Interview with Jessica Berg and Michael Scharf, Co-Deans of Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Since 2013, Case Western Reserve University School of Law has been led by Co-Deans, Jessica Berg (JB) and Michael Scharf (MS). The two of them answered our questions below. We would like to thank both of them for taking the time to answer our questions!

Law School Reputation/Public Perception

TLS: Tell us about Case Western Reserve University School of Law. What would you most like applicants to know that they can’t glean so easily from U.S. News rankings or from your law school’s website?

JB: Established 125 years ago, Case Western Reserve University is a small personal school with about 150 JD students in an entering class, located in Cleveland’s beautiful University Circle neighborhood. Our national recognition brings almost two-thirds of our students from outside the State, and over two-thirds of our alumni live and work around the nation and the world. Our law faculty is ranked 25th in the nation by the Sisk Study for scholarly impact, and our Health Law program is the oldest in the country (and perennially ranked in the top 10). We have an extraordinary International Law Program, described below. In addition, we are ranked #8 in public interest law and as a “top school” for both Intellectual Property and Business Law by PreLaw Magazine. We had the top pass rate (93 percent) on the July 2017 Bar Exam in our state, and 93 percent of the members of our class of 2016 were employed by the reporting deadline.

TLS: Case Western Reserve is one of the oldest law schools and has had an impressive list of alums. Can you tell us about some of them?

JB: Our more than 10,000 living alumni include Fred Gray, the renowned civil rights lawyer who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr and represented Rosa Parks; Mark Weinberger, the Global Chairman & CEO of EY; Barry Meyer, former Chairman of Warner Bros.; Patty Inglis, Executive Vice President of the San Francisco 49ers; Mohamed Chambas, head of the U.N. Office for West Africa; Francois-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s Minister of International Trade; Martin Gruenberg, Chairman of the FDIC from 2012-2017; Kathleen O’Malley, Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit; and Austin Fragomen, founder of the nation’s largest immigration firm.

TLS: Tell us about your International Law program, which I understand attracts a large number of your entering students.

MS: Our 12th ranked International Law program received a multi-million dollar endowment from the Gund Foundation 27 years ago. We use much of the annual income to provide grants for our students’ summer internships and semester-long externships abroad. We also have 22 semester exchange programs and four concurrent degree programs where our students can spend their third year getting an LLM degree from prestigious partner schools in England, France, Spain and China. We have 22 full time and adjunct international law professors who teach a total of 30 international law courses, including our International Law Lab which was nominated by an international prosecutor for the Nobel Peace Prize, and our Immigration Law Clinic where students get the first chair experience in asylum and refugee cases. We have two international law journals and three award-winning international law moot court teams; we were the last U.S. team to win the World Championship of the Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition.

TLS: Whether or not they apply to or ultimately attend Case Western Reserve University School of Law, what do you think applicants should consider when choosing a law school? If you had a son or daughter applying to law school this year, how would you advise them to choose between schools?

JB: Here’s the advice I would give them: Selecting the best law school for you is more about fit than rankings. Some law schools are small and others are quite large. Some excel in experiential education and others are more traditional in their teaching methods. Some schools will have specialty areas that align with your interests, and others will not. Some schools are in large cities while others are not. Each of these will create a different law school experience. You should visit the school and talk to current students and faculty in order to decide what school is best for you.

TLS: What is your view on the role the U.S. News and World Report rankings play in the law school recruitment and admissions process? How do the rankings affect Case Western Reserve?

MS: Notwithstanding a variety of criticisms about the validity of the US News rankings’ methodology, prospective students continue to put great stock in the rankings, and law schools cannot ignore them. However, because the US News rankings are based on median rather than average LSAT scores and GPAs, law schools have the flexibility to consider other qualities such as leadership, work experience, diversity and writing ability in filling the class. At Case Western Reserve, we make decisions holistically, and place great weight on these other factors. We include an optional application essay about leadership and are especially interested in students who have the potential to be leaders in the field of law.

TLS: Is there value to additional metrics (e.g., new rankings like the ones promulgated by Above the Law)?

JB: Yes, additional metrics are valuable and can provide broader information for prospective students. US News, for example, significantly weights reputation based on surveys, something that many people have noted is highly subjective. It also does not disclose all of the criteria used in the various ranking categories. Other ranking systems may focus more on reported statistics such as employment, or may focus on best law schools for specific fields of law, which can be very useful to students who have a particular area of interest.

TLS: Are there any exciting things on the horizon at Case Western Reserve? Any new developments, programs, or opportunities you’d like to share with our readers?

