Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions, UMich Law
Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions, UMich Law
This is the 13th installment of our 224 part series, Better Know A Dean. Today we posted our interview with Sarah Zearfoss, Associate Dean and Director of Admissions at The University of Michigan School of Law — The Fightin’ Wolverines!
Sarah C. Zearfoss became the assistant dean and director of Admissions at UMich in 2001. In that capacity, she oversees all aspects of JD admissions (including transfer and visitor admissions), as well as administering LLM, MCL, and SJD admissions. Beginning in 2010, Dean Zearfoss began overseeing the offices of Career Planning and Financial Aid, in order to coordinate a consistent approach to employment and financial resource issues throughout students’ law school tenure. She received her AB, cum laude, in psychology from Bryn Mawr College and her JD, magna cum laude, from Michigan Law. At Michigan, she was the editor-in-chief of the Michigan Journal of International Law, and authored a note on women’s rights. Following graduation, Dean Zearfoss clerked for the Hon. James L. Ryan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and then practiced labor and employment law at Pepper Hamilton LLP’s Detroit office. In 1999, she returned to work at the Law School as the judicial clerkship advisor before becoming part of the Admissions Office team. A member of the Michigan Bar, she stays active in the practice of law as a volunteer cooperating attorney for the ACLU.
AD: We’ve done our research, and UMich Law has certainly has had its share of graduates who have gone on to be leaders in law, business and politics — for example, Clarence Darrow and Charles Merrill, the co-founder of Merrill Lynch. But it’s Ari Gold — super agent to the stars on HBO’s Entourage who could be your most famous (albeit fictional) alumnus. Does his character represent the type of intensity and combativeness that admitted students can expect to face from their classmates when they arrive on campus?
SZ: Absolutely not. First off, let’s be clear. Ari Gold graduated with a JD/MBA from Michigan. He’s a graduate of the Law School and the Ross School of Business. So, while I don’t know where he picked up his combative nature — or his foul mouth — I can almost 100% guarantee it wasn’t in the Law Quad.
AD: So which of his characteristics did he pick up from the law school — what part of him are you willing to claim?
SZ: Sure, there are parts of Mr. Gold that are all Wolverine, but instead of focusing on his management style, lets look at the way he settles disputes — hugs. I believe that’s something he picked up when he was student in the Law School’s nurturing environment. At least that’s what I’m told by those who remember him, that he frequently ended quarrels with “Let’s hug it out brother” — and I believe he continues that practice to this day.
And, just in case you are planning to go there, if you check with the Medical School I bet they’ll say Greg House is not representative of their student body either.
AD: Nicely played Dean Z.
SZ: [Laughing] I’m glad you liked it.
AD: For the past few years, more and more applicants have turned to the Internet to help them navigate the law school admissions process, whether it’s: getting advice from fellow applicants on a discussion board; anonymously tracking applicants through the law school admissions process; or even reading the musings of admissions deans like yourself on their blogs (I’m a big fan of your A2Z Blog, by the way!). Whatever the medium, how do you see the current trends in social media affecting the law school admissions process and/or the law school experience, both positively and negatively?
SZ: I’ll start by saying that it’s a little exhausting trying to keep up with all the latest trends. From our point of view in the admissions office it represents a bit of a challenge to make sure that we are using the most effective means for communicating with our applicants. For instance, a few years ago people started to say that applicants are not using email as much as they used to and at the time, that was very disheartening to hear because we do a lot of our communications by email. Thankfully, that claim turned out to be wildly over exaggerated. While it may be true in some contexts it’s true that people are relying more on things like Facebook to connect and communicate with their friends – people still expect to hear from the admissions office by email. So that is a huge relief. I mean, it would take a really long time to tweet an entire offer letter.
AD: So how about the A2Z Blog. Was that a strategy you developed as a way to communicate with your applicants?
SZ: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I’ll be honest, our Communications Office has asked me for probably three years to do a blog and I just kept resisting because I was concerned that I would not have enough to say. Even though I love to write — and I really do enjoy doing the blog — for the longest time I just thought it would look ridiculous if I didn’t say anything for two months. Also, [laughing] I couldn’t think of a catchy title and until I did that I just wasn’t willing to have one — of course, that was a deal breaker for me.
But one of the main impetuses for creating the blog was my desire to find a way to respond to occasional incorrect information about UMich on discussion boards. Because discussion boards are anonymous it’s impossible for me to reach out to particular individuals and say, “Oh, let me clear this up for you.” So, I realized that if I wanted to make a clarification about our admissions process quickly, a blog would be the perfect forum to do that.
