Interview with Former Dean Robert Berring of U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law
Published October 2006, last updated July 2009
Dean Berring, thank you for granting me this interview, which will help prospective law students learn more about the unique and dynamic learning environment that Boalt Hall offers.
Please elaborate upon what qualities Boalt is looking for when selecting its student body?
I was chair of the admission committee over the last few years, so I can answer this question. Many top law schools are not as focused on grades and LSAT scores as believed. While grades and LSAT scores are important indicators that help sort out the applicants and there are thresholds that need to be passed, they are only part of the picture. At Boalt, we also pay a great deal of attention to the personal statement, letters of recommendation, and transcript. At Boalt, we read the entire file and every component is important
Some advice I would give to applicants, get to know your professors so they can write personalized and strong recommendations. For I can tell you that there is a world of difference between a letter of recommendation that merely reads,
“Joe was a student in my class who did good work and received an A,” versus a long recommendation that begins, “Let me tell you about Joe’s many accomplishments and attributes.”
Also, research the law schools you are considering. If there is one law school that you care about, research that school and write a personal statement tailored to that school. Go to their website, ideally visit the law school, and then you can truly discuss why you want to attend that school, be part of a particular program, or study with a certain professor. While this requires extra work, it is worth it if you really want to get into a particular law school. When I sit down with a hundred files and have to whittle them down to twelve, it makes a difference when I can tell an applicant really wants to attend Boalt.
Be sure to “personalize” your personal statement and not turn out a generic statement modeled from some book on writing the perfect personal statement. Everyone is reading the same books and their personal statements all follow a pattern. One year the preferred topic was overcoming life tragedies and I read hundreds and hundreds of terrible tragedies that happened to people and how they triumphed over these disasters. Another genre is the, “I did this…” “I did that…” which gets pretty boring to read. If you are an excellent writer then you can write a trite statement and still get admitted, but otherwise it adds nothing to you file.
The best personal statement comes from your heart and is about something that you feel passionate. Be sure to heavily edit your personal statement. While many say that the personal statement is not a writing sample, it is the most profound kind of writing sample. Always remember that you are trying to sell yourself to the admissions committee. Make it crisp, clear prose that is easy and enjoyable to read.
Can you please offer any general advice to law school applicants?
Get your damn application in early! Nearly every law school will tell you that they do not have rolling admissions. The truth is that being in the first group of applications arriving when everyone is fresh is much better than being in the huge lump of applications that comes in at the end. We are all under deadlines and the first applications get much more consideration than the multitude which pour in during January.
While the law school application process is difficult and stressful, know that you will get into a law school. Once admitted to a law school, you will receive as good of a legal education as desired. You can get a great legal education at almost any law school in this country by focusing on your courses, seeking out your professors, and maximizing your experience. Few students fully utilize all of the available resources their law school offers.
If you did not get into as good of a law school as you think you deserve, transfer after your first-year. Through doing very well in your first-year classes you can apply to other schools as a transfer student, of which Berkeley alone takes 25 transfers per year.
Do you have any advice to offer law school students?
Law students need to keep everything in perspective. Most students come to law school with a dream to become something or accomplish something. That dream may range from becoming a star public defender to merely making a lot of money; remember this goal when facing doubts or concerns. Keeping hold of your dream makes your first-year in law school, which is oftentimes rote and bizarre, much easier.
Too many law students view law school as an end, when it is simply a means of achieving your goals. Law school should not define you; it is simply an instrumentality towards getting what you want out of life.
I would now like to examine why students should choose to attend Boalt. Let us first begin with why you personally chose to transfer from Boalt to Harvard Law School and then back to Boalt.
Well, I had done my first-year at Boalt and then, for a mix of personal and academic reasons, I transferred to Harvard Law School for my second-year. I initially thought that Boalt was a tense and competitive environment. But then when I went to Harvard Law School, I realized that Boalt was a pleasant and relaxed environment in contrast to Harvard. I may hold a record as one of the few students to transfer out of Harvard Law School, but it was the right choice.
On a related note, why do you think students should choose Boalt over other top law schools?
