Assistant Dean for Admissions and Student Financial Services, STJ Law
Robert Harrison is Assistant Dean for Admissions and Student Financial Services at St. John’s University School of Law. He received his B.A. degree from Brandeis University and his J.D. degree from Boston University School of Law. He has been Assistant Dean at St. John’s Law School since December, 2000 and prior to this he was Associate Director of Admissions at New York Law School. Before entering law school admissions, Dean Harrison was a practicing attorney with Brody & Fabiani, where he specialized in the defense of toxic tort matters, including AIDS transfusion cases, asbestos litigation, and labor law. Prior to this he was an associate with Martin, Clearwater & Bell, where he specialized in the defense of professional liability matters, including medical, attorney, and architecture malpractice. He has served on the LSAC Misconduct and Irregularities in the Admissions Process Subcommittee, and the LSAC ISD Advisory Group. In addition to his current responsibilities as Assistant Dean, Dean Harrison is also an Adjunct Professor teaching Professional Responsibility.
AD: Dean Harrison, thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk with me today.
RH: My pleasure, Don.
AD: So first off, I love the Success Stories pages on the SJU Law website. And I notice that a lot of the alums you highlight either come from or now live in the New York area. Do you think students from out-of-state who are considering St. John’s Law School as an option will call into question whether SJU Law is the right fit for them?
RH: Well, historically, St. John’s Law has been around for almost 90 years and for a good part of the history, most of our students came from the New York City area and obviously have stayed here. So our roots and our presence is found throughout the New York legal world. However, for probably the last 10-15 years at least, we have been casting our net wider and attracting a more national applicant pool. And currently about 20-25% of the class comes from outside of the New York metropolitan area. And so we are now steadily building a national alumni base. Typically, those 20-25% who are not from the New York City area relocate back to their hometowns throughout the country once they finish attending SJU. So we are also seeing our national alumni base grow significantly now, too.
AD: Okay, I understand.
RH: About 12 or 15 years ago, the university added a dormitory housing and now St. John’s Law has its own apartment complex just a short distance of campus. So now we can encourage people to come to St. John’s Law and have a place for them to live, and not have to navigate the New York housing market.
AD: Traditionally, is St. John’s more of a commuter school?
RH: That was the case until we had housing for students, but we are pretty well located here in Queens. By that I mean we are near quite a number of highways, we are pretty close to where the subway lines come in, and the bus lines come right in front of the University. Our students commute from the entire New York metropolitan area–obviously Queens, but also Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester, and also Long Island — and they can find there way here easily through various means.
AD: Okay. And also from your alumni profiles, I noticed that you have a lot of people who are legacies or alumni of the undergraduate university. Is there any kind of preference that is provided to people who may have attended St. John’s to get their Bachelors degree and then decided to go to law school at SJU Law?
RH: St. John’s University has always been one of our top feeder schools and we are happy that’s the case, but I wouldn’t say that there is a preference in the admissions process. St. John’s undergrads are considered in the exact same way as applicants from other undergrad schools; so, while there is no preference attached to being a St. John’s undergrad alum, there is certainly also clearly no negative association with it either.
And for a lot of the same reasons that students were initially attracted to St. John’s for their undergraduate education, they want to stay here and continue with their law school education at St. John’s Law.
AD: Do you guys ever track how many of your entering class come from St. John’s?
RH: We do. In our most recent entering class, roughly 5% were St. John’s undergraduate alums. It’s fair to say that St. John’s University is always one of our top undergraduate feeder schools for St. John’s Law.
AD: Great. So let’s talk about jobs. You know it’s on the forefront of everyone’s minds. Especially in this economy, how are your recent grads doing in this job market?
RH: Well, not surprisingly, legal hiring — just like every other sector of the economy–has been hit, and we are certainly not immune to that. However, with our deep alumni base here in New York and also because of some pretty aggressive work on the part of St. John’s Law’s Career Services Office, our grads have not been hit to the degree that alums at many other places have. Our placement rate last year was 89% and, as you know, that measurement is taken 9 months after graduation. All things considered, that’s pretty good performance and we are happy with that. Obviously, though, we are mindful of and concerned about that remaining 11% and realize that those results are not good enough. What I think has happened is that the old legal employment model is changing. Big firm hiring is down quite a bit, but other types of legal hiring are either not affected or may even be up a bit. So part of our efforts are to get students to look beyond what the historic hiring model has been and recognize that there are lots of opportunities still out there, but they need expand their own horizons and visions as to what their prospects are.
