Assistant Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid, NYLS
This is the 15th installment of our 224 part series, “Better Know A Dean.” Today I have the pleasure of sitting down with William Perez, Assistant Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid at New York Law School. Dean Perez has more than three decades of experience in graduate admissions and financial aid. He joined NYLS in 2003 after serving as the Dean of Admissions and Financial Resource Management at Seton Hall University School of Law. Prior to that, he was the Director of Admissions at CUNY Law School and the Assistant Dean for Admissions at St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami. He spent many years in undergraduate admissions before moving to law schools.
AD: Dean Perez, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions that an applicant might have about admissions to, or life at, New York Law School.
WP: It’s my pleasure.
AD: You’ve been involved in admissions for the better part of 30 years and law admissions for more than half that time and I know that you’ve been watching the development of AdmissionsDean since we launched in 2009.
WP: You’re correct on both points.
AD: So, given your extensive experience, I feel compelled to ask you whether AdmissionsDean is a great way to learn about the law school admissions process, or the greatest way to learn about and research everything related to law school admissions?
WP: [Laughing] Do whatever you like, but I’m serious. You should be pretty proud of what you’ve built so far with AdmissionsDean. It is a very informative site.
AD: We do try very hard to pull back the curtain and provide law school applicants with a real look inside the law school admissions process (and beyond). So, seriously, thanks for your kind words — but you may want to hold back your praise because I’m going to hit you with some pretty hard questions or, as Steven Colbert might say, “Nail you.” Are you ready?
WP: Hummmmmm… Okay.
AD: New York Law School’s Dean, Richard Matasar, has long been an outspoken critic for an overhaul of the legal education system in the United States — especially in light of the recent downturn in the legal hiring market. Specifically, during the Association for American Law Schools annual conference in January, 2009, Dean Matasar rallied against the exploitive nature of some law schools explaining:
“We took them. We took their money. We live on their money. … And if they don’t have a good outcome in life, we’re exploiting them. It’s our responsibility to own the outcomes of our institutions. If they’re not doing well … it’s gotta be fixed. Or we should shut the damn place down. And that’s a moral responsibility that we bear in the academy…. Maybe the chance at being in the top 10 percent is not a good enough lottery shot in order to effectively spend $120,000 and see it blow up at the end of three years of law school.”
Well, that’s quite a mouthful! Can you briefly summarize his views on how and why law schools need to evolve and what specifically is NYLS doing to address his concerns and carry out his vision of reform.
WP: Dean Matasar’s views stem from his career as legal educator as well as having served on the board of The Access Group. Given his background he is very sensitive to the debt burdens that students assume when pursuing a legal education. His contention is that, as with any other industry, law schools must continue to evolve and add value for students or else face the destruction of the legal education system in the United States. Because of what many law schools are doing there is a decline in the perceived value of a law degree. In fact, he described investing in a law degree is like “buying a new Mercedes every year, and then pushing it off a cliff.” What he means is that in the real world when you purchase a car, you get to enjoy the benefit of car for (hopefully) a long period of time. By contrast, law students at some schools take on massive debt and they essentially gamble that they are going to be at the top of their class and get an offer for one of those high-paying jobs in a large, international law firm. The problem is the vast majority of the class — usually the bottom 90% — is not in that group.
So, basically, the Dean’s argument is that, for many, the costs of going to law school will exceed the returns they are able to reap. Now, even though law school may not amount to a wise financial strategy for many people, they have continued to go because interest rates for student loans have remained at an all-time low. However, when the economy rebounds and the interest rates go up — and that is going to happen — students will perform a cost-benefit analysis and decide that they are not going to borrow large sums of money for what amounts to a serious gamble. And when that happens, law schools are going to be standing there saying, “Whoa, we really missed something here.”
AD: Okay, now Bill, are you ready to get “nailed”?
WP: I would respond to that criticism the same way I was going to answer the second part of your initial question: “what specifically is NYLS doing to address Dean Matasar’s concerns and/or carry out his vision?” The short answer is that New York Law School has taken active steps to provide value for its students that justify the cost of attendance. We have developed programming so that all of our students receive the support they need to enjoy a return on their investment.
For instance, we have the Harlan Honors Program for students who are in the top 15% of their 1L class to help push these students to achieve their full potential. Instead of simply rewarding our top-performing students with things like law review or deans list honors — which is where many law schools seem to get stuck — we continue to foster their growth and success by providing them different challenges. Honors students also receive a modest scholarship if they didn’t already receive one as a 1L.
Where the program is unique, is that in addition to law review participation, Harlan Honors students are required to affiliate with one of the nine academic centers at the Law School. This means that these students work closely with faculty on research projects related to their center and they also get involved by helping to schedule events and programs. We also encourage our honors students assume more responsibilities like trying to get published — often on a topic that relates to the center with which they are affiliated. The purpose of all of this to build ‘über law students’ — the type of student top law firms want associated with their practice.
The other place we’ve created value is for students who may be struggling — those typically in the bottom 25% of the 1L class. Rather than keeping their first-year tuition and showing them the door like many law schools, we identify students who are having difficulties right at the end of the first semester and place them into our Comprehensive Curriculum Program — a program designed to assist students with counseling, scheduling, and individual attention to reinforce the first-year skills needed for success. The first step for these students is triaging them in order to find out where their difficulty stems from — personal issues interfering, problems with time management.
WP: I sure hope not! He’s exactly the type of student our Comprehensive Curriculum Program tries to identify and help.
