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Thursday, October 07, 2010

Wanted: Despisers of the Law

Here's a curious little interview with Yale Law School's Associate Dean of Admissions, Asha Rangappa, about what the admissions office just can't abide: "a person who really loves THE LAW," and is unwise enough to say so in a personal statement.  This "law zombie" is forecasted to be prone to "muttering Supreme Court holdings under his breath" and "randomly shouting 'SCALIA!' very loudly" to unsuspecting decent folk.

I wonder what could possibly be objectionable, in an aspiring lawyer, about stating a love for the law.  And it does happen, from time to time, that Justice Scalia takes a hand in the law.  Is the trouble that we want college kids to come in skeptics from the get-go?  I thought it was law schools' job to convert believers into cynics; if they come in already nicely jaded, what will there be left for us to do?  Or perhaps the difficulty is the preposterous idea that someone could believe in "the law" at all -- what could be more mindless, more evocative of a wraith-like soul dead to the real world?  If so, I suppose it's a metaphysical predilection, a visceral dislike for brooding omnipresence types.  Let them read Holmes!  Interesting to see the ordinary religion of the law school classroom gaining fresh converts in the admissions office.

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on October 7, 2010 at 10:27 AM | Permalink


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just to muddle what i think was already clear, the 2nd comment by "anon2" wasn't by the 1st commenter with that name, and the "actual anon2" is the same as the first "anon2."

Posted by: anon2 | Oct 8, 2010 10:42:43 AM

My thanks to Dean Rangappa for commenting. I'm glad for her comment, as it has isolated and distinguished two issues with respect to the personal statement question.

The first, and less interesting issue, is the question of whether a personal statement was well written and insightful. I can entirely agree with Dean Rangappa that a personal statement, on any subject, which is poorly written and hackneyed should have negative consequences on an application. So a personal statement which simply said that the person enjoyed reading Supreme Court cases dealing with the 8th Amendment and merely described the holdings of some 8th Amendment cases wouldn't be all that great.

The second, more interesting issue has to do with the sorts of things that people making admissions decisions would find worthwhile to write about in the first place. On this count, I disagree with Dean Rangappa. If the aim of the personal statement is to get from the applicant what life experience in his or her background makes the study of law personally fulfilling or unique, then I think that's regrettable. Certainly, there may be some people with background details whose essays can make those details connect with the study of law in fascinating ways. But I do not agree with the notion that people who do not have such unique backgrounds, and who do not use the personal essay in that fashion, should start out with a strike against them. Many -- perhaps most -- people have backgrounds that don't lend themselves to the sorts of substantive legal connections that it seems the personal essay is designed to highlight. That does not mean that they will not be exceptional lawyers, judges, etc. It also does not mean that they cannot write a superb essay about "the law" which displays intellectual excitement in a subtle, fresh, and insightful way, without drawing directly on some detail of background experience and making a personal connection to explain in direct fashion, 'why law school, and why Yale?' A "personal" essay shouldn't have to mean a "personal background" essay -- one can be "personal" simply by demonstrating in elegant fashion how one's mind works. I take it that this was the nub of the disagreement with respect to the "law zombie" issue -- that is, whether a candidate who was in fact brilliant, excited, and knowledgeable about constitutional law (say) ought to think better of writing an essay expressing that excitement (the presupposition being, of course, that the essay would be interesting and well written).

Even more importantly, culling out candidates this way means that one is discounting the chance that it will be law school, and the study of law, itself which develops these sorts of interests in the law. Why should one want to preempt or control that intellectual experience by demanding that people come in to school with a firm set of background commitments and predispositions?

I understand that Yale, like many top schools, receives an avalanche of highly qualified applicants and needs some method to make choices. But I'm not certain at all that if the personal statement is used to eliminate candidates in this fashion, that it's worth retaining as an admissions criterion (at least if it were up to me, which of course, it isn't!).

My thanks again to Dean Rangappa for her comment.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 8, 2010 10:31:21 AM

Thanks, Professor DeGirolami, but I can address this one.

I think it's helpful to consider the context in which admissions decisions are made. Yale receives close to 4,000 applications, out of which roughly 200 students are selected for admission. Law school admissions is thus a little like playing blackjack -- the odds are on the house, and there's more than a little luck involved, but there are some rules you can follow to improve your chances.

Taking this into consideration, a personal statement ought to serve as a paper interview of that applicant and what s/he brings to the table. For example, a military veteran might describe how being on the front lines has shaped his view of the Hamdan case and the role military tribunals ought to play in a democratic society. Or a gay applicant might reflect on how the patchwork of marriage laws across the country adds a new dimension, in her experience as an affected minority, to the idea of "local laboratories of law" described in Lopez.

Both of these applicants would be demonstrating, implicitly, an interest in Supreme Court cases and legal issues generally. However, they also provide a window into who they are as individuals and the unique perspectives they would bring to the classroom and to the profession. I also get a sense of how they might engage in the intellectual life of the law school -- through particular clinics, centers and programs, or faculty members who share their interests.

