Interview with S. Brett Twitty, Former Director of Admissions, W&L Law
Published January 2011
Top-Law-Schools.com: On behalf of the Top-Law-Schools.com staff and our readers, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. Could you tell the readers of Top-Law-Schools.com a little about your background, and how you came to work for Washington and Lee Law?
S. Brett Twitty: I am originally from Charlotte, North Carolina and I graduated with Honors in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2003. After college, I went directly to law school, and I graduated from Washington and Lee University School of Law in 2006.
After graduating from law school, I worked for W&L as a seasonal recruiter and really enjoyed the experience. After that, I worked in Atlanta, Georgia for a small real estate law firm. A few months after I started, the Assistant Director of Admissions position at W&L Law became available. I applied and was fortunate enough to be hired, and I worked as the Assistant Director of Admissions for a little over three years. In September of this year, I was named Director of Admissions.
The Admissions Process
TLS: Could you take us through the admissions process? Who reads applications, and how are they evaluated?
SBT: Comparatively speaking, we are a very small admissions office. The Associate Dean for Student Services and I read all of the applications. If we feel an application requires additional scrutiny, we also have a faculty committee that occasionally reviews files. We typically begin our review process in November and continue making decisions on a rolling basis throughout the subsequent months, with most of our admissions decisions coming in January and February. We guarantee all applicants who apply by March 1 a decision by no later than late March/early April.
We are truly committed to a holistic approach to file review. We do not use a formula or an index, and we do not assign specific weights to particular portions of an applicant’s file. W&L Law is a very small school, and we are looking for people who are intellectually capable of managing the work that comes with attending our law school, but who are also interested in actively contributing to our campus community. This assessment requires the consideration of both quantitative and qualitative factors.
We want to assemble the brightest class of law students we possibly can, and LSAT and GPA are important as they are the best indicators we have of a student’s academic potential. However, for the purposes of our admissions process, they are hardly the whole story.
We have over forty student organizations and an extremely engaged student body, and it is exceedingly important to us that we add students to our community who share this commitment to extracurricular involvement. Furthermore, like many other law schools, we want as many different perspectives as possible represented in our incoming class. Simply considering the numerical aspects of a candidate’s file would hardly be helpful when working towards this goal.
Lastly, we feel there are certain values that are central to life at W&L, values that could not possibly be gleaned from an applicant’s LSAT and GPA alone. Specifically, given our nearly 150-year old Honor System, honesty, character and integrity absolutely define life on our campus, and we want to know our incoming students are equally committed to these principles. We continually reemphasize these points throughout our application, and we even offer students the opportunity to discuss an ethical dilemma in an optional essay. The Honor System is entirely student-run, and it only works if our students are willing to uphold its underlying principles. Fortunately, throughout the years, our approach to file review has allowed us to find 134 or so students who share this commitment.
TLS: Law schools love to talk about how holistic their admissions are, but data seem to suggest that “numbers”—LSAT and undergraduate GPA—dominate the process at nearly every school. Could you give us some specific examples of “soft” factors that actually affect admissions decisions?
SBT: Without a doubt, numbers are important. Every school is working towards important admissions goals that likely include the attainment of a specific median LSAT and GPA, and we are no exception. Each and every fall, we set certain numerical benchmarks we hope to hit with each incoming class.
However, of equal importance to these more quantitatively-oriented goals are our efforts to assemble a class with as much diversity (racial/ethnic, sexual orientation, gender, geographic, socioeconomic, life experience, etc.) as possible. Such diversity matters in particular at our law school because you will likely know everyone in your class, not to mention most of the people in the law school. W&L Law is not a place where you will simply drift through your time in law school. In many ways, the interpersonal and emotional intelligence that comes with this regular interaction is the unspoken value of a W&L education.
In addition, past experience would indicate that the following factors also really matter in the admissions process: Leadership experience, work experience, life experience, personal statement, letters of recommendation, volunteer activities, hobbies and interests, to name a few.
We like to get to know our applicants. Consequently, if you are really interested in our law school, we recommend you come for a visit, or, at the very least, contact us. For those who are unable to visit, we do offer phone interviews, and we make ourselves available in these ways because we want to get to know you. We tend to think that sort of personal connection is really what our law school is all about, and our personal interactions with you can matter a great deal when assessing your potential for success at W&L Law.
