Assistant Dean and Chief Admissions Officer, Harvard Law
This is the 27th installment of our 224 part series, Better Know A Dean. Today we posted our interview with Jessica Soban, Assistant Dean and Chief Admissions Officer at Harvard Law School.
Known on the most popular law school discussion boards simply as “JS,” Dean Soban bleeds crimson (literally – Harvard is in her blood!). She attended Harvard University as an undergrad where she majored in Government and then attended Harvard Law School from 2004-2007. After law school, Dean Soban worked at Bain & Company until 2012 when she returned Harvard Law School Admissions Office to begin picking the Class of 2015.
AD: Thanks so much for your time, Dean Soban. I know you’re in the middle of your busy season, so I really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and answer these questions for our visitors.
JS: Thanks for having me! This is my first “interview” and I’m so excited to have the chance to answer questions that I know are on lots of applicants’ minds.
AD: Before we begin, I think it is interesting to point out that it is an election year and that both presidential candidates are Harvard Law alums — President Obama (’91) was the President of Harvard Law Review and Mitt Romney (’75) received his JD/MBA from Harvard University. Literally hundreds of HLS graduates have ascended to hold leadership positions in state/federal government, the judiciary and business. How does it feel to know that – in all likelihood – you are passing judgment on whether to admit a future leader in this country?
JS: It’s an honor, and to be honest, a bit daunting. When I first accepted the position, one of my friends pointed out this exact fact — that I could be selecting someone for HLS who would become a future President. My response was, “Oh my goodness, what if I deny a spot to a future President?!” All I can say is that I will do my best!
AD: It must be different to return to HLS as the Dean of Admissions. What has changed the most since you walked the HLS campus as a student? What aspects of HLS remain timeless?
JS: I think the thing that hasn’t changed is the great spirit of community among the students. Some of my best friends came from HLS and they have been part of the great experiences I’ve had since graduation as well. If the spirit is the same, what has changed is the physical plant. In January of this year, we opened the new Wasserstein Hall, Caspersen Student Center, Clinical Wing building (WCC) which has given the student body a new physical place for student community and collaboration. Another change is the increase in the number of clinical options offered. A lot of schools are talking about their clinical options these days, but no one can come close to the nearly 30 in-house clinics and hundreds of externships we offer. We offer more clinical opportunities than any law school in the world. Of course, another big change is the grading system. While I was here, we still had the full scale, but I think it’s fantastic that the new system takes some of the external pressure off, and that people are taking advantage of that by getting out of their comfort zones and exploring areas of law that they may not have considered before.
AD: Now, just to recap for AdmissionsDean visitors who may not be aware of the hornet’s nest you walked into last February — at the beginning of the 2011-12 admissions cycle, Josh Rubenstein (then Harvard’s Assistant Dean of Admissions) left to return to the private sector and Sandy Williams (then Harvard’s Associate Director of Admissions) left to join NYU Law. Their absence created a vacuum in Austin Hall from October through early-February when you officially came on board. How did the admissions office fare until you stepped in and took the helm?
JS: It’s funny that anyone would think the world stopped for a few months because there wasn’t an Assistant Dean! For almost one hundred years, Harvard Law School has been able to enroll an incoming class of 1Ls, so a few months without an Assistant Dean really was not the end of the world. Besides, although Josh was – and I now am – the face of the Harvard Law School Admissions Office, neither of us could ever accomplish what we do without the team of people who work in the JD Admissions Office. Our Director of Admissions has 15 years of admissions experience, 11 of which she’s spent at HLS. One of my Assistant Directors has 12 years of admissions experience, and the other is completing her second year in our office after getting a Masters in Higher Education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. I also would say that our support staff members are some of the best at the Law School. Josh left me a better staff than I could have hoped for: they were recruiting, processing and reading applications the entire year, which allowed me to arrive and get right to work interviewing and admitting students.
