Law in Contemporary Society

Sending a Message: The Importance of the Admissions Interview to Reforming the Legal Profession

When a Columbia Law School admissions officer looked over my resume, I was 3,663 miles away. When another looked at my grades and LSAT score, he had never heard the sound of my voice. When a third read my personal statement, she didn’t have the faintest clue about who I was or what kind of lawyer I was going to be.

All of this is true because Columbia Law School doesn’t interview its applicants. Nor do the vast majority of the country’s other 200 accredited law schools. Ostensibly, this is because the nationwide rush to obtain a J.D. creates far too many applicants for admissions offices to feasibly interview all of them. But the costs of interviewing are definitively overshadowed by the costs of not interviewing: As a result of schools’ decision to choose numbers and words over faces and thoughts, we have a population of lawyers who don’t have the social conscience to adequately wield the power that comes with their unique position in society, and we have a population of law schools who send the message, even before a student has taken a single step into their halls, that the entire profession of law is nothing more than a shell game.

Today, the level of public service in the legal industry is putrid. Eighty percent of the legal needs of potential low-income clients go unmet. Lawyers spend less than 30 minutes per week on volunteer service, a number that is dwarfed by the volunteer service of doctors by a ratio of 10 to 1. At the same time, we’ve just borne witness to a financial crisis spearheaded in part by lawyers helping their clients navigate their way around porous regulations.

To explain this incredible lack of public-mindedness, many critics have pointed to the environment and learning practices perpetuated by law schools, and rightly so. The adversarial nature of the American legal system allows lawyers to prioritize client loyalty, allowing them “to make immoral choices and yet are able to dodge responsibility by claiming they are required to act for the benefit of their clients.” Critics put much of the blame on law schools for inculcating this zealous adherence to client advocacy above larger moral concerns through the use of the case method: Law schools introduce students to law by focusing on “identifying principles of doctrine rather than principles of behavior.”

These criticisms, while all valid, miss the best and easiest change law schools can make to make their graduates more well-rounded and socially-conscious individuals: The interview. The fact that so few law schools interview their applicants before admitting them tells me that they care little about what kind of people they want to populate the legal profession. It also tells me that their expectation is that their students will have the proclivity and skills to become successful counselors but not the proclivity to become agents of change.

Contrast this with the medical school admission process. There, the interview is an integral, if not dominant, part of the application. For medical schools, there is a heavy emphasis on having applicants with volunteer experience and applicants who can use an interview to demonstrate their commitment to patients’ well-being ahead of profits and lifestyle. The presence of an interview may seem trivial, but this is virtually the first contact that future doctors have with the medical profession. The message coming from the very entities that are allowing them to enter that profession is clear: There is more to being a successful doctor than test scores and grades, winning and losing.

That message-sending function is why the interview can be effective in changing students’ attitudes. It would be na´ve to think that the insertion of the interview into the admissions process would automatically weed out the large number of potential lawyers who will use their immense brainpower to serve corporations. We are not going to see law schools lower their admissions standards in terms of GPA and LSAT scores in order to accommodate socially-minded applicants, for fear that the Last Judgment – i.e. the US News rankings – will be harsher as a result. Nor do I expect that it will be rather difficult for a smart applicant well-versed in the Admissions Game (as all of us are) to feign social concern in 30 minutes of conversation with a school representative. But, as Thurman Arnold indicated, creeds matter. One of the biggest culprits behind the troubling statistics concerning law students’ career choices is the cultural vat of law school itself; we spend three of the most formative years of our lives, at a moment in time when we are perhaps at our most malleable, in an institution that bombards us with opportunities to work in corporate law and does very little to dispel the notion that we should think otherwise.

Contrast this with medical schools, which constantly hammer home the creed of ‘social service’ in several ways: Through their mission statements – contrast, for example, the mission of statement of Yale Medical School, which includes the provision of “outstanding care and service for patients in a compassionate and respectful manner,” with that of Yale Law School, which includes nothing similar –; through the Hippocratic Oath, an integral part of the medical learning experience that has no counterpart in legal education; and, most importantly, through the interview. And, if the above comparison in volunteer service between doctors and lawyers is any indication, it works.