If you are applying to law school, you should know that every contact you have with an admissions office, good or bad, will likely be noted in your file. Consequently, when you call or email or stop by for a visit, you have a very real opportunity to shape a school’s impression of just who you are. If we meet or speak with you, and we really like you, this impression can really help you as you move forward in the admissions process.
Consequently, as we are genuinely concerned with just who an applicant is, “soft” factors play a significant role in our admissions process. In fact, if you look at our LSAT percentiles, you will notice some distance between our median (166) and 25th percentile (161). We believe this distance is reflective of our commitment to the consideration of a great many factors in addition to LSAT and GPA when considering an applicant’s potential for success at our law school.
TLS: How does W&L view multiple LSAT scores, cancellations, and no-shows?
SBT: Regarding multiple LSAT scores, in accordance with our policy of reviewing all the materials submitted with an application, we look at each of your LSAT scores as we consider your candidacy. Absent a compelling reason that persuades us otherwise, we place the greatest weight on your highest score because statistical analysis indicates that a student's highest score is the best predictor of her success at W&L Law. In accordance with American Bar Association guidelines, the median LSAT score for an entering class is calculated using our matriculants' highest LSAT scores.
With respect to cancellations, we know candidates cancel LSAT scores for a great many reasons. You weren't feeling well on test day and, consequently, your performance was less than your best. Or your testing conditions were less than ideal, and your performance suffered as a result. Typically, such cancellations do not negatively impact the consideration of an applicant’s file. If you feel so inclined, you are more than welcome to submit an addendum explaining the reason for a cancellation.
If you cancelled scores from multiple administrations, I would strongly encourage you to submit such an addendum. Naturally, as admissions officers, when faced with such information, we often wonder "Why?," and in these instances, it is often extremely helpful to have an explanation. If you do not provide us with such an explanation, we are often unsure as to what to think. In the application process, you should strive to eliminate any such confusion. Whether it be a bad semester on your transcript, a significant difference in LSAT scores or multiple LSAT cancellations (just to name a few possible topics), you absolutely need to address any such issues as they will likely give an admissions officer pause when reviewing your file. Your file should make the reviewer feel confident about your potential for success at her law school. A multitude of unanswered questions (or even a couple) can often have the opposite effect.
Typically, a "did not show" will not adversely impact the consideration of your file. However, as with all of the above situations, our response to this question largely depends upon the circumstances of your particular situation. If you failed to show for an LSAT administration, I would strongly encourage you to submit an addendum explaining the reason for your absence. If you failed to show for multiple administrations, you should absolutely submit such an addendum. Even if you failed to show for one LSAT administration, we will wonder what happened, and, as previously noted, you should strive to answer any and all such questions.
TLS: Law school applicants are often encouraged to submit addenda to explain a low LSAT score or GPA. When does W&L want to see an addendum? Can they ever be harmful?
SBT: We have a fairly liberal addendum policy. When reviewing an applicant’s file, we absolutely want to have all the information necessary to make the most informed decision possible. Applicants write addenda for all sorts of reasons, but if you had a bad semester or a rough year or took the LSAT a couple times and there is a significant disparity in your scores, you should absolutely consider submitting an addendum. We will read your explanation, and such insights can be extremely helpful when trying to understand the reason (or reasons) for an inconsistent undergraduate record or a dramatic improvement on the LSAT.
When applying to law school, you are asking to join a profession, a profession that holds its members to very high standards. Consequently, you should expect us to really scrutinize your records and accomplishments. As a result, when compiling your application, you should take a moment to consider what, if any, questions a neutral observer might have about your application. Typically, if you think we will have a question about something, we most definitely will (and more than likely a few other things, as well). And, as noted above, as an applicant, it is your responsibility to eliminate as many of these questions and doubts as possible. Addenda are often extremely helpful in this regard.
Addenda do not typically adversely impact the consideration of a candidate’s file, but there are times when they can do an applicant a disservice. If you choose to write an addendum explaining a lower LSAT score or GPA, your addendum needs to say more than “My LSAT/GPA is not fully reflective of my potential.” A great many applicants likely feel this way, and if you don’t really have anything substantive or enlightening to say, you probably shouldn’t submit an addendum. Sometimes things just are what they are.
However, even if you do have meaningful insights to share, the manner and tone in which they are presented can often be the difference between an effective addendum and one that ultimately harms your chances of admission. You should explain not excuse. As a lawyer, you will be regularly asked to take responsibility for your decisions and actions. Such ownership should also define your application process.