Well, that is a really good question. I do not think there is any specific answer and that it is an individualistic choice. I think that students should really take a look at the schools that they are considering, at the programs offered by those schools, and the location of those law schools.
When I talk to undergraduate students, I am surprised that often they do not penetrate very deeply into the law schools they are considering. There is now so much information out there on the Internet that you can really get a feel for the life of the school.
For example, I really view Harvard Law School as a samurai ring where you can test your swordsmanship against the swordsmanship of the strongest intellectual warriors from around the nation.
Some decisions are based upon the location where the student wants to attend law school and practice law. If a student really wanted to be in New York City, they should consider Columbia and New York University.
If you want to attend a law school that is geared towards learning a lot while leading a good life on the West Coast, then Boalt may be for you. I think Boalt offers the amazing combination of a strong faculty, an outstanding student body, and a great environment.
The outstanding student body is certainly the most important component because law school pedagogy dictates that students teach each other. It is often one professor teaching 60 students, so the relationships and conversations you have with your fellow students is as or more important than what your professors are teaching. Boalt is great about fostering student friendships and cooperation.
Much of what is unique about Boalt cannot be quantified. Boalt’s “weltanschauung,” or worldview/philosophy of life, makes learning a joint enterprise where students work together toward the common goal of inquiring and then gaining knowledge. Fellow students eagerly share information and will give their class notes to students who miss a class.
The other marvelous part of going to law school at Berkeley is the beauty of the physical environment. Having lived all over the country, I can easily say that the San Francisco Bay area is the most beautiful and diverse area I have ever been. Within just a few minutes from the law school are great hiking trails with breathtaking views.
What qualities do you think students most appreciate about Boalt?
This is individualistic. Some appreciate the campus, which is the greatest research university in the world. Most of those who come to law school have other academic interests besides law and Berkeley offers large class offerings and lectures in all subjects, many of which can be taken by law students.
Students also appreciate the low tuition that Boalt has, allowing many students to graduate with little or no debt. While higher than it was in the past, in-state tuition at just over $11,000 a year is still the best bargain in the nation’s legal community. In comparison, the tuition at top private law schools is generally well over $30,000.
What improvements do you think students would like to see at Boalt, and what steps are you taking to implement these suggested changes?
Without a doubt, this would be to technologically upgrade the large lecture halls. Over the next year or two we will get Internet wiring in these classrooms and have power for laptops as well as better lighting. The alumni association has made fundraising to upgrade these classrooms a top priority.
In what direction do you see Boalt heading towards in the future?
Historically, the school is at an interesting period. The faculty is changing as we have done a lot of hiring of young faculty members in the last five years and will be doing more hiring over the next five years. Our newer faculty members are already making a name for themselves with their scholarly work. I know this because I am the Dean and other law schools are trying to steal our faculty. But this is a good sign, I want a faculty everyone is trying to steal and so far we have not lost any of our young stars.
Boalt’s proximity to Silicon Valley has allowed us to attract the best Intellectual Property (IP) faculty in the nation. We are presently trying to steal another preeminent IP professor and the reason why we will probably succeed is her desire to be part of our IP program.
As IP law expands to touch almost every aspect of law, Boalt will be at the forefront of this change. The first-year law curriculum has stayed the same for the last 130 years, but what will demand that this curriculum change is the ever expanding role of IP law. For example, I teach contract law to first-year students, but a lot of what I teach is contracts on the Internet and electronic contracting. Boalt’s new faculty members, although they may teach business law or telecommunications law, are also “cyber” people familiar with all the changes taking place in the legal world.
Boalt Hall is renowned in many legal fields including intellectual property and environmental law. Is Boalt focusing more on being one of the nation’s best law schools in these fields, concentrating on new legal specialties, or both?
Both. I think one of our challenges is to keep all of these areas lively while still expanding into new legal arenas. Like IP, international law is permeating into all of the other areas of law. No matter what firm and location you choose to work in, you will bump into international law. Boalt has always focused upon international law, but the challenge will be to continue to focus upon traditional international areas like Europe, while also taking advantage of our Pacific Rim location by directing much of our studies towards Asia. As globalization continues in all areas of law, particularly intellectual property, Boalt will be positioned to shape and comment upon these changes.