AD: So can you give me a couple of examples of other job opportunities that you see students gravitating towards?
RH: Well they are moving more towards medium and smaller size firms. If you look at insurance defense firms, litigation-type firms, those are largely recession-proof. Their hiring isn’t going to be affected necessarily so much by economic fluctuations. So that’s one area where we really haven’t seen any changes in our hiring. And I think we have seen increases in the percentage of our graduates going into government work as government hiring has expanded.
AD: I am sure the Republicans love to hear that!
RH: Well, for better or for worse, as government grows, lawyers are needed and I think the projections are that there are going to be a lot more government lawyers needed over the next few years.
AD: The big buzzword these days is “transparency” with respect to law school hiring. What’s St. John’s Law doing to make sure that students are fully aware of the job opportunities (or lack thereof) in the current legal market?
RH: Well, we are trying to explain to them that when you see average salaries to keep in mind that those $160,000 jobs are not where most graduates find themselves. Students should recognize that and not assume that they are going to be one of those people who automatically gets those kinds of offers.
AD: Or want them. As someone who is a product of Albany Law School, graduating at the top of my class, I got a BigLaw job in New York City that I thought I wanted and quickly realized that.
RH: It’s not always a pleasant experience.
AD: Well, it’s not for everyone, let’s put it that way.
RH: And that’s always been true. Law students can understandably get blinded by the dollars, and it’s always been the case that the Career Services Office has tried to inform people as to what it means to work in firms like that. Now that’s kind of being forced on applicants. Applicants have to recognize that they are not getting anything for free and with fewer of these jobs available they need to take into account not just the dollars and the perception of the prestige at those jobs, but really what quality of life decisions they need to make. And even though current job prospects may be less than what they were in the past in terms of initial salaries, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their quality of life is going to be in any way worse. In fact, it might actually be quite a bit better.
AD: Yes. One of the consistent themes out of doing these interviews that I hear from deans of admissions is this: it’s not that we want to have a bad economy or we want students to fail in getting the jobs of their dreams. Instead, it’s that the bad economy has forced a lot of students to look at opportunities that they may have overlooked in a good economy because they were distracted by pursuing the brass ring of that BigLaw job. And they are starting to look at public sector jobs, government jobs, smaller firm jobs — jobs that actually allow to gain significant experience early in their careers while simultaneously having a personal life that includes coach their kids’ little league teams at the end of the day or workweek. Those are professional and personal opportunities that often do not present themselves when you work at a BigLaw firm, at least early in your career.
RH: That’s right. And although it’s really hard for applicants and students to appreciate this, in the long run it’s probably a healthy thing overall for the legal job placement process for such a correction to occur. That said, it seemed like last year may have been a slight overreaction on the part of law firms, where they actually hired too few students. I think you will see them increase their hiring targets so that they hire more than they did last year as the economy picks up.
AD: Right, and I agree with you that there might have been an overreaction in 2009, when law firms froze summer associate hiring and deferred start dates for new hires. To some extent, though, this severe downturn in hiring in 2009-10 has resulted in partners at BigLaw figuring out ways to do more with lower overhead, and that’s borne out in the profits-per-partner numbers actually increasing at some of the healthier BigLaw firms during the recession.
RH: I agree. I think you are seeing a greater efficiency in law firms and certainly clients of law firms expect their lawyers to do more with less. That kind of increased efficiency, although it’s always difficult to change what you are accustomed to doing, is something that in the long run is probably healthy for law firms and for the legal job markets.
AD: So, given the current job market, if your son or daughter was thinking about going to law school, what are you hoping that they would consider before making the of whether and where to go to law school?
RH: Right, well I do have a son, so it’s not entirely hypothetical, although he’s 11 so it’s quite a way off.
Well, I would recommend my son take a broad perspective, not just about law school, but about his career and what he wants, even though I know that’s a really hard thing to ask of a 21 year-old. We talked about this earlier. You need to consider a lot of things; what type of job, what type of lifestyle, and what quality of life you want. The best advice I ever heard, when I was thinking about going to law school was from a lawyer who said that you have to take three things into consideration. Number one, take into consideration your ideal salary, the ideal amount of money you want to earn. Number two, take into consideration where you want to live. And number three, take into consideration how important your family life is to you. And, he said, taking those three things into consideration, pick two of them, because it is reasonable to try to achieve two of those things but it’s really unrealistic to expect that you’ll be able to have all three. So with those three things in mind, I would tell my son: think about your quality of life, where you want to live and how much money is enough. And after thinking about that, you may realize that you want a better quality of life and not work in a big city, even if that means you’ll make less money. Or maybe you’ll realize that you really do want to live in a big bustling city making lots of money and, for the time being, family isn’t as important to you. Now, whatever conclusion you come to, recognize also that finances are a big part of that and you want to graduate law school with as much freedom as possible to put yourself in a position to achieve at least two of those three things.
