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Vanderbilt University Law School
Published November 2007, last updated October 2013.
Vanderbilt Law School, ranked as a top 20 school for many years, seems to operate with several Southern principles in mind: friendship, family, vivacity, and an honest day’s work. Vandy is located in Nashville, Tennessee, both the state capital and the country’s best spot for country music. Students report to TLS that with Vandy's small class size, Friday “Blackacres” events, great live music in the city and tons of caring administrators, their experience at the law school is memorable.
When graduates enter the workforce, they fan out broadly across South and the country. The top five destinations for 2012 grads were Tennessee; New York; Georgia; Washington, D.C.; and Texas.
It is with some pride, some satisfaction, and some affection that lawyers recall their three years in Nashville. This is why the school’s nickname, Vandy, has been so popular among students, graduates, and professors. It recalls the law school’s laid-back, yet vibrant, lively, and professional atmosphere.
With all this in mind, students should be cautious about attending any law school. The legal market is in trouble across the board, and applicants need to know what law schools are doing in response. The dean of Vanderbilt Law, Chris Guthrie, and the dean of admissions, G. Todd Morton, have addressed some of these concerns for TLS.
Vanderbilt Law is one of the most expensive law schools in the country. Few schools outside the T14 will leave their graduates with more debt, and Law School Transparency estimates the total debt-financed cost of a Vandy J.D. at about $255,000. However, the law school recognizes the seriousness of this, and has started a new initiative to let students more easily pursue part-time public interest work before they begin full-time employment.
Getting into Vanderbilt Law is difficult, though if your numbers are above both medians, you should be OK. Students come from all over the country; the class of 2015 hailed from 36 states, plus D.C., and three countries outside of the U.S., and most (62%) were out of college at least one year before law school.
Like all admissions offices, the file readers at Vanderbilt Law look for standout applications. This means that if one particular part of your application shines, whether it’s your personal statement, LSAT score, or work experience, your chances of gaining acceptance may improve.
Your application is not looked at as separate parts; rather, the admissions process stresses the interdependence of each item you submit. According to Dean Morton, your transcript, grade trends, undergraduate major, and any personal information potentially relevant to academic performance will be taken into account before determining the true value of your GPA.
Dean Morton gave us some insight into the application process. “Each application is reviewed in its entirety by at least two readers. Readers use ratings that approximate each application’s overall ‘strength’ relative to other applications.” In other words, your application, as strong as it is, is paired with other, equally strong applications.
This pyramid structure allows admissions offers to admit students according to their appropriated “level.” There are no hard-and-fast rules as to what puts a student in one level or another. This is because admissions officers see students with the same GPA who went to different colleges with different grading standards; students who worked full-time, part-time, or not at all during school; others who were the first in their families to graduate; and others with chronic illnesses or serious handicaps.
The pairing system allows file readers the option to “tip” one student up a level or down a level, depending on “individual characteristics and potential contributions to the class,” Dean Morton said. He added, “In considering work experience, community involvement, extracurricular activities, and the like, we tend to think about not only the ‘what’ (i.e., military service, corporate work experience, Teach for America, etc.) but also the ‘how,’ to the extent possible.”
While some students might gain a slight advantage by applying before decisions start going out, Morton says, “[Any] potential advantage is offset by ‘staging’ decisions to avoid exhausting all offers of admission before we have reviewed all applications.” Therefore, submitting later in the cycle shouldn’t hurt an applicant’s chances too much.
A few things will put your transcript ahead of the pack. An upward grade trend is good, especially if your course load, work hours, or extracurricular obligations increase as you improve your grades. If you are fresh out of graduate school, your degree will add to your viability as a candidate.
The school’s level of prestige may not play as important a role, though Morton says that “the college attended provides a backdrop” for admissions counselors to evaluate your performance.
Multiple LSAT scores
If you take the LSAT twice, Vandy will consider both scores along with the average; it does not discard one score or the other. Admissions personnel stay away from language that suggests an addendum will make them toss out a lower LSAT for consideration; however, Dean Morton did offer this:
If two scores are very far apart (say, six points or more), then an addendum may allow a file reader to lean in favor of one score. Your file readers will need some evidence to help them decide to weigh this score over the other.
