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Cornell Law School: A Center of Excellence in Up-State New York
By Dhruba Mukherjee, Cornell class of 2009, UVA Law class of 2012, published October 2006, last updated by TLS September 2013.
Applicants seeking an intimate and serene setting in which to attend law school may want to consider Cornell. The school offers solid employment prospects, particularly in New York City biglaw, at an extremely high price tag. About 85% of the class of 2012 had found long-term, full-time jobs requiring bar passage as of nine months after graduation, but according to Law School Transparency, the estimated total debt-financed cost of a Cornell J.D. is over a quarter of a million dollars.
Cornell law students have access to the rest of the university. For example, students interested in labor law can take interdisciplinary courses in labor relations in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell, while those interested in African legal systems can take courses in African history at the Africana Studies and Research Center.
The campus is picturesque; it overlooks a gorge and is close to many biking and hiking trails. The law school has fewer than two hundred students in each class, which, according to Richard Geiger, the dean of admissions, fosters a sense of community among law students. Students enjoy a student–faculty ratio of 9.9 to 1. The law school faculty and staff encourage students to work together rather than compete with one another.
According to Law School Transparency, Cornell's class of 2012 had an employment score of 85.3%. That indicates the number of grads who, nine months after graduation, obtained long-term, full-time jobs requiring bar passage—that is, jobs as entry-level lawyers. Considerably more than half the class (about 58%) started at large firms (more than 100 attorneys). About 44% of the class got jobs at the nation's largest 250 law firms, according to the National Law Journal's annual ranking of the top biglaw feeder schools. Cornell ranked 10th on that list, and the school's overall employment score also ranked 10th.
Over half the class (55%) took jobs in New York; the second and third most popular jurisdictions were California (6%) and Washington, D.C. (5%). The bar passage rate in New York for the class of 2012 (68% reporting) was 91.7%, compared to 85% overall for the state's first-time takers.
Cornell is among the worst of the traditional top 14 law schools for placement into prestigious federal judicial clerkships. It ranks 17th among the top 20 in the new Above the Law rankings, with 6.3% of the class of 2012 getting these positions, which often lead to biglaw jobs.
Despite its reputation as a feeder for NYC biglaw, Cornell places well in public service. It ranks 8th among ATL's top 20 schools, with almost 14% of the class obtaining full-time, long-term legal jobs in government or public interest.
Unfortunately and inexplicably, Cornell does not provide any information on its graduates' starting salaries. In spite of Law School Transparency's laudable and largely successful efforts to encourage schools to be accountable and make such essential information available to 0Ls and the public, Cornell has apparently refused to cooperate. TLS urges prospective students to call the admissions office at 607-255-5141 and demand that Cornell make public its most recent NALP reports. In an age of absurdly high tuition, the information in the NALP report is critical for 0Ls to decide where to apply and, more important, where to attend.
Cost of attendance
List of costs, 2013-2014 school year
Cornell gave scholarships to about 46% of the class in 2012, according to the ABA, but the median grant was only $15,000. That's less than a fifth of the total annual cost.
General advice to applicants
Stewart Schwab, the dean of the law school, advised prospective applicants to participate in extracurricular activities or volunteer in the community. He said, “Beyond academic achievement, we look for well-rounded students who have pursued life outside the classroom in extracurricular, community, and volunteer activities.” He also said that when considering law schools, you should “look for those schools whose programs match [your] academic goals and whose philosophy, academic culture, and values are in sync with [your] own. Take time to learn about the academic offerings, programs, faculty, students, and the environment of every law school to which you apply.”
TLS would be remiss, however, not to stress that employment outcomes, not faculty achievement or any particular academic culture, should be the absolute top priority for applicants. Given that the cost of law school is skyrocketing out of control, you need to focus on maximizing your chances for employment and minimizing your future debt load.
When to submit
Cornell offers a binding Early Decision program for applicants who are sure that Cornell is their first choice and do not want to compare scholarship offers from other schools. Given the large drop in applications since 2010, applicants with any interest in limiting their debt load would be foolish not to take advantage of the buyer's market and make schools compete with scholarship offers.
Of course, for regular decision applicants, it's almost always a good idea to apply as early as possible.