On the margins, these applicants would simply be more compelling than an applicant who has no particular interest or perspective on the law, except to say that s/he found reading International Shoe extremely enjoyable, or that s/he was exhilarated by the experience of waiting to hear a Supreme Court case. It's not that either of these things is "disqualifying," it's that they just don't exhibit a depth and dimension that distinguishes the applicant from many others in a meaningful way.

For the law professors who are reading this blog, it might be helpful to analogize the admissions process to grading papers (4,000 of them!) -- and what makes the difference between an exam that receives an A and an A+, or really, between a B and an A+. I'm guessing that there are meaningful differences, and that the latter exam conveys a solid understanding of the material, but goes just a little, or a lot, further (we didn't get grades at Yale, so I wouldn't know).

To the extent that I can illustrate to prospective applicants -- through the use of hyperbole and caricatures, which is my style -- how they might go that extra mile, I think I am doing them a service.

Posted by: Asha Rangappa | Oct 8, 2010 9:22:39 AM

Asher, thanks -- in fairness to Dean Rangappa, I'm sure that she is simply reflecting the admissions preferences of her own institution, so to the extent that this thread can be used to discuss those preferences (ones which I'm sure are not unique to Yale), and the criteria that generally should guide admissions decisions (something that both you and WPB advert to in your comments), rather than to interpret Dean Rangappa's own comments (as she has already offered her clarification), that discussion would be preferable, I think.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 7, 2010 8:13:13 PM

"We are interested in students who can articulate substantive interests, think critically about how those interests relate to real-world issues, and reflect on how those interests are connected to their own experiences and future goals."

Doesn't this presume a somewhat instrumental vision of the legal profession? Frankly, I didn't go to law school out of some desire to use the law to affect some real-world issue or further some substantive interest or future goal; frankly, I don't have a great many "substantive" interests, at least not many that ever get threshed out in court. I just like law. I'd be perfectly happy to spend a career arguing in appellate courts over jurisdictional issues that have little if any real-world effects on anything, simply because I find jurisdictional issues intellectually stimulating in the same sort of way that chess-players find chess intellectually stimulating. As do hundreds of Civil Procedure professors, it would seem. I don't really see why that kind of mindset should be discriminated against in the admissions process. Certainly a bad essay that just says "I love reading Supreme Court cases" shouldn't be favored. But a good essay about enjoying reading a particular case seems just as meritorious to me as a good essay about wanting to use the law to help alleviate inequities in public education, and subsequent disclaimer aside, the original comment sounded, to me, like the Assistant Dean would disfavor even a thoughtful essay in the vein she identifies.

Posted by: Asher | Oct 7, 2010 7:40:20 PM

"Wanted: Despisers of the Law"

I thought that was the title of their AALS bulletin posting, not the admissions slogan. . .

Posted by: tongueincheek | Oct 7, 2010 4:45:45 PM

I somehow squeaked through the YLS admissions process a few years ago, and I was a textbook "Law Zombie." The moment I truly decided to go to law school, I was staying up late studying for a math exam and procrastinating by reading all of the oral argument transcripts available for the current Supreme Court term-- I realized I should probably find a way to do that for a living.

But I did have the good luck not to mention this apparently-disqualifying fact in my admissions essay, which was an analysis of racial politics in the place where I grew up.

(I also camped outside overnight to see a Supreme Court oral argument, a fact which I suspect one of my recommendation letters mentioned, but I guess I was saved by the fact that I didn't mention this event either.)

Posted by: WPB | Oct 7, 2010 4:40:04 PM

Thanks to Dean Rangappa for her response. Readers can judge from both the original post and the piece on law.com whether the portrait of "law zombies" and attendant characterizations was intended to be admiring.

As for people's general distractedness, and how this influences the ways in which blogs and other social media have to compete to attract viewers, I'm entirely in agreement with Dean Rangappa.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 7, 2010 2:38:35 PM

Asha Rangappa, YLS Dean of Admissions here. I think Steve Clowney has the correct interpretation of my post, and the one I think most readers will take from it.

My audience is prospective law school applicants who are looking for advice on how to present themselves in their applications. Students who give very general assertions like, "I want to go to law school because I love to read Supreme Court cases," and who drone on and on with this theme for two pages are not doing themselves a favor and are not going to be among our most competitive candidates. We are interested in students who can articulate substantive interests, think critically about how those interests relate to real-world issues, and reflect on how those interests are connected to their own experiences and future goals.

My audience is also a 20-something demographic that reads numerous blogs, is highly distracted, and is unlikely to come back to my blog unless it is funny and engaging. I use movie clips and sardonic humor to not only make my posts entertaining as well as informative, but also to humanize the admissions process and to assure them that there is a real person on the other end who is reading their files. I don't expect an older audience to appreciate this, but I do get a lot of positive feedback on this unique aspect of my blog compared to other admissions blogs.

