Interview with Janet Laybold, Associate Dean, Admissions, Career and Student Services, Washington University School of Law

Interview conducted by TLS in November 2012

Washington University School of Law's distinctions

TLS: What do you believe students enjoy most about Wash. U.?

Our students enjoy and appreciate the close interaction they have with our faculty and with their fellow students. We have an amazingly talented and friendly faculty. Our professors care deeply about their students and are willing to go the extra mile to help them. They have an open-door policy and make every effort to interact with students and get to know them on a personal and professional level. Over the past several years, we have had great success in recruiting some of the most talented faculty to join us. Beyond their varied experience is a belief that learning comes first and that the most important function of the law school is to prepare Washington University law students to excel in their legal careers.

Our school also attracts a diverse and talented group of students who bring a wealth of experience with them to law school. Most of all, the students here are genuinely friendly. They are interested in both their own success and the success of their classmates. We’ve seen this as they work with each other in study groups and join one another on intramural sports teams.

Our students also fall in love with our city. The Washington University campus is beautiful, and right next door is Forest Park, an outstanding natural and cultural resource for the entire community. St. Louis has exceptional arts, theater, musical venues and professional athletics. There are many different and distinctive neighborhoods where students live and feel comfortable, whether they are moving from New York City, California, or somewhere in between. Our city is also known for its affordable cost of living.

Students enjoy everything that makes Washington University a top law school, but especially the collegial, supportive environment it offers. 

TLS: A lot of applicants accepted to Wash. U. will also get into other very good schools. What separates Wash. U. from the pack?  

Nationwide, we are distinguishable in our faculty commitment to teaching. In hiring, we focus acutely on those faculty who have exemplary teaching evaluations, who put students first, who deliver real value to the student experience, who conduct groundbreaking scholarship, and who are deeply passionate about their fields. In other words, we have faculty who care deeply about the educational value the school delivers and a dean who hires around this principle. The “buzz” about our faculty from the student body verifies this culture. The professors here are respected and nationally regarded, yet take time to get to know and appreciate each student individually. I would compare that favorably against any other law school.

Our clinical programs are rated among the top of all law schools, and all our students are guaranteed to be able to participate. Complementing the clinical experience is a unique D.C. program that places students throughout Washington, D.C. agencies and on Capitol Hill. Washington University also has a physical facility in D.C. and a partnership with the Brookings Institution, which offers expanded internships and professional contacts for our students. Additionally, we recently instituted our New York City Regulatory and Business Externship, which places students in positions such as with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), Standard & Poor’s, the New York Attorney General’s Office, the New York City Law Department and Anheuser-Busch/InBev. These full-time, semester-long positions in New York and D.C. provide for rich and comprehensive experiential opportunities.

Our affiliated Trial and Advocacy Program also has been ranked consistently among the top in the nation with our strong record in national and regional competitions, including winning the 2012 ABA National Appellate Advocacy Competition.

Additionally, we have worked to enhance our International programs. These include our unique Transnational Law Program, a dual-degree program with four European partner institutions, and our growing number of exchange partnerships abroad, including with the T.C. Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland in Australia, the Bucerius Law School in Germany, and Radzyner Law School at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. Our students also have extensive internship and field placement opportunities abroad, including at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia and the international courts at The Hague, as well as at NGOs and human rights agencies in South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, Burkino Faso, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As in all things, we encourage interested and admitted students to compare us to others, ask questions, and visit. Ultimately, we think what we offer stands out.

The admissions process/finding the right fit

TLS: What does the admissions process at Wash. U. consist of, and how is an application rated?

One of the big reasons Washington University School of Law is such a special place is the human element that we stress in the admissions process: looking at each applicant as an individual, reading each file holistically, and trying to fill each class with varied, diverse, and complementary backgrounds.

Admission to our law school is highly competitive, and we consider many factors in the selection process. The process begins with an initial sort based on the candidates’ numerical indicators to determine who reviews the application and how many reviewers read the application. In addition to the student’s academic record, the Admissions Committee pays particular attention to the personal statement, résumé and letters of recommendation. The Admissions Committee also makes a conscientious effort to examine the other, more personal variables that affect the quality of life and the quality of education in this institution: energy, motivation, self-discipline, and character.

Although it's not required, we strongly encourage all candidates to contact us to arrange for an interview, since this helps both the students and us in assessing the right fit. A visit to our school is also the best way for students to envision themselves in our environment and experience firsthand our intellectually vibrant community.

