This is the 18th interview in our 224 part series, Better Know A Dean. Today we had the pleasure of sitting down with Paul Rollins, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Director of Admissions at the University of Georgia School of Law. Dean Rollins earned his JD from Yale Law School and currently supervises all phases of the admissions process for the juris doctor program, including recruitment, application review, decision-making, notification and the awarding of academic scholarships. In addition, he oversees the school’s Legal Career Services Office and its Student Affairs & Registrar Office.
Prior to joining Georgia Law, Rollins was the assistant dean for student services at the University of South Carolina School of Law, where he was responsible for admissions, career services and student affairs.
AD: Dean Rollins, thanks for taking time out of your busy season to answer a few questions that might be on the minds of prospective applicants.
PR: Not at all, it’s my pleasure to help out.
AD: Georgia Law improved from #35 to #28 in the most recent USNEWS Rankings. In your opinion, what factors attributed to such a significant improvement?
PR: It’s hard to say. To some extent the USNEWS rankings are a bit of a mystery to everybody, which is why I always encourage applicants and law schools to take them with a grain of salt. But, obviously for us, we’re happy with the magazine’s calculation. Clearly, it’s better to have a more favorable ranking.
I think that part of what has contributed to our score improvement with USNEWS is that we have hired some additional faculty; this improved our student-faculty ratio, which has caused a ripple effect of sorts. A better student-faculty ratio has been a huge draw for incoming students and, as a result, we continue to see an improvement in the quality of our student body. I also think we have been more successful in attracting the best students and keeping the best Georgians here in state, particularly as the economy has gotten tougher since our tuition is such a bargain when compared to a lot of our peer schools. Our annual tuition for in-state residents is about $15,000/year, which means that you can attend three years at Georgia Law as a Georgia resident for less than the price of one-year tuition at many other private law schools. Our tuition rates are a more compelling sell for us as people become more cost conscious but do not want to sacrifice a quality education.. In addition, it is possible for non-resident students to establish residency after the first year of law school and pay the in state tuition rate.
AD: True. I imagine that these days a lot of the merit scholarships offered by law schools ranked in the T30 receive strong consideration by applicants who, just five years ago, might have only considered attending a school in the T14 even if it meant having to pay “sticker price.” The current economy has really turned law school admissions on its ear now that students are so aware of how student loan debt can weigh them down long after graduation.
PR: Absolutely. In fact, I’ll take it one step further and say that even if you don’t get a scholarship offer from a state school like Georgia, if you’re a Georgia resident there is a very compelling case to be made to accept a regular offer of admission from us. Our regular tuition for in-state students is roughly 1/3 the tuition of other private law schools. This means that an in-state student is getting what amounts to a 2/3 discount off what they would pay at many other law schools.
However, this math only makes sense if the applicant is not sacrificing quality to get the lower tuition price. By paying a lower tuition, students are not limiting their opportunities. Our students receive a top-notch education and our graduates have all the opportunities (if not more) than graduates of T14 schools.
For instance, in five of the last seven years we have placed a Georgia Law graduate as a clerk on the United States Supreme Court — this puts us in some pretty rare company. A Supreme Court clerkship is perhaps the hardest and most prestigious job a law school graduate can get, and to have so many graduates from Georgia Law clerking on the Supreme Court is an amazing accomplishment.
PR: Yes, the latest clerk was only announced yesterday so you probably wouldn’t have it found when researching for this interview. We’re proud to say that nine of our graduates have (or will) serve as clerks on the country’s highest court and five of those clerkships came in the last seven years.
AD: You should be proud because, as you point out, your U.S. Supreme Court clerk placement record puts you in some pretty exclusive company. To what do you attribute the successful placement of your grads as clerks at the country’s highest court?
PR: Applicants recognize the quality and value that a Georgia Law education represents, allowing us to admit students who can pretty much go to any law school in the country. The students who matriculate with us are among the most accomplished applicants in the national applicant pool. Many are Georgians who choose to stay here because of cost, location and networking opportunities. In addition, students select Georgia Law because our graduates are able to work in prestigious positions across the country — including the Supreme Court.
The Georgia Law faculty also contributes greatly to our success in placing students in such competitive clerkships. Our law school has an extremely supportive group of professors and administrative staff who are committed to helping our students achieve their goals. Attaining a Supreme Court clerkship is really an institutional effort that requires not only students who are qualified for those positions, but also a law school who will support those students and facilitate their efforts. Many of our professors clerked on the Supreme Court or other federal courts and regularly provide strong letters of recommendation and other guidance for our students and graduates.
Moreover, our Career Services office regularly provides mock interviews to help our clerkship applicants prepare for the experience. This combined institutional push to help these candidates — and all our students — achieve the goals they set for themselves. That additional help and support often makes a huge difference in getting our graduates to where they want to be.
I must also emphasize the success that our previous Supreme Court clerks have lent to our continued ability to place our graduates at the Supreme Court. Obviously, there are only nine Justices on the Supreme Court and word would spread pretty quickly if the Georgia Law graduates who clerked there were not up to the challenge. How well our graduates have done in their clerkships has really helped pave the way for other, subsequent grads to compete for consideration. That contribution cannot be overstated.