Quality of Life
The old image of law school is of a very cutthroat and competitive environment. In stark contrast, Boalt’s administration and professors strive to offer a very friendly, nurturing environment. Can you elaborate upon Boalt’s combination of academic excellence and a relatively stress-free environment?
Many professors act by the motto, “Take your work seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.” The way professors interact with students helps create a fluid and free environment where students feel comfortable approaching their professors. These discussions can occur after class, in office hours, or even over lunch in the law school cafeteria. There is a real opportunity at Boalt to have informal interactions between professors and students where they can work together on scholarly projects or at the Berkeley Legal Foundation where students and professors work to provide aid to those without a legal voice.
Additionally, Victoria Ortiz, the Dean of Students, has made improving student lives her highest priority. One example is that before every exam period she provides the students with free coffee and bagels. Just a simple way for the administration to say to the students, “You are human, we are human, and we are all in this together.”
In many ways, the relaxed environment of Boalt is in the control of the students. The 50 faculty members can only do so much to alleviate any stress the 900 students impose upon themselves. Boalt students are a relaxed bunch, whether this stems from the administration’s efforts or knowing that they will all get jobs is hard to tell.
Could you elaborate upon other attributes that help keep Boalt students from feeling the intense pressures found at other top law schools?
Probably Boalt’s grading system, which has been in place for over 30 years. And throughout this 30 years people have bitched about this system, but it has never been changed. It is not that the faculty is unwilling to change the grading system, but nobody has come up with a better alternative. The way it works is that the grade of Pass is given to those who place in the bottom 60% of the class, with the remaining students receiving grades of Honors or High Honors. So you can be in the top half of a class and still get a Pass. This takes away the stigma of receiving a Pass and thereby takes some pressure off students.
Another factor is that we do not rank students because we feel that all of our graduates get an excellent education. And our students are still getting jobs, even in this bad economy, so the system seems to be working.
While most Boalt graduates work in the private sector, I am proud of Boalt’s continuing commitment to encouraging its students to consider working in the lower paying public sector to pursue their legal ideals. The law school just raised the salary level one can make in the public sector to have all of their loans repaid by Boalt. If your salary is below $40,000 then all of your loans are repaid and if your salary is above $40,000 and below $52,000, than a large percentage of your loans will be paid off by Boalt.
Teaching and Rankings
Your enthusiasm and love of teaching have often been recognized, including your being awarded the UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award. You have stated that you are amazed that they pay you for teaching because it is so much fun. What do you enjoy most about teaching?
It is my favorite thing, the best natural high I have ever found. There is nothing more exciting than being in front of a group of thirty really smart people and you do not know where it is going to go. It is not like I have something that I am going to give to students, but that as a group we are going to explore and work through these issues. I throw out my notes every year to make sure I think about it afresh with the students every class. It is a pure adrenaline pump!
The hardest part about being Dean is that I have had to reduce my teaching load. What a privilege to teach Berkeley Law School students. You can really play and have fun; it is simply a joy. It’s like asking me why I like chocolate.
What are your thoughts about the U.S. News law school rankings?
The rankings are totally meaningless. Every law school dean in America except three signed a letter stating that no one should pay attention to these rankings.
The problem is that everyone is reading the U.S. News law school rankings so while these rankings are meaningless, they have great meaning. They are useful only as a general guide and for sorting out tiers.
Do you have any final advice to convey to the readers of www.top-law-schools.com?
Yes, recognize your own abilities and talents throughout the application process and law school. It helps on your personal statement when you show the committee what you have to offer the school rather than trying to fit into a mold of what you feel they want you to be. This helps you in the application process, but also throughout law school.
Throughout life and law school, there are too many people trying to tell you what to do. What matters the most is your own intelligence and do not get caught up in trying to be somebody you are not.
TLS: Thank you for your time, Dean Berring. You are an excellent professor and I am very proud that you are leading Boalt to greater heights.
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