Assistant Dean for Admissions, Western St Law
Assistant Dean for Admissions, Western St Law
Dean Switzer graduated from UCLA with a MA in French and then received an MBA from Pepperdine University. Before becoming the Assistant Dean for Admissions at Western State University College of Law in 2004, Dean Switzer logged 20+ years in business management and marketing, in education, financial services and high technology sectors.
AD: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me today and answer questions about Western State University College of Law.
GW: It’s my pleasure.
AD: Where exactly is Western State located?
GW: Western State is located in Orange County, California, which is essentially a group of smaller cities, a suburban area, just to the south of Metropolitan Los Angeles. We are maybe 25 miles commuting distance to much of Los Angeles and contiguous to the east of us are Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, an area called the Inland Empire which has also been a very high-growth area. Orange County has maybe three million people in a number of small cities. The town Western State is in is Fullerton, which is near the northern end of the county. Other areas people might have heard of that are nearby: Anaheim, which of course has Disneyland and is well known as the former long-time county seat; and then Santa Ana, which is the current country seat that has the courts, and so forth. These days, Orange County is known as a financial, legal, business high-tech center. Fullerton, the town we are located in, has a number of colleges. So it’s really a suburban college community. We have a large California State University which has some 34,000 students directly across the street, and there are several other colleges in the area. So it’s suburban but driving distance to Metropolitan Los Angeles. San Diego is about 100 miles south of us.
AD: Given that you are located in Orange County, I have to ask whether you’ve watched The Real Housewives of Orange County?
GW: Ha! Sadly, I have not! I am sure that to the degree everyone on The Real Housewives are all beautiful and rich and smart, it’s just like everyone in Orange County!
AD: Now, UC Irvine is located in Orange County as well, and they recently opened up a law school in your backyard. Dean Chemerinsky seems pretty hell-bent on building a top-tier law school at UC Irvine School of Law. They just received provisional accreditation from the ABA: do you feel any pressure from UC Irvine?
GW: Certainly, not any direct pressure. Today, there are 4 law schools in Orange County, so that’s a change from the days when we were the only law school in here. But in some sense, UC Irvine is not a direct competitor because, as you say, their aspiration is to create a fairly high-end, fairly specific, mission-driven, top-tier institution that isn’t what Western State aspires to be. That said, UC Irvine School of Law provides our local population with one more choice. Also, I would expect that UC Irvine is going to draw from outside the area, as we do. So I think in a crowded market, there is certainly a feeling that now there are 4 law schools where there used to be 1 and then 2 and then 3. But no, they are not in any way a direct competitor for us. We are not attracting the same students.
AD: What is your mission today? When Western State was founded in 1966, you were the only law school in Orange County. Only recently, in 2009, did you receive full ABA accreditation. What is your mission, and why did Western State take so long since its founding to receive accreditation?
GW: It’s a great question. Western State was originally founded to be an opportunity school to provide access to a fairly diverse population in Orange County who were to a large degree immigrants, transplants from elsewhere, mid-career people looking to develop their careers, and that mission remains the same to some degree. For many years, we were a California-accredited law school and very successfully so. As time passed, we felt that becoming an ABA-accredited law school with all that that means for our graduates was just a better way to go. And when a school does that, you give up some things as well as invest in some new things.
For us to go on to the ABA track meant, for example, that we had to close two very successful working campuses. We had a campus in San Diego which then spun off and has now become the Thomas Jefferson School of Law but that was part of Western State. We also had a campus in Irvine with hundreds of students. We closed that campus because an ABA-approved school can only have one campus. So we consolidated to one location; we built our library up; we made a lot of transitions. To some degree, we had to transform the law school from being welcoming of and giving an opportunity to a broader range of students to having a narrower focus, with higher admissions standards in order to be compliant with the ABA’s accreditation standards.
That said, our mission is still that we are very much committed to diversity and to opportunity to access. We have a lot of students who are first in their family to go to college, to go to graduate school, and to be lawyers. Our student population is nearly 40% diverse in terms of traditional ABA minority categories, and even higher than that when you consider students from throughout the Middle East and from former Soviet Republics, Afghanis, Armenians, Iraqis, Iranians, Indians, and Pakistanis. We are an extremely diverse melting-pot school, and we really value that.