So, once we triage the student and find out what is preventing him or her from excelling here, we will modify that student’s schedule during the second semester. The student usually drops one class and takes a more robust version of the Lawyering Skills class so that we can give that student every opportunity to rebuild those skills that didn’t quite develop during the first semester. As a result, some of students will have to attend an extra semester in order to make up for the schedule modification — and we don’t charge them for that. If we’ve gotten it right and fixed the problems, and the student starts performing well, then we’ve found that the majority of these students will pass the bar on their first try and — at least up until this year (we’re waiting for the data to come in now) — they’ve found jobs. That’s because when employers look at their transcripts they can see that the student might have struggled at the very beginning of law school but then turned in a solid performance for the remaining 2-1/2 years — that’s very compelling evidence about a student’s ability to handle the rigors of legal practice.
Another place we are trying to add value to our students is by helping change the timeline for law school. Dean Matasar has questioned, “Where is it written that you need to go to four years of college and then three years of law school?” There’s no law that says that’s the case. So, we’ve partnered with several undergraduate colleges to allow their students to participate in a 3 + 3 Program — three years of college and three years of law school. In most cases, during what would be their senior year, students begin their first year of law school. At the end of their first year they will receive their bachelor’s degree and two years later they get their J.D.
AD: So, that’s can be a huge savings for students — at least $20-30K.
WP: That’s right, this program ends up saving these students (and their families) a year, both in terms of time and tuition.
AD: Which undergraduate institutions do you offer the 3 + 3 program with?
WP: Adelphi University, New England College, Southern Vermont College and Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
AD: And how many students take advantage of these 3+3 programs?
WP: The group is relatively small — usually only one or two students per school, per year. We are presently negotiating with other schools to expand the number of 3+3 programs we offer. In addition, we are exploring other innovative ways to shorten the college-through-J.D. timeline.
AD: Okay, I see that you’ve added a lot of value that other schools may not.
WP: Actually, there’s one more thing I’d like to mention. Another example of where NYLS is adding value is with our part-time program. We conducted a survey over the four years of our part-time students, faculty and employers and it revealed that the practical, “real world” skills component of a legal education differs between full- and part-time students. Because they attend law school during the evening, part-time students typically don’t have time to engage in internships, externships and clinicals — valuable opportunities to develop and hone lawyering skills that are more readily available to our full-time students. Because we are sensitive to the needs of our part-time students, we revamped the part-time 1L curriculum to include a lawyering practice course that is very skills oriented. It combines legal research and writing with aspects of real world practice through the use of things like simulation exercises. We hired full-time faculty members (not adjuncts) to meet this special need of our part-time students. So, we are clearly adding value to that population — about 25% of our overall enrollment.
AD: Okay, you’ve got me convinced — NYLS is not like some of the other “lawyer factories” out there that accept students who have no business going to law school in the first place and then either flunk them out after one year or graduate them without any real hope of either passing the bar or getting a job. So, why do you think that Dean Matasar’s comments have drawn such harsh criticism?
WP: It’s precisely because too many people perceive New York Law School as a “lesser” school — wrongly so I must say — and the kind of school that Dean Matasar is speaking about, that has made his viewpoint so controversial. But his efforts here that have resulted in improved outcomes and satisfaction for our students show the wisdom of his perspective. Dramatic improvements in the Law School’s bar passage rate in the past several years and solid employment results for our graduates show that we do “own the outcomes from our institution.”
I’d also like to also point out that Dean Matasar is not the only person out here sounding the alarm. In a recent National Jurist Article, Brian Tananaha, a professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, mirrors, in large part, what Dean Matasar has been saying publicly for the past few years. The only difference is that NYLS is ranked in the Third Tier by USNEWS and WashU isn’t. While it’s clear that at both schools those in the top 10% have all the advantage and those in the bottom half of the class struggle, I’m willing to bet that Professor Tamanaha won’t be vilified for his comments in the way that Dean Matasar has been.
What it boils down to is that Dean Matasar has tried to push law schools and the American Bar Association to change. He argues that without change to the way law schools operate only three types of law schools will continue to survive. First, of course, the “prestigious law schools” — those traditionally at the very top of the USNEWS Law Rankings — will survive because people see them as having intrinsic value.
Secondly, publicly funded, state law schools will also survive because their value stems from the fact that the cost of attendance is low (although I’m not sure if that will be true in every state since in places like California, in-state tuition is climbing right up there to rival what’s charged at some of the most expensive most private law schools). In any event, we can assume that even without drastic change to the legal education system, most state schools will continue to thrive.
Finally, the for-profit law schools that have very low standards and pretty much accept anyone who applies — and I’m not going to name names — they too will survive because they offer an educational opportunity for students who might not otherwise be able to attend an ABA-approved school.
Absent change in the system, however, if you’re running a law school that does not fall within one of those three categories — and that’s the overwhelming majority of them — the longevity of your school is probably at risk. Because you are charging a relatively high tuition you may find that your entire business model won’t work because the value proposition to your customer (the students) just isn’t there. That’s really why the Dean has tried to call attention to this growing concern.
So, in addition to the steps that we’ve already taken to add value to the student experience, NYLS is also exploring other ways it can diversify itself in order to reduce its administrative costs — savings that, in theory, could be passed along to our law students. For instance, there have been discussions about converting the law school into a mini-university that will offer different programming. Also, we’ve sought partnerships with foreign universities to assist them with establishing an American-based MBA program by allowing foreign schools to use our facilities and provide their students with exposure to American business methods.
Dean Matasar has also tried to get the ABA to agree to some ideas that would diversify the methods of delivering a legal education. Right now if someone wants to acquire knowledge about a specific area of law, they need to come to NYLS and get a 3-year juris doctorate degree. One of the Dean’s ideas would create several entry and exit points for people who have no desire to practice law. So, for instance, if someone is working in the financial services industry in a compliance department, they could come and take some courses related to financial services regulation, securities regulation and stuff like that. They would get an understanding of those specific areas and then leave, never do anything more than that. So, we have been doing some outside the box thinking here to make sure we don’t eventually price ourselves out of the market while remaining on the right side of the ABA.