AD: I spoke to admissions officers at several other schools in the T14 who expressed a lot of concern that delayed admissions decisions from Harvard could “trickle down” and possibly disrupt the rate at which their accepted applicants may commit at other law schools. The 2011-12 admissions cycle was crazy for so many reasons, but in the end was there any truth to those concerns?
JS: I think you would have to return to those admissions officers and ask them again now that the cycle is over. However, we’re very happy with our class and we hope they are happy with theirs.
AD: I know that many prospective HLS applicants like to closely watch the decision timeline from the previous cycle in order to gauge when they can expect to receive decisions on their pending files. Were there fewer decisions made earlier in the 2011-12 cycle because of Rubenstein’s departure early in the last cycle and, if so, when do you expect to begin reviewing files and making decisions for the current cycle?
JS: We will begin reviewing files in October this year, just as we have in the past few years. I expect that this year’s timeline will appear more similar to two years ago than last year, and yes, that means some people will start getting decisions in mid-to-late November.
AD: Now, according to the HLS Admissions Blog, your application went live on September 21st. You advise that applicants take the time to make sure they submit the strongest application possible, but also stress that because you use rolling admissions, you’ll be making decisions prior to the February 1 application deadline. Is there any advantage of submitting your application earlier in the admissions cycle? Do you tend to be more lenient in your decisions before the applicant pool takes shape?
JS: Yes, there is an advantage to applying early. But am I more lenient? No. There are far more applicants who could be successful at Harvard Law School than we have places for in the class. We try to keep the bar pretty consistent throughout, but it is true that a competitive applicant who applies earlier in the cycle is competing for a seat in the class during a time that very few seats have been filled. A student who applies later is being evaluated when I don’t have as many seats to spare.
Part of the advantage goes to the student who is well prepared earlier in the process. A student who is able to give their recommenders time to write a letter ends up having better support than one whose letter writer was in a rush. A personal statement that was fully edited is going to be better than one that was written at the last moment. At the same time, a student should apply when he or she can present the best application. If that means waiting for fall semester grades, or another LSAT test result, then for that student applying later is the right option. You will still be fully considered for a space in the class at whatever time you apply during the cycle.
AD: According to your Class of 2015 profile , the folks who began classes in September had some pretty impressive credentials (e.g., very high LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs). I know that it isn’t strictly a numbers game so, in your eyes, what could distinguish someone who perhaps has a lower LSAT score or, conversely, torpedo someone who because of their high numbers should be a “lock” for admission at HLS?
JS: While successful applicants do have an impressive history of academic success, it’s important to remember that the GPA and LSAT are two of many components in the admission process. We are fortunate to have the luxury to pick from among many candidates with strong academic credentials. We are looking for academic superstars, but we are also looking for students who are driven to and capable of making an impact.
The LSAT and transcript are very good indicators of academic success, however the rest of the application also gives us insight into the student’s potential for success. There’s a reason we require a personal statement, a resume and two letters of recommendation from our applicants. No matter how good your numbers are, you can “torpedo” your application by not taking all of the elements of the application seriously.
AD: Just out of curiosity, what was the lowest LSAT score you admitted during the 2011-12 admissions cycle?
JS: Out of respect for individual applicants, we never comment on specific applications. What I do want everyone to know, however, is that we read every application – at least twice. A low LSAT score doesn’t mean the application isn’t read and evaluated using all the pieces of the application, including things such as the undergraduate record and personal statement, as I mentioned.
AD: Speaking of personal statements, what does it take to stand out among some pretty talented candidates in Harvard’s applicant pool?
JS: The best applications are often those with a cohesive narrative that ties together your background, your life experiences, and your career aspirations. The personal statement is probably the best opportunity you have to tie your application together in a way that helps us to better understand you. The truth is that to stand out you must write your essay about yourself. Don’t write what you think we want to know; write about what you want us to know.
AD: Have you ever been surprised at a subject matter that no one seems to address but that nevertheless could make for a good personal statement? And can you list 3 of the most common personal statement topics, and perhaps one or two you think applicants should avoid at all costs?