AD: So Western State went from being a local school catering to students in Orange County, and now you are starting to draw students from outside of Orange County. What percentage of your students come from outside of Orange County and/or outside the State of California?
GW: Outside the state, it’s about 22-25%. I really couldn’t tell you Orange County versus other parts of the State, because so often people will move, or they have family in Orange County, or they will move in with Orange County family, etc. We do draw some from San Diego, and we do draw some from the northern part of California as well. But still, our base is Southern California.
ABA accreditation has meant not only additional recognition for the law school, but also greater value for our graduates because they can now take the bar in any state. We already have graduates in all 50 states, and over the next several years we will increase their numbers throughout the Western states and the country overall. We will have a more established, geographically diverse alumni base.
AD: Western State has two application deadlines, December 1st and June 1st. I assume that the December 1st is for your spring start?
GW: Yes. We have a very small part-time evening program which begins in January. And then of course, our large class begins in the fall, and we have both part-time and full-time options.
AD: How large of a class did you start in the fall of 2011?
GW: This fall, we matriculated 230 students.
AD: Okay. Did you find that applications were down this year?
GW: Applications for us are probably about 10% down right now year over year. However, our applicant pool was a bit stronger and we actually admitted about the same number of students as in 2010, and increased our class size 10%.
AD: I recently interviewed Greg Canada from UC Hastings, and he opined that the reason for the decrease in law school applications this past year is that law schools have taken a beating in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and other major media outlets. There are a lot of people who criticize the decision to obtain a law degree these days–not only from a fourth tier school but even schools outside the top 20–saying that it’s not really worth the cost. As a school that’s squarely in the fourth tier, how do you respond to that criticism?
GW: I think in this day and age, it’s irresponsible not to consider very seriously any investment in graduate school. What these tougher economic times mean is that the decision of whether to attend law school should not be taken lightly. A law degree is not a license to print money and be rich. So if ever that was the case, it is certainly not the case that you will automatically go to law school and now you are going to have a brilliant career. But that’s also true of MBA degrees and any number of other degrees. I think what it says is that you need to be very serious about entering this profession.
I think there continues to be and will be a need for serious legal professionals, especially in the emerging and stronger areas of our economy. No one will say that we are not going to need lawyers going forward but I think when the costs are high, when the work is hard, every law student and their families need to take very serious stock of why are they going into this profession. And the second thing is that there isn’t just going to be an endless supply of jobs. Law school candidates need to have to have a very serious level of preparation. We read everywhere that students need more than just a law degree in order to be a viable job candidate. That’s a criticism of all law schools, and particularly Top 20 law schools. Frankly, to some degree, this may be hitting the top schools more than the lower tier law schools.
For us, we have been preparing our students for years with practical experience and encouraging them to really build their resumes and their networks throughout law school. You cannot wait until you have graduated and passed the bar to start thinking about where you are going to work. In this tougher economy, you have really got to be on a path where you can show a prospective employer all the experience that you have gained, your maturity, the things that you already know how to do so that you can hit the ground running and be a very productive young lawyer as opposed to someone who is just very well educated. We hear all the time from law firms: “I don’t have two or three years to break in an associate who doesn’t know anything.” So we work very hard from day one to tell our students: “Your entry into the profession is at the beginning of law school, not at the end. You must acquire academic knowledge to ensure you pass the bar, but you also have to build your skills and your personal experience and begin meeting the people who will help you get placed not after you graduate but during the time you are in law school.” So, from what I am reading, we are doing some of those things all the way through law school. Perhaps a third- or a fourth-tier law schools that approaches things this way has less that they have to change than some of the top law schools that have been very research and academic-oriented but have not looked at this more practical aspect of student preparation. In some ways, our graduates don’t have to reset their expectations to the same degree that Top 20 law school graduates do. Our graduates have never had an expectation that they will immediately walk out of our doors and get a $140,000 a year job. That’s never been a realistic expectation. So I think we have prepared our candidates for a realistic approach and how to be ready to get placed.
AD: Is that true even for Western State’s students in the top 10% of the class? Do large firms ever look to hire them straight out of law school?
GW: They are going to get looked at in more cases by regional firms. Our graduates are not going to probably be placed at Wall Street firms. There are absolutely placements in good firms throughout Orange County, throughout Los Angeles, in California, and in the Western States generally. But it would be unrealistic and unfair to tell the average student that that was their expectation.