AD: So you want to have as many options as possible.
RH: Yes. And that means looking at where a law school is located, where you might end up after law school, and it certainly means taking a close look at a law school’s tuition and the financial aid package they can offer to you. There are tremendous advantages in graduating with very low student loan debt. It buys you a lot of freedom, and that’s something that you need to take into account. So that’s the type of conversation I would hope to have with my son if he ever asks me that question.
AD: Got you. Now let’s talk about things that you can do in law school to help ensure you put yourself in the situation you just described, that you have many options and that you are able to get the best return on your law school investment. There are obviously decisions that you can make in deciding where to go to law school, for example: do I take a scholarship and attend St. John’s Law, or do I pay full sticker price at NYU Law?
RH: Second, most students don’t recognize just how important it is to immerse themselves in the life of the law school. Law school is not just what goes on in the classroom. It’s lots of other things that are going on in law school, from organizations and clubs to interacting with your faculty members. Students need to have a very broad perspective in recognizing that, especially after they’ve made sure to secure good first-year grades. Being immersed in the life of law school means creating networks of friends, colleagues and other people who at some point later in life may dramatically help you along in your career, even though it’s impossible to conceive how while you’re still in law school. So I always recommend that law students extend themselves beyond the classroom and get involved in the life of the law school in lots of different ways.
Third, it’s extremely important to get out of the law school building, especially during your second and third years, by signing up for a clinic or an externship or some other off-campus legal experience that puts you in a place where you can see firsthand what actual lawyers do day-to-day. This not only helps you decide what kinds of law and in what environments you might like to practice one day, but it also allows you to pick up on subtle things like whether the lawyers in that setting are actually happy with their jobs. Plus, there’s no better networking opportunity than putting yourself in a place with practicing lawyers, who may be able to offer you a job someday or at least help to point you in the right direction. Just as important, they can help you gather information as to whether you’re heading in the wrong direction. So there are lots of things law students can do during law school to dramatically affect their career and life objectives.
AD: Right. That’s terrific advice! Getting outside the walls of the law school to see what lawyers do and maybe finding out that the job you thought you want turns out to not be so compelling when viewed up close. Maybe you find out that you could never handle being a prosecutor, for example, and it helps to see them work first-hand to know whether you can see yourself doing what they do and enjoying their life style.
RH: That’s precisely the situation I found myself in when I was a third year law student. Throughout law school and even before law school, I was convinced that I wanted to be a prosecutor and I wanted to be involved in the criminal justice system. And then when I was a third-year law student, I took a criminal defense clinic because I thought to be a good prosecutor it’s good to know how the other side thinks.
And for the four months that the clinic lasted, I was utterly miserable and it wasn’t because it was the criminal defense side. Rather, I found myself unhappy with the whole criminal justice process. So, although I was miserable for those four months, I now look back and I recognize that those were probably the most valuable four months that I spent in law school. At least I didn’t launch myself into a career that I would ultimately be miserable in.
AD: No joke! My favorite saying is: “Law school is a very expensive way to find yourself.” So if you can figure out early on that, hey, working as a prosecutor is not going to float my boat makes a huge difference for the rest of your life. BigLaw firms should offer internships, because I am sure that half the people who take them would say, “This is not for me, yeah, this is definitely not for me, no matter how much money throw at me.”
RH: Yes, and you have to realize that doing clinics and externships, and getting first-hand experience while you’re still in law school — your opportunity cost is zero! It doesn’t cost you any more to do these things than it would to take a couple extra classes instead. Yet once you graduate from law school, that kind of exploration has enormous opportunity costs. If you have to shift gears two or three years into practice, the opportunity cost is very high, so find out early on whether a certain kind of practice is right for you.
AD: Awesome, I love that answer, fantastic answer!
RH: Yeah, we like to think that US News has finally, perhaps, caught up with all the good stuff that’s actually going on here at St. John’s Law (laughter)! St. John’s Law went up in all or almost all of the things US News uses to calculate the rankings. Certainly from the admissions side, the class that came in during the fall 2009 had the highest overall LSAT and GPA scores in St. John’s Law’s history. And that happened again for fall 2010.