TLS: What is the approximate percentage of students who come to Washington and Lee Law after full-time work experience or graduate study versus those who go “straight through?” Does work experience generally give a boost to an application? Would you advise people considering applying while still in college to wait a year or two?
SBT: With regard to when is the right time to go to law school, we defer to the applicant. For some students that is directly after the completion of their undergraduate education. Other students couldn’t possibly fathom more school (not to mention, a more intense course of study) after college and therefore need some time off before beginning law school. For other candidates, law school is a career change. We have all of these students at our law school, and we do not specifically advantage or disadvantage any of them in any way during the application process.
Over the past few years, our median age for our incoming class has ranged from 23 to 25, and typically 40 – 50% of the students in our first-year class come directly from undergrad. We have always been a younger law school, and there are likely many reasons for this. We offer no part-time or evening program, and almost all of our admitted students are not in the Lexington area, so a complete relocation is required before they can start law school at W&L.
If you are a student with work experience, we will absolutely take note of your professional accomplishments, and this record will be an additional factor for us to consider when reviewing your file. As previously noted, we absolutely want as many perspectives as possible represented in our classes and significant work experience is certainly among the characteristics we consider when working towards this end. However, it should be mentioned that, for our purposes, when considering a professional record, working for five years is often different than working one or two years. This makes sense when you consider the fact that a candidate who spent five years in the real world was likely exposed to a much different and likely broader range of experiences than someone who worked for only a year or two.
If you are trying to determine whether you should take a year or two off before beginning law school, I would encourage you to take some time to figure out if you are truly ready for a more intense educational experience. The students who tend to do the best at our law school are those who see law school as a professional experience and not simply as more school. This is an important distinction, and fully embracing this difference requires different work habits, serious time management and organizational skills and a tireless commitment to law school.
Law school will definitely challenge you, and there will be nights, particularly during your first year, when you will question whether or not the study of law is right for you. However, while such doubts may occasionally creep in, at the end of the day, you need to be able to answer these questions in the affirmative. If you are not sure you will be able to respond in this manner, you may want to take some time to figure out if law school is a good fit for you. Law school is not a default career choice and certainly not something that should be pursued for lack of any other obvious employment option. It is simply too hard for you to not be completely committed to the experience.
Furthermore, as many people have noted, once you start law school, things certainly do not slow down. Law school includes many long nights, busy summers and a whole lot of work. As these experiences indicate, once you’ve begun, it will be exceedingly difficult for you to take a significant break. You will be on a path that transitions quickly from school to career. After law school, you will study for the bar exam and start a job that will most likely require sixty, seventy or even eighty hour work weeks. As this timeline demonstrates, if you feel like you need a couple years to rest and recharge or travel or have a significant volunteer experience, the time to do so is before law school.
TLS: Does undergraduate prestige play a role in admissions? W&L’s most recent classes have included so many colleges that it seems applicants from little-known institutions still get ample consideration, but do applicants from really top colleges—say, an Ivy League—have an advantage?
SBT: We will absolutely take note of the undergraduate institution you attended. We want to know you were challenged and pursued a rigorous course of study during your undergraduate career, and there are schools that have a reputation for pushing their students in these ways. However, for our purposes, how you fared wherever you went to college is ultimately more important. The members of this year’s first-year class hail from ninety-five different colleges and universities, with no more than eight students hailing from any one school. We like having students from a lot of different schools on our campus as we find this educational diversity only adds to the richness of the classroom conversation.
One of the truly difficult things about valuing one school more than another is that it often begets a slippery slope problem. Once you decide a certain school is “better” than another, what about a particular major at that school as compared to the same or a different major at the other school? There are far too many undergraduate institutions for us to effectively make these kinds of distinctions. Consequently, for us, we prefer to focus on your undergraduate performance when assessing your potential for success at our law school.
TLS: According to your website, W&L Law is targeting 134 students for the Class of 2014. How many applicants are typically placed on the waitlist, and how many are eventually accepted?
SBT: We typically accept 800 or 900 students a year to arrive at a class of around 134 or so. The number of students on our waiting list varies with application volume. Every year, we are able to offer some applicants on our waiting list a seat in our incoming class, however the number of seats offered varies from year to year and depends upon a great many factors (number of seat deposits, enrollment goals, summer melt (i.e. how many deposited applicants we lose over the course of a summer, etc.) that are often beyond our control. I will say offering a waitlisted candidate a seat in our class, particularly if I know that candidate well (which I often do) is truly one of my favorite parts of my job. That’s always a great day.