That’s part of the problem: people take the highest published salary out there and then assume that that’s what their salary is going to be. In reality, there are a very small number of people who even want that kind of job and will qualify for that kind of job. So I think it’s about a realistic expectation and the wonderful career choices that people can make. But I wouldn’t bake in that the day I graduate, that I am going to make $140,000. We have some incredibly successful alumni who make very, very large incomes whether they have become senior partners in a firm, whether they have started their own shop after a few years, and so forth. But I think you have to build that, it’s not that you are going to get handed that the day that you graduate. Part of the success our alums have achieved can be traced back to “paying dues” and “grooming” a career over a period of time. Part of the issue is also that you have to have a plan of where you are going to start, where you are going to be 10 years from now, where you are going to be 15 years from now, because we also hear about a lot of young lawyers who burn out after working 80-hour weeks for 4 or 5 years from working 80-hour-weeks at those high salaries. That simply not the career path many of our graduates are interested in.
AD: Right. I worked in a large firm in Manhattan for a number of years before starting AdmissionsDean.com and Law Preview and BigLaw isn’t for everybody.
GW: It’s not for everybody and I would say that even for some of our top students, very few of them express that that’s where they want to go. Now do they want to have a good living, do they want to make a difference, do they want to have a professional-level income, pay off their debts, have a family? Of course they do. But I think it’s about being realistic. The downturn in the economy has caused a lot of people to reset expectations about how fast it will take to get to where you want to go. There may be a period of paying some dues and getting some experience and breaking into the profession that wasn’t the case 5 or 8 years. And like I said, to some degree, I think that’s hitting the students at the top schools who have these very high expectations maybe more than the students at lower-tier schools who never had those very high expectations coming out the door anyway.
AD: Or going in the door, right?
GW: Going in the door, that’s correct. Students definitely do need to recognize that $100,000-plus is the cost of getting some professional degrees, whether it’s a law degree, or a MBA, or a master’s in public administration or a doctorate in psychology. You just have to be realistic about your living expenses to not live too high on the hog during law school so you minimize the borrowing that you have to do. But you still have to invest in your education and realize there is a lifetime return and be realistic as to what it is.
AD: Right. The buzzword these days in law school admissions is “transparency” in the reporting employment numbers. What is Western State doing to help its prospective students make an informed decision about whether getting a degree from Western State is the right financial decision for them?
GW: I think we really do try to have a conversation–like the one you and I are having right now–with students about where is it that they plan to go. Many law students really don’t know where they are going to end up when they come through our doors. They may have an idea, but many will change their minds about which sector they are going into.
We engage our students starting during their first year. We have a very hands-on, individualized process with our students engaging with career services from the first year, where they put together their first resume and a game plan about how they are going to get the skills, experiences, externships, and contacts to build their personal rolodex of the people who are going to know who they are and be prepared to offer them part time jobs, summer jobs, and be able to help them get placed with full-time jobs. It’s not an event, it’s a process, and it’s a process all the way through law school. So, we very much encourage students to do that. In some cases it may make sense to do volunteer work, or take a job that pays less because that job provides great experience in your first summer or on a part-time basis. It’s how you build that resume that makes you stand out and be the very best candidate after graduation. It’s just another investment you make in your future.
As for the employment numbers, the problem in law school reporting is the way the questions are phrased that can lead to inaccurate reporting. We make every effort we can to find out from our students where they are, where they are working, are you working, whether they are working full time and so forth. But everyone has to realize that this is self-reported data. That’s true for every law school. You are trying to get information as best as you can from your graduates. But obviously we try very hard to get comprehensive information, fair information, and balanced information. But the other side is that the incoming student or the current student needs to be planning their career, and can’t be passive about it.
AD: How have your grads weathered the Great Recession? How are they doing?
GW: I think our graduates are doing well. One of the things that’s helped tremendously–and we will get to this later–is that we have really been emphasizing first time bar success. That’s a huge piece of getting employed, because, again, in this economy typically there are not job offers made until a candidate has successfully passed the bar. So the fact that 83% of our graduates passed the California Bar during the most recent exam period, and I think 8 out of 9 passed out-of-state bar exams, means that you are on the job market that much sooner and are able to compete for those jobs that are out there. So, the graduates who have done what they need to do, they are finding work. Our latest NALP survey indicated 74% employed 9 months after graduation. They are finding work with local firms, they are finding work with the public sector in some capacity–public defender offices, district attorney offices.