Unlike most other law schools, Vanderbilt Law offers an optional interview for all of its applicants. Most of the time, these interviews are conducted by alumni in or near the applicant's city, which is an impressive testament to the breadth of Vandy’s alumni base. Indeed, there are Vanderbilt alums in 49 states, Washington D.C.; three U.S. territories; and 26 foreign nations.
The purpose of the interview is to give each applicant a chance to both find out more about Vandy and to present herself in a professional manner. This is your moment to show, in person, that you are capable of success in the legal profession. Valued characteristics include “sociability, maturity, commitment, intelligence, concern for others, [and] listening skills.”
Dean Morton stressed that these interviews are good for both the school and the applicant, since each can better decide whether Vandy is the right fit or not. “In short, it’s a win-win proposition.” Alumni will even conduct interviews abroad, and no matter where they are, “your interviewer will write up a brief report of your conversation that provides some impressions of you as a prospective law student.”
In order to write a personal statement well, you first have to realize that you are put on a stage with no props, no special effects and a single spotlight. All you have is your voice, which has to be clear, if not strong, and the facts of your personal story. Vandy receives many statements that focus on “the people, experiences, and events that have shaped the candidate’s course to law school.”
Admissions officers read thousands of personal statements each year. If you include a detail or event only because it sounds impressive, they will catch it and write it off as disingenuous. Dean Morton said, “Work to communicate rather than to impress, and to show rather than to tell.” That said, if you include a mention of Vandy, it has to be well integrated into the statement, or else it may come off as pandering.
This generally requires thoughtfulness, revision, and sincerity. If you pull it off well, then this is more than likely going to help your application. If you choose the more general route; that is, if you write a statement that will go out to all schools, this can be useful to file readers as well. Morton said, “Readers like to know what you are going to be like as a law student, so a general personal statement helps in that regard.”
Dean Morton told TLS what makes for a great personal statement:
He also added a vignette about how horribly a personal statement can get out of hand with detail:
Whatever you do, don’t do this. Stick to the requirements and don’t send law schools anything they don’t ask for, even if it is the greatest story ever told.
Letters of recommendation
Listen to the advice of Dean Morton, as it mirrors the advice given on TLS and elsewhere regarding letters of recommendation:
Sometimes, he said, the law school will get a letter that says the applicant requested the letter of recommendation repeatedly, and only after this insistence did the recommender agree to write something. In these cases, you should know that this anecdote might find its way to law schools, and that the letter might be only a qualified endorsement.
If you’re coming out of a graduate program, Dean Morton has some good news: “Letters of recommendation from graduate school faculty members are usually detailed and insightful as a product of student–faculty collaboration and close interaction.” So, ask your thesis adviser for some help, and you may have yourself an excellent endorsement.
About 81% of students received scholarships from the law school in 2012. The median amount given out was $20,000. Dean Morton supplemented this information:
In order to qualify for need-based aid, students must submit a FAFSA and Need Access form by the appropriate deadlines.
The wait list
One student said, “Vandy puts tons of people on the wait list, so if you want to go here badly, you need to stay in it for the long haul, even if that means two days into orientation.” Further, since the number of wait-list offers varies from year to year, the level of uncertainty can be highly stressful for those who have Vandy as their first choice.
Dean Morton played up this variance and indeterminism:
In order to get out of admissions purgatory, some steps should be taken. First, be sure to keep in touch with the Office of Admissions. Make certain they have your correct contact information; if you earn any accolades or awards, let them know; and know that if you do get an offer, you’ll have to decide relatively quickly.
A first-year student offered some more advice:
While Dean Morton might not characterize getting off the wait list as a battle requiring scratching and crawling, he does echo the points that an interview is helpful and regular contact is important.
Vanderbilt Law receives about a hundred transfer applications each year, admits fewer than 20 students, and enrolls about 10 of these. Dean Morton added, “For transfers, we give heightened consideration to three main factors: 1) first-year transcript, 2) interview, and 3) reason for transfer to VULS or to be in Nashville.”
Transferring is a difficult process, since it takes place while you’re worrying about doing well in your current law school, and will usually involve uprooting yourself in the middle of a hectic summer. If your dream school is Vandy, it can be worth it. On the other side of the fence, only two students transferred out of Vanderbilt in 2012.