Yes, creeds matter, perhaps even more so with law students, a group of individuals notoriously prone to groupthink. The interview, while perhaps just a small first step, can shape law students’ career paths at a time when they are taking the first step onto that path, by sending the message that social consciousness does matter. Ultimately, if we want law students – and the lawyers they will become – to try to start treating the world as one composed of human beings, as doctors do, we should start by having our law schools treat their applicants as human beings just the same.

(998 words)

-- JaredMiller - 26 Jun 2012

First, do you expect the interview to result in the detection and non-admission of people who are going to underserve the community and overserve the desire of the wealthy for facilitation of everything and overregulation of nothing? Surely you recognize that the general consensus of opinion would be that such a person, even assuming he could be detected on the basis of an admissions interview, is an appropriate person to admit if formally qualified, presentably accoutred in relevantly respectable social credentials, and in the top 0.5% of the scoring range on the LSAT?

Second, do you expect the interview to result in the admission of students who will reduce the median or 3rd quartile LSAT score of the entering class, because the interview demonstrates more fully than the admissions essay that they are of a disposition to stir up important positive change in society? Even if one could discover the likelihood that such a person would remain so committed and turn out to be successful in an admissions interview—which is impossible—you do understand, I am sure, that the consensus of respectable opinion would be firmly against compromising collective goals of importance, like retaining our US News and World Report ranking, for such speculative and essentially irresponsible reasons.

Third, do you really think it matters what the disposition of the people you admit is, in these regards, when roughly 90% of the graduates you develop, year after year for the last fifty, take up essentially identical positions as employees of large metropolitan law firms conducting essentially the same lines of practice? Why bother differentiating students along axes that do not matter? Surely you recognize that not interviewing is either magically producing precisely a perfect fit between the raw material taken in and the product sold, or else the system is capable of manufacturing a robust standard product without much concern for the character of the raw material accepted.

Of course your recommendation is correct. I agree with it completely. I don't think your reasons are going to be convincing to the community of decision-makers, for the reasons I've given. Their reasons for rejecting your reasons are crap, as far as I'm concerned, but that doesn't make your reasons the right ones, either.

Education is a very funny substance under capitalism. On the one hand, you're a customer, buying a very expensive service. On the other hand, you're a product, a unit of personnel being supplied to a small ring of buyers, who also pay a very large price, continuously, in what are essentially guild dues. That you are a human being engaged in becoming yourself, to be assisted in the most complex and important process of life, is supposed to be constantly before the eyes of your teachers, whose relationship to you is the one that's supposed to stand outside the cash nexus. But as a fellow remarked once, capitalism tends to dissolve all such relationships in the icy water of egotistical calculation. This water, you will have noticed, is the piss law school swims in.

We should interview prospective students: we, the teachers. We should decide whom we want to work with, as teachers in other graduate schools do. What you call an interview, the face to face conversation in an office, might be different than the interview I would use. But we should do the work of choosing the people we teach. No doubt the values you or I will bring to that activity would not be those brought by others. Which is why I'm not persuaded by your approach, which assumes facts not in evidence about whose values would rule at the end of your chosen day.

Your question, however, seems to me to be a good question precisely because it leads to better ones. I think this draft is the jumping-off point for another that might not be about interviewing at all. Because the real issues you are unearthing, the ones to which you mean to give your attention now that you've found them, don't depend on advising people how to have your values instead of theirs.

Eben,

I understand your questions about my faith in the interview , and I hope that I have addressed them in this revision. I fear that I had conveyed too much in the power of the interview in the first draft, which ultimately led to your skepticism. Yes, of course you're right that the interview isn't going to cause a revolution in the mindset of future lawyers - the incentives are too strong for both students and administrations to drop everything and fully embrace the public interest world. But as I indicated in the piece, I do very much believe in the power of message-sending and the great deal of conformity that comes as a result. Law students are conservative people who respond very quickly to signifiers; they grasp a culture and adapt to it. What I'm saying here is that an interview that puts an emphasis on the lawyer as a Public Figure with Social Responsibilities can go a long way in pushing students to choose a socially-conscious career for themselves. Personally, I don't think it matters if it's a professor or an admissions officer conducting the interview (while the professor's standing would obviously give the message more weight, I'm not sure if it's logistically possible), as long as the school is putting out a strong signal to its incoming students as to what kind of lawyer it wants them to be.