JS: Each individual has his or her own story, so I can’t tell you what an applicant “should” have written an essay about. Unfortunately a somewhat common personal statement topic is also the one to avoid — please don’t restate your resume in prose form. Consider it this way: Your resume is broad. It should tell me a lot about your history, but your personal statement is deeper. The personal statement is a chance to tell us more about yourself in a way that isn’t reflected in other elements of your application. We’ve already seen what you’ve done; this is your opportunity to tell us how that experience changed you, how you were affected, how you grew, or what you’ve learned. If you choose to give me your resume again, you’ve missed an opportunity.
AD: How about Harvard’s diversity statement? Do you have any recommendations for students who are considering whether or not to submit one?
JS: The first thing I would say is that this is an optional essay. It’s optional because some students have something they want to share and others do not. Deciding to write the optional diversity essay or not will not factor into the admissions decision. What you write about, however, could. Our classrooms are filled with students who are different from one another: some come in with work experience, others straight from college. Some are from the far reaches of the earth, others have always resided in the Northeast. This year’s presidential nominees are a great example of how political affiliations can differ amongst our students. As a student, I found myself sharing my thoughts as a Hispanic woman with students from many other ethnicities, and I found myself learning about how heritage can influence views on case law. Diversity in the classroom is important and if you think you would contribute to that diversity – this essay is your opportunity to share that.
AD: Are there any common topics or mistakes you wish applicants would avoid – things that when you pick up personal/diversity statement that makes you say “Oh Jeez! Not another one of these!”
JS: Are there any common topics or mistakes you wish applicants would avoid – things that when you pick up personal/diversity statement that makes you say “Oh Jeez! Not another one of these!”
AD: The Class of 2015 profile indicates that more than ¾ of those admitted were at least one year out of college (and more than ½ had 2+ years out of college). Is there a conscious preference for applicants who may have some post-college work experience, or is that simply how the applicant pool shaped up?
JS: Yes, we do have a conscious preference for having the majority of our class entering with work experience. That said, I think we are comfortable with the composition we have had in the past few years, and we don’t have any plans to increase the percentage of people entering with post-college work experience to more than roughly three-quarters of the class. So, in the hypothetical case of two otherwise “identical” files, the person who had work experience would be more likely to get a spot than one who did not. BUT, here’s a very important distinction that I’m not sure everyone notices: Our class profile focuses on the enrolling class, not the admitted students. We have a liberal deferral policy at HLS. Students are very often admitted straight from college, then choose to take time off before enrolling. I think that’s a very exciting option. College seniors who are ready to apply now, but not necessarily ready to enter next fall, should certainly still apply.
AD: From your LinkedIn profile, it appears that you too took some time off between college and law school. Do you think students who go straight through from college to law school have any disadvantages?
JS: No, I don’t think they are at any sort of disadvantage, but are they in a different position in life. There is something to be said for having to pay rent! But people gain maturity and experience in different ways. Say, for example, you took time to study abroad while you were in college. Having to fend for yourself in a new country will certainly make you a different person at the end of the experience. So, there are lots of ways to reach a point where you, personally, are ready for law school. If your head is in the game and you are ready to go for another three years of school, then you are ready. If you aren’t ready to make that commitment, you should take some time to evaluate your options.
AD: With such a large percentage of your applicants coming from the work force, how do you recommend that they handle letters of recommendations – specifically academic letters of recommendation if an applicant has been out of school for a while?
JS: In most cases, our expectation is that at least one letter will come from an academic recommender. For students who are currently still in school, I recommend getting that academic letter written now. It’s a lot easier for a recommender to write a letter while you are fresh in his or her mind than coming back to ask for a letter two or three years later.
That said, for those who have not been in school for a while, it may not make sense to get a letter of recommendation from an academic source. In those cases, you should use your judgment about supervisors who may be able to write about your writing or project skills.