AD: When deciding whether a legal education is a good investment, a large part of the equation depends upon the types of jobs available to graduates. It’s no secret that in these troubling economic times large law firms — especially those in New York — have made deep cuts in the number of lawyers they recruit right out of law school. In your opinion, when the economy rebounds will those jobs come back?
WP: Look, hiring at large law firms is a “lagging indicator” about the strength of the legal market because those firms tend to be very conservative in their hiring decisions. Large law firms want to make sure the work that stems from a robust economy will be there to justify hiring more people. So, even when general unemployment numbers start improving and the economy starts to rebound, we should expect that it to take law firms a little bit longer to come around. If the economy were to rebound tomorrow, it’s still going to be three years before we see law firms start hiring in the large numbers they used to. People have to prepare for that.
AD: If that’s the case, then, you have at least two or three classes of law students to cycle through.
AD: The other concern, I guess, is that law firms for the past few years have been managing with fewer associates and staff. Just like individuals who have been forced to reduce their spending and have learned that they can survive just fine without that new iPad, law firms too have been learning to do more with less without seeing a dramatic decrease in their profits per partner. So, the big question is: having learned how to work more efficiently, whether large law firms will try to maximize profits when the business returns by operating with a smaller staff of high-priced attorneys.
WP: You’re very right. That is something that we’ll have to watch closely.
AD: Do you recommend a path that has students pursuing a law degree immediately after college, or would you like to see more applicants work for a few years before law school?
WP: I just think you should go to law school whenever you’re ready. If you’re 22 years old and ready to go to law school, then go. That’s my view. But, I will tell people that if there is something you want to do now while you don’t have other commitments, then you better do those things before going to law school. I guarantee that there won’t be much room in your schedule after law school to do things like Teach For America Teach For America and the Peace Corps. If you want to have that type of life experience, then you should definitely plan to put off law school for a couple of years. Or, if you have any ambivalence about law school and you want to try out other fields to make sure that law is what you want to do for the rest of your life, then you’re not ready to go and should take a year or two off to explore those other fields.
But it’s probably not smart to take a year off without any plan. If you’re just going to be a hamburger flipper or a barista at Starbucks and those things are not part your life plan — then what good is that year really going to do for you or your law school application? Not much. If you’re sure that law is what you want to do, you might as well begin on your path.
AD: According to the most recent NYLS class profile, the average age of students admitted to your full time program is about 24 years old. So most of your students are taking a year or two off, no?
WP: No, not necessarily. California is the 4th largest state represented by our student body and students coming out of the UC and CalState systems often need five years to get their bachelor’s degree. So, when you combine those people with the folks who took some time offer after college, the average age goes up for our students.
AD: That dovetails nicely into my next question: how do you think that the current economy has played a role in persuading older, non-traditional students to return to law school?
WP: This year, I did see a slight increase in the number of applicants who were more than one or two years out of undergrad, but the number was slight and probably statistically insignificant. For those folks, I my guess is that the economy might have been a factor — perhaps those applicants got laid off and decided now was a good time to go to back to school.
What I find more interesting, though, is that the number of (much) older applicants dropped over the last few cycles. My guess is that there are people who really want to leave their current job and return to law school, but they are not willing to give up that job — or spend the money to go part time — until the economy becomes more secure. This means people are putting their lives and dreams on hold because of money and I find that very sad (but understandable).
AD: NYLS’s part time program is about 1/4 the size of your full-time program. How do the admissions standards differ between the full- and part-time programs?
WP: It is the same exact process and our admissions standards do not differ at all. Any difference between the LSAT and GPA scores for our part-time students — and I think they are pretty slight — can be explained by the fact that our admissions process is not driven by numbers like it is at most places. A lengthy and robust resume, or a graduate degree, are things that we often see more in the case of part-time applicants than with our full-time pool. We frequently will deny admission to a recent college graduate who is applying to the part-time program simply because they might have a lower LSAT score or GPA. Unlike a lot of schools, we will never risk our part-time division by placing less qualified students in that program. We’ve had a part-time program at New York Law School since 1904 and some of our most illustrious alumni were night students. As a result, we try really hard to keep the part-time program available to working adults who want a law degree but cannot afford to quit their jobs because they need to support themselves or their families.
AD: So, students applying to your part-time program can overcome a lower LSAT score or GPA because they often have other work experience or accomplishments?
AD: Or, do you ever consider the fact that someone who is working may not have as much time to devote to preparing for the LSAT and you give them the benefit of the doubt?
WP: That might be part of it too. Sure.
AD: Is it possible to enter as a part-time student and switch into the full time program? If so, what steps would student need to take in order to make that leap?
WP: Yes, it is possible to switch from the part-time into the full-time program. This often happens when a traditional part-time student — a working adult — gets a little impatient since four years is a long time to wait. They may decide in their second or third year that they want to finish up earlier. Others really enjoy law school and decide that they want to quit their job and attend full-time so they can get the “full” law school experience — to participate in clinics and externships, things like that will help them improve their practical skills.
To make that change, students can either take classes over the summer or simply switch over to a full-time schedule and graduate at an accelerated pace. Everyone who switches handles it in his or her own way.
AD: Are part-time students eligible to participate in the Harlan Honors Program?
WP: Yes, of course. We treat our part-time students exactly the same as our full-time students.
AD: Yes, of course. We treat our part-time students exactly the same as our full-time students.
WP: In truth, I don’t know how they do it, but they manage to do it (and quite well). Part-time students — particularly successful ones — always have that extra something that allows them to accept any challenge we place before them. They come in on Friday nights or on the weekends and manage to fulfill their law review obligations or work in one of our academic centers. What constantly amazes me is their ability to manage what little spare time they must have. Part-time students represent quite an amazing breed!