AD: What ways do you disseminate that information?
RH: Well, there’s the admitted student section of our website where we post a tremendous amount of data about the previous admissions cycle — our most recent entering class. We also include the most recent employment statistics like where our current 3Ls found summer associate jobs the previous summer, both by firm and by city. And we also post lists of average starting salaries, where the most recent graduating class ended up finding full time employment, etc. Those are just a few examples. Our applicants shouldn’t have to rely on stale data when making their decisions — and they certainly shouldn’t rely on rumor! We try to make sure the most recently compiled information that would be of interest to an applicant is out there — front and center — so that they can make an informed choice about whether to apply to (or attend) our school.
AD: So now the pressure is on because, you know…
RH: I know, I am thinking of resigning, and just saying, “Thank you very much!”
RH: Exactly! Fortunately, St. John’s Law also went up in other US News ranking criteria, such as the reputational component, so that was gratifying to see, too. But who knows what’s going to happen next year. I think there are always little fluctuations up and down, but I think the long-term trend for St. John’s Law is certainly pointing upward in a lot of areas. So we try not to get too immersed in the importance of individual things like that. I think as long as the trends are going in the right direction, we know we are doing the right things and that is certainly the case here.
AD: Right. The last few years have been very competitive in law school admissions.
AD: And I am assuming that you would attribute a large portion of the success of St. John’s Law in attracting top candidates because it’s just a great law school.
RH: Yes, and we offer a lot of things that are attractive to applicants, especially as the legal job market is changing. We just talked about our emphasis on our clinics and externships — we have been adding quite a few of them during recent years and they are important and attractive to applicants. Our location is terrific, too. So there are lots of things that make St. John’s Law a really wonderful place to go to law school and to spend three or four years.
AD: Alright so how much emphasis do you think applicants should place on US News rankings when deciding not only where to apply but also where to attend?
RH: It’s a tool and it should be used as one of many tools that applicants have it at their disposal. US News does measure some important things in its rankings and applicants should be aware of them. However, the US News rankings should never be used as their only tool. Applicants should not view the US News ranking as a substitute for doing the legwork and the hard work that they need to do. Applicants need to investigate for themselves whether a particular law school has the things that they are looking for and not just rely on someone else’s ranking to make that decision for them. There are a lot of things that go into the US New rankings that are important to other constituencies but might not be important to a law school applicant. For example, half the reputational component in the US News ranking comes from federal court judges. Now that’s an interesting thing and it might be an important measurement to some people, but really from the perspective of many or most applicants that’s not necessarily an important consideration for them.
AD: Or, how many volumes there are in the library…
RH: Right. So again, US News rankings are one thing that applicants should look at, but by no means should they be the only thing, or even the most important thing. The most important thing is an applicant’s own investigation and his or her own determination as to what’s important.
AD: I agree, and here’s a completely shameless plug for AdmissionsDean. When I talked to you awhile back before launching AdmissionsDean, one of the things that we wanted to do was give the power back to the applicant to figure out what metrics they thought were important.
RH: I remember that conversation. I remember thinking that that’s terrific and why I was happy to hear what you guys were doing, because US News is just too easy and too convenient, and it really makes it easy for students to rely on it so much that they end up making bad decisions for themselves. And by letting applicants decide for themselves what metrics are important to them, hopefully they can arrive at a more informed decision about where to attend law school and rely less and less on the US News rankings.
AD: Yes. I don’t know if you have poked around on the AdmissionsDean website, but one of the things you can do is can create your own law rankings, based on whatever criteria is important to you. So if small class size and high bar passage rates are really what you are looking for in a law school, then you can rank them nationally, regionally or whatever geographic breakdown matters to you.
RH: It’s great, it’s brilliant!
AD: Brilliant? Ok, Dean Harrison, we can stop now. This is my George Costanza moment and that will be your block quote on the site: “It’s brilliant! AdmissionsDean is brilliant!”
AD: So, you mentioned before about adding some new clinics. Can you just describe these and how they contribute to the overall student experience at St. John’s Law?
RH: Sure. There were two things that went into the development of the clinics and why we chose certain clinics and not others. First of all, the clinic had to be what I described earlier: an excellent opportunity for students to put themselves in a place where lawyers are actually practicing law. So number one was to get students great, real world legal experience.