Law school culture
Dean Guthrie chimed in on the culture at the law school:
Vanderbilt has a good, collaborative culture going for it, Guthrie said, “and I think this, more than any other single factor, is our comparative advantage when recruiting both students and faculty.”
Nonetheless, grades remain a point of competitiveness among students. One 1L said, “If you work your ass off you can get that good grade.” Students who are at the top of the class are clearly the workhorses. To crack into the all-As club, though, is extremely difficult because of the grading curve, and the majority of students will find themselves smack in the “incredibly tight curve in the middle.”
One student who received grades “ranging from B-minus to A” said that the grades corresponded to the efforts he put into respective classes. “I tried in the classes I liked and didn’t in the classes I didn’t like.” This student said he studied about four hours a day during finals. Many students will say that grades are random, but some press the point that “you get what you work for and if you can write well you will get great grades.” A student offers this advice:
Tolerance at Vandy
For students from outside of the state or those who have never visited Nashville, there hovers over the city the stereotype of the South as intolerant. In reality, most minorities and gays feel welcome in Nashville, and the bar scene is not as segregated as it is in other urban cities.
Several students (including a 3L and a former undergraduate) commented extensively on the level of tolerance found at the law school and in the city:
Prospective students should note that Nashville is “a big blue dot in an otherwise red state” and won’t necessarily fit most people’s conceptions of what states in the Bible Belt are like. Regardless of what one thinks about the South—or about law school—the best way to see if any place is a fit for you is to pay that school a visit.
Students at most top law schools will have great things to say about their professors. Most of the time, these people are more than teachers; they act as career advisers, mentors, and specialists whom students can consult on a regular basis. It should not be surprising that at a school that values friendship, collaboration, and hard work, students will talk to their professors on a regular basis and be well prepared for intelligent discussion in the classroom. The current student–faculty ratio is 13.1 to 1.
Dean Guthrie attributed the faculty's reputation to the school's hiring practices. He said, “I firmly believe that teachers matter more to a student’s learning than the particular content the teacher happens to be teaching.” One 2L gave an anecdotal account of the “awesomeness” of one professor:
Vandy's professors are not stacked in one particular area of the law; their interests are across-the-board, which helps those students who want to explore different fields of the law.
Whether or not professors will use the Socratic Method will vary from class to class, and for the most part, professors know how intimidating the law can be. They are there to challenge you, but, most of the time, are not there to flat-out embarrass you. If you go into class each day prepared and with a positive attitude, law school will have a hard time turning you into a ball of stress.
Recently, Vandy has amped up its Distinguished Lecture Series, bringing in prominent lawyers, scholars and judges, including justices O’Connor and Scalia. This lecture series has several different components to it, each of which invites a different sort of scholar, including those who work in international law, health policy, or civil rights advocacy. A full list of the series’ components can be found on this page.
First-year students all take civil procedure, contracts, criminal law, legal writing (for two semesters), property, regulatory state (covering statutes and agency decisions) and torts. One other required course, Life of the Law, introduces students to how to study law and, according to the website, “gives students the skills that will prepare them for their other first year courses.” This course is pass/fail.
Second- and third-years are required to take constitutional law, a professional skills course, and professional responsibility; other than that, they have a list of over 100 course titles to fill out the rest of their course of study. Nearly 65% of these upper-level courses feature an enrollment of less than 25 students. Some academic programs (discussed below) are there to help you make decisions, as choosing a handful of classes out of 100 can be a daunting task. Law school staff can help you form a curriculum that is well-aligned with your career goals.
Vanderbilt Law does not rank its students, though each semester, if you score in the top 20% of your class, you earn a spot on the Dean’s List. The top 10% of those who graduate will receive Order of the Coif honors.
Vanderbilt Law was the first in the country to offer a Ph.D. in Law and Economics, launching it in 2007. Also, the law school offers a certificate program for those who are interested in studying law and business. Dean Guthrie elaborated on this program, saying it “allows [students] to develop expertise in transactional practice (including accounting and finance) without the time and expense of a J.D./MBA.”
Recently, Vanderbilt Law’s massive list of courses has been organized according to academic similarity. Program areas now exist to help students choose what they want to study. Examples of these tracks include Criminal Justice, Law and Human Behavior, and Intellectual Property. A full list can be found on Vandy’s website.