AD: That dovetails nicely with my next question. Do you find a lot of misinformation about UMich being shared or posted on discussion boards and how has it affected your job as an admissions officer?
SZ: You know, there’s not a ton of misinformation out there, but it does come up from time to time. I’ll tell you, I actually had an interesting incident happen just today that I’d like to share with you since it relates to the topic of discussion boards. Right before lunch we got a call from an irate, really angry woman. She identified herself as a neighbor of an applicant who recently received a rejection letter from us — but this applicant had been wait listed at Penn and admitted to Columbia.
AD: A “neighbor,” huh? Is that sort of like the preface to a lot of questions you hear in a law school classroom — “This isn’t me, but I have a friend…”?
SZ: [Laughing] It could be, but I’m not really sure. Anyway, she was demanding to know how that could have happened. She wouldn’t tell us the name of the applicant we supposedly denied – and even if she had, of course, we wouldn’t have discussed her file or entertained a conversation with her. But why I bring this up, is because she kept saying over and over, “Whatever you tell me, I’m posting on Top-Law-Schools.com.” Really, she kept repeating this. What I find interesting is how she was beating us over the head with this, as an explicit threat.
So, back to your original question, how have discussion boards affected my job in admissions? Well, I guess it has made us more guarded. We are realistic about the possibility that anything we say can show up in some form (whether accurate or inaccurate) on a discussion board. Because of this fact, it inhibits some of our communications with applicants unless we feel very comfortable and confident about the person we’re talking with. So, in that respect, I guess the prospect of being misquoted on a discussion board does adversely affect our job.
AD: So you find yourself being a little more buttoned up, but does it affect you so much that you find yourself turning more and more to the University’s communications office asking them how would you handle this?
SZ: No, not really. Everyone here in the admissions office is a lawyer so we have a fairly good idea about what to say and what not to say. But it just means that we end up saying less, and when we do communicate with an applicant we are forced to be a little more formal – putting our communications in writing. So there can be no misunderstandings and because there is a real concern about being misquoted — whether maliciously or not.
AD: I guess the added benefit of a written communication is that if you do see it getting posted to a discussion board somewhere, you can track down the source pretty quickly.
SZ: Sure, there’s that, but the formality of a writing for me is much more important just for the sake of clarity. Look, the nature of human conversation is that people misunderstand each other and most miscommunications are completely benign and unintentional, but it’s still very frustrating when you are the person being misquoted. Communicating with the admissions office can often be like going to the doctor and getting bad news and you might not be able to grasp it all as it’s being spoken because you’re having an entire conversation in your own mind about the implications of what’s being said. So, especially if we’re giving someone some negative feedback — information they don’t want to hear — the applicant may not entirely get what we’re saying from a conversation. The written word, whether in a letter or an email, decreases the risk of that substantially.
AD: This is why you may need to hire Ari Gold to come and work in the admissions office because he seems to be able to deliver any type of news – good or bad – very clearly.
SZ: [Laughing]. Excellent idea. But seriously, with all that being said, I think that discussion boards can play a positive role in the admissions process, especially for admissions folks like myself. Discussion boards allow us to see what is going on in the applicants’ minds and allow us to gauge how successful we are when communicating with the applicant pool as a whole. We’re able to see rather quickly whether it’s one person who has a misunderstanding about something, or if it’s a lot of people — and that’s quite useful when you’re thinking about how to communicate with a large group of people. You know, we do our best to be as clear as possible about things and sometimes we fall short. When that happens, it’s really useful to have that “instant feedback” from the posters on a discussion board.
AD: I agree, discussion boards have a valuable purpose for you, but also for applicants. We’ve seen people posting personal or diversity statements to our discussion board and get some real, substantive comments. There’s a real benefit from having a focus group of people who don’t know you, read what you plan to submit. People who are not an applicant’s parents or best friends — truly objective readers who can tell an applicant how his or her writing is being received. Often, when you look at these threads, I’m simply amazed by the thoughtfulness of readers’ comments. Posters take their role in the online community very seriously and offer some substantive comments that, if implemented by the original poster, will often make the original essay a whole lot better.
SZ: I definitely agree with that. For someone who may not have other resources like going to a college or university with a great pre-law advisor, discussion boards can serve a valuable purpose.
AD: But I can also understand that if I was standing in a law school’s shoes, it would be pretty frustrating to see repeated posts that say “Where the hell is my decision from Michigan?!?”