TLS: What are some of the worst clichés or most ineffective topics you frequently see in personal statements?
SBT: We have a very general personal statement, and we ask applicants to “give us a sense of the person behind the objective credentials presented in your application and supporting documents.” Consequently, any personal statement in which an applicant does not tell us anything about herself is truly a wasted opportunity. We will read your entire file, so at W&L Law, your personal statement absolutely matters. This is not the time to discuss your interest in Constitutional Law, the state of the justice system in America or some equally abstract concept. It should also not be a narrative re-statement of your resume. For those two to three pages, your focus should be squarely upon you. Admittedly, writing about oneself is not a comfortable place for most of us. It is, at the very least, completely different than most of the writing you do in school. Consequently, you want to be sure to give yourself enough time to find your voice and make sure your personal statement truly conveys just who you are.
Please do not feel as if you have to connect a particular life experience or story or whatever you choose to discuss in your personal statement with your desire to go to law school. As far as we’re concerned, your submitting an application is evidence enough of this interest. More often than not, such connections feel forced, as if an applicant is trying to imbue a situation with a meaning it didn’t necessarily have at the time and may not even have retrospectively. Of course, if the subject of your statement happens to really relate to your desire to go to law school that is great, and we are absolutely interested in hearing about that. But remember: we do not ask why you are interested in law school in our prompt, so we are not necessarily looking for this sort of information in your personal statement. We really just want to learn more about you.
Furthermore, we caution applicants, unless they have extensive experience writing creatively, to avoid poetry, blank verse, third person narrative, out-of-body experiences or mock funeral services, to name a few of the more common “creative” ways in which past applicants have elected to express themselves in their personal statement. These approaches are rarely done well and more often than not distract from the message. When confronted with such an approach, my focus is more often than not on the manner in which the applicant chose to craft her personal statement and not the content of the statement itself. This is not the stuff of which effective personal statements are made.
We even advise applicants not to devote a paragraph of their personal statement to discussing our law school or why they’re interested in W&L Law. First and foremost, as far as we’re concerned, your submission of an application is evidence enough of your interest in our law school. Furthermore, a paragraph in which you’re talking about us is a paragraph in which you are not talking about you. While you may be genuinely interested in our law school, your personal statement is not the best place to discuss this interest. If W&L Law is truly your #1 choice, you would be better off addressing this in an addendum.
Also, as there are many law schools with ampersands or “Washington” in their names, applicants to our law school run a significant risk when they choose to include a school-specific paragraph in their personal statement. Every year, we receive a number of personal statements in which applicants profess their undying love and admiration for a school that is not Washington and Lee. Informative as this statement may be, it is less than heartening. This is, of course, the risk you run if you choose to craft this sort of school-specific personal statement.
TLS: Could you briefly describe a really good statement?
SBT: One of the hardest things about giving personal statement advice is that there are so many examples of how not to write a personal statement and very few definitive examples as to how it should be done. Obviously, part of this ambiguity results from the fact that we do not want to provide students with such a regimented set of guidelines that we receive four thousand versions of the same personal statement. The manner in which an applicant chooses to write her personal statement often says as much about her as the subject about which she chooses to write. These are important decisions that rightfully belong to the applicant, and we want our guidance to provide you with a meaningful sense of our expectations without stifling your creativity or personality.
In short, for us, a really good personal statement is well-written, tells us something about you we would not have necessarily gleaned from the other portions of your application and makes us feel confident about your potential for success at our law school. We really encourage applicants to see their application as a whole (as it will be read), as opposed to a collection of disconnected or unrelated parts. Your personal statement, letters of recommendation and any other documentation you wish to submit should work in concert to give us as complete a picture of just who you are as possible.
TLS: Can an applicant improve his or her chances by writing a targeted personal statement or submitting an additional “Why W&L?” essay?
SBT: As noted above, at our law school, a targeted personal statement is never as helpful to an applicant as a solid, well-written, truly personal, personal statement. However, we are always interested in hearing from students who really want to go to our law school, and there are many ways to convey this information. You can attach an addendum addressing this interest. You can call me. You can send me an email. You can schedule a visit during which you will have an opportunity to speak with an admissions representative and further convey your interest in W&L Law. In short, there are a lot of better and more immediate ways to convey this sentiment than in your personal statement.