TLS: Realistically speaking, how large a part of the admissions process are factors other than a candidate’s GPA and LSAT scores? 

While a candidate’s GPA and LSAT serve as an objective starting point, we seek students who will work hard and possess sound judgment, teamwork, and leadership abilities. Essentially we want to know that: 1) they have the ability to do the work; 2) they will do the work; and 3) that they will work well with others in our law school community. A candidate’s transcript, résumé, and letters of recommendation provide evidence they will do the work. Their personal statement, résumé, and letters of recommendation give us an indication of what they will bring to our law school community.

TLS: How does Washington University School of Law view multiple LSAT scores? In what circumstances should an applicant include an addendum to explain his or her low GPA or LSAT score? 

We review all of the scores, but give the greatest weight to the highest score, especially if it is significantly higher.

An addendum provides us with the context for what happened that caused a candidate’s grades to suffer or not do as well as predicted on the LSAT. For example, if someone were having personal or health problems, that information could help explain a discrepancy in scores. The addendum should be a factual account of what took place or the circumstances. Be very careful not to appear overly defensive or blame others for your situation.

TLS: Do applicants, especially those with numbers that fall below Wash. U.’s medians, increase their chances of admission by applying early?

We encourage students to apply as early as possible because it helps indicate to us a candidate’s level of interest and commitment to our law school. Additionally, the earlier in the cycle applicants apply, the more spots and scholarship money will be available to them.

TLS: Do you have any advice for students preparing to apply to law school?

Connect with the Washington University School of Law’s admissions group early in the application process and start building your professional network. Talk to current law students and lawyers. And most importantly, stay in contact with these individuals. Let them know where you finally matriculate and report in to them once school begins. Down the road, they can help provide other kinds of advice about law school and your career, and they will be an important resource for networking and job searches. 

TLS: What do you consider to be the most important factors an admitted applicant should examine when choosing which law school to attend?

The school has to be the right fit. In order to excel, you need to be at a place where you are comfortable with the people and the surroundings so that you can do your very best and receive the greatest educational experience possible. The best way to develop a feel for fit here is to visit our school; meet with faculty, administrators and students; and ask questions. We are confident you will like what you see.

TLS: What advice do you have for admitted students to prepare for their first year at Wash. U.?  

Take advantage of our mentoring program. Second- and third-year students are paired with first-year students to provide advice on classes, job searches, and law school life. Our students are very community-oriented and are more than willing to help first-year students during their transition. 

Our intensive first-year orientation program also helps students get off on the right foot. The program gives an introduction to the law and the legal profession, our law school community, and fellow classmates.

Overall, the key to a successful first year is getting settled here and creating a routine that feels comfortable.

Financial aid

TLS: What percentage of students receive scholarships of any kind, and what methodology determines to whom scholarships are awarded?

Making sure law school is affordable to our students is a top priority. Approximately 75 percent of our students receive merit or merit and need-based scholarship awards. We use a fairly sophisticated methodology for determining awards based on academic qualifications of the individuals and the strength and competitiveness of the institutions attended, LSAT scores, and other factors used in the admissions selection process.

Personal statements

TLS: Do you have any general advice regarding personal statements for applicants who want to maximize their chances?

The general advice is that the personal statement is the candidate’s opportunity to provide persuasive information about himself or herself that he or she would wish to relay in an interview. We all have a collection of stories about ourselves that we tell people we’ve just met. Obviously, some are more appropriate than others, so a candidate needs to be selective in deciding what he or she would wish to tell an admissions officer or Admissions Committee member.  Also candidates should consider the personal traits and qualities that the schools state that they seek in their students and how that will be reflected in the personal statement.

TLS: Can applicants significantly improve their chances of admission by drafting a personal statement specifically for Wash. U. as opposed to a general personal statement that briefly mentions Wash. U., if at all?

We’d rather see them draft an addendum that states their reason for wanting to be at Washington University or in St. Louis so that it doesn’t interfere with the voice or flow of the personal statement.

TLS: Do you come across personal statements that actually hurt the applicant’s chances? If so, what are some traits of these statements? Are there any clichés or pitfalls an applicant should avoid? How often do you find statements that really stick out from the crowd, and what do these statements consist of?

As one of our colleagues once said, "I’ve seen candidates write their way into law school and candidates who write their way out of being admitted." Pitfalls include poor judgment reflected in the content of the personal statement (TMI for some) and/or weak writing style or grammatical errors. Additionally, candidates should remember that the operative word is “personal.” It is not a good idea to write about someone else for the majority of the statement.