Finally, I think you have completely misread my post in claiming that I cannot "abide" law zombies: on the contrary, I explain in my post that I am inclined to think very highly of a law zombie's intellectual capabilities, that they have the potential to resonate with many of the faculty reading their file, and that they may one day may great additions to our faculty. I like law zombies -- I work and am friends with with many of them (and have on occasion been accused of being one myself).

Happy Halloween!

Posted by: Asha Rangappa | Oct 7, 2010 2:24:30 PM

actually anon3, if that is the point of the personal statement, then that is what could have been stated in the advice given. That is, that if you want to talk about Supreme Court doctrine as exciting to you, that that would be perfectly lovely, but that the candidate was well advised to be specific.

But much, much more was offered than that. Skepticism about the candidate who would feel that way about Supreme Court doctrine and "the law" was offered. Analogies to the walking dead and people with neurological disorders were drawn. It was that additional material which caused me to speculate that perhaps there was something more to the message; perhaps I was mistaken.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 7, 2010 12:28:41 PM

Yes, but making one's passionate interest in law and legal doctrine the focus of one's personal statement (in the broad undifferentiated way described in the blog post) doesn't actually tell that much about one as an applicant. Yale gets lots of applicants with a passionate interest in law and legal doctrine; presumably they want to learn about what sets apart a particular person with that passionate interest from the rest. And isn't that the point of a personal statement?

Posted by: actually anon3 | Oct 7, 2010 12:18:24 PM

Steve, I guess you and I take very different things away from the post, even as filled out with what you link to. Describing people who are excited about the law, who love it, who are interested in Supreme Court doctrine and new cases, and who express that excitement and interest in an essay, as "zombies" (associate dean Rangappa's term), and drawing associations with the Rain Man character, as well as the silly stuff about muttering "Scalia" -- all of it seems, at least to me, to indicate a devaluation of the candidate that presents him or herself this way. I think we should welcome that sort of excitement -- at the very least, I don't think law schools should be casting a jaundiced eye on applicants who make these sorts of statements in a personal statement, because they didn't realize that law is actually really dull and uninteresting most of the time (something else that the associate dean raises herself).

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 7, 2010 12:09:12 PM

Surely someone who "loved the law" would be unhappy at Yale, where law is only occasionally taught.

Posted by: Brian | Oct 7, 2010 12:02:28 PM

actual anon2 here, and i wasn't denying that YLS alums practice law, but rather that YLS routinely signals that it's more interested than any other school is in policy types, future academics, intellectuals, and the cultural study of law. so the comments from the adcom don't surprise me. i agree with steve that part of the advice seems to be "don't sound naive," but, fwiw, i also see the traditional YLS signal being sent. nttawwt.

Posted by: anon2 | Oct 7, 2010 11:59:09 AM

I think the Dean's message should be viewed in its full context:

This seems like solid, sensible advice for applicants to Yale. The point of the essay is to demonstrate to the admission officer that you're a sophisticated thinker and interesting person. Yet, the nebulous "I Love THE LAW" essay is horribly overdone and makes a candidate sound naive.

The point of her post isn't that applicants should "despise the law," it's that law school applicants should carefully select the topic of their essay if they want to grab the attention of the reader.

Posted by: Steve Clowney | Oct 7, 2010 11:42:10 AM

On further investigation, the post linked above, FWIW, is a considerably cut down version of a post on the YLS admissions blog, which goes into greater, clarifying detail.

Posted by: actually anon3 | Oct 7, 2010 11:26:01 AM

Exactly, anon2, as that would presume that someone who stated a love for the law and a high interest in and excitement about legal doctrine was uninteresting as a thinker and human being.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 7, 2010 11:23:55 AM

Sorry about that.

Posted by: actually anon3 | Oct 7, 2010 11:18:11 AM

Or possibly that someone who presents themselves as wholly focused on law to the exclusion of being an interesting human being and an interesting thinker is not what Yale is looking for?

Posted by: anon2 | Oct 7, 2010 11:16:04 AM

anon2, I feel fairly certain that many of Yale's outstanding graduates do in fact practice law.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 7, 2010 11:15:45 AM

"in an aspiring lawyer"

is that what Yale's adcom is looking for? aspiring lawyers?

Posted by: anon2 | Oct 7, 2010 11:06:21 AM

One thing I've always found strange about the college admissions process in particular and law school to a lesser extent is the somewhat creepy focus on evaluating the whole of a person's life. So you get admissions officers analyzing whether some 18-year-old (or 22-year-old) kid wrote about the hardships in their life in the right way or was sufficiently well-rounded in their activities but also sufficiently committed. Shouldn't we emulate PhD programs which actually look at a candidate's commitment to the field they're applying to study instead of judging whether they're the kind of person you'd want to have a beer with or whatever law schools are looking at in non-law related personal statements?

Posted by: anon | Oct 7, 2010 10:45:55 AM

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