There has been growth in certain sectors. As we have talked about, there are certain areas of law that have been harder hit and there have been cutbacks, but other areas are growing like crazy. We were just talking to a couple of alumni who hired graduates who are working in the mortgage-related financial services areas, unfortunately bankruptcy. These are the growth areas so students who have positioned themselves for opportunities there are doing very well. Now, can you walk right in and get a job as a litigator? Probably not.
AD: Right. I would imagine that it’s a tough time selling students on law school, and it sounds like that’s not what you are trying to do. Instead, you are trying to help students make informed choices about whether law school is the right thing for them.
AD: Say your daughter or son wanted to go to law school in this climate. Given the current economics, what advice would you give her or him?
GW: Well, tough times mean that you have to be more serious in your decisions. That’s true of all kinds of trends, whether it’s a real estate boom, or a hi-tech boom, and so forth. These days you need to make a serious commitment when you enter any profession. You are not going to go to law school on a lark just to see maybe I will like it, maybe I won’t, maybe I want to do this but maybe if I don’t like it then I am just going to go do something else. I think there are people who are very, very motivated for a lot of reasons, to be part of the justice system, to be part of our legal system, advocating for people depending on their background, what it is that brings them to this, and we hear very, very heartwarming stories from students in their personal statements about what brought them to the law. But regardless, if you have that kind of a serious commitment and this is going to be your life’s work, then I would not say to anybody that they shouldn’t enter law.
So, I think it’s about being pretty committed. It’s about saying, if I am going to do this, if I am going to invest three years of my life and a lot of money and get my family to support me in this, then I need to be very committed and I need to work really hard and I need to be committed to the profession. And I think that there will be jobs and there will be careers for our students at the far end. Does this mean that someone who is on-the-fence should put it off? Probably. But that may be true for other graduate degrees as well. There was a time when people got an MBA degree at the drop of a hat. I think an MBA can be very helpful in a career in business or a Master’s degree can be very helpful, but it represents a fairly serious commitment financially and time wise. You want to be serious about why are you doing it, because the payoff’s not going to be in one or two years. The payoff’s going to be over the next decade perhaps.
AD: In terms of the bar passage, you mentioned that Western State grads have an 83% first-time bar passage rate on the July 2010 California exam, and 75% on the February 2011 California exam which is phenomenal! In researching for this interview I had looked your school’s the prior year’s bar passage rate, which was 65%. That represented 13% below the stated average for California was second-to-last among the schools that listed California’s as their primary jurisdiction. Congratulations, first of all. Western State and its grads did a phenomenal job in turning that around by having an 83% bar passage rate, which now puts you 12% above the average first-time bar passage rate in California. How did you pull off that feat in one year?
GW: Well, we obviously were very, very excited. First and foremost, the credit goes to the students because it’s a very, very impressive accomplishment for our students. What we hope is that this is also transformative in terms of the culture and the expectation that we have for them going forward. We have a number of programs and as you know when you put a program in place it does take a few years to see the benefits. And we believe that the increasing bar passage rates, and certainly this impressive result, is the payoff from programs that we put in place starting from before students because again, we are as you indicated, we are an opportunity school. Look, we take students with median credentials and event though they may not have the highest undergraduate GPAs or the highest LSAT scores, we provide them with some really great opportunities and we try to provide them with a lot of help and feedback and support beginning before they start law school all the way through graduation and taking the bar exam. In the third year, we offer some review classes and bar preparation courses. We sponsor a bar review course right on campus. We help our students who are successful with the cost of some of those programs. So we have put a lot of programs in place over the last four or five years that we think are really bearing fruit; these programs are enabling our students to compete very successfully with their counterparts at other law schools. So, yes, we are very excited about that.
AD: I have talked deans at some other law schools where their bar passage rates over the last couple of years have fallen. There is lot of speculation that the economy has hurt people financially to the point that they don’t invest in a bar review course anymore, they are trying to do it on their own and it’s not working out.
GW: Yes, some people are not able to take enough time off from work to prepare. Instead, they are working after law school. So, yes, I think all of those factors are at play. Western State has really jumped in to provide, subsidize, and reimburse students to encourage their participation in these bar prep opportunities so that, at the end of having made this huge investment in law school, they do that crucial last step and pass the bar.