AD: Okay, now according to your website, during the 2009-10 cycle applications increased by a whopping 39%! Considering that applications overall only went up about 2% during that period, something must be going on to make Georgia Law such a popular place to apply. What do you think drove the spike in applications last cycle?
PR: Yes, that’s correct. For the 2008-09 cycle we had just over 3,000 applications and then, during the following cycle (2009-10), we had 4, 297. It’s a pretty sizable jump.
AD: I’d say so. Why do you think you experienced such an increase — was it just the lower tuition combined with a solid reputation?
PR: I think that was a large part of the reason. It’s hard for me to account for all of it. The economy — and the overall unemployment rate — definitely played a roll in applications increasing, but as you point out that can’t be a huge factor since the national applicant pool didn’t grow all that much. So, I think an increased emphasis by applicants on things like value and costs probably helped us more than most schools. If you’re in a tight economy and you’re considering where to apply, the school that can offer you the greatest number of opportunities at the lowest cost is probably more appealing than a law school that is ranked higher but costs three times as much. Our high value and low cost probably played a large part in our applicants’ decision-making process.
In addition, we are a state school where it’s possible for a non-resident to establish residency after the first year. Again, with so many candidates concerned about the debt burden after graduation, I wouldn’t discount the fact that many out-of-state folks look at Georgia Law as a place they can come and establish residency for their 2L and 3L years and, as a result, dramatically decrease their tuition costs. This is not true at many other state schools. I believe this ability also played a part in the application increase we experienced last cycle — especially with regards to our out-of-state applicants.
Also, we made a concerted effort to market the law school to prospective students more broadly. We sent out more promotional materials and expanded our recruiting to encourage people to apply and, frankly, to let people know just how good a law school we are. Regionally, we have a very strong reputation and most people around here know that. But a lot of the increase we experienced came from outside of Georgia so our outreach to areas where we may not have been as well known obviously paid off.
AD: Are you expecting the 2010-11 cycle to be as competitive?
PR: Maybe, but I’m not really sure. It is very early to tell and most indicators seem to point to a slightly smaller national applicant pool. But that could change.
AD: And what signals do you look at that point to a smaller applicant pool?
PR: There has been a lot more negative press about law school and the perceived value of a legal education. That, coupled with the concern that applicants have about the economy and, in particular, the availability of jobs after graduation are things that have me believe that there may be fewer folks who apply this cycle.
I’d also like to think that the economy as a whole is getting better and more people are getting jobs, which would prevent them from applying to law school. As you know, the common wisdom is that as the economy improves, fewer people apply to law school. I don’t know if that’s the case right now, but it could be a factor that would result in fewer law school applications.
AD: How about people taking the LSAT — have those numbers dipped?
PR: Yes they have. LSAT registrations are down a bit. Additionally, there are a number of national recruiting events hosted by LSAC and attendance at those forums has been down substantially — anywhere between 25-40%.
AD: Wow, that’s a pretty big drop in attendance. Do you think that people are turning less to live law school forums and more toward the Internet when exploring their options regarding law school? When I interviewed Dean Rangappa from Yale in January, she expressed an opinion that live LSAC forums have become somewhat antiquated given the amount of information applicants can find from law school websites and other resources like AdmissionsDean.com.
PR: Yes — I think that she is absolutely correct. There is so much more information that is conveniently available to applicants now than there was even 10 years ago. We have virtually everything an applicant could look for or ask about on our website in addition to the standard written information. For example, an applicant can visit our website and take a virtual tour, or contact a student or professor with a question or to hear their experiences. With so much online news access there is not much to be gained by going to a face-to-face forum. I think the forums will be around for a while, but attendance is bound to continue decreasing over time and, eventually, I predict that LSAC law forums will become obsolete.
AD: So what will you do? I thought the best part of being an admissions dean was the perks of getting to go to all these great places. Take the forums away and all you have left is reading applications!
PR: [Laughing] It’s true. I think there are a lot of admissions officers who pack their suitcases at the beginning of September and return to the office after Thanksgiving. I’ve never really been one of those people because Georgia Law has always been selective about where we recruit in person. If the forums go away it won’t really affect me that much — we will probably focus on a lot more on initiatives that we are already working on like honing our message online and in our print materials, connecting current students with prospective students through the web, or on-campus events where applicants can come here. All of these recruiting tools seem to be much more efficient than packing up a bag and traveling to forums.
AD: How do you guys use your current students in your recruiting process? Do you employ them or are they volunteers?
PR: Current students participate in the recruiting process in several ways. The Dean’s Ambassadors student group volunteers for our office by giving law school tours, assists at admitted students days and other law school events with prospective students. Once we admit an applicant, we invite them to connect with a student — usually one of our Dean’s Ambassadors — to answer questions and provide their perspective about life at Georgia Law. The Dean’s Ambassadors also host prospective students in their apartments when they travel to visit the school and participate in events for our admitted students — this helps applicants save on travel costs.