AD: I was wondering how much emphasis you place on the reputation or elite status of an applicant’s undergraduate institution. It appears that during the last cycle you accepted students from 161 different undergraduate institutions. Do graduates from schools like Harvard, Princeton or Yale have any advantage over applicants who perhaps attended a less prestigious undergraduate university or even applicants who may have spent some time at a community college in order to manage his or her debt load?
JS: We take students from an incredibly wide range of undergraduate institutions. We have students who started their education at community colleges and others that completed four years in an Ivy League school. We respect that while reputation plays a part in a college choice, so do finances, and for some students finances may lead them to a community college first. For others, it may mean working 40 hours a week during school. I respect those choices.
We do consider the quality of an applicant’s undergraduate institution as a part of our overall evaluation of an applicant’s likelihood of succeeding academically at Harvard. However, applicants whom we admit are usually students who would be academically successful at any undergraduate institution, so the school itself doesn’t end up being a huge factor. Bottom line? Do well at whatever school you attend.
AD: 12% of those admitted to the Class of 2015 have other graduate degrees. How do you factor that type of “additional” educational experience into your final decision-making process?
JS: We consider all previous academic performance in order to gain an understanding of how a student may perform at HLS. So an applicant’s performance during graduate school may be relevant to determining his or her academic potential. But remember, short of the PhD, no graduate degree will be longer than four years, so your college record will still factor in very heavily.
AD: Okay, but when it comes down to the numbers in a case of a student who got an advanced degree, do you focus more on that applicant’s undergraduate GPA or their grades they achieved in graduate school?
JS: So yes, put another way, we have found that the undergraduate experience is most indicative of continued success at Harvard Law School. But it’s not one or the other; we look at the grades from each in context. There is a difference between a master’s degree that took one year to complete and a PhD that took six. How much time has passed since the student graduated from undergrad before going to grad school? There are lots of factors that will help us determine the relevance of each transcript.
AD: HLS’s practice of conducting a 10-15 minute telephone interview with each candidate seems to create more angst than any other part of your admissions process. How many telephone interviews did you conduct during the last admissions cycle, and how do you think candidates can best prepare for this step in the process?
JS: I hope it’s not angst! I hope it’s nervous excitement because this is the chance to show us more than what is in your application. There really should not be anxiety around the interview. I’m just trying to learn a bit more about who the applicants are, why they want to come to law school, and why they think Harvard might be a good fit. Our interviews are a very useful part of our admissions process. They often help us understand applicants better and help us to see how they would thrive at Harvard. The interview is only one of many components to our application — one more tool that allows us to assess an applicant’s ability to communicate ideas, engage in debate, transfer knowledge and advocate for clients.
In fact, we are announcing a change in our interview process this cycle. We will be expanding the current interviewing process for prospective students by using Skype video conferencing to enable “face to face” interactions with applicants, and interviews will be a little longer, allowing them to be more substantive. Additionally, although we have interviewed about 1,000 students in the past few years, we are aiming for 1,200 this year.
Interviewees shouldn’t need to prep too much for this interview. They should already know the answers to most of my questions. Just be yourself and let your personality shine through.
AD: I’m assuming then that the students who you outright reject and/or put on hold are not invited for a phone interview. If that’s the case, is the phone interview the last step of the process and is the offer the applicant’s to lose at that point? Or, do you ever use the phone interview earlier in the review process to clarify a discrepancy on an applicant’s file?
JS: With our volume of applications, it would not be possible to interview every candidate, so yes, many do not receive an opportunity to do so if we’ve already determined after a thorough review that they are not competitive with the top of our pool. However, since an interview is only part of the whole evaluation process, I wouldn’t say it’s the last step. It will certainly come after the application has been read by at least one person but other than that, it all depends on the applicant. Often we use the interview to clarify information in the application or to answer questions we have. Other times it grants us time to learn more about something intriguing that they have referenced in their applications. We take the information we gain from the interview and evaluate the application with that new context.