MS: We are celebrating the 125th anniversary of our law school and nearing the end of a record-breaking ten-year fundraising campaign with respect to which we anticipate some exciting announcements in the coming year. We are also launching a number of new clinical opportunities for students such as a First Amendment Clinic and a Medical-Legal Partnership focused on LGBTQ issues; and we are expanding our Human Trafficking, Immigration and IP Venture Clinics.

Student Life

TLS: How would you describe the students at Case Western Reserve?

JB: Our students are especially collegial and collaborative. Our small entering class size, the accessibility of our faculty, and our innovative LLEAP skills and writing program foster an intimate atmosphere that puts a premium on the value of group work. We have recently added a high-tech active learning classroom to facilitate this educational approach.

TLS: How many students participate in student-run legal journals?

MS: In total, about 104 2Ls and 3Ls participate as editors of our student-run journals: 40 serve on the Case Western Reserve Law Review, 30 on the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, 24 on Health Matrix, and 10 on the Canada-US Law Journal.

TLS: Aside from journals, what are the most popular legal extracurricular activities available to students of Case Western Reserve?

JB: Our Moot Court and Mock trial teams are very popular and annually do exceptionally well in national and international competitions. We are one of the few law schools that allow 1Ls to participate on our three international moot court teams. We have twenty active student groups that sponsor speakers, community service activities, and social events. And we even have a faculty-staff-student rock band that regularly performs at a nearby tavern owned by a Law School alum.

TLS: What sort of clinical opportunities are available for students? Are there any clinics Case Western Reserve is especially proud of?

MS: Under our required 3L Capstone, every student undertakes a Clinic or Externship during their third year. We have eight clinics, where students get to have a “first chair” experience with real clients and real cases: Civil Litigation, Civil Rights & Human Rights, Community Development, Criminal Justice, Health Law, Immigration Law, the Human Trafficking Project, and Intellectual Property Venture Clinic. All of our clinics are doing exciting work, and some are expanding into additional areas such as the Civil Rights Clinic’s work in First Amendment Law, thanks to a grant from the Stanton Foundation. We are especially proud of our groundbreaking IP Venture Clinic, funded by a grant from the Burton D. Morgan Foundation. Students in that Clinic represent and do the legal work for approximately 30 startups each year.

TLS: What are the best and worst things about going to school in Cleveland?

JB: Best – high quality of life with a low cost of living. Our students particularly enjoy the University Circle cultural institutions that are a stone’s throw from the Law School, Cleveland’s theater district which is the second largest in the country, the Metroparks, gorgeous weather in the summer and fall, the Cavs and the Indians. Worst – lake effect snow (when we get it), and the city’s other pro-sports team.

Academics

TLS: Many law schools have emphasized practical, skills-based learning in recent years. Has Case Western Reserve taken any steps in this direction?

MS: The 2017 rankings issue of US News featured us as one of five national leaders in experiential education. We have a first-year client contact experience, a three-course skills arc, a variety of labs, funding to support summer internships in public interest placements, and a capstone requirement under which every student undertakes a Clinic or an Externship.

TLS: What role do you believe law schools should play in preparing students for the bar exam? And how have your graduates fared with bar passage in recent years?

JB: We don’t teach to the Bar Exam. Our goal is to produce excellent lawyers. But because students can’t practice law until they pass the Bar Exam, it is incumbent on law schools to equip students with the knowledge and skills to pass the Bar. In the July 2017 Bar Exam, our graduates had the highest pass rate in the state of Ohio (93 percent), and similar strong showings in the many other states where our students take the Bar Exam.

TLS: Most law schools have a core 1L curriculum requiring civil procedure, contracts, torts, constitutional law, property, criminal law, and legal writing. Does Case Western Reserve stray from these requirements? Are there any additional classes students are required to take before graduation?

MS: We have a legislation/regulatory class in our 1L year, with constitutional law in the 2L year. Unlike most law schools which only offer required bar-tested courses in the first year, beginning in 2019 we will once again offer our students the opportunity to take one of a designated number of specialty electives in the spring 1L semester. In the upper level, students choose from an array of general education requirements and specialty courses.

TLS: Other than the core required classes, what courses would you suggest students take before graduation?

JB: As Michael noted above, we have a General Ed requirement whereby our students need to choose some of their courses from a list of those our faculty consider essential for any lawyer including, among others: Evidence, Business Associations, and Commercial Law. We also recommend students take at least one administrative law course. And, we think it is important for students to get to explore some of the specialty areas and encourage students to consider completing a concentration in an area if they are inclined to do so.

Career Opportunities and Employment Outcomes

TLS: Describe the legal market in Ohio. What’s the outlook for the next few years?