We also employ a few current students who work in the admissions office by answering emails and telephone calls from prospective students.
AD: They’re not doing cold calls to prospects or applicants are they?
PR: No. The only calls our students make to admitted students are follow up calls to congratulate them on getting admitted and offer to answer any questions they might have about the law school or Athens. To the extent that we can, we try to match up the caller and the applicant. So, for instance, if the applicant attended Georgia Tech for undergrad, we might have a current student who is also an alum from Georgia Tech reach out to that applicant since they share some experiences in common and the caller’s perspective might be a bit more relevant.
AD: The reason I ask is because we’ve heard that some schools — mostly in the fourth tier — are employing current students to cold call not just applicants, but prospective applicants.
PR: Yeah, we don’t do any cold calls to prospective applicants,. We will send a postcard or promotional materials to prospective students who have registered with the LSAC’s Candidate Referral Service (CRS). These applicants have agreed to receive information from law schools when they registered for to take the LSAT.
AD: That’s good to know. I can’t imagine that prospective applicants would welcome getting a cold call from a current law student — it seems pretty awkward and unseemly.
PR: I agree, and we would never put one of our current law students in a position to do that.
AD: Georgia Law’s application became available in mid-September. When do you begin receiving applications, reviewing them and making decisions?
PR: Students can begin applying on September 15th and this year we received our first application one week later on the 22nd. Our review process began after Thanksgiving.
AD: So you didn’t even begin reviewing applications until after Thanksgiving?
PR: We actually began the review process, but we don’t issue any decisions until after Thanksgiving. Last year we began about a week earlier, but this year for a whole host of reasons we didn’t start until after the holiday. That’s just when it seems like we’ll be able to get the admissions committee together to meet.
AD: So is there any advantage gained by applying early — either to Georgia Law or any other law school?
PR: It’s hard for me to speak for other law schools, but I imagine that our admissions process is not all that different from them. All things being equal, applying earlier is better.
Now, that said, an applicant should not rush the process. If a student is trying to determine whether or not to take the LSAT in December when they are not ready for it, or February, when they have had time to prepare — hands down they should take the February administration of the LSAT, even if it means he or she might have to postpone their law school plans by a year. A good LSAT score or a strong application is better later in the process than a weaker one that is received earlier.
Georgia Law has a “modified rolling admissions” process. If you apply early and complete your application, you will be reviewed earlier. When we review your application one of three things can happen: you could be admitted right away, you could be denied right away or your application could be held for further review. A “hold” from us basically means that we want to wait and see how the entire applicant pool shapes up before making a decision about that particular candidate. As you might imagine, the decision about whether to admit or deny an applicant is a relative process. We are looking to admit the most qualified applicants from the pool of applications that we receive, so if you are not someone who can be described as a “clear admit” or a “clear deny” — if you fall somewhere in the middle and we might need to hold on to your application for a little while so we have a chance to see compare you to the entire pool.
AD: I understand. And how do you distinguish being “held” from being “waitlisted?”
PR: We hold applications we are not ready to make a decision about. We don’t waitlist anybody typically until the end of March. So, the committee will periodically review (and re-review) applications that are “held” — often resulting in a final decision one way or the other. Then everyone who is still being held, when we have finished our review and fill the class, is ultimately placed on the waitlist.
AD: And who makes up your admissions committee?
PR: The committee consists of me, the associate director of admissions, the assistant director of admissions, as well as five faculty members. The three admissions counselors all have law degrees.
AD: So they all review the applications?
PR: At least two people review every application. No applicant is admitted or denied without at least two reviews — in truth, most folks get three reviews.
AD: Are you the person who makes the final determination on an applicant’s file?
PR: Yes. I actually review every application.
AD: Every application that comes in?
PR: That’s right. I am the only person who reviews every single one.
AD: You must be pretty busy these days!
PR: It certainly is a busy time.
AD: Do you have an estimate of how long you actually spend reviewing an application? Given the amount of time and effort that applicants spend preparing their applications, I’m sure they would be interested to know how long you spend reviewing them.
PR: The admissions review process is relative. How much time we spend reviewing a particular application is really going to depend on that applicant’s credentials.
For example, a Georgia resident with a 180 LSAT and a 4.0 GPA will be a very quick review. When we are presented with an applicant who has high scores — those well above our median — we typically begin scanning the file looking for anything bad. If a quick review of the file shows that there is nothing bad then there’s no reason that person wouldn’t be admitted. Similarly, someone with a 125 LSAT score and a 2.1 GPA is going to be pretty quick review, too.
AD: [Laughing] Okay, I see what you mean.
PR: It’s those applicants who fall in the middle where the review takes a lot longer. And that’s often why we will decide to hold an application. Because when we hold an application, it means that the application is probably going to need additional review before a final decision is made.
AD: You have mentioned Georgia residents taking advantage of Georgia Law. Last cycle it looks like about 69% of your class members were Georgia residents. Does that number change or is that pretty consistent? Do you have a quota for in-state versus out of state residents?