GPA vs. LSAT
Dean Geiger said there is no definite hierarchy between GPA and LSAT scores:
According to Dean Geiger, Cornell does not have a formulaic approach to weight GPAs from undergraduate schools that deflate or inflate students’ GPAs. “The Law School Admission Council gives us information that allows us to see a particular institution’s grading curve for graduates who have applied to law school, so we can usually get a rough imputed institutional “class rank” for applicants. However, when it comes to particular majors, we usually don’t get much hard and reliable information, unless it’s from a department whose grading curve is so out of line with the rest of the institution that its graduates would otherwise be disadvantaged.” Similarly, regarding lesser-known undergraduate colleges, Dean Geiger said: “We take every applicant on his or her own terms. Our sense is that there are strong students everywhere and our job is to identify them. … We resist formulaic approaches.”
According to Dean Geiger, prospective applicants should include an addendum for periods of obvious academic underperformance that are explained by external factors such as an illness. Regarding upward and downward grade trends, Dean Geiger said he values upward trends only if they show an applicant’s improving maturity and work ethic, rather than showing that an applicant is taking easier classes to boost her GPA.
Cornell Law School’s official policy regarding LSAT scores is to take the higher score if it is at least three points higher than the lower score. Dean Geiger added: “if a person has taken the test multiple times, we look at all the scores and try to assess which is the most representative. If an applicant gives us reason to think a particular score is unreliable, we will take that into account. Remember, an LSAT score (despite appearances) is not some precise radar-like measure of an applicant’s ability to succeed in law school.”
Dean Geiger advised students to “treat the personal statement as if they were being offered a half-hour interview. You aren’t going to be able to cover everything, so pick something about yourself that you would want the interviewer to remember and that isn’t obvious from some other part of your application. Also, resist the urge to resort to contrivances that you think will help you stand out from the crowd. For example, don’t write your personal statement in rhyming couplets, or present yourself as a restaurant menu. You never want to make the reader of your application decide whether to admit you in spite of your personal statement.” Applicants who briefly mention the law school in their personal statement aren’t at any disadvantage, while applicants who write a personal statement specifically for Cornell don’t gain a significant advantage. Cornell also actively looks at diversity statements when making admissions decisions.
Waitlists and transferring
The law school prefers that applicants on the wait list stay in contact with the law school via letters of continued interest. Regarding transfer applicants, the main factors to gaining transfers to Cornell are first year academic success and exemplary recommendations. In 2012, according to the ABA, six students transferred in and 13 transferred out.
Generally, Cornell students are thought to be friendly and cooperative. According to some, it is easy to get notes from friends. Some students even offer to e-mail written notes to their peers who have missed classes.
For studying, the law school has an online archive of old exams and hard copies of the exams in the library. However, some professors refuse to release old exams.
In the past, Cornell students have told TLS that it is important to attend class and to take good notes. While hornbooks and commercial outlines may explain the material, they are not a substitute for going to class. One student said that when prioritizing study habits, 1Ls should focus on understanding the black letter law from study aids rather than closely reading the casebook. Studying the casebook save you from embarrassment in class, but the study aids will help you do well on the exams.
The law school has many clandestine study groups often formed by gunners. The study groups are most effective when there are differing points of view that lead to discussion and arguments. Teaching assistants can be helpful but are available only for legal writing.
The law library combines outstanding collections with professional expertise and access to worldwide electronic information sources for Anglo-American and foreign and international law. Students have access to a full array of Internet services. The Law School’s multiple-node network, wireless network, and computer terminals are available to students for word processing, legal research, statistical analysis, and database management. Students also have access to the many satellite computer clusters and mainframe facilities located on the university campus.
Almost all professors allow computers in class. According to law school students, most of the professors are liberal and have a sense of humor in the classroom. The professors are also approachable outside of class. Current students recommend that future students should not pester professors or hang out in their offices excessively. Rather, these students should attempt to work through problems on their own and use the professors as a last resort. Many students may visit the professor to build rapport with future recommenders. The professors tend to use the Socratic Method but don’t call on a single student for an entire class. If a student has difficulty with a certain question, the professor will often move on to someone else.
Quality of life
There are law school students everywhere on campus. The Cornell Law School Students Association sponsors mixers and bar tabs at five different bars and law students host a number of house parties. Current law students admit that some of their classmates may be heavy drinkers, but believe that the undergraduate fraternity culture does not carry over to the law school. Students at the law school seem to hold a middle ground between studying and partying. While many students work hard, they also attend house parties or casual get-togethers.