SZ: It can be, but complaints about how slow or fast we’re moving really don’t bother me – for the record, though, we’re moving as quickly as we can! I understand that our decision whether to admit or deny an applicant is an important, emotional one. That’s why it’s important that we not rush through the process just to placate some people — so those types of comments really don’t bother me.
But other things we see — people misrepresenting themselves on a discussion board – can be a real source of frustration for us. For instance, my staff sometimes tells me when they see someone post “I have X LSAT score and Y GPA and I just got denied, so UMich doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing!” — and we know that that person simply doesn’t exist. We check and know that nobody with those numbers has gotten denied in the last month, or whatever. So people need to know that there are posters on those boards who are misrepresenting themselves. I can understand the psychology behind why this sometimes happens — the poster might be seeking some solace from this community of anonymous people, hoping to hear someone say, “That’s too bad.” So, the poster may fudge his or her numbers or story a bit to make them sound more sympathetic than what the reality may be. But while I understand the psychology of it, what I think is problematic is that that story — one we know is false — is out there in perpetuity that other applicants in this or later admissions cycles might read and take as gospel. That’s frustrating.
AD: Not that you have much free time these days, but it does sound like do you do find time “troll” the law school admissions sites to see what users might be saying about UMich Law?
SZ: Actually no. When I first started, I looked a lot more; however I find some of these sites to be very demoralizing. And even though I can understand why if you’re waiting for a decision (or got denied) from Michigan — especially if we were your first choice — I can understand why you want to call me a name. The entire admissions process is very emotional for most people — I get that. But I still don’t enjoy being called names.
What discussion board posters have to realize is that the folks who work in the admissions office are real people who take our jobs very seriously; just as much as an applicant would hate to be on the receiving end of a personal attack that is particularly nasty – it’s just as upsetting for us. My guess is that the anonymity of discussion boards can make otherwise fine, upstanding people write some pretty outrageous things. So, as a general rule, I don’t read the discussion boards. Members of my staff who might be a little heartier than me will pop on from time to time and see what’s being said. If there’s something that they think needs my attention, they’ll “gently translate” it for me — that system seems to work out pretty well for us here in the admissions office. They cleanse it for me.
AD: So, given the “Wild West” feel many discussion boards have — and the fact that posters are able to hide behind a cloak of anonymity — what steps, if any, does UMich Law take to protect its reputation online?
SZ: It’s my nature and my belief that the best way to dispel misinformation is for a law school to very direct — to get out in front of it by including as much information on its website that is directly attributed to the school so there can be no confusion about its policies. Because Michigan is a public school, some things we have done has drawn increased scrutiny and we don’t have the luxury of hiding behind a cloak of secrecy like some private law schools might enjoy. We’ve developed a thick skin over here at Michigan and, as a result, we’re very comfortable being frank and transparent with our processes. On those occasions when we may have been less than clear about our position, as I mentioned, we’ll simply include a post on the A2Z blog to eliminate any chance of confusion.
AD: When making admissions decisions, do you ever go beyond the four corners of the application and do some independent research on an applicant (i.e., Googling an applicant, reviewing their Facebook page, etc.)? If so, has this process ever yielded any surprising results?
SZ: Very rarely. While I do know other admissions offices that regularly Google any applicant they are going to admit, we don’t do that for two reasons. First, we have a fairly large class so I’d probably spend my entire day doing outside research on applicants rather than reading files. Second, I just don’t think the information that you might find is all that reliable, or at least, I may not interpret it correctly. I’m well aware, from interacting with my own kids, that a lot of what I might see is sarcastic, or an insider joke, that isn’t meant for me as an audience and that I am in no position to correctly assess. So if I use Google it’s for a limited purpose, usually to better understand some work experience that they might have included on their resume. For example, if someone lists a job for a company I’ve never heard of, and I’m just not grasping what they do, I might look up that company on the Internet for a better understanding. That comes up a fair amount — I probably do that at least once a week.
But the best Google story I ever had concerned an applicant a couple of years ago — I think it was a woman — who described this incredible invention she created. This struck me as astonishing because, if I recall, she did not have the strongest academic record. Nonetheless, this invention (as she described it) struck me as pretty amazing because it was a rather sophisticated medical device and she would have been worth admitting on that ground alone. But this invention seemed so remarkable that I felt like I had to do some independent research and confirm her role in creating it. So I Googled it and I came across a ton of newspaper articles that discussed the invention; as it turned out it was the applicant’s mother — a scientist — who invented the device, not the applicant.
AD: Did the mother and the applicant share the same name?