PR: We do not have a quota. We typically break down in that 75-25 range — 75% of our students are Georgia residents and the other 25% come from out-of-state. That usually happens naturally. In the initial admissions process, there is really not much of a disadvantage to being a non-resident. The reason it breaks down that way is because our yield rate is really, really high from Georgia residents and it’s lower from non-residents.
Now, where it does sometimes make a difference is for applicants on the waitlist. If you are a Georgia resident and you are on the waitlist, then you will usually have a definite advantage.
AD: Do Georgia residents receive preferential treatment if they are on the waitlist?
PR: Yes, they get preference. And that sometimes means that we don’t even have non-residents on the waitlist as we get further into the process.
AD: I see. You’ve already mentioned that you personally read all the applications in the cycle, but can you walk us through your admissions process? When you pick up an application, where do you start? What do you like to read first, the LSAT score, the UGPA and make a quick determination as to whether this person is going to be an easy or hard decision?
PR: I wouldn’t say that I follow any methodical order. I guess because when I open a file, the LSDAS report is always on the left hand side I do tend to review that information first, so that I can see an applicant’s academic record and his or her LSAT score. But I always read the entire file. I look at the entire application, the personal statement and the letters of recommendation and, honestly, I tend to gravitate toward the applicant’s response to question #24 on our application — that’s the question that every law school asks in some form about whether the person has had any criminal or academic discipline problems. That’s always read early in my review — particularly when the candidate has strong numbers and I’m looking to see if there is anything negative in their past.
When a student’s numerical credentials put him or her in a competitive position, then other parts of the application tend to factor less in our decision. When a candidate’s numbers can easily distinguish him or her from other members of the applicant pool — both good and bad — then those numbers carry a lot of weight. But, the fact of the matter is for the bulk of our applicants, their numbers aren’t all that different. Those are the more difficult decisions when all of the other parts of the application matter a lot more.
AD: Right. How do you handle somebody who is a splitter, like say somebody who has a high LSAT score, but a much lower GPA?
PR: When we see split numbers we tend to scrutinize the numbers a bit more closely. For example, if someone has a high LSAT and a low GPA then that’s the traditional “slacker” profile, right?
PR: That’s the profile of a person who could do the work, but for whatever reason has not been living up to his or her potential. We are going to look at that applicant’s numbers and see if we can find an explanation as to why the GPA is lower. Did the person do poorly their first year of college and then pull it together in the end? Did they graduate from college 20 years ago — before this era of rampant grade inflation at colleges and universities? Despite the lower GPA, does the applicant have other qualities that set them apart and make us want to admit them to our class? All of those things matter and will be considered.
Clearly, if a person’s GPA is too low — well below our median — then that applicant is going to need a much higher LSAT score to make them a more attractive candidate. Similarly, someone with a lower LSAT score is going to need a higher GPA to make him or her more competitive. If the person has a GPA and LSAT that are both very low, well then that applicant is going to have a tough up-hill battle.
AD: Okay. So, if you had a choice between a “splitter” or, say, a “reverse-splitter” — someone with a high GPA, but a lower LSAT score — which of those folks would you rather be?
PR: You know one of the reasons the LSAT is relied on so much by admissions offices is that it is the closest thing we have to an apple-to-apple comparison. When the GPA is really high and LSAT is lower, we will look more closely at the GPA — where the applicant went to college, how rigorous was the applicant’s course load, and how his or her academic performance compares to other people from their undergraduate institution who are also applying to law school. We get all that information in the LSDAS report. We consider all those things in order to really understand what those grades mean. That’s where the “art” of law school admissions comes in when we try to figure that out. But, rest assured, we definitely admit people every year who are “splitters” both ways. Those decisions just take a little extra attention and consideration.
AD: Now, in terms of the personal statement, do you have any advice for that part of the application?
PR: I don’t have anything that’s terribly enlightening. Most people are going to tell you that the essay needs to be well written, edited and concise. I guess the only thing I would add is that is must also be “relevant.”
The admissions committee looking for three things from every applicant: First, has he or she demonstrated an ability to do law schoolwork — this will largely be found in the academic record and the LSAT score report. Second, that the applicant has demonstrated time management skills and a serious work ethic — what sorts of things have you done that show you can work hard, you can prioritize, you are a motivated person? And, third — and this is a bit more amorphous — what kind of character, integrity and commitment to something besides yourself can you show the admissions committee?
If you want a really oversimplified checklist, what we really want to know about you is that you’ll be able to do the required work, you’ll work very hard, and later — either in school or after graduation — you’re not going to be the type of person who’ll embarrass us. Does that make sense?
AD: [Laughing] Absolutely.
PR: So, when I say that the personal statement must be “relevant,” your personal statement should hit upon one (or more) of those things — especially if that information cannot be found elsewhere in your application. We don’t want a narration of your resume or something like that. Instead, applicants should use the personal statement as an opportunity to discuss in greater detail these points of concern that the admissions committee might have.
AD: Do you require a resume?