Culture of Ithaca
In contrast to big cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, or Washington, Ithaca is a small, sleepy college town. The town and city of Ithaca lie within Tompkins County. The Cornell University campus extends to almost all parts of Ithaca. Aside from the Main Campus, one can see off-shoots of the University in places such as the Ornithology Center (close to Tompkins County airport) and the equestrian center (alongside East Hill Plaza). The floating student population of Cornell and Ithaca College make up about one third of Ithaca’s total population during the school years.
Many magazines have acclaimed Ithaca’s high quality of life. Bike magazine described Ithaca as one of America’s top five mountain biking towns, and Money magazine described it as one of the best places for a vacation. Between the summer and fall seasons, Ithaca is “gorges.” Gorges and creeks run throughout Ithaca; there are four bridges on the main campus over magnificent gorges, two of which are next to the law school. Many people also sail boats on Cayuga Lake, take part in an annual kayaking competition in the Finger Lakes or swim in Buttermilk Falls. One can also tour the scenic Cornell apple orchards or one of the numerous wineries in Ithaca.
Some people compare Ithaca unfavorably to New York City, saying there's little to do in town. But others disagree. Dean Geiger said:
The Cornell hockey team is Ithaca’s most popular sports team. There are four movie theaters in Ithaca. Regal Cinemas is a new multiplex that shows all the mainstream movies immediately upon release. Cinemapolis and Fall Creek Cinema show many acclaimed foreign films. Willard Straight Hall in the middle of the Cornell campus shows both mainstream movies and foreign films in an old-fashioned theater on the ground floor. There are three theaters that show plays: the Hangar Theater, the State Theater, and the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts in Collegetown.
The Ithaca Commons contain many used book-stores and small family-run stores. The Commons also runs the farmers market, used book sales, and grass-roots music festivals. (The signature Grass Roots Festival takes place near Ithaca in Trumansburg.) You can walk down the Commons and see people selling a variety of items in stalls or preaching world peace, playing guitar, or playing chess. Some small fairs such as the Ellis Hollow Fair also run in Ithaca.
Restaurants in Ithaca contain a variety of Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian cuisine to go along with pizza and sandwiches. The lunch buffet at Sangam Indian Cuisine is a favorite of engineering graduate students, while The Nines has probably the best pizza in Collegetown. Students also enjoy hiking or biking on one of Ithaca’s many trails.
One Cornell law student spoke about his reasons for choosing Cornell Law School over Columbia and NYU. He said, “Columbia Law and NYU Law are vast law schools, while in Cornell Law School everyone knows each other—you walk into campus and you know the first person you see; my best friends are students at the law school.” He added that Cornell Law has good corporate law placement and that while Ithaca has fewer attractions than New York City, students tend to do activities together more than students in New York City.
One of the few negatives of Ithaca is the Ithaca winter. The winter extends from October to March. Some students have remarked that the winter season is very long but not harsh. As long as one takes proper precautions against the winter, one can avoid colds or the flu. The main hazard during the winter may be the icy pavements in and around Collegetown that slope steeply downward.
Also noteworthy is the predominance of the fraternity and drinking culture at the undergraduate level. The drinking culture seems to be diminished at the graduate level; graduate gatherings often take place at Collegetown Bagels, Stella’s, or the Chapter House, which frequently hosts local bands.
In terms of housing options, the Hughes Hall dormitory is next to the law school, making it a convenient option for law students. Hughes Hall has its own dining hall that serves breakfast and lunch and is connected to the law school classrooms and the library. There are also a few graduate student apartment complexes or houses for rent in Collegetown. Graduate students may choose to live away from campus in Eastern Heights or in the Downtown Commons. Living in the Commons means students are close by a plethora of restaurants and bars.
Meanwhile, renting a house in Eastern Heights means a yard and a garden for pets. However, graduate students who wish to rent houses in Collegetown would be wise to investigate the houses beforehand. Some of the houses, especially on Williams Street, are known to have malfunctioning boilers or mice infestations.
LSAT percentiles, class of 2015 (25% – 50% – 75%): 166 – 167 – 169
Total J.D. enrollment: 596
Student–faculty ratio: 9.9:1
Academics and public interest
First-year students at the law school take a group of required courses and a "lawyering" course focusing on legal research, legal writing, analysis, and oral presentations. After the first year, students may choose from a wide range of elective courses. The only requirements are an advanced legal writing course and a professional ethics course.
Third-year students may choose to "concentrate" in a particular field of law. Options are advocacy, public law, business law and regulation, and general practice.
The Legal Aid Clinic offers legal services to those unable to afford an attorney and allows students to engage in the practice of law under the supervision of experienced attorneys. The law school also offers 14 other clinical programs.