The second criteria we had was making sure that the clinics we had were consistent with the overall mission of St. John’s School of Law and University. We are a Vincentian school that emphasizes concern for the needy and those less fortunate. So we combined that mission with our desire to increase our clinical offerings, adding things like our Bread and Life: Bridge to Justice Clinic, which provides various legal services to indigent people. St. John’s Law also has a Bankruptcy Advocacy Clinic where individuals, or maybe small businesses, that otherwise might not be able to afford a bankruptcy attorney can receive representation in a bankruptcy proceeding. St. John’s Law also offers a Refugee and Immigration Rights Clinic whose purpose is self-evident. These kinds of clinics not only provide St. John’s Law students with great legal experiences, but they also help further the mission of the Law School and the University. Looking at the main page of the St. John’s Law website, if you go down to Academic Programs section, there is a Clinical Programs sub-heading where these and other clinics are all listed.
AD: Okay great. Now for the bad news…
RH: The St. John’s Law bar passage rate?
AD: You got it.
RH: Well, we certainly were disappointed with that result. But, first of all, the entire state average went down, so it’s not surprising that we also went down somewhat, too. And if you look at the long-term trend — and this is something I mentioned when we were discussing the US News rankings, too — our bar passage trend is going in the right direction. The St. John’s Law bar passage rate has gone up for 10 of the last 11 years. So even if you have one year where there is a drop, the overall trend for our bar passage rate is dramatically upwards. And we think that’s the result of a lot of good things that we are doing here. Certainly, it’s our doctrinal courses and what goes into those classes. We also think part of it has to do with our clinical offerings and real-world experiences students are exposed to at St. John’s law. So while we are certainly not happy with the most recent bar passage rate for St. John’s Law, we think that the long-term trend is going in the right direction. And, honestly, we don’t think that there was anything particular about the class that graduated in June of 2010 that uniquely caused this. We just think it’s one of those aberrations that happens along the way The long-term trend indicates the core of what we are doing here is working exceedingly well.
AD: My friends over at BarBri Bar Review would say that it goes to show that you really do need to prep for the bar exam. They attribute the drop in bar passage rates nationally to a commensurate drop in the number of people taking an established bar review course to prepare for the bar exam because of the economy.
RH: I think that’s probably a part of it. There may be an element of people being penny-wise and pound-foolish–whatever they are saving on less expensive or alternative bar prep methods, certainly in the long run it can be more expensive.
AD: I agree.
RH: I don’t know if the data bears that out, but that might I don’t know if the data bears that out, but that might be one of the things.be one of the things.
AD: I am sure it played some kind of factor, because I’ve heard from many students during the Great Recession who have asked whether it’s wise to, for example, share the online experience for PMBR with other classmates. It just seems like a much less serious approach to preparing for what amounts to your licensing exam.
RH: Right. This is one of your major life hurdles.
AD: Now, let’s talk about the law school application. St. John’s Law has a $60 application fee. How many fee application waivers does St. John’s Law offer? Is there a process that you go through for securing an application fee waiver?
RH: We recognize that if you are applying to law schools, the application fees can become burdensome. We don’t want anyone to not apply because they cannot pay the fee. So if someone is in that situation, then they can provide us with financial documentation showing that paying application fees would be a hardship. Certainly, we routinely waive the fee in those situations. Applicants should also know that the LSAC has a fee waiver process that they can go through to get their LSAC fees waived. If someone does that and his or her LSAC fee is waived, then we will accept the LSAC’s fee waiver and also waive our fee. So they either need to just need to send us a copy of their LSAC fee waiver or provide rudimentary financial justification for a fee waiver directly to St. John’s Law.
AD: About many people do you waive the fee for — you had 4,500 applicants last year?
RH: You know what, I don’t know offhand. I would have to go into our database and figure that out. But our point is that we don’t want anyone to not apply because they feel they cannot afford the fee.
AD: Does St. John’s Law have an early decision process?
RH: We don’t have a separate early decision process where people have to commit themselves early on to attending St. John’s Law. We do have rolling admissions. We typically start reviewing applications in the middle in November. So if you apply early, the probability is that you are going to hear early, but you are in no way committed to coming to St. John’s Law as you might be in a dedicated early decision process. We give our applicants until April to let us know whether they are coming.
AD: You are the person who is controlling the process, Dean Harrison. Do you see an advantage to applying early?
RH: In addition to obviously knowing early what the outcome is, the other advantage might be that we do offer merit-based scholarships to qualified applicants. And if you apply early and we review your application early in the process, there is a far greater likelihood that that pool of money is going to be available. Applicants who wait to apply may find themselves in a situation where we are able to offer them admission, but there will come a point where our scholarship budget is exhausted.