AD: We talked about law review briefly before when you mentioned the Harlan Honors Program, but how does law review work at NYLS — is it only open to the top 15% or is there some kind of write-on competition?
WP: Like most schools, NYLS does have a write-on competition to allow those outside the top 15% to participate on law review. A few people from both the full- and part-time programs make it onto law review every year though the write-on competition.
AD: Historically, applications to law school have increased in a bad economy. What trends are you seeing in law school applications?
WP: During this past cycle we saw applications increase slightly on the national level (about 2%) and we experienced about a 7% increase here at New York Law School. Now, understand that for the class that entered in the fall of 2009 we experienced a 25% drop in applications when compared to the previous cycle (2007-08). So, if you look at the number of applications we received over the 3-year period, we actually received far fewer applications in this past cycle than we did during the 2007-08 cycle.
AD: And why do you think that is?
WP: It’s a market correction. New York Law School is an expensive law school that’s located in an expensive city. Because we’re not in the “first tier,” we will come off people’s lists when they are trying to save money on application fees.
AD: Are you expecting this cycle to be as competitive as it was during the last cycle?
WP: There is every indication that we’ll experience another increase in applications this coming year, but I expect it will be modest — something in the 2-5% range. Keep in mind that on a national level, applications to law school have increased at a very modest pace. That is what makes this recession different from past recessions. I remember some years when the economy tanked and we couldn’t process the applications fast enough — that has changed.
Now, over the past two cycles — those classes that entered in 2009 and 2010 — we’ve experienced a very high yield among the students we admit. It actually increased by 10%. This means that when we offer someone a spot, they were 10% more likely to accept our invitation and enroll at NYLS. The other thing that has changed is that in the past I could count on at least 33% of our deposited students not to attend NYLS for whatever reason. That rate has dropped significantly to about only 22%.
So, we have seen a higher percentage of applicants accept our offer and, of those people, a higher number of them are sticking with that decision. What this means is that I have no choice but to extend fewer offers this year. We’ve had two cycles where both our yield and retention increased, resulting in larger classes than we had anticipated. From a practical standpoint, we cannot admit another big entering class without placing enormous stress on the school, its facilities and resources.
Making fewer offers going forward means that we will very likely become more selective and LSAT and GPA scores will go up again. That is not our intent, but it will be the effect of me trying to get our class size back to where it should be after two very large cycles.
AD: And what is your target for this year’s class?
WP: The target class size is 590 — 460 full-time students and 130 part-time students. That is our target and we were WAY over that in 2009 because we started with 729 students — 140 more students than we intended. In 2010, we exceeded our target by more than 50 students, which is still a lot.
AD: So you don’t feel any pressure to keep your LSAT/GPA numbers up — for purposes of the USNEWS Law School Rankings — because you think those will increase naturally as a result of your efforts to enroll a smaller class.
WP: Yes, that’s correct. But it’s not a smaller class in terms of goal, it’s that our target is a smaller number than what we’ve enrolled in the past two years.
AD: And I presume then you’ll rely on the waitlist in case the yield isn’t as high?
WP: Look, I’m definitely going to have a large wait list because although two years of data indicates that something is going on, it is not a trend that I can take to the bank.
AD: For my next series of questions, I’m going to ask you to put on your “Dean of Financial Aid” hat.
AD: Okay, according to the most recently published ABA data, approximately 34% of NYLS’s full-time students (and 23% of part-time students) received some sort of scholarship or grant. How does an applicant get considered for a scholarship and what factors do you look at when determining an award?
WP: I’m not going to lie, our decisions about who gets a scholarship usually hinges on the applicant’s LSAT score. Applicants with LSAT scores above our median — particularly those around and above our 75th percentile — can expect to receive a scholarship offer. The amount of that scholarship may be moderated by the applicant’s GPA. So, an applicant that has an LSAT score in the 158 range but a lower GPA might not receive a scholarship — or will receive a reduced award when compared with someone with that same LSAT score but with a GPA that also falls around our 75th percentile.
That’s basically how our scholarship process works. We offer scholarships in order to encourage applicants with higher LSAT scores to attend NYLS. It’s what the other law schools do.
AD: Is your scholarship guaranteed for all three years or does it depend upon the recipient maintaining a certain GPA?
WP: It is guaranteed for the first year and a student gets to keep it all — or a portion of it — depending upon their final (cumulative) first-year GPA that is calculated at end of the spring semester. If the recipient’s GPA falls below a 3.1 then he or she will be ineligible for a scholarship during the second and third years.
AD: And what is the grading curve at New York Law School?
WP: It’s a 3.1.
AD: So your scholarship recipients only need to maintain a GPA that will put them in the top 50% of our class — that is definitely a lot more fair than some of the “bait and switch” scholarships offered by other law schools. Those schools often require recipients to maintain a rank in the top 25% or higher.
WP: There are schools that have a lower renewal requirement, but most are probably higher. That’s why I’ve been saying that NYLS is not like a lot of other law schools out there.
AD: It’s interesting that you mention trying to woo applicants with higher LSAT scores. I’m not sure if you saw the study that was released in the beginning of August that basically said the grades you receive during your 1L year are far more important to your professional success than whether or not you attend an elite law school.
WP: Yes, I did see that study.
AD: Do you think that study (combined with the current economy) will influence people to strongly consider a scholarship from a school like NYLS instead of paying “sticker price” at a more prestigious school? Do you think that type of thinking will bring more applicants this year and, perhaps, a higher yield among the offers you make?
