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Interview with Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Dean and Foundation Professor of Law – Paul Schiff Berman

Published December 2009

Paul Schiff Berman, the new Dean at ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, seems to inspire every time he speaks. When asked about him, the Dean’s staff was so charged with a collective current of hope and anticipation that sparks seemed to fly as new ideas and innovations were discussed. Dean Berman maintains a reputation for his creativity, motivational skills and his unwavering ability to make things happen.  Still, I was surprised when, only 4 days after making contact with the Sandra Day O’Connor Law School in an attempt to secure an interview, the Dean agreed to speak with me the following day. We would, however, have to speak on the phone as he was on the east coast with his family. Considering the time change and the circumstances, I prepared myself for a short interview and an early wake up call. Instead, the Associate Director of Office Communications told me that the Dean would call me at 10:00 p.m. Pacific Time (PST). Assuming this would further limite my time with him; I graciously accepted being given any time at all and looked forward to the call. At exactly 1:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time I began my interview with the Dean. He was surprisingly enthusiastic despite the late hour, and proceeded to jump right in, letting me know how excited he was for the chance to talk about what is going on with the law school. During the course of the following two hours, Dean Paul Schiff Berman managed to not only distinguish himself from any Law School Dean I have ever met, he made it clear that the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law is a vital element contributing momentum to the positive growth and improvement of Arizona State University.

There is no circumventing the fact that Dean Berman stands out among other Deans. There are several aspects about him that make him an unlikely candidate for the position. He is only 42 years old, which is young for a Dean. Prior to becoming Dean he largely identified himself as a theatre director, and rightly so. He founded one and directed several theatre companies in New York City. Lastly, he was not in the market for the position. It wasn’t until ASU contacted him that Dean Berman began to consider stepping into a role he had reserved consideration for in his distant future. He had considered the possibility of one day becoming a dean, but the more he spoke with Arizona State University president Michael Crow, the more he found himself intrigued and inspired by the transformation taking place at the University. No matter how unconventional the path, since taking the job, Dean Berman has gotten the Sandra Day O’Connor Law School off to a stellar start.

TLS: Where do you see your law school in the future? What steps are you and your staff currently taking to make improvements and/or changes at the school?

Along with Michael Crow, I am looking to transform higher education. One of the ways in which the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law is doing this is through public policy incubators and think tanks. Education can be integrated with the professional world, and in fact it must. The think tanks would aim to provide law students with opportunities for interaction with professionals outside the scope of the law school. It is important for law students to remember that there are relevant areas of practice outside of litigation; for example, speaking with zoning committees on behalf of new statutes drafted by students looking to allow for more green buildings, which will affect the building codes. There is an importance in understanding public lobbying. The College of Law appreciates that students will find value in learning how to write not just legal briefs, but compelling and persuasive arguments that may aid in larger policy solutions. The goal is not just to teach the law as it is, not just to move with the law as it shifts, but to teach about what the law should ideally become. As the College of Law steps away from traditional interpretation, it fuels students to take part in making law now. The new age of law at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law encourages students to understand that their potential to affect policy is already in play. With this style of teaching, upon graduation, students will not be exchanging their place in an educational setting for their place in a professional one – the two will be fused. Such integration allows for exponential growth for society as a whole. This is exactly what universities need to be aiming to achieve, because it is attainable.

TLS: Why should students choose Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law?

There are many reasons why students should choose to attend the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor, a few great examples would be:

Prepared for the economy – With the Government Public Interest Program if a graduate of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law has not been able to find work within 6 months after graduation, the College of Law Career Services has created a fellowship wherein the College of Law will match students up with government and non-profit agencies. The length of the programs can run from 8 to 12 weeks with a monthly stipend of up to $2500. In 2008, 3/4 of the students taking part in this program were offered full-time employment.