Public interest program
Cornell Law’s Public Interest Low Income Protection Plan helps those choosing qualifying public interest law jobs through the use of a moderated loan repayment plan and loan forgiveness. Here's how the school describes the program to potential donors:
According to the school, every first and second year student who chooses qualifying unpaid public interest or government employment receives a summer Public Interest Fellowship. Each fellowship is $1,600, plus work-study funding.
The assistant dean for public service connects law students with pro bono opportunities. During fall orientation the assistant dean organizes a Public Service Fair, where representatives from local legal aid and other public interest organizations speak to law students about term-time pro bono opportunities in their offices. The assistant dean also advises and assists a student group, Cornell Advocates for Human Rights, where students are connected with alumni working in the human rights arena.
The law school also offers externships for credit. These externships allow students to earn credit working full-time for at least 65 days at an approved nonprofit or governmental placement site off campus during the fall semester of their third year.
In the Judicial Externship, students work with a trial court judge. Students observe trials, research and write memoranda, and draft decisions. In the Law Guardian Externship, students learn about the representation of children in abuse and neglect cases, juvenile delinquency proceedings, and PINS (Persons in Need of Supervision) cases through their placement at the Tompkins County Law Guardian office. Students may interview clients, draft memorandums, and help lawyers prepare for trial. In the Legislative Externship, students work with Assemblymember Barbara Lifton to draft legislation, track legislation for constituents, and respond to constituent requests that require legal research or an explanation of law. In the Neighborhood Legal Services Externship, students represent clients through the Ithaca office of Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS).
Cornell Law School also has a number of student-edited law journals. The Cornell Law Reviewhas been published continuously since 1916. Forty students are chosen for law review: 16 based on grades as long as they have passable writing scores in the writing competition, 12 based on their writing competition scores, and 12 based on a combination of writing scores and grades.
The other two student-edited journals are the Cornell International Law Journal and the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. These two other journals select 30 students each year on the basis of writing competition scores. Various and sundry student organizations and interest groups are listed on the school's website.
Professor Angela Cornell is the director of the Labor Law Clinic at Cornell. The following are her comments regarding the law school's strong labor law offerings:
Professor John Barcelo joined the Cornell Law School faculty forty years ago. He is the founder of the Cornell–University of Paris I Summer Institute and the director of the Berger International Law Program. The following are his thoughts on international law at Cornell:
Cornell Law School has historically had a strong focus in international law. I joined the school 40 years ago because I was interested in its international program. One of the Law School’s former professors, Rudolf Schlesinger, can be considered the father of comparative law in the American law curriculum. The Law School currently has a broad based student oriented program and also focuses on research. Faculty members are interested in a wide range of topics such as comparative law, foreign law, public international law, private international law, etc. We have programs in Europe, East Asia (under Professor Annelise Riles), in China (under Professor and Vice Dean Barbara Holden-Smith), in Africa (under Professor Muna Ndulo) and in the Middle East (under Professor Chantal Thomas, the former Acting Dean of the American University in Cairo). The Law School has joint degree programs with universities in France and Germany, a human rights clinic, guest speakers, an international moot court program, an international law journal, visiting faculty and the endowed Berger Program that sponsors conferences. We also have an outstanding international and comparative law library. The head of the Law Library, Professor Claire Germain, was educated in law first in Paris, and then in the U.S., and she is one of the leading law librarians in the country. For example she was recently on a trip to Africa as a consultant on legal research and library collections. She is also Director of our Dual Degree programs with Paris 1 and with Humboldt in Berlin. In addition we have outstanding reference librarians at Cornell who are expert in international and comparative law research. The Law School has an excellent program; the only way to make it better would be to make more faculty appointments in different subject areas. However, the Law School does not have a presence in Latin American, the only region of the world where the Law School does not have a presence. The Law School recently started an exploratory program in Latin America.
The Clarke Program focuses on the study of law in East Asia. The Program sponsors fellowships, conferences, lectures, collaborative research projects, scholarly exchanges, and student exchanges. The Clarke Program’s stated mission is to “foster collaboration—across disciplines, across cultures, and between established scholars and innovative young researchers—that brings to light new questions, and new answers on subjects of pressing contemporary concern.”
If you are (or think you are) interested in this nebulous concept called international law, please read Anna Ivey's insightful article debunking some of the persistent myths about international law.
2013 Above the Law ranking: 11
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