AD: It’s probably fair to say that the applicants you interview are already pretty competitive candidates for admission to HLS. Can you give a couple of examples of when you hung up the phone, shook your head, and said to yourself: “Wow, based on that applicant’s file, I definitely wasn’t expecting that!” – either positive or negative?
JS: It’s amazing how candidates who have similar quantitative scores can vary dramatically in other aspects of the application. So no two interviews are ever the same and at the end of the vast majority of interviews I conduct, I am thinking, “that was a really fun conversation.” I would say I was surprised by the applicant who apparently didn’t set an alarm to wake up in time for the interview. As you can imagine, I wasn’t impressed.
AD: Jeez… how early are you calling these folks?
JS: [Laughing] It was not that early, I promise. People get to sign up for a timeslot, so hopefully, no one will be rolling right out of bed to talk with us!
AD: During the recently completed admissions cycle, how many students did you put on “hold” and what percentage of those applicants did you ultimately grant an offer of admission?
JS: In any given year, the number of students put on hold and the admit rate for students put on hold varies – due largely to the applicant pool. The “hold” status is essentially our way of saying that we’re not quite ready to make a decision on your application yet and need some more time to re-examine it in the context of the broader applicant pool. This is normal as we’re not evaluating candidates in a vacuum but rather trying to select a class from the entire applicant pool.
AD: In addition to sending a letter of continued interest, what can an applicant who is placed on “hold” do to improve their chances of getting an offer of acceptance?
JS: I think the most important thing is to keep us apprised of truly substantive updates. New grades? Send them. Got a promotion at work? Let us know. The letter of continued interest is also helpful (and feel free to tell us about the promotion in the letter of continued interest rather than writing twice!). We will use all information you provide us to evaluate your candidacy. Please don’t do anything for “shock value” or anything else that goes outside of sharing your update through normal channels. Gimmicks will never help – in the end if we learn your name because you did something against your better judgment, it will likely be a reason that you are not admitted and I don’t think that is your goal.
AD: So, speaking of exercising good judgment, it has come to our attention from our law school contacts that admissions officers can view applicants’ online status checker passwords as well as security questions and answers they used when setting up their LSAC profiles. Apparently some applicants have chosen passwords and/or security questions that can only be described as “less-than-classy” and, as a result, have caused many admissions officers around the country to blush. Do you have any funny status checker discoveries you’d like to share or any words of advice on the topic that you’d like to share about using good judgment throughout every aspect of the admissions process?
JS: I have never checked a student’s LSAC password – who has time for that? However, lawyers do need good judgment, so if your lack of good judgment is brought to my attention during your admissions process, I will consider it as I make your admission decision.
AD: How about Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram accounts? Do you ever look beyond an applicant’s file and do any “outside” Internet research? If so, what types of circumstances trigger such an inquiry?
JS: Everyone has an online footprint and we should all be responsible about what we share with the world–both for personal and professional reasons.
Specifically though, if a student gives me information that I want to look up online, I may do it. If you put on your resume that you have a food blog, well… I love food! Of course I’m going to be curious and look it up.
AD: A lot of applicants get confused about the types of character disclosures they need to make on their law school applications. They wonder: “Do I really need to disclose that now ‘expunged’ juvenile conviction?” Or: “How about that time when I was detained but released during my sophomore year of college trying to pass a fake I.D.?” What are your rules for disclosure and have you ever seen it burn an applicant to over-disclose (or fail to disclose) an event that calls into question his or her moral character?
JS: The questions on our application are explicit about what does and doesn’t need to be disclosed. Be truthful. If you think you should answer yes, answer yes and write the explanation in the space you are provided. We are admitting students to be part of our community as well as admitting students who plan to join the legal profession, and there is a character and fitness component to every state’s Bar admission process. Character does matter.
AD: Since 1989, when the USNEWS first came out with its law school rankings, HLS has always lost out to Yale; however, when you look at the Harvard-Yale football rivalry during that same period, Harvard leads Yale in wins 15-8. What’s more important to you: winning “The Game” or finally beating Yale in the USNEWS rankings?