AD: Beyond knowing your fate earlier and beyond the greater likelihood of receiving more scholarship money, do you tend to be more lenient in offering acceptances to applicants at the beginning of the admissions cycle, before the applicant pool has fully taken shape?
RH: At the beginning of the admissions cycle, we don’t know what our entire applicant pool will look like when we start making decisions. We have to project and make estimates as to what it’s going to look like. So I would not say that it’s easier to get in early in the process.
RH: Now, I would say that the reverse is definitely true — if you wait to apply and your application is borderline, you might have fared better had you sent in your application a little earlier.
AD: So, relatively speaking, there might be a slight advantage to applying earlier.
RH: Well, I don’t think it should be perceived as getting a benefit early in the process rather than finding yourself at the short end of the stick towards the end of the admissions cycle. I guess there is a relative benefit to applying early, but I think it’s mostly financial and psychological.
AD: Got you. So the better way to think of it is that there is probably more of a disadvantage to applying late.
RH: That’s definitely true.
AD: Okay. St. John’s Law had about 66 students who enrolled in your evening program. Is it easier to get into your evening program, or your day program?
RH: It’s interesting. Ideally, what we look for with applicants is the same whether it’s for admission to our part-time or full-time program. What typically happens, though, since we receive far more applications for our full-time program, is that the full-time program fills up before the part-time program does. So we end up looking a little bit deeper into the part-time applicant pool in terms of LSAT, but not much deeper — a point or two or less, on average. However, what’s most interesting to me is that students in our part-time evening program typically have higher average GPAs than our full-time day students.
AD: Oh, that is interesting.
RH: So it’s not accurate to say that it’s easier to get in part time because, on the one hand, while LSATs might be slightly lower, on the other hand GPAs are slightly higher.
AD: I see. Now if you are admitted to the evening program and ultimately decide you want to take full advantage of all of the benefits of being a full-time student, can you switch into the fulltime program?
RH: Sure and it’s a pretty routine administrative process. We do require that evening students complete their first year in the evening division, because you are on a certain track, you are in a certain section, so it makes sense to have you complete those first-year required classes. After that, you can switch to become a full-time day student. The only requirement that we have is that you need a minimum GPA of 2.5 to switch from part time to full time. The reason for this is that if you have a GPA that’s lower than 2.5, then you really should not be adding credits to your workload. So we set that threshold in order to protect students. It’s really in their best interest to stay a part-time student if their GPA is below a 2.5.
AD: I see, that’s a good point. Now, just to give a little bit of context to the 2.5 GPA, where would that be on St. John’s Law’s curve.
RH: It is a pretty low threshold. Good academic standing is 2.1 so it’s between 2.1 and 2.5, so they are really struggling academically.
AD: In terms of switching from the day program to the evening program: do students ever do that at St. John’s Law?
RH: We do see that occasionally, but not in large numbers. Sometimes, people get jobs while they’re enrolled at St. John’s Law and they want to switch to part-time status. That’s a really easy administrative switch, no problem at all. The other thing to be aware of is after the first year even if people don’t formally switch, they are able to register for classes in the other division. So if you are a day student and an evening class fits your schedule better, or you just want to take that class now instead of waiting, that’s not a problem. Day students can register for evening classes and vice versa.
AD: I see. Now, let’s talk about law schools you compete against in terms of admission. These may or may not be peer schools to St. John’s Law, but I’m trying to get at the law schools that St. John’s applicants typically also apply to.
AD: If an applicant receives an offer from St. John’s and they also receive an offer of admission and perhaps even a scholarship from a Touro Law, Hofstra Law, Fordham Law, Brooklyn, Cardozo, NYLS: why would you encourage students to take a long hard look at St. John’s?
RH: Well, I think scholarships are a very important part of what applicants are going to consider. And they need to consider it in the context of everything else that schools have to offer. If another school is offering more money then we are, the first thing we do is to encourage students to visit us and the other schools. And we think that after a visit to St. John’s Law, and after seeing what we offer and what our classes are like and all of our other offerings and the atmosphere of our school, we feel very confident that even though other schools may have offered more money, students will prefer to come St. John’s Law. And, you know, it’s not just courses and the clinics and the job placement and the alumni network and all the other things we offer. All those things are important. It’s also our overall atmosphere at the school. I have been to other law schools, I have worked in other law schools, and I don’t want to sound trite about this. But, generally, the atmosphere here is “nice”, it’s genuinely supportive, and it’s collegial. St. John’s Law is a comfortable place to spend three years. My bottom line is we feel that even though other schools have offered competitive scholarships that students will ultimately be happier and more successful here. And we are so confident that we encourage prospective students to spend time not only visiting our classes, but also to spend a couple hours sitting in the cafeteria and not to be shy about introducing themselves and spending time talking to our students so you hear directly from them about their experiences here. We are so confident in our students and their opinions about us that we gladly invite applicants to do that and we think that when all of that is taken into account, prospective students will realize this is a wonderful place to spend three or four years.