SZ: No. The applicant was a teenager when the device was invented and clearly played no role in its creation. It was very weird. Needless to say, we didn’t extend an offer of admission.
AD: What advice would you give to students who may already have a lot of information about their private lives stored on a Facebook server somewhere on the Internet?
SZ: Even though I don’t actively engage in the practice of Googling applicants, I know for a fact that many of my colleagues at other law schools do. And likewise, a lot of legal employers do it. So, if I were an applicant I’d be proactive and Google myself — see what’s out there and clean it up. If you control the source of information about you—if it’s your account, then make sure it represents you in the best light possible, or make sure you have appropriate privacy protections in place. And maybe talk to friends about discretion as well. If there’s something out there that you can’t do anything about—well, think about whether it’s an issue you want to get out in front of in your application materials.
Look, law school applicants are applying for membership in a profession, and a little bad information out there creates the impression that there’s a whole lot more that can be discovered with just a little more digging. That’s not really the impression you want to leave with someone who is reviewing your application.
AD: On your blog, you spend a little time talking about applicants (and applications) who are like puzzles. Explain what this metaphor means to you, and how it plays into the admissions process.
SZ: When I pick up an application I have no idea who this applicant is as a person. I don’t even have the benefit of a completed picture on the front of a jigsaw puzzle box to help guide me through where the pieces need to go as I’m trying figure out the person that’s represented by all this paper. Sometimes the picture comes together and sometimes it doesn’t. If a picture materializes, it can be positive — but sometimes it’s not an overly positive picture and, in fact, sometimes it’s actually a negative one. In those cases we don’t admit.
If it’s one of those cases in which I close the file and I still don’t have a very good grasp of this person’s life story and what makes them who they are, then that’s very worrisome. I don’t want to take a risk by admitting someone who might not be a good fit for Michigan. When this happens, I think it’s fair to say you’ve failed to do your job as an applicant. If I have a lot of questions about you when I close your file, then you haven’t done a good job explaining yourself and your story. Sure, we teach you a lot in law school about how to be persuasive and how to best present information, but we also expect applicants to come to us with a basic skill set too. It’s important that you be able to “make your best case” — which is really how I view an applicant’s file — to hear your best arguments why you are a good fit for our law school.
I’m often asked, “How much can you really learn from a personal statement — they’re so cleaned up and polished…”
AD: At least you hope they are!
SZ: You’re right, but you’d be surprised just how many personal statements are not. But even when they come to you in a final form you’d expect from an applicant to Michigan, I’m often amazed by how much I can learn about an applicant. I’ve read so many personal statements where I end up walking away from reading them with a really good understanding about who this person is — and oftentimes, it’s a very negative picture.
SZ: Yeah, and while I can appreciate some people’s skepticism that you can’t learn that much about an applicant reading a personal statement, I’m here to tell you that you can — and it’s not always the picture a candidate might have envisioned. Sometimes, I’m finding things that are subtle and come from fifteen years of having done this. Other times, though, it begins with the first sentence and carries all the way through the essay — and I’m thinking that this is obviously a really smart person and I cannot believe they honestly think this is going to be persuasive to get them into law school.
AD: Do you have an example?
SZ: Yesterday I was reading applications all day and I read one from someone who had really great numbers and their personal statement was very off-putting, completely arrogant. Often, what we hate to see in a personal statement is arrogance, a sense of entitlement — or alternatively, a real victim’s voice — and you’d be amazed that people are astonishingly up front about revealing these aspects about themselves.
Look, I feel particularly strongly that one of the things that distinguishes Michigan from its peer schools is the personality of our students. Ours is a very collegial student body and part of that stems from the fact that we’re in a smaller city and most of the people who move here tend to make their lives and focus of their energy about the law school. So, I think it’s really important that there not be a high “jackass” quotient here.
AD: Can I quote that?
SZ: You can. Remember, I’m an alum. My best friends are Michigan Law alums and I’m very grateful for my role in shaping the environment we ultimately create for our students. I want each of our classes to have the same wonderful experience that I had when I was a student here. People are contributing a lot of time and money to attend law school and I’m very cognizant of the fact that my job it to build the best possible class so that they can walk away feeling like they got their money’s worth. I’m very protective of that.