JS: Haha! Most important to me is having a great tailgate before “The Game.” I have a fantastic portable grill. I’m a double alum and “The Game” is one of my favorite days of the year. The day USNEWS releases rankings is pretty boring by comparison. Though maybe if I started brining my grill to the office that day, too….
AD: [Laughing] Oh, you see I would have thought you were tailgating on the day that USNEWS released its rankings! Seriously, though, what are your thoughts about the USNEWS rankings? Do you think that rankings serve a purpose, or do they tend to do more harm than good?
JS: Students should be savvy consumers of information. Rankings are a tool, but remember that they aren’t personalized for each user’s interests. If students use any type of ranking as one of many criteria to evaluate law schools, that’s fine. The danger is when people only use someone else’s ranking of a school to decide how they feel about it. And any time you are using an external source for comparison, make sure you understand the methodology: where is the data coming from, how are inputs weighed, etc. If a ranking system is “hiding the ball” on methodology, then I’d be wary.
AD: Most recently, during a talk at University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, Justice Clarence Thomas criticized the USNEWS rankings and compared the bias against lower-ranked law schools to discrimination against woman and minorities (see WSJ blog post here). As the dean of admissions of a school that perennially ranked among the top 3, what do you think about Justice Thomas’ remarks?
JS: I think that Justice Thomas’s point that he’s hiring individuals, not institutions, is fair. Just as students shouldn’t use rankings as their only resources to judge a school, employers shouldn’t only use rankings to judge a student from that school. Harvard is a great Law School with great students. Justice Thomas is pointing out what we also know from all the applications we read every year… there are great students everywhere.
AD: USNEWS is not the only rankings game in town – there’s the Leiter Rankings and now every lawyers’ guilty pleasure, AboveTheLaw.com AboveTheLaw.com, has gotten involved by grading law schools (HLS received an A by the way!). Do you have a preference and/or consider one ranking body more legitimate than the others?
JS: I’ll be honest, I like data. I like that there are options for people to see how one set of rankings can vary from another based on what is being valued in each. I don’t prefer one over another, even when one ranks HLS higher than another would.
AD: As I’m sure you know, many other law schools out there have received harsh criticism for using merit scholarships as a way to improve their LSAT and GPA numbers and, by extension, their USNEWS rankings. The HLS website specifically states that HLS doesn’t offer merit scholarships; instead, according to the most recently reported ABA data, 48% of students from the Class of 2014 received a scholarship or grant. I think it’s phenomenal that you are providing financial aid to qualified candidates who cannot otherwise afford to attend. What are your thoughts about law schools that offer only merit scholarships and not need-based scholarships?
JS: I think that Harvard’s financial aid philosophy is wonderful. We have a long-standing commitment to preserving access to the J.D. program for all admitted candidates, regardless of family financial strength. Through need-based aid to students and graduates, HLS provides access to legal education and preserves the broadest range of career choice options in a variety of law-related and public service fields. Our financial aid program measures the ability of students to pay tuition, fees and living expenses – and the ability of graduates to repay education loans – then awards need-based aid to all who qualify for assistance. Given a significant educational debt burden, some careers might not be feasible without loan repayment assistance. The Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP) was the first law school program to address this problem and remains one of the most comprehensive programs of its kind.
AD: Harvard’s Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP) has received accolades by many in higher education since it provides your graduates with greater flexibility in the career choices they can make. Can you briefly explain how the LIPP program differs from Loan Repayment Assistant Programs (LRAP) offered by other law schools?
JS: LIPP is the most comprehensive loan repayment assistance program offered by any law school. It allows graduates to explore a broad range of career options without delaying or deferring the repayment of their educational loans, and it covers both public sector and law-related private sector jobs.
There are loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) at other law schools that may offer more generous benefits to specific individuals. However, other law schools do this at the expense of lowest-income participants, or by covering only certain types of jobs, or requiring that recipients who do not remain in an eligible job for several years must repay their benefits, or requiring that recipients repay their loans on an extended term that can cost much more in the long run. When looking at LRAP programs, it is always important to read the fine print and understand how to compare LRAP programs!
