term effects do you expect this type of contraction in the legal market will have on Chicago Law and the legal market in general?
AP: All things considered, our on-campus recruiting efforts this fall went very well – we were very happy with the number of firms who came on campus to interview our students and also the number of callback invitations that our students received. We have seen that our small class size has been a real advantage for our students in this market. That said, our career services office has been very proactive throughout this economic crisis, making sure our students have as many employment opportunities now as they did when there was no downsizing. This involves, for example, working one-on-one with our students – as our career services office always has – and perhaps encouraging them to look at different sized firms and/or geographic markets. Additionally, it also means having our students work with members of our faculty to explore different clerkship or government opportunities – types of employment that some students may not have considered before. Our faculty really help our students, particularly with obtaining clerkships, which is another thing that is really great for our students in this market. OCS is also taking advantage of our loyal alumni network, to put students in touch with grads working in the type of practice or location desired by the student.
What will be really interesting is whether there is a trickle down effect from the “resetting” that we’re currently experiencing. For example, we might begin to see smaller firms, or firms in smaller geographic markets, that now have the ability to hire students from the very top law schools – something they may not have had the opportunity to do before because of the strong demand for these students by big firms in larger markets. If that happens, it’ll be interesting to see how competitive the hiring process becomes across all legal employers. Who knows, in the end, the trickle down effect may not be all that great if those smaller firms remain loyal to grads from the regional schools they traditionally recruited from. We have seen that our placement, particularly in smaller markets, is often driven by student interest. Unfortunately, we won’t know how this is all going to shake out since it will take a few of years to truly assess the impact of this economic crisis on the legal hiring market – but it sure is interesting to think about!
AD: In a related question, layoffs and deferred start dates have forced many otherwise big law associates/candidates from schools like Chicago to look to public interest and non-legal jobs. How do you think this experience will shape the generation of lawyers?
AP: People are certainly looking at different options. I’m really glad you raised this question because here at Chicago we have always looked at public interest work as a very viable career path for our graduates. In fact, over the past five or six years we have really improved the resources available that allow our students and graduates to pursue careers in public interest. For example, we are fortunate to be able to provide socially conscious students with financial support for summer employment and even post graduation work. For 1L and 2L students who are currently enrolled at Chicago, that support comes in the form of loans from the law school that are forgiven if a student successfully completes a certain number of weeks at a public interest job during the summers while in law school. So last year, we had students working in paid and unpaid positions all over the world doing things like human rights internships in South Africa and India – opportunities that would not be available but for the public interest fellowships we are able to offer our students. And, our Hormel Public Interest Program – a program that we have had in place for many years – offers post-graduate loan forgiveness to our graduates who decide to work in the public interest field after graduation.
So, while I certainly expect (and hope) that the economy may open students’ eyes to new opportunities and perhaps nudge them in the direction of a public interest career earlier than they may have expected, at Chicago we’ve always placed a premium on careers in public interest — even during the “good” times and I truly feel that our students are the better for it.
AD: You have a new dean, Michael Schill, starting on January 1, 2010. What changes or improvements do you think students would like most to see made during his first year on the job?
AP: Dean Levmore has done some incredible things during his deanship. Under his leadership we have seen our faculty expand to include some truly gifted scholars and teachers. Dean Levmore also oversaw a renovation of the law school that made it much more student-friendly and comfortable – a place where students and staff really enjoy coming to work everyday. Dean Levmore also substantially increase the funding made available to students who seek employment in the public sector. So I really feel that Dean Schill is inheriting a law school that is in fantastic shape. I’m not sure what Dean Schill has in mind in terms of changes, but I’m sure he has some great new ideas – and that’s one thing we’ve always valued at Chicago is people with new ideas. I’m just as interested as everyone else to see how he improves upon what Dean Levmore has already built – I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, but we are really excited for him to join our community.
AD: You are a regular contributor to Day In The Life Blog – Chicago Law’s admissions blog. Tell us how it got started, what you think of the experience writing for it, and some of its more notable accomplishments.
AP: It’s interesting that you bring up the blog. When we started the faculty blog it quickly became very popular so we thought an admissions blog would be an interesting way to communicate with our prospective students. But I have to say, we’ve kind of put the Day In The Life Blog on a hiatus and we’ve started Tweeting instead.
AD: Oh Jeez, not you too!
AP: Yes, of course, because we felt we needed to adapt in order to best communicate with our prospects and new admits. We’re leaving the blog up as a sort of archive since there’s a lot of really valuable information in there. But going forward if prospective students want to keep up to date with what we’re doing in the admissions office, they can simply follow us on Twitter at UChicagoLawApps.
AD: During the last admissions cycle, Chicago gave scholarships/grants to approximately 54% of their admitted students. What factors are considered when deciding to award these grants and scholarships?
AP: We look at the whole application to see whether there are need and/or merit reasons for granting an award. So, while we may decide to grant a scholarship based on an applicant’s undergraduate performance, we are also able to adjust that scholarship based upon the candidate’s individual need. The overall goal is to make an education at Chicago as affordable as possible for as many folks – always keeping in mind that there is only a limited amount of scholarship money available every year. That said, we are really fortunate that UChicago has the resources it has to grant as many scholarships as we do.
AD: Take us through your admissions review process. How do you evaluate a candidate’s undergraduate GPA, LSAT score report, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and other relevant factors?