AD: Right. Now let’s talk tuition costs. Western State is about $37,000 a year for full-time students?
GW: That’s correct. And nearly $25,000 for part time. It’s about a $110,000 these days for the three-year full-time program or four year part-time program.
AD: How liberal are you in terms of granting scholarships and grants?
GW: Well, we think it’s pretty liberal. We have quite generous scholarships and, again, we are a very highly diverse school and probably most of our students don’t come from money. Unfortunately, we are not able to give students scholarships based on need, because there’s an almost ubiquitous need at our school. But we do give very generous scholarships based on academics in 2 ways. First, for entering students, we automatically review the academic background and LSAT score of every student whom we admit. We also look at their academic promise, and we offer scholarships and grants on those bases. We also have a very generous program for students who earn good grades in law school during their first year. We are very liberal in giving scholarships to top students who are continuing students.
AD: Do a lot of your top students seek to transfer? We hear that from lot of 4th-tier schools?
GW: You know, we have a few but I think part of that liberal scholarship is to encourage them to stay if that’s the right thing for them. Now, there are going to be situations where a student is really anxious to go back to their home state, where there is a family issue, where it really makes sense for them to transfer.
We never want to talk a student out of doing what’s best for them. But just to transfer to another school, obviously we want to retain our top talent because these are the folks that are going to be Moot Court Competition winners and law review people and student leaders and we certainly want them to stay. We think the combination of letting them know that they are in line for these special opportunities here, for perhaps judicial clerkships as well as financial incentives, is compelling. Sometimes going to a school that is higher-rated on paper but where you end up perhaps in the bottom half or third of their class, well, that may or may not result in better opportunities for that student. So, we certainly want to give them both financial as well as career opportunity incentives to stay at Western State if this is the right place for them.
AD: What kind of scholarships do you award? What kind of numbers are we talking about?
GW: There are some students at the top of our first-year classes in the last several years who received full scholarships for deciding to continue their education at Western State. They received a full scholarship for their second year and, they will keep that in their third year if they maintain their academic performance.
AD: What is your curve at Western State?
GW: We are on a 4.0 scale. We don’t have a forced curve, so it’s however many students earn those grades. We have had, I can’t tell you the exact number, but about 10% of our class received full rides in their second year.
AD: Wow, that’s a large percentage of the class receiving full rides during the second year. And how many of those people actually take that money instead of transfer?
GW: Most actually do.
GW: We have been very pleased to see that most will stay. Again, certainly, there are students who have individual circumstances where they choose to transfer and we respect that. But most students, given the opportunities and the financial incentives, are opting to stay and we are glad about that. That’s also part of our bar passage rate increasing.
AD: Sure, absolutely. And in terms of the scholarships and grants for students who have higher LSAT scores and stronger academic credentials coming into Western State: what’s your average award?
GW: I think we ended up with about 40% of our entering class getting some kind of an award. I don’t keep the numbers in my head but we can look in the LSAC Guide from the year prior for what the average was…
AD: It says the median award was $15,520 for full-time students.
GW: I don’t track it on a per dollar basis the way our financial aid office would but, yes, as I am looking at the ABA data from the 2012 edition–which means it’s a couple of years prior–it’s saying that the median grant then was around $15K. I would expect that that might have gone up a little bit since then just because tuition’s gone up and we typically just track tuition increases.
AD: Now, are the grants or scholarships that you offer entering students conditional in any way?
GW: Students need to maintain a 2.7 GPA.
AD: And where does that 2.7 GPA typically place a student in the class?
GW: About the top third of the class.
AD: How about your application fee?
GW: We have kept our application fee low. It’s $60 and we do honor LSAC waivers automatically. In addition to that, we do have students who we meet at events or who make contact with us in various ways that we think would be a good fit. For those students, we offer fee waivers as well on an individualized basis. I think maybe as many as 30% of our students receive some kind of a waiver. It’s certainly not all our students, but a significant percentage can submit an application for free. Maybe half of our waivers are based on LSAC waivers, and the rest are for folks who either attended an event at our school or met us at one of our recruitment events or in some way we made contact with them and mutually decided there was a good fit.