Letters of Recommendation
TLS: W&L requires two letters of recommendation. Can additional letters either help or hurt an application?
SBT: We require two letters of recommendation because that is the number of recommendations we feel we need to have sufficient perspective on an applicant. You are certainly welcome to submit more than two letters but any more than three letters of recommendation has the potential to adversely affect the consideration of your file. Applying to law school occasionally involves some difficult decisions, and identifying just two people to write your letters of recommendation is one such decision.
Each year, we have applicants who submit five, six or seven letters of recommendation. This is completely unnecessary. In fairness to all our applicants, we only have so much time to review each file, and we ask you to exercise some restraint and consider your fellow applicants when assembling your file.
TLS: What are some characteristics common to strong recommendations? Weak ones?
SBT: The best recommendations are those from recommenders who know the applicant well and provide us with an informed and nuanced sense of the applicant and her potential. Strong recommendations can come from a lot of different people, and our first rule of thumb for applicants when identifying a recommender is to make sure she knows you well. However, this person should also be someone who does not have to like you, (for lack of a better way to express this sentiment) like a relative or a longtime family friend. Recommendations are always more effective if they come from someone who has been genuinely and independently impressed by you and your intellect, character, work ethic and professionalism.
Secondly, you absolutely want to ask the recommender if she feels comfortable recommending you. If you take the time to ask, most people will let you know if they do not believe they can write you a good letter of recommendation, and simply asking this question will likely save you from submitting a less than compelling letter of recommendation.
Also, when asking someone if she will write a recommendation for you, you want to have a copy of your resume with you so the recommender can have some idea of the other things in which you’ve been involved beyond the specific context from which she knows you. Almost every recommender will appreciate this gesture (as a great many will want to discuss your extracurricular activities in their recommendation), and it further underscores your organization, professionalism and sincere interest in law school, never bad impressions to make when asking someone to recommend you for law school.
You also want to give your recommenders plenty of time to write your recommendation. These people have lives and obligations independent of writing your recommendation, and you need to give them more than a couple weeks to write your recommendation. The best recommendations are thoughtful, honest assessments of an applicant’s talents, skills, ability and, in many cases, shortcomings, and you want to make sure your recommenders have enough time to fully explore your qualifications. As we only ask for two letters of recommendation, you want each letter you submit to be as strong as possible. This means, once you’ve identified two people who can really write a solid letter of recommendation on your behalf, giving them enough time to do so.
We also want as broad and complete a picture of you as possible, so hearing from two recommenders who know you from the same context is often not as helpful as hearing from two people with whom you’ve interacted in different settings can be. The best recommendations work with each other and the other parts of your file to give us a truly complete sense of just who you are as a person.
The worst recommendations are those in which the recommender clearly does not know the candidate or, at the very least, does not know her well. As noted above, be sure a recommender really wants to write a letter of recommendation for you. We regularly receive letters of recommendation that are a paragraph long (or shorter) and say nothing beyond, “[Applicant] took my class last spring and received an A. I highly recommend her for law school.” This is not the most helpful recommendation, and this is the type of recommendation you absolutely want to avoid.
Please do not pick a recommender simply because you believe we will be impressed by her letterhead. No matter how important the title, if the recommender doesn’t really know you, you will have wasted an opportunity to give us a further perspective on you as a person. Remember. It’s not about who you know, but rather who you are. We want to get to know you.
TLS: Those who have been out of college for a while often have a hard time finding professors to write strong recommendations. What advice would you give to these applicants? Is a file with only professional recommendations necessarily lacking?
SBT: As far as who you ask to write your letters of recommendation, we typically recommend at least one of your letters be from a professor or someone who knows your academic abilities well. However, if you’ve been out of school for a while, you may feel that finding a professor to write a recommendation for you may be a challenge or that this person may not be able to speak to just who you are at this particular moment in your life. If this is the case, don’t worry. At the end of the day, it’s more important that your recommenders know you well than know you from the classroom.
TLS: On the other hand, some undergraduate students feel that their applications are incomplete without a letter that speaks to work experience. Is submitting only academic letters a problem?
SBT: Submitting only academic letters is also not a problem. We are always interested in knowing how applicants perform in an academic setting, and we would rather have two letters of recommendation from professors who know a candidate well than one great letter from a professor and an average letter from someone who happens to know the applicant from a professional context.