PR: We do not but I do strongly encourage one.
AD: What about letters of recommendation — do you have any advice on that part of the application?
PR: We require two letters but will accept more than that. We typically receive between two and four letters of recommendation. If you are graduating this coming May — or have graduated within the past year or two — I strongly encourage you to get at least one (and probably two) academic letters from your undergraduate professors. If you have significant work experience because you have been out of school for a while, you have a little more flexibility about where your recommendation letters come from.
In terms of who you should ask to write a letter on your behalf, you definitely want to choose people who can comment on those things we just talked about: your academic ability, your work ethic and your character. And people who know you well are going to be better recommenders than people you think we might know well. By that I mean, make sure you choose a recommender who will be able to write a letter that addresses those qualities. A letter from a well-known politician or family friend who happens to be Georgia Law alum, but does not truly know you, will not carry a lot of weight with the committee.
AD: Is it a red flag if somebody was a recent college grad but does not submit a letter of recommendation from one of his or her undergraduate professors?
AD: Do you ever get negative letters of recommendation?
PR: Sometimes, but not too often. We rarely get ones that are really bad — I think that most people will decline an invitation to write a letter of recommendation before they will write one that is bad. But every once is a while we do get one that certainly doesn’t paint the most flattering picture of an applicant.
What we do get is a fair number of “generic” letters of recommendation. These letters tend to come from an elected official who doesn’t know the applicant very well. The letter is clearly a form letter and the same one that was probably written for 10 other people — some of whom might also be applying to Georgia Law. If the applicant chooses such a person for a letter of recommendation, it demonstrates poor judgment because they blew a free opportunity to find someone — anyone — who can truly speak their abilities and/or qualities. The leaves the admissions committee to conclude one of two things: either this person does not have very good judgment or, worse, they couldn’t find someone who could vouch for them.
AD: [Laughing] So, do you require a diversity statement and how does that differ from a personal statement?
PR: Applicants have the option to submit a diversity statement. We have two optional essays and an applicant can submit one, both or neither. One is just a very open-ended question that asks whether there is anything else you would like the admissions committee to know about that may not appear elsewhere in your application.
The other optional essay is the diversity statement. If you’ll bring a different perspective to our law school community, you should share that in a diversity statement. I like to remind students that the optional statements are truly optional. Applicants who only submit a personal statement are not disadvantaged in any way. We don’t give extra points simply because an applicant submitted two (or three) essays.
AD: So, are you just looking for diversity from a racial or ethnic standpoint, or can the applicant write about anything that they think sets them apart from the rest of the pool?
PR: Our diversity statement question is very open-ended. We’ll read any diversity statement submitted that describes how an applicant believes he or she will offer some sort of diversity to the law school. For example, I have seen very effective diversity statements from applicants who have worked for 10 years. A doctor who wanted to go to law school wrote one such statement — a person who is obviously a diverse applicant for us. So, diversity can be anything that sets you apart. It could be that it’s geographic diversity, a disability or some other hardship. It really is wide open.
AD: I understand. So, somebody who worked in law enforcement would be considered diverse because of the experience he or she would bring to the classroom.
PR: That’s right. Of the 4,297 applicants, someone who has worked as a doctor or police officer is certainly different because of his or her life experiences, which would certainly bring a different perspective into the classroom.
Although all applicants are technically “different” the same way snowflakes are different, the majority do not submit a diversity statement. If nothing comes to mind, then do not feel forced to submit an answer to the optional diversity essay because you think you need to submit one to show you’re serious about attending Georgia Law. Most students do not submit a diversity statement.
AD: So, sell me on Athens. Convince me that Athens is a good place to call home for the next three years.
PR: We really encourage prospective students to visit Athens. I’m a transplant myself — I’ve been here for about two and half years and it’s just an incredible place to live. It’s certainly a college town, but it’s also so much more.
The law school is situated on the historic part of campus. Our graduation is held right outside on the quad. It’s absolutely gorgeous. We are within walking distance of downtown Athens — a place routinely ranked as one of the best towns in America. There are tons of local and ethnic restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and music venues. Students also enjoy the University of Georgia resources like sporting events, workout facilities, and health center. It’s also a great biking town and there are plenty of good places to hike around here. Athens also has a well-established music scene, that’s home to…
AD: REM, right?
PR: Yes, REM, the B-52’s, Widespread Panic and a lot of up-and-coming, local bands. There is just a lot going on.
The other great thing about Athens for a law student — as compared to Atlanta or many other cities where law schools are located — is that the cost of living here is relatively inexpensive. There is a great bus system, but if you have a car, there is always a place to park at the law school. Unlike Atlanta, the commute is never bad and you can live close to campus and it will not cost you a lot of money.
AD: And that’s a big deal that actually dovetails nicely with the next set of questions, which focus on the financial aspect of going to a state school like Georgia Law — one that offers in-state residents a break on tuition. But before we get talk about financing a legal education, can we talk briefly about application fees?
PR: Sure. Our application fee is $50.