One of the tracks is the Branstetter Litigation & Dispute Resolution Program, which ends with a “capstone” project, according to Dean Guthrie. In this capstone, students work in small groups and with a faculty expert to study disputing.
Guthrie also described a part of the International Legal Studies Program:
Speaking of travel abroad, of particular note is the law school’s Vanderbilt in Venice program, which allows students to study abroad in a charming Italian city under the guidance of Vanderbilt Law and University of Venice faculty.
It is a six-week summer program that “brings together a small group of law students and four professors to study selected international and comparative law topics.” Dean Guthrie tells us that classes are held “in a 500-year-old palace” that has been refitted to include the modern wonders of air-conditioning, a computer lab, and wireless Internet. Students can discuss the law while a gondolier ferries them to and fro, or walk through streets that end in inlets. Vandy students also get a unique perspective during their extended stay in this world-class tourist destination. Venetians are used to honeymooners, so law students are an interesting and welcome addition to residents of the sinking city.
Joint degree programs
Join degree programs are plentiful at Vandy, and for a hefty sum, students can add a veritable alphabet soup to their resumes; an MBA, M.Div. (Master of Divinity), MTS (Master of Theological Studies), M.D., MPP, Ph.D., and M.A. (in Latin American Studies) are all available to interested students.
According to Dean Guthrie, the law school “also allows students with multi-disciplinary interests to design their own joint degree programs.” Even if there is no formal program set up, you can make one at Vandy without too much fuss.
Keep in mind, though, that joint degrees are very expensive and time-consuming. They can be valuable, but only if you have a specific, targeted plan in place with a good idea of the payoff.
Many students, in their second or third year and with an open schedule, will choose to work in a clinic for credit. All clinical courses are offered on a pass/fail basis, and students can sign up for one semester or for the entire academic year. The time you spend working on a clinical course will vary, but the clinical experience being a significant time commitment.
Vandy has clinics available in litigation and transactional practice. “Even in the litigation model,” Guthrie said, “our students represent clients in civil, criminal, and appellate courts as well as in administrative hearings.” This experience looks good to employers, as it shows you have experience developing a relationship with and counseling clients.
Law School Transparency gives Vanderbilt's class of 2012 an employment score of 70.9%. This number indicates the percentage of graduates who, as of nine months after graduation, obtained full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar passage—that is, jobs as entry-level lawyers. This score ranks 17th among Above the Law's top 20 law schools.
About a fifth of the class remained in Tennessee; the rest spread out to other cities in the South and to larger legal markets elsewhere.
Vandy's percentage of graduates going straight to the nation's largest law firms, as measured by the National Law Journal, also ranks 17th. For the class of 2012, the percentage was 26.3%. The percentage of grads going to firms of more than 100 lawyers was 28.6%. A further 10.2% landed federal judicial clerkships, which often lead to prestigious biglaw or government jobs. The fraction of the class pursuing public interest work was a bit smaller, at 9.2%.
Vanderbilt posted its 2012 NALP report on its website. Of note are the salary ranges for first-year public- and private-sector workers. For the private sector (60% of those employed), the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles were $100,000, $130,000, and $160,000. For the public sector, the numbers were $48,400, $57,000, and $60,000. About 22% of 2012 grads who reported such information got their jobs through fall OCI.
Generally, Vanderbilt graduates are not hampered by the bar exam.
Public Service Initiative
The school's Public Service Initiative was begun in 2009. According to Dean Morton, it “provides six-month stipends after graduation for graduates taking any 20-hour-per-week position at a public interest organization.” This is designed to help students gain experience while transitioning into full-time employment. Qualifying public interest organizations are nonprofits, NGOs, or governmental entities.
Vanderbilt Law, said Dean Guthrie, “also pays for our students to attend public interest job fairs so that they might interview with employers who do not visit campus.” And in 2009, students began a pro bono pledge, “which allows incoming students to commit to seventy-five hours of pro bono work during their law school career.”
Loan repayment assistance program (LRAP)
Vanderbilt Law’s website gives a brief summary of its LRAP. For those who enter into certain qualifying public interest work, the program can help pay anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of a student’s annual loan repayment obligation. This offer is there for up to 10 years, at which point the student is on her own. The amount of aid given out is salary-based and capped at $50,000 a year in salary.