Letters of recommendation

TLS: Applicants often have difficulty choosing and approaching potential recommenders. Can you offer some general advice regarding letters of recommendation?

Because we want to know what the applicant is like as a student, we advise applicants to get two recommenders who are faculty and to stick with faculty who actually know them and not just someone who will say the applicant received an A in their class. We also realize that at some schools, it may mean the recommendation is from a teacher’s assistant rather than a senior faculty member. Again, choose the person who knows you the best. The same rule applies for employer recommenders. A letter from a state senator, for example, is not that persuasive if the senator doesn’t personally know the applicant who interned in the office. 

TLS: Does the Admissions Committee come across letters of recommendation that actually hurt an applicant’s chances of admission? If so, what sort of letter should be avoided? How often do you find letters that really stick out from the crowd for good reasons, and what do these letters consist of?

Believe it or not, some letters do state that the writer does not recommend our admitting an applicant. Applicants should always phrase the request, “Would you be willing or comfortable writing a letter recommending my admission to law school?” The letters that stick out as great letters are those that highlight what strengths the student brings to a classroom ("Ms. Smith was always helpful at keeping the class discussion moving forward or was insightful in her observations of…"). Also recommenders who know the applicant well and, again, provide some context (work ethic, handling challenges, accomplishments) stand out.

Careers

TLS: The Washington University name is a strong one with national recognition, largely because of its excellent undergraduate and medical programs. Does Washington University School of Law see itself, in terms of the strongest career prospects, as a school with pure national reach, strictly regional focus, or somewhere in between?

We are a school that reflects its regional roots—congeniality, work ethic, community—but that has rapidly ascended to prominence on the national stage. I would say we are a school whose students come from all over and whose graduates work across the world. In the current economy, we are working hard to help our students find the right professional fit in a full range of career options in regional, national, and international markets.

TLS: Given the current economic situation, what steps is the career services office taking to see that students gain employment opportunities?

Our school is addressing changes in the legal, business, and government services employment markets by consistently innovating to maximize opportunities for our students. We have been adding programs to give students professional experience while in school—including expanded externship programs in Washington, D.C.; New York; and Delaware and adding a new negotiation class for 1Ls. We also have a full array of clinical programs and skills courses designed to focus on the total professional—intellectual, legal, and interpersonal.

Our Career Services Office’s approach to career preparation is built on a partnership with our students. This starts with the CSO offering a detailed self-assessment to help each student find the right professional fit based on the student’s background, interests, strengths, and location preferences. We then match each student with a CSO adviser and work closely with individual students throughout their time here. Each job-seeking third-year student is also given an expanded team of advisers who actively work with him or her to search for opportunities that align with the student’s strengths.

The most important thing for our students is to connect with attorneys in their preferred geographic location or practice area(s). We have many resources to make this happen. We have been working to grow our extensive network of professionals willing to advise and assist our students. The network now consists of at least 3,000 professionals and utilizes faculty relationships. In the last year alone, that meant over 2,000 introductions for our students. Last year, we also brought to campus more than 400 attorneys from 25 cities for over 70 events. These events range from small group discussions to large events, including Corporate Counsel Day, Small Firm Day, Women’s Law Day, the Employer Showcase, and the Government & Public Interest Job Fair. We also proactively send resume books to small and midsize firms in ten cities across the country and offer City Connect Events, Skype informational meetings, iChats, a Legal Project Bank, and the Entrepreneurial Lawyer Program.

We’ve taken a proactive partnership approach with our students and are constantly seeking new opportunities. To that end, we have ongoing conversations with students, faculty, and alumni to receive feedback on our approaches and are continuing to retool them as we go along. The bottom line is that we take very seriously our commitment to our students.

Final thoughts

TLS: Do you have any additional general advice that you would like to offer applicants who are reading this interview before putting together applications to Wash. U.?

I would recommend contacting us directly if an applicant has any questions about our law school or the admissions process. I also strongly recommend scheduling a visit to our school. Candidates may meet and talk with current students and faculty and experience for themselves our strong and diverse community. Visiting also certainly helps a candidate make a well-informed decision about a law school.

TLS: Thank you again, Associate Dean Janet Laybold, for kindly taking the time to answer these interview questions. TLS viewers can learn more about Wash. U. by reading the TLS profile of Washington University School of Law.