AD: Okay, and if a student wants to get an application fee waiver, how generous are you in giving those?
PR: We are fairly generous. If a student gets an LSAT fee waiver from the LSAC, then we will not charge them an application fee. So, that’s one way to get a fee waiver. Additionally, if an applicant is registered with the LSAC’s Candidate Referral Service, we have an opportunity to see their LSAT score and UGPA. Based on those scores, we’ll invite an applicant to apply free of charge.
Lastly, if a student wants to request a fee waiver and they email me, or one of the other folks who work in the Admissions Office, and explain their need for a fee waiver — we tend to be pretty lenient. We don’t require financial documentation because we don’t want the fee to be an impediment to good applicants applying. We expect that if the student who wants to apply can afford to pay the fee then, in most cases, they will pay it. But if they can’t, then they just need to tell us the reason they can’t afford to pay it and we’ll usually take their word for it.
PR: Sure. The tuition equalization scholarship is a one-year reduction in tuition from the non-resident rate to the resident rate. For the first year of law school, non-resident students who receive the tuition equalization scholarship will pay as if they were Georgia residents. It’s a one-year commitment because the vast majority of students after the 1L year will successfully establish residency and petition for in-state tuition during the second and third years. So, essentially if you receive one of these scholarships then it means that as a non-resident you would enter law school and likely pay resident tuition for each of your three years here. It’s not a guarantee that you will receive resident tuition in years two and three. There is information about establishing residency on our website and residency decisions are made within the law school by the admissions office. Non-resident students can contact our office with questions about what needs to happen in order for them to establish residency.
The tuition reduction scholarship is essentially the same thing, with the only difference being that you pay non-resident tuition for the fall semester of your first year. Then, during the spring semester, you pay what amounts to in-state tuition. So, again, if you receive one of these scholarships and you successfully establish Georgia residency starting in the second year, you only pay non-resident tuition for the fall semester of the 1L year.
AD: And how many of the 77 non-resident students that matriculated last year received one of these scholarships?
AD: That’s 61% — a pretty impressive number! Now, can you briefly describe the process someone has to go through to establish residency in Georgia in order to qualify for the in-state tuition rate during the 2L and 3L years?
PR: It’s a technical process but it’s really not that rigorous. Students must complete a two or three page form that’s available on our website, www.law.uga.edu/georgia-residency. Obviously, they must reside in Georgia and have a Georgia address for 12 months prior to the beginning of the term for which they seek to pay resident tuition. They also need to be financially independent, which means that more than 50% of their financial support needs to come from a source directly attributable to them.
So, for example, loans for law school that are in the student’s name without a cosigner will count as the student’s own financial support. Scholarships, including the tuition equalization scholarship or the tuition reduction scholarship, also count as support and are directly attributable to the student. Money that a student can document that they have earned prior to law school and are now spending while they are in school also counts toward their own support.
What wouldn’t count is when, for example, a student’s parents who live in another state write a check for the entirety of tuition and living expenses. In that case the student would not be considered “financially independent.” Similarly, they cannot be claimed as a dependent on their parents’ tax returns for the year prior to the one in which they seek to establish residency.
AD: Okay, that all seems pretty straightforward. Are there any other hoops a student would have to jump through in order to establish residency?
PR: There are, but they are not terribly onerous. They must do a few things to demonstrate that they plan to call Georgia home after they graduate. You know, they need to do all the things that a good Georgian would do: get a Georgia driver’s license, register their vehicle in Georgia, get a bank account with a local address, stuff like that.
AD: Perhaps start a peanut farm?
PR: [Laughing] Sure. I haven’t had someone try that, but it might work.
PR: That’s our most generous scholarship program. It’s a full-tuition scholarship for all three years and is restricted to Georgia residents. Georgia Law Scholars are selected based on the application for admission. What we try to do is identify the most promising Georgia residents who enroll in the law school.
AD: Is the scholarship something you can lose based on your performance after the first year?
PR: Yes, if you have less than a 2.7 GPA you could lose your scholarship.
AD: And what’s your curve at Georgia?
PR: A GPA of a 2.7 is right around the bottom 25% of the class.
AD: Oh, so they would have to do very poorly.
PR: Yes. It’s very rare for someone to lose their scholarship.
AD: In a given class, how many students are invited to attend as Georgia Law Scholars?
PR: It varies. We offer quite a few, but they don’t all come here. So the number that we actually award varies depending on the yield. Typically we will have somewhere between 1 and 4 Georgia Scholars in a class.
AD: And what’s the yield? How many Georgia Law Scholars invitations do you have to extend in order to get to that yield that number?
PR: That’s varies quite a bit too, but I’d say we extend the offer between 8 and 15 applicants.
AD: What factors do you consider deciding whether to offer a full tuition scholarship?
PR: For those applicants we consider every aspect of the application. . Letters of recommendations, personal statement, work experience, service experience, leadership skills and, of course, an applicant’s LSAT score and UGPA. They are going to have to have really good numerical credentials — a very strong GPA and LSAT score. In addition, they have got to have something unique about them — whether it’s significant leadership experience, significant work experience — something that makes us think they are going to perform at the top of the class. We are making a sizable investment in these applicants and really want them to be the cream of the crop.