Quality of life
According to a recent graduate, Nashville allows Vanderbilt Law students to reach “that elusive equilibrium of work and play.” Though the city offers all of the amenities and activities that a city should offer, it is not so large as to cause the hassles and headaches one would find in a large metropolis.
Musical outlets are everywhere, and there are stretches of bars, clubs, and restaurants spread throughout the city. Although Vanderbilt’s campus is near the heart of Nashville’s downtown, parking is not that much of a problem. Housing is relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Recently, Vanderbilt’s law school building underwent a complete renovation; most students and graduates are impressed and satisfied with the new facilities. Also, because the law school is located on Vanderbilt University’s main campus, students can enjoy the university’s vast green grounds.
The campus is only about 324 acres, and it is designated as a national arboretum. Most buildings are close together, so once you are on campus, you can easily hop from the business school to the law school to the main library. Dean Guthrie adds to all this, “Princeton Review’s annual surveys rank [Vanderbilt Law] in the top five or 10 schools in the nation in terms of our students’ classroom experience and quality of life.”
Student activities add to the school’s reputation, and you can easily find YouTube videos of the Black Law Student Association Talent Show to get a feel for some of the events that make Vanderbilt a unique experience.
Current students share the following about finding housing in Nashville:
Indeed, students will likely have to decide between saving some money on rent or having to deal with Nashville traffic five days a week. Students continued:
One student commented further on the Americana, saying it “has a great roof deck and it's definitely close to school, though understand you're sacrificing quality as the price goes down.” This student lived two miles down the road, right off of the No. 7 bus line, and paid “$650/month for a 3br/2bath with a huge back deck, garage, and fenced in back yard with extra parking for friends.” Final remarks on housing follow:
In Nashville, strip malls are popular but they are hardly offensive to the eye, as the city maintains a good balance between wide, well-manicured streets hemmed in by businesses and a multitude of winding roads that cut through narrow, tree-lined neighborhoods. Driving is king in Nashville, so if you lack a car and are too far to walk from campus, chances are you’ll likely be carpooling or learning the bus routes.
Dean Morton says it is “an ideal location for law school with both federal and state courts and agencies, large national firms and small boutiques, nonprofits, the entertainment and healthcare industries, and it is a sophisticated and livable city that offers a great quality of life.” The metropolitan area has about 1.5 million residents, but there is enough space between houses and buildings so that the city maintains its small-town feel. Music is prevalent, people are nice, football is a beloved pastime and the restaurants, greenways, and countryside of Tennessee are all nearby. Students tend to be surprised, as this1L says:
Country music, dueling piano bars, karaoke, and an exciting nightlife are all integral to the city. Students have the Grand Ole Opry to visit, can go to the home of Elvis a few hours away in Memphis, and can enjoy the city that brought Dolly Parton and hundreds of other country stars to world renown. Note that Nashville is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame; there is no more fitting place to have such a tribute to the genre.
One visiting student had some qualms about the city:
Nashville and Southern culture, for many outsiders, takes some getting used to. One third-year recommended embracing the honky-tonk nature of the city—where else can you see “Kenny Chesney and Kid Rock drunk and jumping on stage to sing together?”
Dean Guthrie said the law school has “50 active student organizations. Large, well-established, and popular student organizations include the Legal Aid Society, the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), the Women Law Student Association (WLSA), the Entertainment and Sports Law Society, the Law & Business Society, the International Law Society, the Federalist Society, and ACS.”
Vanderbilt Law also has three academic publications: Vanderbilt Law Review, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, and Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law. There is also the Environmental Law and Policy Annual Review, published in conjunction with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C.
Membership on a law school’s primary law review is coveted; accordingly, becoming a member of the Vanderbilt Law Review is very competitive. Students are selected in the spring of their first year. There is a case comment competition after students take their final exams of the year, and students are chosen based on their score from this competition along with their first-year GPA.
If you find yourself holding a position on any journal, chances are your duties will include cite-checking articles and writing editorial notes for the journal.
Vanderbilt University Law School
2013 Above the Law ranking: 15
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