AD: Do you have students who come back and try to bargain with you on scholarships, along of the lines of: Hey, can you match the scholarship money I received from Law School X?
RH: It does happen.
AD: Do you entertain it?
RH: We try not to do that. We recognize that those are serious pressures for students and we do take them seriously. And, on occasion, we do come back and increase scholarships slightly. I don’t want to ever get into a bidding war for students–I won’t do that. But we will take into account scholarship offers from other law schools. In doing so, we try to make people see why the scholarship offer that we are providing is competitive to what they have gotten somewhere else.
AD: Oh, that’s going to be big news! You know that, Dean Harrison.
RH: I know that, I am a little wary about such things.
AD: That actually might be your block quote at the top of this interview! [Laughter]
RH: Yeah, well… [more laughter]
AD: “Send us your other scholarship offers, we’ll entertain anything! We’ll match the lowest price.”
RH: [Still more laughter]. Please don’t!
AD: Alright, so let’s talk about the admissions process at St. John’s Law — when you get an applicant’s file, what happens to it?
RH: Well, it’s interesting because we have been transitioning; we are now completely paperless so we don’t get any paper applications anymore. Well, we do still get some paper ones, but they are then scanned in electronically. Basically, someone transmits to us an application; we then electronically get all of their information from the Law School Admission Council. Using the old way, it used to take us ten days to two weeks to get all of an applicant’s LSAC information once we first received an application. Now, we typically get an application complete and ready to review within 24 hours. It’s amazing. Our admissions review works by having a faculty admissions committee and our admissions officers read applications.
AD: Just so I understand the distinction: you have a faculty admissions committee where there are St. John’s Law faculty members at who sit on the admissions committee?
RH: Correct and they are assigned files along with the other admissions officers.
AD: I see. So do the admissions officers take a first crack at reading the applications first?
RH: Yes, that’s pretty much that’s how it works. And then, for applications where we think need “more eyes” to look at them, those are referred to the faculty.
AD: I see. So how many faculty members sit on the admissions committee?
AD: Any students?
RH: No, we don’t have students on the admissions committee.
AD: And so once the faculty reviews the application, then there’s sort of a consensus vote?
RH: Well, that’s essentially how it works, but they don’t read every application together. They are essentially passed from one faculty member to another, and when two faculty members agree to a particular decision then it becomes a decision. For example, an application could go to one faculty member (who admits), then go to another faculty member (who waitlists), and then a third faculty member (who also admits). At that point, the committee has reached a decision to admit the applicant.
AD: That makes sense. Now, can staff members in your office decide that a particular applicant is an auto-admit without having to send his or her file to the faculty committee?
RH: Yes that can happen. The faculty is apprised of such decisions, and they can certainly review any of those decisions at their discretion.
AD: Got you. And how many applications do you personally read?
RH: Oh boy!
AD: Is it too depressing a number to talk about?
RH: It’s changing. Unfortunately, I read fewer now (more like 40-50% of all applications), because we had to add another staff person to help us handle increased volume. In the past, I would probably look at roughly 70%.
AD: Right, it’s gotten so big. So are you just one of several readers in your office, or do you have final say in some cases?
RH: Well, ultimately I have final say but it’s rare when I overrule an admissions officer’s decision.
AD: Okay. And how much emphasis does your office place on the numbers — on an applicant’s LSAT score and the undergraduate GPA?
RH: They are certainly very important. Those are the objective criteria, and they are as important as anything else that goes into the review. The next most important thing is definitely the personal statement; we rely heavily upon that in making a decision. And then all of the other subjective things come into play, too–certainly their resume, which we encourage applicants to send, and leadership positions and all of that, and certainly any addendum statements. We read everything applicants send us, so any addendum statements that applicants include with their applications are taken into account.
AD: Give me some good etiquette for deciding whether to include an addendum?