However, if you feel like there is someone with whom you worked who can provide us with a meaningful sense of who you are, we are always interested in such a perspective. Nevertheless, you should not feel like you absolutely have to have a letter that speaks to your work experience, particularly if you do not feel there is someone who knows you from a work setting who also knows you well enough to write a good letter of recommendation on your behalf.
TLS: What percentage of students is on merit-based aid? Need-based?
SBT: At W&L Law, we only have merit-based scholarships, and approximately 60-70% of our students receive some form of merit scholarship. Merit scholarship awards typically range from $5,000 to full tuition. Educational loans are our only form of need-based aid and are typically available up to the full cost of attendance, i.e. tuition plus cost of living allowance. Approximately 90% of our students are financing some portion of their law school education.
TLS: How many transfer students does W&L take in a typical year?
SBT: The number of transfer students we admit varies depending upon space, total enrollment goals and the volume and quality of transfer applications received.
TLS: How does W&L evaluate transfer applications? Do undergraduate GPA and LSAT still play a significant role?
SBT: If you’re applying as a transfer student, we will certainly take note of your undergraduate GPA and LSAT score, but as you have already completed a year of law school, they factor less heavily than in the J.D. application process. When reviewing transfer files, we tend to put the most weight on your first-year performance and your recommendations from professors at your current law school. However, as with J.D. applications, we will read your entire file, so everything you submit ultimately matters.
TLS: How many W&L students usually transfer out per year? What advice do you or other faculty/staff members generally give to W&L students considering transferring to a higher-ranked school?
SBT: It really varies. We have averaged about 10 students transferring out per year over the last five years.
We encourage students to consider a number of factors as they explore the possibility of transferring. We remind them that W&L provides a unique educational environment with incredible access to faculty and senior administrators. Also, we advise them to consider whether they will have the same journal opportunities as a transfer student at another school. However, the most important thing we talk about is fit. We want the students who are here to be happy and secure in their decision to be at W&L Law. If a student believes another school will provide more opportunities professionally or will be a better option for them personally, then we absolutely support the student in that decision. The bottom line is we want what is best for our students.
Academics and Career Prospects
TLS: W&L Law has a student body of around 400, and a student/faculty ratio of around 9.5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a small law school?
SBT: There are a lot of advantages of a small law school, particularly a school like W&L, where you have all the benefits of a small school but with the institutional resources of a much larger school.
There’s a real personal feel that comes with attending a small school, particularly a small school in a small town, and I think this is one of the aspects of life on our campus that truly makes our law school distinctive. This is a law school where you will be anything but anonymous, and nearly all of our current students chose W&L because they wanted to be a name and not a number. In a great many ways, our school is all about relationships and potential. Over the course of your three years on campus, you will have the opportunity to build a number of lasting, meaningful relationships. And for the student who comes to our school and really throws herself into the experience, gets involved, gets to know her professors and spends time with her classmates, there is really no limit to what she can do. I know that might sound a little trite, but the support and access you have at our school are truly unparalleled.
At our school, you will know your professors, and they will know you. Our faculty are accessible, and if getting to know your professors has been an important part of your past educational experiences, there is a real opportunity to build these sorts of relationships at W&L Law. When you’re a student at our law school, you are absolutely a member of a community, and everyone on campus, from the faculty and administration to the staff, will take an interest in you. If you are having a rough day or you simply have a question, you can walk into anyone’s office, and they will have time to help you. In fact, most of our students could walk into our Associate Dean for Student Services’ office this afternoon, and she would know who they were, where they were from, what classes they were taking, where they worked last summer and what they’re involved in on campus. This level of personal attention is just a very W&L thing.
For most people, “friendly” is not a word that instantly comes to mind when they think of law school, but friendliness is truly one of the central features of life at W&L Law. During your time on campus, you will likely know everyone in your class, not to mention the entire law school. This might sound unrealistic, but when you consider the amount of time you will spend with one another, it’s completely reasonable.
Furthermore, because of our small size and location, our students are really invested in the life of our law school. W&L Law is probably not the right fit for you if you’re looking for a passive law school experience. Most of our students are involved with two or three different organizations, and during your time in Lexington, you will absolutely have an opportunity to shape the culture of the law school. Students are the driving force behind 90% of our school’s extracurricular programming, and if you are a student looking to make an impact, you can absolutely do so at W&L Law. Is there organization you wish we had on campus? You can start it. Is there a service project you would like to lead? You can lead it. There are just so many things you can do simply because our school is set up to empower students in this way. The ownership our student’s feel over the life of our law school is unique, but it is truly a defining characteristic of W&L Law education.