I recently read a comment posted to the The New York Times Education Blog in which the poster was lamenting the apparent randomness of admissions decisions and said something like, “All admissions officers are only mediocre people who are not looking for genuine talent, rather they’re just looking for someone to have dinner with.” Now, that smarted — what, I’m mediocre? — but I simultaneously thought that’s right, I am looking for people I’d like to have dinner with — that doesn’t mean the people I admit aren’t talented! Don’t fault me for wanting to have dinner with talented people! The flip side to that comment is that people I wouldn’t want to have dinner with are not the type of people I want to have a Michigan law degree. Does that make sense?
AD: Very much so. So many things in life come down a person’s personality.
SZ: Exactly. So, while there’s probably a little bit of a sliding scale so that if you have 4.0 and a 180 on the LSAT, you can probably have a little bit less personality than a candidate with less impressive scores — but you certainly can’t have a horrible personality. The law school learning environment is interactive and so much of it depends upon students’ ability to respectfully contribute in the classroom setting, and the wrong personality can really disrupt that environment for everyone in the room. On the few occasions when we’ve mistakenly admitted students who ended up being truly disruptive, it really does make a difference.
But let me dial back just a little bit from my hyperbole, because I don’t want to suggest that if we’ve denied someone, it’s because we think they’re a jackass. We’re taking an enormous number of factors into consideration when we’re assessing an applicant; a denial can be for many, many reasons, and I’ve denied many applications from many people who seem great along many dimensions.
AD: For those students who are unable to make an on-campus visit, what would you want them to know about the UMich Law Campus, the staff, student life, and the city of Ann Arbor? For instance, I assume that winters in Ann Arbor are very conducive to studying, but what other advantages does UMich Law’s geographic location have for its students?
SZ: [Laughing] Remember, it’s always 70 degrees in the library.
What I loved about Ann Arbor when I was a student is that the city is very manageable and there’s always enough going on to keep you busy. The presence of the University really enhances that, so I’d say that there is a lot more going on in Ann Arbor than in a similarly sized city without a college or university.
When you’re a student, you usually have little time and little money. The nice thing is that the University is the center of the city so it’s easy to walk places; it’s easy to find parking; it’s easy to get tickets to the places you want to go and get seated at the places you want to eat — it’s a very manageable city. That was huge for me — that and cheap beer. What more do you need?!?
That said, I recognize that a school-centric environment may not be what everybody is looking for from a law school experience. Some people may want to treat law school like a job. That just means that Michigan is probably not the best school for them — seriously, they might find it oppressively friendly here. But if “friendly” and “engaged” do sound appealing, I couldn’t image a better place to study law.
With respect to the student life here, your classmates will become a big part of your world. Again, because this is such a small, close-knit community with the school at the center, people who come here have to be prepared for that type of environment — again, I understand that this is not the law school experience that everyone is looking for.
AD: You mentioned the collegial environment before, is that what distinguishes UMich Law from other law schools?
SZ: I think it does. But let me be clear: knowing what I know about Michigan, and from talking with colleagues at other peer schools, I think the general perception that there is a lot of back-biting and competitive behavior at the top law schools is wildly overblown. That said, while I don’t think there’s as much nastiness and combativeness at top schools as many pre-laws may believe, I do think the social lives of students at different law schools may not be as centered on the school as they are here at Michigan. Law school here makes up such a large part of what student life here, both academically and socially, that I think it’s important for anyone considering Michigan as a possible choice to understand that. But I also think, fundamentally, that we prize emotional intelligence in applicants, and we see the results of that valuation in our student body.
AD: I’m sure you’ve read the reports that explain how the USNEWS Law Rankings have some law schools adopting questionable practices and, in fact, according to a Government Accountability Office reportreleased in October 2009, the law school tuition spike over the past two decades can be directly attributed to the USNEWS rankings. How do you feel about the USNEWS rankings (or other rankings systems), and how would you advise an applicant to best factor them into his or her decision-making process?
SZ: I saw that GAO Report. And did you happen to see the article today about how USNEWS is going to start ranking law firms?
AD: I did. We actually posted about that on our blog yesterday. I think it’s funny that for the past two decades USNEWS has been causing havoc with their law school rankings and the ABA hasn’t really done anything to address it. But, as soon as USNEWS says that it’s going to start ranking law firms and all hell breaks loose!
SZ: Yeah, I agree. I have to give credit to Brian Leiter because he was spot on when he asked why is the ABA only starting to pay attention to the rankings (and their effects) now? Come on!