We cover both public and private sector jobs
We don’t extend the repayment term of your loan
LIPP allows you to remain in the program for as long or short of a time as you want
LIPP doesn’t have a limited participation window.
LIPP allows for asset protection.
And it covers up to $30,000 of undergrad debt.
There’s a lot more that makes it wonderful… but each student should really consider his or her loan program options carefully. We have a remarkable Student Financial Services staff that helps students understand these options.
AD: I personally know a student who transferred to HLS after a very successful 1L year at University of Florida. I was really surprised to learn that he, too, qualified for, and received, need-based financial aid as a transfer student. In an era when so many schools use transfer students as a way to either protect their LSAT/GPA numbers, or pad their bank accounts by refusing to offer them financial aid, Harvard has really raised the bar by extending need-based scholarships to transfers. I guess that’s less of a question than a commentary on Harvard’s generosity, which I feel needs to be commended — especially in these difficult economic times when so many schools are seeking to do everything to maximize profits. Ok, so here’s a question: What are your thoughts on the transfer “game” that has become such a large part of law school admissions at many schools these days?
JS: I have to say, I’m disappointed that it’s being characterized as a game! In my mind, people often make good life decisions that dictate where they spend 1L year. And then sometimes life changes. If a student is interested in transferring and it makes sense then I don’t question the decision.
AD: As a follow-up to that question, how many students did you accept as 2L transfers in 2012?
JS: We have 31 students who joined us in August for this year’s transfer class. We accept about 40 to 50 transfers each year.
AD: Do you recall how many students applied for a transfer spot?
JS: Around 250.
AD: Without going into specifics, did you take any transfer students who spent their 1L year at a law school outside the Top 100?
JS: Well, as I mentioned before, rankings are a tool, but they can’t be the only factor in a decision. Consistent with that, we don’t evaluate transfer students based on someone else’s ranking of their school. We evaluate the candidate.
AD: Okay, so when you are evaluating a candidate’s transfer application, what factors do you consider most?
JS: Much of what makes for a good transfer applicant is similar to what makes for a good 1L applicant. We are always looking for a strong academic record, along with encouraging letters of recommendation, great essays and interesting resumes. Beyond that though, transfer students are in the unique situation that they can prove how well they’ve done in the law school environment. This means academic success in their 1L classes but also involvement outside of the classroom. We look for a strong recommendation from a law professor, as well.
AD: Given the current legal hiring market, there is a lot of concern – especially among applicants to law schools outside the Top 20 – that BigLaw summer associate jobs just won’t be there when they begin interviewing during the fall semester of the 2L year. While your graduates are always in high demand, HLS cannot be immune to the downturn in the economy. What are your thoughts about the prospects of legal hiring?
JS: Big law summer associate jobs will be around, there just aren’t as many of them. For example, the aggregate number of summer associate opportunities at AmLaw 100 firms during the summer of 2012 is about one-half the number of summer associate positions that existed five years ago. Law firms are still hiring, but there is more competition for fewer jobs. While students at top-tier schools will continue to secure these coveted summer positions, basic arithmetic suggests that all students will have to cast wider nets in terms of what they want to do and where they want to work, as well as the size of the law firm. Specifically, during the next few years, mid-sized, smaller and boutique law firms will be the biggest beneficiaries of the changes in big law hiring and will be able to capitalize on the top talent pool of lawyers. Moreover, these firms offer excellent opportunities that many students would not have considered in the past — so students will also benefit from the changes in the market place. While Harvard students are not immune from these changes, we are fortunate that our students participate in one of the largest on-campus recruiting programs in the nation. More than 400 employers come to campus each year and conduct approximately 12,000 interviews to hire Harvard Law students. Our students continue to fare well. For example, despite the significant decline in the total number of summer associate positions described above, we have seen only a 4 percent decline in the number of our students who secured summer positions at big law firms in 2012. Alternatively stated, during what many would describe as the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, Harvard almost doubled its market share of summer associates at Am Law 100 firms.