Flexible Schedule Option – After admission, students can elect to take a reduced course load. Instead of the average course load of four or five classes per semester for a student seeking to gain his or her degree within the average three year period, the reduced course load allows students to take two or three courses. Students have two years in which to complete the first year curriculum, and a total of seven years in which to complete the J.D.  One of the best elements of this program is that it is not a separate, part-time program. Students opting for the reduced course load will still be studying with full-time J.D. candidates and learning from the same professors.

Washington D.C. Legal Externship - In partnership with the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, the College of Law has created the first externship of its kind. Students can spend a semester in Washington D.C. studying federal legislative and regulatory advocacy with tenured faculty from the College of Law. The externship places students directly into either a government entity of non-profit organization in the D.C. area.

TLS: What are you doing to retain competitive faculty? In which areas are you looking to hire faculty? Are you currently hiring?

The College of law has been granted funding to bring on 10 more new faculty members over the next five years. The diversity of the student body is a big draw for talented faculty, which is another reason Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law is always looking for a wide range of students from different backgrounds and with different life experience.

Interview with the Arizona State University Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Shelli Soto.

TLS: How exactly does the admissions process work behind the scenes? Who is involved in reviewing the applications and what are the stages in this review process?

Every complete file is thoroughly reviewed by an admissions review professional. When the determination to accept or deny is obvious, the decision is made. The remaining applications requiring further input are distributed among select admission committee members. Once these committee members have voted, their votes will be tallied and a decision is made.

TLS: What is your policy on multiple LSAT scores?

Pursuant to the 2007 ABA policy change requiring law schools report only the student’s highest LSAT score, admission will rely more heavily on the highest score. However, the school can see all of applicants’ scores. If the applicant has shown a history of low scores and then one high score, we are going to want to hear about how that occurred.

TLS: What are the best ways an applicant can overcome a low GPA or low LSAT score?

There are students whom, while they score a 150 on their LSAT, are extraordinary for other reasons. Likewise a 2.9 GPA may not be the most reliable way to identify a student’s potential. This is why the personal statement and addendums are such valuable tools. Use the addendum to give perspective on why you received the grades or score that you received. Reserve the personal statement for portraying yourself for the admissions committee; keep it clean of any explanations. Make the most of the space you are given to present yourself and what your contribution to the law school will be.

TLS: What soft factors does your law school like the most? How are work experience and advanced degrees viewed?

No one experience is more valuable than another. We have students from the Peace Corp, military, athletes, and authors. We want to hear a compelling story that is true to the applicant’s personal experience.

TLS: What, in your opinion, makes for a great Personal Statement? Is it the quality of the writing or what is being written about?

A well written compelling story makes the best personal statement. This is the applicant’s chance to present him or herself to the law school. There is no right answer for a personal statement however; the quality of the writing is relevant. Proofread and edit. Give your personal statement to a friend. Tailor your writing to the specific school for which you are applying, and be specific about what attracted you to that school.

TLS: Beyond under-represented minorities, what other elements does Arizona State look for when considering diversity in their upcoming class?

We are looking to bring in a diverse group. A diverse group of students can also educate each other, so we do aim to choose a class of compatible diversity. We consider the educational potential in a student body as well as for the faculty. Faculty needs to be stimulated too, and we have found that a diverse student body attracts interesting faculty.

TLS: How much do letters of recommendation (LoR) matter in the admissions process?

After the personal statement, the letter of recommendation is the only other element of an applicant’s submission that can speak to his or her character. The power of the person writing the letter is not important. It is important that this person knows you. Choose someone who can spend the time it takes to write a thoughtful letter. Give them ample time to complete the letter. Make sure that the person you select can speak to your character. You want that person to have the ability to compare you to a large group and then elaborate on what sets you apart.

TLS: How much weight does an applicant's undergraduate major have?

The admissions office does take into consideration the difficulty or challenges of a program. A 3.2 in chemical engineering will not be held to the same standard as a 3.2 in an easier major. Science and Technology backgrounds will catch eyes. Mostly we are looking for proof of intellectual curiosity. We want to see people who love to learn and seek knowledge however unconventionally.

TLS: What would you usually like to see on LOCIs?