WP: It might. I’ve been saying to our applicants for years that if we offer you a scholarship that covers 50% tuition (or more) and you choose to go somewhere else for no money, then you’re not being smart. I’m usually not that blunt, but I honestly believe turning down a scholarship from us to pay full price for a “better name” somewhere else is a very foolish decision. If you find yourself with that choice, you should definitely come here because we’ve added the value by making it much lower cost. Plus, barring personal trauma or some unforeseen catastrophe, you should do very well once you come here. This means that you’ll not only get to keep your scholarship, but your class rank should provide you with more opportunities both in law school and beyond. But often these folks won’t listen to me since I’m the hired gun.
AD: [Laughing] Well maybe they will listen to your AdmissionsDean interview!
WP: [Laughing] We can only hope!
AD: Has the current economy had any impact on financial aid awards at NYLS?
WP: No. Our scholarships are factored into our budget and the economy is not going to change how much money we give. Even our need-based aid should not be impacted by the economy. The money will be there for deserving students.
We did receive a very large donation of $20 million from the Starr Foundation in honor of its Chairman and NYLS’s esteemed alumnus Maurice Greenberg. This generous donation is the largest ever received by the Law School and among the top 20 gifts ever given to any law school. Since Mr. Greenberg himself attended NYLS on a scholarship, much of this gift has been earmarked for scholarship support. So, I will be able to increase scholarship opportunities (and amounts) during the current cycle. Rest assured, the economy is not going to prohibit us from helping out deserving students.
AD: How will that gift get distributed?
WP: I’m not sure. I don’t know how many years it will take to receive the entire gift, but I know that we are not going to get the whole donation in one lump sum. I do expect to have at least $750,000 additional dollars for scholarships next year, which represents an increase of more than 20%.
WP: [Laughing] Yes, wow. That’s going to make a big difference to a lot of students next year.
AD: Now bear with me because I’m not very good at math — which is why I went to law school — but you have around $4 million in scholarship money to distribute every year?
AD: And your tuition is $46,000 per year. So, $5 million can go a long way in terms of the number of students you can help out.
WP: It can. [Laughing] But it seems like no matter how much I offer a student they still always ask for more! And, keep in mind, that we have a much larger entering class than most law schools, so the scholarship budget would have to be bigger to keep things in proportion.
AD: What is the best advice you can offer students who are just beginning the application process with regards to financing their legal education? Is there anything that these applicants should be doing now to make their lives (and yours) easier a year from now?
WP: People need to understand that the research they do with regards to which law schools to apply — that’s only half the work. The other half is doing all the things they need to do in order to pay for law school. Since both tasks can be done concurrently (i.e., you don’t need to find out your admitted before you figure out how to pay for law school), my advice is to get organized now and plan ahead.
Right now — as soon as AdmissionsDean’s users finish reading this interview — they need to go online and check their credit report from the three major reporting agencies. If there are any errors, they need to start working now to get them cleaned up because that can take a long time to fix. If they have adverse credit, then they need to rehabilitate it. They have time to do this if they start in the fall; if they wait until the spring or summer it’s going to be too late.
If an applicant is in arrears or chronically late paying their bills, they are going to need to get caught up and, going forward, they should pay all of their bills on time (if not early). Having a good credit score makes every type of loan available to an applicant and since everyone is going to have to borrow something, people want to make sure that they have as many loan options available.
The second thing they need to do to file their income tax returns early and file their FAFSA as soon after January 1st as humanly possible. They can plug in estimated data into their FAFSA and then go back later and revise it once they file their taxes. Most law schools’ financial aid applications deadlines are in March and April. By being organized now you’ll be able to get your financial aid applications in early and not miss the deadlines.
Finally, they need to explore options for “outside” scholarships. Just like they are using AdmissionsDean to get information on law schools, they should start using other websites to get information about outside scholarships and financial aid. Your readers should register with FinAid.org and FastWeb.com — these are two really great websites that help students find scholarships for which they might qualify. The nice thing about scholarships they find on those sites is that they are transportable — they can be used at any law school. Plus, they don’t need to know if they are admitted to any particular school before going out and finding them. This is something that they can definitely do now that will save them some serious money come next fall.
When searching for scholarships don’t be foolish and think: “It’s only $500, so it’s not really worth my time to apply for that scholarship.” Three of those and you have $1,500 in free money, which will go a long way.
AD: Yes, I completely agree. I don’t know if you clicked around on our site but we too have a Law School Scholarship Finder within the Paying For Law School section of AdmissionsDean. This database contains over 320 scholarships totaling more than $20 million in scholarship money specifically available to law students. Having personally reviewed a lot of these scholarships before they were inputted, I know that the application deadlines for many are in the spring. Waiting until you receive an acceptance letter before searching (and applying) for scholarships is definitely not a wise strategy.
WP: Yes, I saw that your Scholarship Finder and that’s a great resource too. And I completely agree that if someone waits to start searching for scholarships until they’ve been admitted, it’s too late; oftentimes the application deadline will have passed and that ship has sailed.
It’s funny, I actually set up a profile on one of the scholarship search engines and told two lies: first, I said I was 24-years old (and I’m just a little older than that); second, I said I was a law student (which I’m not). The search engine asked me a ton of questions — my nationality, how my parents and grandparents made their living, where I volunteered my time, what high school I attended, where I grew up, etc. When I submitted my profile, I got all kinds of hits. As you can imagine, I received information about all the scholarships you would expect someone to receive with the last name “Perez.” But, I also received information about a scholarship from the International Longshoremens’ Association that I qualified for because my grandfather was a dockworker. I also qualified for a scholarship from the Coast Guard Auxiliary — my parents volunteered with the Coast Guard Auxiliary for a number of years after they retired. The point is that these search engines found scholarships in places that would have I never thought to look and it’s free money for any school.
AD: [Laughing] I get excited when I find a $10 bill in my pants pocket after doing the laundry — I can only imagine the rush associated with finding some obscure $1,000 scholarship.
WP: [Laughing] Yes, it definitely exhilarating!