AD: Do you interview these candidates?
PR: We do not hold evaluative interviews. We have done that in the past but have not done it in recent years.
AD: Does Georgia Law offer a Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) program?
PR: We do. Our LRAP program is in its infancy. I don’t administer the LRAP program but I do know that about 6 students per year receive funds from that program. Since our LRAP is relatively new, it’s certainly not the sole reason that you should choose to come to law school here — because you want go into the public interest field and we’ll pick up all your loans. We will assist some students, but obviously a more lucrative program that’s available more broadly to every law school is The College Cost Reduction Act of 2007.
AD: How long has Georgia Law’s LRAP been around?
PR: Less than 10 years. It’s an endowment and the market hasn’t been great lately so you can imagine that it will get better as the endowment grows and matures. I tell every student that when you are looking at LRAP programs you need to ask how many students receive these funds and, most importantly, what’s the average grant amount?
AD: [Laughing] OK, so if that’s such a good question, then I’d better ask it: For the six students who received LRAP funds last year, what was the average grant amount?
PR: It was about $1000.
AD: Oh really?
AD: So we’re not talking about a lot of money then.
PR: No, not at all and I am very candid with students when they ask about it.
AD: You oversee the Career Placement Office as well, correct?
AD: Just to recap — I guess somebody at the school had posted a minimum wage job to move some boxes and they were overwhelmed with students who wanted the work. Are you starting to see law firms returning to campus to recruit students this year?
PR: Look, anything that gets posted on AboveTheLaw must be taken with a grain of salt. The library staff needed help moving boxes and sent an email out to students about a very flexible, temporary position that would allow a student to earn a few extra dollars. It was not intended to be a permanent job or a position that would be counted towards the school’s employment statistics. Basically, ATL took a non-event and gave it the most negative spin it could have possibly been given.
AD: That’s kind of what they do at ATL. That’s what makes the website a “guilty pleasure” for so many lawyers and law students.
PR: Yes, that is what they do.
AD: Now, getting back to the second part of my question: is the University of Georgia School of Law seeing law firms come back on campus to interview? It’s no secret that the past couple of years have created a very difficult legal hiring market and law schools across the country have seen many large law firms scale back (or abandon) their summer associate programs. As a result, many schools reported fewer employers coming on campus to interview for on-campus interviews (OCI). Having just completed the fall 2010 OCI period, what are your impressions? Has there been a turnaround?
PR: Yes, law firms definitely interviewed fewer students (nationwide) in 2009, but in actuality Georgia Law didn’t lose that many firms coming on campus. To the extent that Atlanta firms are going to interview anywhere, they come here. What we saw instead of a marked decrease in the number of firms coming on campus was that the firms that interviewed on campus here just hired fewer people. Obviously, that led to fewer job offers coming out of OCI.
This past fall has definitely seen an increase in both the number of interviews granted and offers awarded. The economy is slowly turning around. We are not back to the pre-recession employment levels of 2007, but it definitely seems to have picked up.
AD: Now if somebody who is reading this wants to go Georgia Law and eventually work at a big law firm in Atlanta, DC or New York, what’s your best advice to that person?
PR: In terms of working in Atlanta, we have one of the strongest connections to that legal market based on our huge alumni network in the area. A lot of people don’t know but outside of Atlanta our largest alumni base is in Washington DC. Our graduates place really well in DC. We also send folks to New York every year.
As for what these large private law firms look for? The big firms tend to hire people who do well during the first-year and are members of law review and other academic journals. That’s the profile of the person who typically gets hired by the big firms. It’s a competitive market for any of those large law firms — particularly now. This means that excellent 1L grades are going to get you an interview for a summer associate position at most of these places, but you probably need some other things on your resume — law review or journal experience, moot court, etc. — to close the deal and land the job.
I guess what I would tell students who, right now, are convinced they want to work at a big firm is that although most students think they know what they want to do before they come to law school, they really don’t. One of the advantages that Georgia Law offers is that our students have a broader variety of job options when they come here. So, if a big law firm in DC is the only job that you want and you don’t get it, then what do you do?
AD: Then you have to have a Plan B.
PR: Exactly. One of the biggest advantages that our students have is that if they change their mind and decide they don’t want to work at a large firm — or simply don’t get that job — they are in a better position to consider other career options because their loan repayment obligations don’t preclude them from looking more broadly. A lower debt load coming out of law school allows our graduates to consider a wider range of employment opportunities and this has allowed our graduates to weather this economic storm better than graduates at some other law schools.
AD: That makes perfect sense. I worked at a big law firm in Manhattan and it’s definitely not for everyone. The fact that I didn’t have a lot of debt coming out of law school allowed me to pursue other options that, although not as lucrative, would provide me with more of a life. When students grab that brass ring and land that big firm job, that’s only the beginning — now you’ve got to do the work and live that lifestyle and, as you know, they aren’t paying law school grads $160,000/year for no reason. You’re going to work for it. If you don’t need that money to repay your student loans then you suddenly have more options.