AD: Let’s talk about your ideal student. It sounds like it’s a pretty diverse group from your description. When you open an applicant’s file, what are you hoping to see?
GW: Probably the single biggest predictor of success in law school is an applicant’s commitment, maturity and hard work. By and large, the people who apply to law school are smart, young people who are well educated and aspire to our profession. One of our alumni judges was here recently and he was talking to our incoming class. He said law school is a lot more about diligence than about brilliance. Given that our applicants almost always have the smarts to succeed in a challenging graduate program, we really look in an application for evidence of really hard workers, because law school is 3 years of hard work and the most successful students tend to be the ones who work the hardest on a sustained basis. We want to see that they stick with things when they reach an inevitable rough patch in life, whatever that might be. This kind of comes back to the “don’t go to law school lightly” discussion we had earlier. Law school and being a lawyer are serious business, and we tell our students this is a professional school. So we want someone who really takes this as a professional commitment.
AD: Right. One good point that you alluded to earlier was that with this economy, you may well see a decrease in the number of applicants because you can’t just assume that you will have the job you want after wading through 3 years of law school.
AD: And maybe the people who remain are people who really want to be lawyers, recognizing the cost.
GW: I couldn’t have said it better. Here in California, we have these crazy waves in the real estate market. We always forget that they have happened before. We have these movements by cycles and we have periods when real estate is hot and everybody thinks that they are going to be brilliant, multi-million dollar real estate agents. So you have thousands of people entering the field, and the money seems easy, and the rising tide floats all boats, and then you have a downturn, and suddenly those thousands of people, they exit the profession. Well, these folks made no commitment or preparation or long-term game plan. Instead, it was just, “Oh, I think it’s going to be easy. I am going to do this. I am going to make all this money. Oh, whoops, now it’s not so easy.” I have seen that kind of thing happen in law school application cycles. Law school is a much more serious commitment, but it’s the same kind of cycle. Law school is not easy and you shouldn’t do it lightly. That said, lawyering is a very important and much needed profession, and we need good lawyers to represent clients in the future.
AD: Right. I have always said that law school is an extremely expensive way to “find yourself”, and you don’t want to be the person who is scratching his head thinking: “Gosh, I was begging to get into law school at one point or, even worse, get out into practice and think: I can’t stand doing this.”
GW: It’s really sad to find out you don’t like it after you have put that much into it. Now, the good news with a law degree is that there are a lot of different ways to practice law. And if you find that, “Gee, I was wrong. I am really not going to like a particular legal environment,” there are many other things you can do with a law degree, other ways to practice. It doesn’t need to be a complete change of field. But, ideally, you would find that out a lot earlier in the game and get placed somewhere that’s a good fit for you.
AD: Absolutely. Alright, so in terms of getting back to the application, Western State places a lot of weight on the LSAT and UGPA.
GW: Right. Among ABA law schools, our 25th percentile is 148 or 149 LSAT, which is a modest LSAT. We want to make sure that a candidate is going to be relatively competitive and so we look at that and make sure that they are in the ballpark. Similarly, with their undergraduate GPA, we give a lot of weight to their academic background but it’s not just all about one number. We look at whether an applicant took a challenging course of study and do well and, particularly, if that course of study is in an area that is predictive of law school. We may be a lot less concerned about someone’s grade in calculus or their grade in maybe one of the sciences than in an English class, or a poli sci class. If they have taken a pre-law class, especially, we would hope that their academic performance gets stronger and stronger rather than the opposite. You do have a lot of students who change their majors. Maybe they started out on one path and didn’t do as well but then they sort of found themselves and get stronger and stronger in their last couple of years. So we do look at their record in a more granular way rather than just the calculated GPA. But we are looking for evidence that they are going to be able to take five difficult classes and do well.
AD: How about the personal statement: how does that factor into your mix?
GW: We are not looking for brilliant fiction writing, for innovative stories. What we hope is that we get an insight into who this person is, what motivates them, what carries them through and that the story is about them. Many times we get an insight into the things that brought them to this time and place and maybe they have a vision of where they want to go with the degree in law that might be useful. Sometimes we get a sense of what obstacles or challenges have prepared them to take on the next set of challenges. Those are all really useful. The worst ones I suppose are when people don’t talk about themselves. They talk about someone else or they tell us someone else’s story. That may be interesting, but what really matters is how that relates to them. We don’t want a biography of Gandhi.
