Dudes. I just flew back in from Ann Arbor and it was pretty cool. My comments are going to come from a pretty specific, personal perspective based on the fact that I'm comparing UM to Penn and Berkeley, the other two schools I'm considering (and mostly to Penn, since I haven't visited Boalt yet). Maybe this will be helpful for others facing the same choices, and for those with questions I don't address, I may be able to help with those too if you ask.
First, I should say that I don't hate the Midwest. If you do, or think you do because you've always lived on the coast, you might need an adjustment period if you come to AA. However, it will pass and you'll come to appreciate the kind people and the flat landscape (easy running!) and the hot wings at B-Dubs.
Second, I was very impressed by the opening event. At Penn's opener, several senior faculty spoke for about five minutes each, and said really general things that were not meaningless but also not very challenging or interesting (or humorful) ideas. At Mich's opener, Dean Z set the tone with a light intro characteristic of her genuine sense of humor, and passed it off to Dean C, who spoke for what felt like about 30 minutes. He laid out three main issues he thought students should consider when choosing a law school and went into significant detail on each one as they relate to Michigan. It wasn't, like, a brilliant intellectual masterpiece, but he had clearly put thought into it and expected us to exhibit decent attention spans and put thought into it as well. He, and most of the faculty who spoke with us this weekend, all played the "I'm not here to say that Michigan is definitely for you, no matter who you are" card a lot. Personally, I liked this. Of course it was always followed by an aside that obvi Mich is best, duh. But even paying lip service to the idea that no school is best for everyone was very appealing to me - and it really felt like the school was laying out a semi-cogent presentation of for what kind of student Michigan would be the right school.
What is that kind of person? As everyone here has said before me, the chief characteristic of a Mich law student does appear to be collegiality and a sense of community. This point was laid out more convincingly here than it was at Penn. Even though Mich's student body is almost a third larger than Penn's, I saw more, and more convincing, interactions that I liked between students at Michigan - things like kids walking down a hall, seeing someone they know and reacting in a playful or familiar way that suggests they know and like each other. This likely has something to do with a factor that was often stressed - at Mich, the student life revolves around the campus, at least compared to a school like Penn where there's a larger city to explore, not to mention NYC and DC near enough to visit any day. As has been said on this thread and at the ASW, people can and do seem to opt out of this, choosing not to live on campus and/or to spend time doing stuff outside Ann Arbor. But it appears that a lot of students do opt in, and this seems to compensate for the effects of the larger student body. More than anything, what I felt from most of the student body was a sense that they are back in college (or maybe more so high school), in social terms. Having sort of bypassed that experience at my own university, the idea of making close friends that I'll see every day is appealing to me.
And who are those people? So, I have to say that I was not wowed without exception by every current student that I met. One seemed surprisingly vapid, and some others seemed just sort of normal (which is not like a problem or anything). Some were clearly in party mode for the weekend, in a way that was sometimes hilarious and sometimes a tiny bit off-putting, but either way I got the impression that that condition wasn't the norm for them. A few students also were genuinely great to talk to - had similar non-law related interests to mine, like road trips and hiking and thrift shops. That sounds sort of meaningless written down, but I guess I mean they just seemed like the kind of people I would enjoy hanging out with. I was further heartened by Rui's report that the 2Ls said not all of the "ambassadors" were representative of the student body at large.
Moreover, I met a large number of admitted students who I really liked a lot. A lot were from TLS, including but by no means limited to artichoke, whirled peas, older chest, rui, are jay, and camelcrema. There were definitely a couple of douches, but overall everyone was great. I felt like at Penn's ASW I didn't fit in quite as well - at UM there were a lot more sneakers than stilettos and fewer blow-dried hair dos. (I realize this is a little specific and picky, but for me it's a useful signifier of a more laid-back group.) Also people were just more jokey, easier to talk to and interested in each other here. There were enough great people who are now more or less committed to Mich that, if I decide not to go there, I'm actively going to regret not going where they are because they're obviously cool.
As for living situations - I went to ASW pretty torn about where I'd live if I went there. I like group houses a lot, so the LC might have made sense, but one of the things I enjoy most is cooking for myself and with others, so I was bummed to lose that. The housing panel featured the Phid House, which I had thought was the kind of frat house I wouldn't want much to do with, but which sounded like it actually might be the right place for me. The open house that I attended for Phid later that night was fun for me - I liked most of the people I met, and they have a picture in the living room of Rob Lowe rubbing his abs circa 1987, so it's hard to imagine it not being a great place. The kitchen was pretty industrial (like a restaurant kitchen), not homey or anything, but I think I could live with that. The rooms were large (by my Brooklyn standards), and they've got a balcony (and a wood-burning fireplace!). The vibe I got was a little more party-oriented than I could handle on a regular basis, but I was informed that this is not the normal condition of the house - it's usually pretty quiet and laid-back. Overall, it seems like the right place for me, and I hope I get selected (assuming I attend UM).