AD: In these tough economic times, just applying to law school can be an expensive endeavor — students can spend a small fortune on application fees alone. What process do you go through when deciding whether or not to grant an application fee waiver?
WP: We don’t give fee waivers.
WP: Absolutely not. Do you know why?
AD: No, how come?
WP: [Laughing] Because we no longer charge a fee to apply to New York Law School.
AD: [Laughing] Oh, I didn’t realize that. My notes here said that you charged $65.
WP: That’s was true, but starting this cycle we decided to no longer charge the application fee.
AD: That’s pretty amazing because there are quite a few schools out there charging $100 just for the privilege of applying to their law school.
WP: I know. It’s crazy.
AD: When you were charging an application fee, was there a process you went through to determine whether or not an applicant received a fee waiver?
WP: If we reached out to an applicant through the LSAC’s Candidate Referral Service, we would pre-code that applicant so if that he or she applied electronically they would automatically receive a fee waiver. We would also give out “fee waiver chips” at law school fairs to people with whom we had good conversations. People could also write to us and describe their circumstances and request a waiver. Look, if you demonstrated any real need for a waiver — and a letter from your undergraduate financial aid office saying you really need a break is often enough — then we were generally very accommodating.
My biggest piece of advice for people seeking a fee waiver from an admissions office would be to ask nicely (that’s so important!). I used to get a lot of very obnoxious requests like: “I have a 3.6 GPA and an LSAT score well above your median, you should give me a fee waiver based on merit!” You can imagine how willing I was to help out that person!
Also, if your requesting a waiver do it in writing (an email is fine) and describe your hardship — it will usually make the process go a lot faster.
AD: Of the 4,400 applicants last year, about what percentage received a fee waiver at NYLS?
WP: I’d say we waived the application fee for almost 20% of our applicants.
AD: In 2009, NYLS completed a multi-year, multi-million dollar building project that has resulted in, quite honestly, one of the most beautiful law school buildings anywhere in the country. How do you think a students’ law school experience is shaped/impacted by studying law in your new facilities and in New York City as a whole?
WP: The new building is beautiful and we’ve recently begun renovating the old law school building across the street as well as several other buildings we acquired down the block. For our students, the new building means that they now have more than double the physical space that they had before. The classrooms are all brand new and shielded from the street noise. There are plenty of comfortable places to work and all the electronic and media gadgets that a student or professor could ever want. We really have it all.
We’ve always been blessed with a great location. Every type of law is practiced in New York City in bulk. NYLS is located literally blocks away from Wall Street, the federal and state courthouses and almost every major federal and state agency. The Legal Aid Society is also right across the street, which means that you can have a 1-1/2 hour break between classes and go across the street and do work for your externship, and then go back to class. That’s pretty unusual — you can’t do that at many other law schools. Now that we’ve completed construction we finally have a law school building that is as awesome as our neighborhood. I encourage everyone to stop by and take a look — I can’t imagine someone not being impressed.
AD: Do you find that most of your applications are coming through as electronic applications? Do any applicants still mail in paper applications?
WP: Starting this cycle we are accepting only electronic applications. Last year we accepted paper applications and 98% of our apps came in electronically, so [laughing] I think we reached “Perez’s Tipping Point.” We don’t have paper available for public consumption, but we will make a paper application available to someone who can document a disability that the LSAC does not currently accommodate. That is the only way we’ll make a paper application available.
AD: Take us through your admissions review process. How do you evaluate a candidate’s undergraduate GPA, LSAT score report, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and other relevant factors?
WP: Every application gets reviewed by at least three admissions committee members and I’m always one of those three. Yes, that means I review every single application that gets submitted to New York Law School. I believe that if I’m the person signing the decision letter, then I need to be a part of the decision. The reviews are independent and each reviewer can place different weights or values on anything contained in the application — any quantifiable or unquantifiable attributes that a candidate chooses to include.
AD: These reviewers are they staff in the admissions office or do they sometimes include other deans, faculty, law school administrators, etc?
WP: Our admissions committee is comprised entirely of admissions professionals who work in the admissions office. We do plan to involve faculty members on some scholarship options going forward, but we haven’t done so up until now.
Applications get assigned to our reviewers randomly — that aspect of our process is a little hit or miss so that the person you met at a law school forum may or may not be reading your application. Personally, I like to begin with a candidate’s numbers so that I can spend the bulk of my time looking at everything else in the file. I like to get a quick feel for how an applicant’s numbers stack up against our entire pool. If I look at someone’s LSAT and GPA and say to myself: “These scores are kind of low,” then I know I’m going to have to really dig through the other parts of the application in order for this candidate to make a good case for admission. Sometimes it is just not there and I’m just as aware of its absence as its presence. In those cases, we do not extend an offer.
AD: So, I assume that the best place for the applicant to “make his case” is with the personal statement. Is that correct?
WP: Well, I hope you’re sitting down because starting with the 2010-11 cycle (are you ready for this?) personal statements are optional.
WP: Yes. A personal statement is no longer required for applicants to NYLS. My staff almost hung me by my thumbs when I told them that change!
AD: Why did you decide to make personal statements optional?
WP: Part of it is that I’m a realist and I’ve had many applicants question why our application was as difficult as a T1 school or complain about the type of question we were asking. Also, if I’m being honest, I’ve gotten so sick and tired of reading the same personal statement over and over again! There has been so much art, blogging and science surrounding what goes into a good personal statement that they have become almost as meaningless as some of the letters of recommendation that we receive.
By making it optional, we are giving the applicant a great deal of control over the process should they elect to submit an essay. If you think your numbers speak for themselves, then don’t submit a personal statement. If you want to clarify something or feel that you need to build a case for admission, then you get decide how best to present yourself — you do what you think will work. Applicants can write as much or as little about whatever they want — a period of bad grades, some sort of adversity they overcame, why they want to go to law school in the first place — it’s entirely up to them. I’m actually pretty curious to see what people submit.