We want to know if they were touched by someone or some event, who they are and what they bring to law school. That’s really what we are hoping for. And sometimes, too, you read the personal statement and it sounds nothing like the way the person sounds in other samples of their writing. So that becomes suspect if it looks like it isn’t their work.
AD: Are you comparing it to the writing sample from the LSAT?
GW: Yes. We may also have had some other indications of how they write and express themselves, and that can be a red flag if it doesn’t look like they did this work.
AD: Do you ask for a diversity statement?
GW: It’s not required, it’s optional. If an applicant wishes to put one in, then we will be certainly glad to read it but we don’t require it.
AD: How about letters of recommendation? Where do they fall into your mix?
GW: We ask for two, we will read three, and we hope to read from someone who knows that person fairly well. The question we get asked a lot is whether it is better to ask for a letter from a professor who never got to know the applicant personally or maybe from the assistant professor who knows the applicant much better.
A letter that reflects knowledge of the individual is much more meaningful. I have certainly seen that play a big role in a decision where you have someone write a very credible letter extolling how much someone has improved, how hard they work, their intellectual curiosity, their maturity level, etc. That can play strongly in a situation where maybe the applicant is in a gray area. So someone who knows the person as a mature adult in an academic or professional setting is better than a family friend, a friend of the family, a friend of their parents.
AD: Do you ever get any negative letters of recommendation?
GW: You get some that you cringe where the letter writer damns with faint praise. I have received 1 or 2 where it’s a different person’s name in the letter than the applicant I am reviewing. That is just terrible on the part of writer. We don’t hold the candidate accountable, but that’s just carelessness and that’s not appreciated.
But applicants also need to do a check-step with their recommenders just as you would with a letter of recommendation for a job. And what I recommend to candidates is that before you ask for a letter, say to the person: “I am looking to apply for law school. Do you feel that you can give me a strong recommendation? Do you feel you know me well enough?” I think most people in that situation will be honest and say: “I would rather you asked someone else. I don’t know you that well.” That gives them an out if they don’t know you that well or if they think they can only give you a lukewarm recommendation, or worse. Sometimes letters where it doesn’t appear that they either know the candidate that well or that maybe they don’t have the strongest things to say, those are not the people you want so you want to do the check-step.
AD: Right. And it’s probably best to do that in person so you can get a visual read on the person, as opposed to using email.
GW: Exactly. It’s well worth going to see the professor during his or her office hours, or make an appointment. Some of the best letters are where clearly the person has taken the time to go in and share their aspirations and goals and those are then reflected in a letter. That’s very strong.
AD: Great. So you had discussed earlier about firms sort of wanting recent grads to have practical skills and that’s something that Western State has always emphasized in third and fourth years.
GW: Exactly. I think this really plays to our strength, because it’s not something we have just invented today for the job market. It’s been part and parcel of what we have done for years and years. So externships, practical skills whether it’s doing mock interviews and helping with resumes in the very first year, or having alumni come on campus and give people feedback on their interviewing skills–all of those things.
AD: Talk about the practical skills you try to develop at Western State.
GW: We are very big on everything from our professional skills course, which focuses on writing and oral presentation skills, to mediation, to research, to things students might do in externships. We have centers that develop these skills.
AD: Right. And you have two centers on campus?
GW: Two centers that offer certificates–criminal law and business law–where students have several electives all in one area and there is always a practical component. So when they graduate, there is a notation on their transcript and a certificate. In addition to that, of course, there is a wealth of elective courses in areas of law that students might want to work on without earning a whole certificate, including environmental law or health law or entertainment law. Those are areas that a student may want to emphasize with electives but it’s not a certificated program. In addition, we also have a family law clinic, which practices like an on-site law office where we do pro-bono cases for the community. It’s a tremendous hands-on experience because the students get four or five cases to handle beginning to end. This is a third year program. And we will be initiating next year an immigration clinic which will also do that kind of hands-on handling of cases. So those can be a terrific ways to practice dealing with clients, appearing in court, and handling a relatively simple case start to finish.
AD: Fantastic, Dean Switzer, I think we have covered a ton of ground — thanks for being so candid. Do you think we missed anything?
GW: I don’t think so. I think we have had a really great conversation. I have enjoyed it very, very much.