AD: During the 2010-11 admissions cycle HLS received 6,335 applications for the Class of 2014; applications to the Class of 2015 dropped 14% to 5,438. Mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal – as well as law-related publications and websites like the National Law Journal and AboveTheLaw.com – continue to raise questions regarding whether law school is a good investment. You are essentially selling seats in your 1L class – can you explain why a law degree or, more specifically, why a Harvard Law degree remains a good investment at the current tuition price points?
JS: Law school is a good investment for someone who wants to be a lawyer. It’s not a good investment for someone who hasn’t considered what it means to study law or practice law and just thought it would be a good way to postpone “the real world.” I think the questions in the media are ones that should be asked – especially in light of the fact that the legal job market has been one of the slowest to recover from the economic crisis. However, in the past 20 years, career placement from HLS has stayed steady. More than 95 percent of last year’s graduates were employed nine months after graduating, with an average salary in the six figures. Harvard also has one of the most generous loan assistance programs (LIPP). So yes, a Harvard Law degree still remains a good investment. To put a finer point on it — I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t believe a Harvard Law degree is a fantastic investment.
AD: Okay, let’s talk about how Harvard compares to some of your “peer” schools. One obvious distinguishing factor between Harvard and peer schools is class size. Harvard’s class of 557 dwarfs the entering classes at Yale (203) and Stanford (180), for example. If applicants are deciding between one of those places and Harvard, how do you respond to their concerns that they may only be a number at HLS?
JS: Let me rephrase this as a hypothetical. If all 557 of our students were competing for a spot in one of the nine clinical programs offered at Stanford, we’d have a problem. But we don’t have nine clinicals, we have 30. And we have 10 student practice organizations for 1Ls to join. And we have more than 100 clubs and organizations for students to participate in. And we have more courses—to the tune of 400—than Yale or Stanford. We have more faculty, more advisers in our career services offices, more books in the library, and I’m going to hazard a guess, more equipment in the gym! The point is that there are more students – but there’s more of everything else as well, and that leads to more opportunities for each student. So, no, you won’t ever feel like a number here. You’ll feel like part of an amazing network that starts with the 1L sections. Remember, we take the full class and break it down into seven sections of 80 people. It’s easy for us to take a “large” law school and make it feel small and personal. It’s not easy to make a small law school feel like it has big opportunities and options.
AD: Apart from the class size issue, if your child was applying to law school and was deciding between Harvard and other law schools in the T5, what factors would you hope that he or she consider before making a final decision?
JS: Well, my child is still an infant, so I would want her to consider staying in Cambridge to be close to me! OK … no, that’s not fair. I want my daughter to find the institution that’s right for her. I want her to be at a place where the opportunities are endless, the community will educate her as much as or more than the books she carries around, and where her likelihood for a successful career will be improved by attending that school. I’ll want her to be savvy and look at what her financial outlook will be…. Luckily for me, she could get all that and stay in Cambridge!
AD: HLS has a reputation for being a fiercely competitive place, and popular accounts like The Paper Chase and OneL have only canonized this perception. Speaking frankly as an alum (and not necessarily a dean of admissions), what type of atmosphere can students really expect once they begin classes in the fall?
JS: I give a lot of credit to Justice Kagan, who was Dean during my years at HLS. She implemented a lot of measures to ensure that collaboration was a goal for students during their time here. From instituting curricular changes in the 1L year, to spearheading the construction of our new Wasserstein Hall, Caspersen Student Center, Clinical Wing building, to adopting a pass/fail grading structure, to providing free coffee to students between classes, she led the Law School into a new era in which “The Paper Chase” and “One L” are no longer recognizable. I mentioned it before, but I’ll say it again: Students should come here expecting to find both incredibly accomplished colleagues and really great friends for life.