With regard to the USNEWS law school rankings, I have to admit that while I’m very familiar with the schools toward the top — those around Michigan — I’m not terribly familiar with the rankings as a whole. I tend to think that as you proceed from #20 to #200, the rankings probably get worse and worse with respect to how much information readers actually get. It’s my belief that they just become less meaningful as you march down the rankings. With regards to the Top 20 or so law schools, I think that the rankings are basically right — they are generally in sync with my intuitions. [Laughing] Of course, I may be biased — I generally think that Michigan Law should be ranked #1 and there should be a vast gulf before you get to number #2! But other than that, I think they’re more or less correct, albeit painted with broad strokes.
But—that said—USNWR isn’t great. It creates terrible incentives for higher ed—for example, by heavily valuing per student expenditures–and gives the would-be student a false sense of precision about what is being measured. I read a great piece in The New Yorker a while ago, interviewing Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College. He said this about USNWR: “It’s one of the real black marks on the history of higher education that an entire industry that’s supposedly populate dby the best minds in the country… I s bamboozled by a third-rate news magazine… They do almost a parody of real research… I joke that the next thing they’ll do is rank churches. You know, ‘Where does God appear most frequently? How big are the pews?’” He has a point.
AD: Do you happen to know how much that per capita spending data point is worth in the USNEWS methodology?
SZ: I do. I believe that total student expenditures make up about 11.25% of USNEWS’s methodology. The reason expenditures are so important is not simply that it’s 11.25% of the calculus, but because it’s the biggest differentiator among schools. Some would argue that it’s the sole reason why Yale is so solidly #1 above Harvard, for example, because Harvard’s student body is so much bigger and the dollars they spend (although large) get spread over so many more students. So, while to a certain extent I applaud having all the information underlying the rankings out there, I really think they end up doing more harm than good. I tend to side with Brian Leiter who says that to the extent rankings are necessary, the ABA should be doing it. Even though I’m sure that too would have unintended consequences, I believe it would probably be better than the way the system exists right now.
In terms of how I would advise a student to best use the rankings, I guess I’d have to say take them with a huge grain of salt. Just like a school should not make decisions based solely upon a one-point difference in a candidate’s LSAT score, applicants are foolish to make a decision about which law school they ultimately attend based solely upon a one or two point difference in the rankings. The rankings may offer a good rough measure, but that’s about all they do.
AD: I’m not sure if you poked around on AdmissionsDean, but we’ve created a function that allows users to create their own law rankings on a variety of objective data points that law schools self report to the ABA.
SZ: I did see that, and I think that’s wonderful because, to a certain extent it puts the power in the applicants’ hands to allow them to rank law schools according to factors that are important to them.
AD: UMich Law prides itself on its interdisciplinary approach. Tell us about the law school’s relationship to the University of Michigan as a whole. How does the University inform law studies and how does the law school affect what goes on with undergraduate and graduate programs?
SZ: We make it really easy for law students to take graduate level courses at the University. Law students are allowed to take up to 12 credits from other parts of the University – so administratively, it’s fairly easy to supplement the traditional law school curriculum with classes from other schools in our system. Also, geographically, the law school is located pretty much in the center of the University’s campus, so it’s fairly easy our students to take advantage classes from other schools. Everything is very close by which is really important for anyone who is considering an interdisciplinary education think about the physical layout of the campus and ask yourself if you’ll really ever take advantage of other parts of the university. If you need to get on a bus to take a class, chances are you’re not going to do it. In addition to regular classes, we also have a large number of lunchtime talks. Our law faculty will invite other professors from around the University to come in and speak on a particular topic, providing a richer (yet less structured) educational experience. And finally, the faculty themselves often have formal interdisciplinary training in fields outside the law and they gain more interdisciplinary perspective as faculty here simply by interacting with each other. I never took any classes outside the law school while I was here I was a total law geek but I still feel like I got a lot of interdisciplinary training.
AD: The Dean of another top law school located in the Midwest recently took some heat when he commented that unless you attend a school with a median starting salary of at least $65,000, law school is not a wise investment. What advice would you give to students who are questioning the value of a law degree? Also, assuming your son or daughter was genuinely interested in the law, what financial considerations would you hope he or she would consider before starting the application process?
SZ: I’m not a certified financial planner, but I assume the proposition is true that you have to earn at least X dollars to pay off Y dollars in debt. I’m sure that we could probably quibble about the numbers and while I don’t know what the correct formula is, I don’t doubt that there is one. But, what that formula probably doesn’t take into account is that the only way you can practice law is by going to law school — and there is something other than simply an economic benefit to being a lawyer. I don’t practice law full time, but I still take pro bono cases — I get paid $0 when I do take a case — but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I really love being a lawyer! And, as I said, the only way you can get that opportunity is by going to law school. So, while I get that there is a certain dollar amount that must be earned to satisfy the debt that comes along with law school, I don’t think that you can look at this from a purely dollars and cents perspective. You must also factor in all the non-economic benefits that come along with being a lawyer.