Letters from Alumni, friends of the law school, letters drafted in support of specific targets, special areas of law.

TLS: How are scholarship offers determined? Are there any additional scholarships available to 2L or 3L students?

There are recruitment awards, awarded to the most desirable candidates with awareness to the market. Scholarships are written up for 2L and 3L students based on criteria.

TLS: What is your policy regarding deferrals? Do students who are granted deferrals retain their scholarships?

We are liberal in 1 year deferrals; this is the standard approach in admissions. However the scholarships cannot be deferred and the applicant will go back into the scholarship pool for the following year.

TLS: It appears hard to gain residency in Arizona to get in-state tuition, is this correct?

Residency can be gained after 1 year in Arizona.  However, the presumption is that residency cannot be gained if one’s sole reason for being in Arizona is educational. 
Do you have any general advice for writing a strong application for Arizona State?

Tailor your application to our University. Do your research and if you feel that Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law will be a good fit for you, explain why. Use every opportunity to tell us about yourself including a resume, optional addendum, and personal statement. Don’t neglect any available space you are allotted, as this is your best chance to show us who you are and why you belong in our program.

Interview with W.P. Carey Assistant Dean for Career Services, Ilona DeRemer

TLS: How is career services evolving with and contributing to the integration of education and legal practice that Dean Berman is talking about?

We encourage students to look at the individualized benefits of the law rather than just viewing it as a large program into which one enters. We used to call it the LA Law syndrome – where people coming into law school see big law as the only option. In fact, only 10% – 15% of the legal field is actually represented on television. I think this misconception accounts for the higher attrition rate at big firms. People get into big law, it isn’t a good fit for them, and they think they made a mistake in going to law school. The more likely reality is that big law simply wasn’t a fit for them, but there are so many other options available. We try to show people that. Today, law degrees are so far reaching; some nontraditional students obtain their J.D. for careers outside of the law all together.

TLS: What are some general employment statistics for students from Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law? What percentage enters private practice, public interest, or do judicial clerkships? How many students typically find jobs through On Campus Interviewing?

On Campus Interviewing - We do 2 weeks of On Campus Interviewing, one in the fall and one in the spring. 12-20% get jobs through OCI. 50% go into private practice.

Small Firm Week - We invite attorneys from different types of practices to meet with students. These events allow students to practice their networking. Students can have small lunches with attorneys. During these weeks students also have the opportunity to try speed networking with attorneys.

The Alumni Network – The school pursues alumni to act as informal mentors to students. Recently, the College of Law sent out letters to alumni from the past 40 years offering career services. In this troubled economy we want alums to know that we will help students at any point in their careers. This program also helps in networking between students and alumni.

TLS: At what point in the student’s law school career do they begin dealing with the career services office?

We hold a large group meeting in the fall wherein we divide all 1L’s into 3rds. The 1L’s attend the Dean’s Sessions in 3rds. During these Dean Sessions students focus on professional development and practice environments.

Then, sometime during the 1st or 2nd semester students are assigned a career coach. In October students meet with their career coaches 1 on 1 to prepare their resumes for the 1st summer out. In further preparation for the first summer internship, students can communicate via video with several 1L’s (from different practice environments) holding a position at a firm. We hold a Career Skill Building Session, which lasts two hours. During this time we focus on teaching students how to find the best way to market themselves, by assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Students work on preparing their application materials and honing their interviewing skills. This time is tailored to each individual.

During the students’ 2nd Semester, if they haven’t already, students meet with their career coach. They are then advised on available resources to help meet goals – beginning with first summer opportunities. Career Services brings in local practicing attorneys to interview and critique and help with legal resume and mock interviews.

2L and 3L students can use Career Services to help find Externships – 90 participating agencies including government, public interest, and judiciary. The upcoming Law Undergrad Program will provide the option to be a graduate teaching assistant, something never before offered at a law school before. There are also Post Graduate Fellowships – Employer Sponsored, Government, White House Fellows Program, all of which career services can help students explore.

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