RH: You should consider including one if there is any kind of aberrational aspect to your application. If there is one academic year or one semester where an applicant’s GPA dropped noticeably and there is a reason for it–they were sick, a family member got sick, something like that that might help explain the circumstances–then an applicant should feel comfortable in submitting an addendum. Certainly, if they need to answer “yes” to any of the criminal history or disciplinary history questions, they must submit an addendum statement fully explaining the circumstances and the disposition of whatever those underlying situations were. Plus, if there’s anything else that they feel is important for us to know about them–maybe that they worked full time throughout their undergraduate experience or they are first person in their family to go to college–then an applicant should feel very comfortable in drafting an addendum statement to the admission committee for those kinds of things.
AD: Does St. John’s Law ask for or require a diversity statement?
RH: We allow it, it’s part of our application, but it’s not a required part of the application.
AD: And what do you commonly see is the focus for diversity statements?
RH: It’s often economic disadvantages, parental un-involvement or absence, that kind of thing. It’s really any kind of hardship that kind of makes a particular applicant not your traditional applicant.
AD: Do you have any brief advice about collecting letters of recommendation?
RH: Well, for anyone who is currently in college, we really do expect to see letters of recommendation from faculty members and then an additional one from whoever else the applicant thinks is appropriate. And for those applicants who are working and have been out of school for awhile, we are not unreasonable. We don’t expect them to have to go back and obtain a letter of recommendation from an old professor. Such applicants can obtain recommendation letters from work supervisors, that sort of thing. The most important thing that people need to realize about letters of recommendation is that we are really not looking for or impressed by the big letterheads, from your Senator or your Congressperson. Those don’t impress me very much, because we know that most of those letters are constituent services and that kind of thing. What an applicant should really try to do is to find someone who knows them very well in an academic or professional setting and feels comfortable sticking their neck out for that applicant. Those are the people who typically write very good letters of recommendation that might actually positively affect their application. When it’s not someone they know well, the letters really reflect that and typically don’t have any impact on the application.
AD: Ok. Now, I want you to put on your Dean of Financial Aid hat for a moment so I can ask you a broad and simple question: what should applicants be doing now in terms of financial aid that’s going to make their lives a little bit easier and maybe even your life a bit easier 9 months from now?
RH: Well they should fill out and file a FAFSA as soon as that’s permitted. Don’t wait until they hear back from their law schools before doing that. So that’s number one, because that allows us when the time comes to rapidly package their student loans and put all of that together.
Number two is they should start putting their own financial house in order, and that means getting their credit report and paying off as much consumer debt as they possibly can and eliminating as much non-essential spending as possible. You don’t want to have to borrow more than you truly need and you certainly don’t want to borrow student loans to pay off credit cards.
RH: They should do that as well. There are lots of websites that they can go to that list private scholarships.
AD: Well, I don’t know if you saw, but AdmissionsDean put together a Scholarship Finder in our Paying for Law School section that is specifically designed for law students.
RH: I did see that, yes. Applicants may not realize that they might fit a certain criteria for specific scholarships. You never know what local county bar association might be offering scholarships that you might qualify for.
AD: What amazed me in putting together our Law School Scholarship Finder was the obscurity of some of the scholarships. Maybe you are the child of somebody who worked at a company or organization or union–you qualify for a scholarship to graduate school! Maybe your grandfather was a dockworker, and Boom! You qualify for a scholarship! You just plug in your information and see what comes up. It’s pretty remarkable.
RH: That’s right. So people should cast a wide net in looking for those kinds of scholarship opportunities.
AD: My final questions I have relate to transfer students. First, how many transfer students did you gain and/or lose last cycle? Second (and I think what our readers are most interested in), do you know the number of applications you received to transfer in and how many people you ultimately accept?
RH: We welcome transfer applicants, although it’s not usually a big number for us. We usually welcome in the ballpark of 10 to 12. I think last year we had something like 7 or 8 transfers-in. We typically have something like 4 or 5 transfers-out. We typically get a little over a hundred applications for transfer. Transferring is not an easy thing from law school to law school. First of all, we only admit people for transfer who have done well at their law school and that typically means the top quarter of the class or better. Somebody might transfer to St. John’s and, in the process, have to give up law review or a law journal membership at their old school, and they have to recognize that.
AD: Great. I think that really covers everything. Thank you so much, Dean Harrison for your time in sitting for this interview! I’ve always appreciated your advice and support, even going back to when AdmissionsDean was just a concept. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview with me today.
RH: I think what you do is great — I really do, and I appreciate the opportunity to share my insights with your site’s visitors.