MS: Law is one of Cleveland’s main service industries and the city is home to some of the largest law firms in the nation, including Jones Day (2,500 lawyers), Squire Patton Boggs (1,500 lawyers), Baker Hostetler (945 lawyers), Thompson Hine (400 Lawyers), Tucker Ellis (200 lawyers), Calfee Halter & Griswold (160 lawyers), Ulmer & Berne (160 lawyers), and Hahn Loeser & Parks (100 lawyers). Cleveland is also home to numerous mid-sized and small law firms. Many of the local law firms report that they are increasing hiring and expanding their summer associate programs.

TLS: What types of jobs do most of your graduates get?

JB: Our law school has had a long tradition of placing many grads at large law firms. National Law Journal reported that we were one of the top 30 law schools that saw the most alumni promoted to partner in the nation’s 100 largest law firms. Reflecting our strength in those areas, many of our grads work in health law, business law, international law, and intellectual property law. Also, consistent with our strength in public interest law (PreLaw Magazine ranks us #8 in the nation), we have a large number of graduates who choose to enter government service and work for nonprofit organizations. In addition, several of our graduates work in the entertainment industry in Hollywood.

TLS: On average, how many graduates leave the state for work?

MS: Over half of our JD grads find work outside of Ohio. Popular employment destinations for our grads include New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Dallas, Boston, Denver and Miami.

TLS: How many students get paid law firm jobs – ones that turn in to full-time employment after school – through the on-campus interviewing process?

JB: With our expansive national base, our on-campus interview process is only a piece of our placement services. Last year, 16.4 percent of our students got paid law firm jobs through the on-campus interviewing process. Our Career Development team also helped students obtain on-campus and off-campus interviews at law firms, government agencies, courts, and nonprofit organizations throughout the United States and abroad – leading to a 93 percent overall employment rate ten months after graduation.

TLS: What about a student who graduates in the middle of the class – the true “median” student, so to speak. What sort of work can they realistically expect to have in 2018/2019?

MS: Students in the middle of the class place well in a wide variety of settings, including firms, government agencies, and non-profit organizations.

TLS: Nearly every law school has recent graduates who cannot find permanent, full-time legal employment. What does Case Western Reserve do to help them get on track?

JB: Under our “bridge to employment program,” the Law School provides funding for and assistance obtaining post-graduate fellowships at public interest placements. We are also launching a new “residency” program for our graduates who are interested in in-house counsel positions. In addition, the career development office, the deans and the faculty actively assist recent grads in obtaining jobs, through our networks of contacts, including alums.

TLS: Do you think transfer students are disadvantaged at all when it comes to seeking employment?

MS: Students who transfer to Case Western Reserve are able to participate in the write-on competition to obtain a law journal editorship, and to take part in our fall interview program. They often come with high grades and generally do well in their job search.

TLS: What is the median (not average, but median) debt for a graduate from your law school who finished school this year? Given the employment opportunities for the average graduate, is this debt load tenable?

JB: Business Insider ranks us as the fifth best law school for financial aid. The median loan amount of the students who graduated from Case Western Reserve School of Law in 2017 was $78,960. This is well below the figure for most law schools and can be attributed to our generous scholarship programs and the low cost of living in Cleveland. In fact, only 74% of our class took out any loans at all. We also offer a Loan Repayment Assistance Program to further assist our graduates who go into public service positions.

TLS: Are law schools doing enough to ensure that prospective students get enough information to decide whether to go a quarter-million dollars into debt for a J.D.?

MS: Few, if any, of our students go into debt at that level or anywhere near that. Law continues to be one of the most intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding careers. After several years of negative articles, the recent trend in media stories is that this is a good time to go to law school while the employment market is rebounding, applications are still relatively low and financial aid is generally up. Law schools are doing more now than ever before to transparently report costs and employment data to enable prospective students to make an informed decision. At Case Western Reserve, we include the scholarship offer with the notification of admission so that students know what their actual costs will be.

TLS: What sort of tuition increase should entering students anticipate over the next three years?

JB: For the past five years we have held our tuition increases to around 2-3 percent a year and would not anticipate an increase significantly above that in the next three years.

Conclusion

TLS: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Any parting thoughts for applicants considering Case Western Reserve?

MS: We are a hidden gem among law schools. We draw students from all over the country and even internationally for our small classes with outstanding faculty, top ranked specialty areas, extraordinary hands-on training and reasonable price tag. Our employment and bar pass rates are among the best. We waive our application fee for students who apply online. And admitted students from outside the area receive a stipend to defray the cost of visiting campus.