One thing I haven't mentioned at all yet is academics and extracurriculars, which is because I didn't get a full sense of them. At Penn the academic and EC offerings were really at the center of my experience, perhaps because it was the most attractive aspect. At Mich, there was a lot of other stuff to excite me, and the panels on interdisciplinary options, international stuff and clinical programs were all held at the same time. We were expected to jump from one to the next to get our questions answered, but I found the presenters (understandably) reluctant to repeat their spiels over and over. So I need to research that type of stuff on my own. I did sit in on both Professor Sherman's mock class (it was as good as everyone else has said) and an upper-level class on jurisprudence. One of my interests in law school stemmed from my background in philosophy, and I was impressed by the rigor of the class. The discussion moved too fast for me to follow everything, but it all seemed coherent enough, and I assume I would have had adequate grounding if I'd done the reading and taken the class all semester. The prof (Scott Hershovitz) was very young and very good - smart and engaging.
Though I didn't learn too many specifics of the extracurriculars or academics, I did take away a very positive impression of the faculty. The faculty panel demonstrated that the profs in different departments know each other (well enough to josh around), which was a very nice vibe. One professor pointed out that the small size of Ann Arbor affected the faculty as well - like the students, they're much more prone to stick around on campus all day, and therefore are very available to students. This was pretty much on par with Penn - in fact I found the Penn professors a little more impressive in terms of intellectual brilliance, but I think this is because more of the Penn events featured faculty, so I just had more opportunities to be impressed. Michigan's administrative staff, however, were several steps above Penn's. From Penn I got the impression that the admin staff was not super invested in their work - for instance, the staff member who talked to use about Penn's LRAP glossed over some details and answered questions perfunctorily. At Mich, the staff were all really smart and seemed really committed to helping students out.
Support for public interest seemed a lot higher than at Penn. At Penn students interested in PI had told me that they sort of need to retreat to the PI career counseling office every now and then to reorient themselves because the vast majority of the student body is all wrapped up in OCI and firm stuff. I asked a couple of people about this and was told that that's not necessary here. I also met a lot more people who were planning on going into PI. The PI panel covered Mich's LRAP in a way that seemed straight-forward and comprehensive. I still need to sit down and actually do some math (it seems UM's LRAP would not work well for someone going into a certain type of gov't job, like the DOJ Honors Program, where one could make around $75-80K - at UM's cut-off point for any degree of assistance, but still at a significant disadvantage in paying off debt compared to a firm job. The Public Interest Public Service Fellowship representative made it sound like there are a lot of opportunities to do PI while at Michigan, including in Detroit. (I was especially taken with a potential opportunity to help Detroit's urban farming initiative with zoning issues.)
Other things about Mich that mattered to me:
- The buildings were just my style. Yes, it's Hogwarts and that's great, but there are also just a lot of random places throughout the buildings to chill. The reading room is great and so is the library, in my opinion. I'm big on sunlight so I was relieved to see that even though the lib is underground, the design of the skylight really does work to bring substantial daylight into all three floors. It's even cooler than an above-ground building because you're looking up at Hogwarts looming over you in a weird/cool way. The at-cost cafe in Hutchins also seems like a great way to save money when grabbing a quick lunch ($1 grilled cheese, anyone?), and the new building that is supposed to be finished by Jan 2012 will have a cafe as well.
- The nearby neighborhoods were pretty nice, and they are so close-by that you could easily go to a nice independent coffee shop (I counted about 5 without looking hard) for an hour or two between classes. At Penn it seemed like beyond chain coffee shops and restaurants there weren't that many options nearby (though I had less time to explore, so this could be very wrong). I dug the farmers market and the kerrytown market, which had lots of foodie-type things - fresh fish and oysters, specialty mustards, etc, etc.
- The Arboretum is really fantastic. It is maybe 10 or 15 minutes' walk from the law school and really the perfect place to go to either run or just walk around. It's large and has a mix of wood-chip trails and dirt/grass trails. There's a nice river at the base of the park, along with periods of woods, wetlands and grassy valleys and hills (it actually is pretty hilly in places). When I first got there I didn't see many people, but eventually I found a much more well-populated area; I think it would be very safe during the day even for girls on their own (if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know!) Finding the Arb was a big deal for me; Philly didn't have anything like that near to the school (again, that I saw. I heard Fairmount Park is great, but it didn't seem nearby.)
Okay, that might be it. Sorry I wrote a novel, but I hope it's helpful for some of you who couldn't make it. It was really great to meet those of you who did come, and since there's a decent chance I'll end up at Michigan next year, I hope to see a lot of you there!