We do require a resume as part of our application, which is something that I really like to read. When it is done right, I can get a sense of an applicant’s interests and what his or her values are by looking at how they chose to spend their time.
Once everyone has reviewed a file we discuss it. Now, a discussion is probably not what an applicant thinks it is because in the real world we can’t spend an hour talking over every aspect of each application. If all the reviewers agree to admit or deny the applicant, we’ll quickly question whether anyone has a change of heart. If not, the person will either be admitted or denied.
The real, meaty discussions occur when there is disagreement or when a reviewer found something in an applicant’s file that really resonates with them — when that happens, the reviewer will often become a very strong advocate in favor of the applicant. Personally, I love it when one of those kids shows up and knows that they did something that persuaded someone on the committee to fight for them. I think that’s a great thing.
AD: You briefly mentioned the letters of recommendation before. How do those letters factor into your decisions?
WP: New York Law School requires at least one letter of recommendation and applicants can submit up to three. When you have one letter of recommendation in your file, your application is complete and ready to be reviewed.
Okay, here’s the ‘straight dope’ about letters of recommendation. Although the LSAC makes it easy for applicants to submit and manage letters of recommendation, I’ve found that what we usually get is a very watered down version of what the letter of recommendation once was. Most letters of recommendation submitted through the LSAC often are not nearly as persuasive as a letter that comes to us directly from someone who understands our school as well as the applicant. That has some real value to us — but that’s becoming more and more rare.
If done right the applicant will choose a recommender who can offer a view that wasn’t apparent from a resume and did not fit the thesis of a personal statement. Letters of recommendation are most valuable when they add to the application, rather than simply reiterate something that is already contained elsewhere in the file.
AD: The Law School Admissions Council recently added another option — the “evaluation.” What exactly is the purpose of the evaluation and how do you think admissions officers around the country will use it?
WP: This new evaluation can only be described as “misguided.” Here’s why I say that. A few years ago there was a group out of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall) that set up a very meticulous, scientific study to help identify the skills that predicted success in law school. This group conducted surveys, interviews and collected data in such a meticulous manner that institutional research people would probably call the study’s results damn near bulletproof. Now the idea was that this scientific process would one day be used as an alternative to the LSAT. [Laughing] So, you can see where the cynic in me is going.
This evaluation put out by the LSAC tries to replicate the process used by the folks at Boalt, but the problem is the science is just not there. The evaluation asks reviewers — people chosen by the applicant — to complete an online form that “evaluates” an applicant on the same skills that the folks at Berkeley identified. I believe that there are 30 different categories in all. The problem with the LSAC’s evaluation approach is that the applicant chooses someone to go online and click a box (e.g., this person possesses analytical skills in the top 2% or problem solving skills in the top 5%). Not only is there no guidance for the evaluator about how to judge this determination, but also there is absolutely no way for the law schools to know what basis (if any) the evaluator had for making his or her determinations. I mean seriously, does your supervisor at Starbucks really know your ability to “read complex material”? (I know, it’s tough to make a mocha-choca double soy latte.)
So, here’s where I became concerned about these evaluations. I asked LSAC if they would allow us to track applicants to see if there was any correlation between the applicant’s evaluation and his or her success in our admissions process as well as their success during the 1L year. And they said, “No.” When I inquired why, I learned that LSAC’s statistical and data folks oppose it. Look, we all know that LSAC employs the very top folks to run its statistical areas. So when I pushed further and asked why they would not allow schools to try and correlate an applicant’s success to the evaluation, I discovered that they share my concerns about the lack of science and validity behind them — and that’s all that I needed to hear. If LSAC’s statistical wonks question these evaluations, then why (or how) should I even consider them?
So, I have no idea what this “evaluation” is. I have no way of judging what someone means when they literally click a box on computer screen and how it is supposed to relate to an applicant. If the person submitting the evaluation had to craft a sentence about the applicant, then at least there would be some hope that there was a scintilla of truth behind their assumptions. But that’s not really the case.
[Laughing] I guess the cynic in me thinks that LSAC is not going to get wholeheartedly behind a process that was originally devised as an alternative to the LSAT. Why would they ever do that since it would take their profit center away!
AD: That’s pretty damning.
WP: And I suppose it is. LSAC does many good things—they’re a great source for understanding American legal education, their Law School Forums are great, if we must use an admission test then the LSAT is exceptionally well done, they provided unprecedented support for students, pre-law advisors, and law schools, and the electronic application process they have developed has relieved immeasurable stress for applicants and admissions officers alike. This new Evaluation Service, however, is not one of their best services, that’s all.
AD: Are you the only admissions dean with this concern?
WP: I am sure that I’m speaking for a small minority because most of my counterparts at other law schools are like lemmings when it comes to the LSAC. I’m willing to question poor decisions or short-sighted thinking and not afraid to do it publicly — [laughing] which is probably why I don’t get invited onto any LSAC committees.
AD: Ummmm…. Is this on the record? Do you mind if I quote you on this?
WP: Of course I don’t mind. I’ve said it all before at LSAC meetings!
AD: [Deep breadth and slight roll of the eyes] Okay… I’m just making sure.
WP: Look, let me back away of some of my hyperbole. I don’t think LSAC is intentionally trying to get it wrong, but there was lot of hype that followed the original Boalt study. There were certainly a lot of people — especially law faculty — who got excited about an alternative to the LSAT that measured an applicant’s skills. Personally, I found the idea very interesting but realized that it was something that would be very difficult to translate into actual use. In any event, I don’t think that this evaluation represents what people think it does.