PR: Yeah I am with you and would take it one step further. Doing well in law school — especially during the first year — also provides students with options. Top grades open doors and poor grades will close them. Top law school grades open the doors not only to large law firms but also clerkships, government agencies, academia, NGO’s — really anywhere. Say you start at a private law firm and ultimately decide it’s not for you — you need to have other career options. Top grades provide you with that type of flexibility.
I think that there is a misconception not just here but everywhere in the country that “I’ve got to land a job during OCI and it’s got to be with a big firm.” Some students want the big firm lifestyle and once they get it they end up loving it. However, the fact of the matter is that many students learn the hard way that big firm life is not all it’s cracked up to be.
I suspect that the vast majority of students around the country look at large private law firms as the onlyoption to help them repay their student loans. The nice thing about coming to a place like Georgia Law is that you have the option of going the big firm route — or even a Supreme Court clerkship if you want it — but because you will probably graduate with a much smaller debt load than at other law schools you have a choice about where you end up.
Applicants need to think hard about the ways they will finance their legal education now — when they are applying — so they can look three, five, even ten years down the road and understand what it is going to take to repay those loans. They don’t want to be in a position where the only choice is to work at a big firm. The big firm lifestyle is not palatable to everyone, and those jobs have become harder and harder to get in this new economy. They typically go to students who perform very well during their first year of law school. The first year is stressful enough and you don’t want to add any more pressure on yourself.
AD: I think that’s good advice. As someone who oversees career placement, how important is it to do well during the first-year?
PR: Because many legal employers interview during the fall semester of the second year for their summer associate programs, 1L grades are often the only thing they have to go on when deciding whether or not to grant an on-campus interview. So, frankly, a student’s first-year grades do carry a lot of weight — especially for students hoping to land a job at a large law firm in New York, Washington, DC or Atlanta. Even if you don’t want to end up at a large firm, though, because most schools use first-year grades to determine honors like law review and journal participation — honors and activities that almost every legal employer (large and small) value — top grades will help open doors down the road to jobs like judicial clerkships, academia, governmental agencies, etc. While we obviously have students outside the top 10% of the class who find legal careers that they enjoy, the fact remains that top 1L grades open more doors early, providing students with more options.
AD: Let’s talk about transferring. If I don’t get into Georgia Law on my first try, how hard is it to transfer in as a 2L?
PR: It’s very unpredictable, that’s the best I can say. As a transfer applicant there are several things that are beyond your control. The first is who else applies to transfer and the overall quality of the transfer applicant pool. We see pretty significant swings in the number (and quality) of transfer applications that we receive every year.
The other factor out of a transfer applicant’s control is the number seats available for transfers. During my tenure, we have admitted at few as 4 transfers and as many as 18. Obviously, in years when our regular enrollments are down and we have more room for transfers, then an applicant’s chances are going to be better. If, however, you are applying when our enrollment is higher and we only have a couple of spots, then the transfer applicant is going to face some stiff competition.
To make yourself a competitive transfer applicant in any year you need to be transferring from an ABA-approved law school. You also need to have been in at least the top half of your first-year class, but more likely in the top 25%. This is another example of how strong 1L grades can open more doors — like transferring to another school.
AD: Wow, that’s pretty liberal because what I hear from other schools that are similarly ranked is that you must be in the top 10% of the 1L class in order to get considered for a transfer.
PR: It varies so much depending on the reason why they want to transfer and the school they are seeking to transfer from. To be honest, during a competitive year, being in the top 25-50% of your 1L class might get you considered, but may not get you admitted. If we get 75 applications for only 4 spots, then it doesn’t get much more competitive than that and we tend to select students who performed at the very top of their class. In years when we admit 15 or 18 transfers, we will tend to dig a little deeper in the class.
AD: When admitting transfers, are you giving a preference to Georgia residents? Are those most of your admits?
PR: Yes, I would say most of our transfer students are Georgians — not all, but certainly most. And some of them are students who did not apply through our regular admittance program. They were just Georgia residents who realized a little too late that they were taking on unnecessary debt and decided to transfer back in order to save some money. Because of the economy, and the fact that our graduates have just as many career options as those from other law schools, we have seen more and more of these types of transfer applicants in the past couple of years — those who may have mistakenly overlooked Georgia Law the first time around.
AD: Do you guys have a tough time retaining your top students you from transferring out?
PR: One of the great things about Georgia Law is that our students really want to be here. We lose almost nobody as a transfer to another law school. In fact, in our current 2L class — the folks who just finished their 1L year — we had only one student transfer out. Oftentimes, we have none.
AD: You obviously are keeping your students very happy by providing a good value between the employment opportunities a Georgia Law degree offers your graduates and the relatively low cost of tuition.
PR: Yes, we’re proud of the fact that once admitted, the overwhelming majority of our students decide that they made the right choice.
AD: For that one student who did transfer, where did he or she end up going?