AP: We take a holistic approach to the application process. We regularly get 5,500 applications for a relatively small number of spots, so our students tend to be very competitive with very high medians for the LSAT and the GPA. That said, our students’ scores don’t tell the whole story. By definition, median scores mean that half the students fall above those scores and half our admitted students fall below. Personally, I don’t even look at an applicant’s numbers until I feel like I’ve gotten to know him or her. So I always like to start off a new application by reading the personal statement and reviewing the applicant’s letters of recommendation –you’ll see that we have quite a range of LSAT scores and GPAs in our class.
A law school application is like a puzzle that, when complete, gives us a really good picture of what an applicant looks like – and how he or she will do if admitted. I think that what an applicant needs to do is make sure that every piece of the puzzle is a solid piece; therefore, applicants must spend as much time on their personal statements and thinking about who will write them the strongest letters of recommendation, as they do preparing to do as well as possible on the LSAT. This will guarantee that they are putting themselves in the most favorable light because we do look at the entire application and take a really individualized approach.
AD: Following up on that, if someone is applying to Chicago with, say, a below median GPA, should they address that?
AP: They can. We look at each applicant’s transcript carefully to see any grade trends, what classes they took in college and whether they really challenged themselves. This is important because it will help us assess whether they are truly ready for the challenges they’ll face at Chicago. If there is a semester when an applicant may not have lived up to his or her academic potential, then perhaps they might want to address that with the admissions committee in an addendum. That can be helpful.
AD: What is the most egregious error you ever saw on a candidate’s application at Chicago?
AP: For the past three years we have had a completely paperless admissions process which has allowed us to cut down from eleven 5-drawer file cabinets to just one file drawer. So it’s been really great. What hasn’t been so great is when people submit their applications electronically without doing a thorough final review. So, as a result, we’ve had a few people submit their personal statement as Word documents despite having left the “track changes” function on.
AD: Oh, that’s awesome.
AP: Oh sure, right, it’s great! I mean, seriously, do you really want me to see exactly who reviewed your personal statement and see the edits that they made? Now I realize that accidents happen and it might be tricky to turn track changes off, but I also know that I’m always very careful to make sure that I turn off the track changes function before I send a document. Applicants have to always remember that they are applying to be a member of the legal profession – a job where small details matter and can literally mean the difference between having a brilliant legal career or getting sued for malpractice. What we want to see from every applicant is that they can represent the profession well by exercising good judgment, and that means paying close attention to details.
AD: In terms of reviewing applications before they get submitted, are you seeing more people these days using admissions consultants?
AP: I don’t ask the question, so I don’t really know.
AD: Do you have any opinions about using an admissions consultant when applying to law school… can you see the value in using one?
AP: I think it’s an expensive route to go, but for some people who think they may need one, and who have the resources, I think it might make them feel better. The fact of the matter is that applying to law school is not really that hard of a process so applicants shouldn’t really need too much outside guidance. Now I would obviously want someone, or several people, to read my personal statement, but hiring someone to manage the entire application? I’m just not sure there’s a real need there. However, every applicant should want to put his or her strongest application forward, and it is up to the individual to decide how to do that.
Honestly, I go back and forth. I have friends and former colleagues who do admissions consulting so I get it, but I don’t know how an applicant who applies to 6-8 different schools, travels to visit those schools, pays all the application fees and probably pays to take an LSAT prep course can now afford an admissions consultant. It just seems like a lot of money to spend on applying to law school and I don’t know how you can justify it – especially since the admissions piece of the puzzle is pretty straightforward.
AD: Can you briefly describe the most memorable/effective applicant essay you read?
AP: What sticks out to me most is when I receive a personal statement that is very well written. I love it when someone tells a story about an experience in their life and how that experience not only shaped them, but also ties it into why they now want to go to law school. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hard thing to write; but, when it’s done well, it is something that tends to be very powerful.
I guess it’s easier for me to say what is the least effective personal statement – that’s when an applicant simply rewrites their resume. That doesn’t help me at all and, again, doesn’t show very good judgment on the part of the applicant. If you’ve got my attention for only a short period of time and you chose to spend it reciting your resume – something that’s represented elsewhere in the application – well, that’s just not very smart.
AD: Since the admissions has become so competitive, we’re seeing more and more students transferring — in fact, during the last cycle Chicago accepted 22 transfer students. This hasn’t always been the case, so do you have any opinions about why there is such an interest in transferring these days?
AP: I agree that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of applicants, but the number of applicants we have accepted has stayed constant. We haven’t really done anything to greatly increase the size of our 2L and 3L classes because, again, we’re a small school and we like it that way. We have always been open to accepting a small group of well-qualified, interesting students who want to become part of our community. So transferring is not as big of an issue here at Chicago as it might be at some other schools. As for why it’s happening elsewhere, I really couldn’t say.
AD: Do you have any advice for students seeking to transfer to Chicago? In other words, who is your ideal transfer student?
AP: Most importantly, when we review a transfer application we want to make sure that if we let the applicant in, they can do the work. It doesn’t make sense for anyone – the school or the student – if we accept someone who is unable to keep up and ends up miserable because he or she is struggling. So, the best indicator of how well someone is going to do as a transfer student is how well they did at their home institution; accordingly, we place a lot of emphasis on their 1L transcript and letters of recommendation from law school faculty who have taught the student.
Once accepted, we do a great job integrating our transfer students into the Chicago community and truly try to make it a special experience for them. We have a full orientation for them just before OCI begins so they are ready to go when employers start interviewing. We also hold spots in our clinics and on our journals for transfers, allowing them to participate in the write on competition during the summer before their second year.
AD: We’ve covered a lot of ground and, once again, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.