I actually remember talking with a former student who came from very a challenging socio-economic background and when she talked with her parents about accumulating a lot of debt to go to law school her father said to her, “Your whole life you pay bills. One of your bills is going to be law school.” So, I think that’s pretty good advice — worry more about the path you ultimately choose and whether if it’s right for you.
What I want everyone who’s applying to law school to ask themselves is: “Why do I want to do this?” If the answer is simply economics, then I’d recommend that they think long and hard about that reason. Law school is expensive and requires a lot of debt, as well as a lot of hard work; you shouldn’t pursue it simply because as a means to a larger paycheck — you have to pursue law because it speaks to you in some greater way. And people should never rush into law school — don’t do it simply because you’re graduating from college and you think, “Jeez, the regular job market is horrible. I’ll wait it out in law school.” That’s not a smart move.
Students should also consider the value of a school’s debt management program, or Loan Repayment Assistance Program. Those function as after-the-fact scholarships, in essence. The details vary widely among schools, and outcomes depend on how much debt you have relative to your income, but at Michigan, if you go into a lower-paying public interest job, it’s quite possible that you’ll never pay any of your loans.
AD: What kind of support does UMich Law offer to students who know they don’t want to pursue a BigLaw job? I noticed, for instance, that you clerked for the 6th Circuit before entering private practice, and when you returned to UMich Law in 1999 you worked as a clerkship advisor. What experience does a judicial clerkship offer to recent grads, and what are the other career paths available to UMich Law grads (e.g., public interest, academia)?
SZ: I think a clerkship is the most fantastic job you can get. I learned so much about being a good lawyer by being a law clerk and watching other lawyers practice before the court. It’s really very difficult to imagine what a judge is thinking unless you’ve been in that situation. I grew a lot during my clerkship — I felt like I gained a lot of experience very early in my career as an attorney. My work as a clerk gave me a lot of advantages professionally as well. When I ultimately went to work at a firm it was fantastic to have much more senior, experienced lawyers pull me into a meeting and ask me, “Sarah, what do you think” or “how do you think your judge would view this argument?” As a junior associate, I was asked to consult on a lot matters at the firm simply because I had clerked for a year after law school.
AD: And Michigan is a great feeder school into clerkships, right?
SZ: Yes. More than100 Michigan people every year go into clerking, either right after graduating or after a year or two in a different practice setting. Last year, about 20% of our graduates began their careers in a clerkship.
One more thing I’d like to say about clerkships is that they not only a fantastic route to private practice — clerks are highly coveted and it’s hard to imagine someone not getting scooped up after a clerkship — but clerkships are also a great way to get into public interest and government jobs. A lot of those jobs won’t give you an offer until you passed the bar, but clerkships will. So you take a clerkship, study for the bar, take (and pass) the bar and then you can walk right into a public interest or government position right after your clerkship.
AD: How many people do you send into public interest, government, and academic jobs?
SZ: We send about 10% of the class into either public interest or government work — that’s a pretty big number.
In terms of academia, Michigan is always one of the top 5 feeders for people going into academia. We’re actually neck and neck with Columbia. Traditionally Harvard and Yale send the most grads into academia, and they are followed by Columbia and Michigan who are pretty much tied with the number of graduates who are currently teaching in U.S. law schools.
AD: What advice do you have for candidates applying for financial aid? Does UMich Law offer merit or need-based scholarships? What can an applicant do to increase his or her chances of receiving a scholarship?
SZ: In terms of the types of financial aid we offer, Michigan extends both merit and need-based scholarships. For the merit, the admissions office makes a decision and simply sends you a letter. If you don’t get a merit scholarship from us but do at another school, we invite you to tell us about it and we may decide to compete with it, or even match it, depending on the strength of the candidate and the competing school. Then we also have need-based aid and that is handled through our financial aid office; you will fill out a form and they will let you know if you qualify.
As for advice, if you’re seeking for us to match a competing merit scholarship, then try not to be rude! Think about our perspective. I sometimes feel like I’m being asked to function as a used car salesman when I’m talking with someone about their financial aid package, but I’m obviously not someone who views a Michigan Law education as commodity that can be traded. For me it’s much more personal, so sometimes conversations about scholarship money can be a little demoralizing. Remember, we have finite resources and we are trying to do the best we can for as many people as we can.