With that said, I have only made some rather minor edits (in my opinion) to the essay and would like to improve upon it further. Your statement about this draft being a jumping-off point for another intrigues me, but to be honest, I'm not sure what you're getting at. I agree that you can't tell people to have your values instead of theirs, but I do think people's values are malleable and, really, people our age don't really know what their values are. Perhaps you could expound a bit upon what you meant? I would very much like to work on this some more. Thanks. -Jared

Jared - As you wait for Eben's clarifications, I have a thought. I think Eben's second to last paragraph is getting at the professor's values, not the student's. As the professor interviewing will have a greater say in who to admit, what type of characteristics is he selecting for? It is not obvious that professors share your dedication to social responsibility. They may select students who don't align with your values.

-- AlexKonik - 27 Jun 2012

Well, that's why I don't really agree with Eben's contention that it is professors who should be the ones who do the interviewing and the choosing. I don't think the problem is who is doing the choosing - you're right that many professors will have any sort of dedication to social responsibility. I think the problem is how we're doing the choosing - looking at tests scores and grades and not sending any sort of signal to students that they need to be complete lawyers if they're going to be accepted.

Also, just to clarify, I'm not saying that interviewing and emphasizing social responsibility is going to automatically turn every Columbia Law student into a public-interest do-gooder. I don't even think that would be a good thing. But I think we can and should instill into students a sense that they occupy a special position with a tremendous amount of power as a Columbia law grad and that they should wield that power in a more humane, thoughtful fashion.

-- JaredMiller - 27 Jun 2012

I agree with what I see as your underlying point: the current state of law school admissions fails to place any importance on applicants' social responsibility. I also think that an interview is a step in the right direction, but I think even after your edits there remains some overconfidence in the ability of an interview to remedy the situation. I think you make a good point about the symbolic importance of the interview making the admissions process more than just a numbers game, but I'm not sure that you've convinced me it's "the best and easiest change law schools can make to make their graduates more well-rounded and socially-conscious individuals." I feel like that's the sort of goal that doesn't lend itself to "easy changes." I'm not sure there's any way to effectively screen socially-responsible applicants during the admissions process. I'm more in agreement with those you referenced who criticize the curriculum of law school classes as totally deficient in terms of setting any sort of moral example for future lawyers.

Still, I think you're spot-on to suggest interviews...I just see different and perhaps less lofty reasons to support them. Maybe I'm too cynical, but it seems that the current admissions system could be (and perhaps to a large extent is) run by an incredibly simple computer program. As you noted, the interview at least reminds people on both sides of the admissions process that there is a human dimension involved. Even if it doesn't lead to a sudden increase in social responsibility among law students, this would still be a good result in my book.

-- MarcLegrand - 27 Jun 2012

I don’t know if you’ve seen this article Malcolm Gladwell wrote about rankings in The New Yorker. US News law school rankings are based on LSAT and GPA, and a few other hard numbers. A large part of the ranking equation, however, is a peer review based on reputation. Gladwell uses that variable to show how self-fulfilling the rankings are-- #1 becomes #1 because others think of it as #1. Reputation is also a variable that Columbia can change. The administration and admissions committee clearly care about these numbers, so pitching changes to the admissions process as a way to improve rankings may be effective. Since interviews could be seen as a way to make the process more selective, that might help with reputation and prestige. Also, since law schools are being criticized in the media, Columbia has an opportunity to present itself as taking a leadership position in 21st century legal education. If interviews were introduced, that would be a news-worthy story. If Dean Schizer is also thinking about reforming the 1L education, which he may be judging from the email he wrote you-- tying these stories together would make a good story for him and for Columbia. An effectively handled PR campaign that frames Columbia as innovative, thoughtful, responsive, and responsible could affect its reputation and therefore ranking. These initiatives may also appeal to the dean as he thinks about his legacy.

-- SamanthaWishman - 28 Jun 2012

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