AD: According to the ABA data for 2009, NYLS accepted 22 transfer students (and lost 18 students as transfers to other schools). What qualities do you look for in a transfer candidate and when should 1Ls interested in transferring begin the process?
WP: That slipped a little bit this fall — in 2010 we lost twice as many students as we brought in as transfers. I think there were 32 students who transferred out and we accepted about 16 students as transfers into our 2L class.
AD: Oh, okay. Thanks for clarifying. Again, what qualities do you look for in a transfer student?
WP: Our decision whether to admit or deny a transfer is based almost entirely upon that applicant’s performance at the other law school. The higher the applicant’s GPA or class rank, the more likely that we will accept them as a transfer. That analysis may change depending on the strength of school they attended during the 1L year, the grading curve at that school, etc. They just really have to do really well at the other law school. Look, sometimes the dean at the other law school might call our dean and say, “Her father is dying and she really needs to be in New York City,” but if the grades aren’t there, I’m still probably going to have to say, “no.”
AD: Do you have “favorite schools” where you traditionally see students transferring from?
WP: We probably get about 100 or so; so, in 2010, we accepted 16 people from that pool. We don’t have a quota on the number of transfer students we accept and, as I mentioned, for the last two years we had brought in rather large classes. As a result, there certainly wasn’t need to bring in a ton of transfer students.
AD: Some law schools will bargain with their top students — the students who do well during the 1L year — by offering them scholarship money in the effort to prevent them from transferring. I assume this is done because it’s less far expensive to offer a student a break on tuition in the form of a scholarship rather than risk losing him or her too another, higher-ranked school as a transfer. Does NYLS engage in this practice of bargaining with its top students?
WP: No, we don’t bargain with students but we do speak with them honestly. As I mentioned before, in addition to law review honors and an affiliation with one of our academic centers on campus, the Harlan Honors Program offers a modest scholarship for students at NYLS in the top 15% of their 1L class. We usually lose a very small percentage of the people in the top 15% of the class because the benefits they receive from the Harlan Honors Program are attractive. What we’ve discovered, though, is that we are more likely to lose a student in ranked between 16-50% of the 1L class and who is not receiving a scholarship. Of course, we’d prefer that no students leave, but if they decide to transfer and they have solid reasons for it then I guess we’re okay with that.
Now this year, we did see some law schools that went after students ranked in the top 15%.
AD: Do you want to name names?
WP: Sure. It’s widely acknowledged that Colubmia wanted to bring in a particularly large transfer class this year because they purposely shrank their entering 1L class last year in order to preserve their USNEWS Law Ranking. Understand that Columbia is not the only offender here — several other schools have been much more generous with their transfer offers because statistics for these folks never get reported to the ABA or USNEWS.
AD: In your opinion, who else is gaming the USNEWS rankings?
WP:Georgetown in recent years has done the same thing. Georgetown has also written folks that they have denied — some pretty competitive candidates — and said if they end up attending law school somewhere else, then send us your fall grades and we’ll admit you as a transfer student based on your performance during the first semester. Some other schools in the first tier have copied that model of bringing in a larger transfer class as a way to “game” the USNEWS rankings.
AD: Again, do you mind if I quote you on this and name the schools that you’ve mention?
WP: I’ve been very public about my opposition to law schools that use tricks to improve their rankings. Lord knows, the Wall Street Journal was as well when it wrote about these types of practices back in 2008. That was all the permission I’ve ever needed to call other law schools out on their bad behavior. Understand, I really can’t fault my colleagues for doing what their schools have deemed necessary to preserve rankings, but I have a deep concern that these behaviors place students — real human beings — in the middle; often to their detriment.
Where a transfer makes sense is when there are family issues (e.g., a sick relative, a spouse gets transferred, etc.) that require the student to be in a different city. Or, for instance, we have quite a few students who are New Jersey residents who end up transferring to Rutgers Law because they can receive in-state tuition for the second and third year of law school. That type of tuition savings may justify a transfer and I can’t argue with that reason for transferring.
However, for most students who are considering a transfer, they are simply seeing it as an opportunity to “trade up” and attend a higher ranked school. These folks usually meet with our Dean and we tell them the truth — some of the disadvantages of transferring. For instance, when you transfer, you typically do not receive a scholarship because when you’re “transferring up” the school accepting you feels as though their offer of admission is incentive enough for you to attend. So, if a student comes to us looking for more money to stay when the school they are transferring to is not offering them any money to transfer — then that’s not a very strong bargaining position. [Laughing] I’ve actually had students tell me: “Give me money or I’ll leave!” and when that happens, I’ll politely ask them if they’d like to know the process for withdrawing.
We also tell them that by leaving for another school they will probably not get to participate on law review. As a result, many of the benefits they get by for being a top student and continuing to matriculate here — scholarship money, law review honors, and all the prestige items they want to include on their resume — will largely disappear as soon as they leave for that other school.
Finally, transfer students oftentimes get “iced out” of the on-campus interview process during the fall of their second year because class ranks don’t transfer. As a result, there’s a strong likelihood that transfer students will always be at a disadvantage at their new school with respect to the job search process.
Look, we are not invested in keeping students here if they are unhappy. Just like everything else we try to do here, we’re honest with our students so they know exactly what’s at risk and then let them make their own decisions.
As we discussed earlier in this interview, there is now research that shows that employment outcomes are more driven by a student’s grades and not the law school attended. That alone ought to dissuade a strong performing student to “trade up.” Most students have too much to lose.
AD: Wow! You’ve given our readers a lot to think about. Thank you for taking so much time with me and especially for being so candid with your answers.
WP: [Laughing] Well, that’s how I roll! It was certainly my pleasure to talk with you today and I hope this interview proves helpful to your readers. Again, keep up the good work with the AdmissionsDean website — it really is a fabulous resource.