AD: Can you walk our readers through the application process at UMich Law – from beginning to end? Who gets involved in the admissions process and what characteristics are you looking at when deciding who gets accepted and who gets denied?
SZ: Sure. So an applicant submits their application through the Law School Admissions Council and it comes to us by mail – LSAC prints it out and mails it to us. Some data gets downloaded even before we get the application and we have staff here that reformats some parts of that data because it doesn’t always come in the way we like it. For instance, some of the data we receive from LSAC comes in all CAPS and our staff will clean that up and enter the applicant into our database system.
Once we receive the printed application from LSAC, it gets submitted to a first reader – a member of our admissions staff – and that person will compile a stack of applications that then get passed along to me for a second read. I do read every application and make the ultimate decision on them. We try to make decisions as quickly as possible, but there are many that I read and I ultimately think to myself, “I don’t know.” I may really like that person, but I’m just not sure. Those applications get put aside and I will re-read them before making my final decision.
For those folks who get denied or waitlisted, we bundle all those together and send them out periodically. I sign all of the denial letters personally; the waitlist notifications are handled electronically.
The offer letters I also sign myself and those go out on almost a daily basis – I can’t do too many of those every day because I like to make personal notes and review the file one last time just to make sure. I’d say I end up sending out about 20 to 25 offer letters per day, three times a week. And then, about a week after the offer letter goes out, I go back and make any merit aid decision with respect to that applicant.
AD: Do faculty ever get involved in the decision making process?
SZ: They get involved in selecting the Darrow Scholarship recipients. We have a full scholarship called the Darrow Scholarship and the faculty will get involved in choosing who receives those scholarships. I invite some admitted students to apply for the Darrow Scholarship and then pass those applications along to the faculty and sometimes they agree with my recommendations and sometimes they do not.
AD: How many Darrow Scholarships does Michigan award?
SZ: We try to award between 12 and 14 Darrow Scholarships – some years we come in heavy, other years we come in light.
AD: What steps do you suggest applicants take before they ever approach someone to write a letter of recommendation?
SZ: You need to offer the potential recommender an out by asking whether they feel comfortable writing you a “strong” letter of recommendation. Do it in person so you can gauge their reaction and see if there is any hesitation to your question. If you get any less than an enthusiastic “Yes!” then don’t be afraid to say, “You know what, I’ll find someone else.”
AD: What can people who have been out of school for a while do before applying to law school do to strengthen their applications?
SZ: You know those are usually very strong applications. I’ll say this: we’re looking for people here at Michigan who are very engaged in their community. So, if you’re working, I’d suggest that you make time for something outside of work — some kind of volunteer effort or some kind of group — something to show me that you are not an “all work and no play” person.
AD: You accepted about 20 transfer students into the Class of 2017. How many transfer applications do you typically receive and what are you looking for in a transfer student? In your opinion, what can really make a transfer applicant stand out from the crowd?
SZ: Last year I think we received about 150 transfer applications. It’s an advantage to come to Michigan as a transfer student from many schools, but it’s a disadvantage to come here if you are not going to do well. I consider each transfer application very carefully and will never take a risk on a transfer student because I feel that to do so is doing that student a huge disservice.
The difference between the 1L application pool and the transfer pool is that I know that 50% of the people I admit as 1Ls are going to end up in the bottom 50% of the class. That’s just the way the numbers shake out. So for all of our 1Ls I want to make sure that I accept interesting, resilient people who are going to be able to find employment regardless of where they end up in the class.
By contrast, I don’t want any of our transfer students to end up in the bottom half of the class — if that happened I would feel like I ruined their life. As a result, I care much less about their wealth of experience and how interesting they are; rather, I just want to know whether they are going to excel if they come here. Consequently, it is much more about academics in the transfer process than it is in the 1L application process where we have a lot of other factors to consider. What I’m really looking at is how well you did during your first year of law school, and where you spent your 1L year. I want people I know will be a success at Michigan and the best indicator of how well someone will do once they get here is how well they did during their 1L year.
AD: How far down in the rankings do you look at transfer students?
SZ: I really don’t have a cut off, but the lower you go, the harder it gets. Without naming names, there are many schools for which I’ll only admit the #1 person in the class as a transfer student.
AD: Dean Zearfoss, we have taken a lot of your time — an hour and a half to be exact — so I want to thank you for this opportunity and for your very candid answers.
SZ: You’re very welcome, I really enjoyed talking with you – it was a nice break from reading applications. I hope this interview proves helpful for AdmissionDean’s users.