I would also say the fact that you never have to wait in too long of a line when you want to meet with someone is also a tremendous benefit of attending a small school. Take our Office of Career Planning (OCP), for example. You can meet with an OCP professional as many times as you want. There is truly no limit, and they are happy to speak with you. In addition, they have drop-in hours. Furthermore, they regularly set up a table near our café on campus and make themselves available to answer quick questions students have. These are a few examples of the access to these sorts of services you will have as a student at our law school.
Lastly, our small size absolutely benefits our students when it comes to time to register for classes. I was recently talking with one of our third-year students who just returned from Cambodia. She was there for her International Human Rights practicum course. She mentioned how great it was to actually be able to take a class like this, and how she felt that W&L’s small size was the very reason why she was able to do so. As you might imagine, the enrollment for this course is quite small. At a larger school, you might have eighty or ninety students trying to register for this class. At our school, those numbers look a lot different (even when compared proportionally), and typically, if you really want to take a class, our administration will try to work with you. Obviously, there are times when, for one reason or another, it just doesn’t work out, but I these tend to be more exceptions than the rule. As a law school, we try to be responsive to our students’ interests and feedback, and our small size allows us to be more bureaucratically nimble than a great many larger institutions.
As far as disadvantages go, there are definitely times when the law school and Lexington can feel a little small. During these times, it’s fairly common for our students to spend an evening or a weekend in Charlottesville, Roanoke or D.C. (to name a few nearby destinations). One of the great things about our location is that you are within a reasonable drive of some really great places, so if you ever feel like you need a break, you can get away without too much effort.
Another disadvantage of our small size is curricular limitation. While we have a very large faculty for a school of our size, we are not always able to offer as many electives as larger schools. While I think students are consistently surprised by the number of curricular choices we do offer, if you compare our catalog to that of a larger institution, you will likely notice that we do not have quite as many upper-level courses.
TLS: Washington and Lee recently introduced a new third-year curriculum that emphasizes practical training. Is that program here to stay? If so, could you briefly describe it for TLS readers?
SBT: Our third-year curriculum is absolutely here to stay. We feel it is the right thing for our students, and it will afford them some truly compelling curricular opportunities. The third year consists of four components that blend the professional and the intellectual into a diverse range of simulated and real practice-oriented experiences. Each semester begins with a two week long skills immersion; first semester’s immersion focuses on litigation and conflict resolution, second semester’s immersion addresses transactional practice. You will also take four elective courses, one real-client experience (either a clinic, an externship or a Transnational Human Rights practicum) and three additional electives taught in a problems-based, practicum style. You will also complete at least sixty hours of law-related service and participate in a semester-long professionalism program.
The third year will allow you to explore topics more deeply and engage in the most professionally relevant work of your law school career. It will afford you the unique opportunity to cultivate the skills essential for professional success while working closely with permanent faculty as well as practicing attorneys on a diverse range of legal topics, encountering the law as you will as a practitioner: through your client's problems. As a result, you will have a more realistic sense of the day-to-day functioning of a lawyer, and a more focused notion of your own professional interests and ambitions.
TLS: The shaky economy and high tuition costs have many current and prospective law students worried. How has the recession affected W&L students on the job hunt?
SBT: The recession has affected our students as it has all law students. Record numbers of lawyers are vying for fewer jobs and this has created an extremely competitive job landscape. These are times of significant structural shifts in many legal markets (and the economy generally), and, without a doubt, this presents some real challenges. If you look at national legal employment trends over the past few years, it’s clear things are changing, have changed and will most likely, over the next few years, continue to change. Our students, like many other students throughout the country, are feeling this crunch.
For example, job searches are taking longer. They are requiring more individual initiative. And students are finding that there is often no longer a job waiting for them at graduation. Consistent with this last point, many of our recent statistics seem to point to more of a pathway to employment, and one that can take six to nine months after graduation to take shape. Our students are also casting broader nets, and rightfully so. Students are applying for more jobs in more legal markets and occasionally including non-traditional employment options in their job searches. Not every legal market was hit equally hard, and we continue to encourage our students to consider smaller and medium-sized markets in addition to the large urban centers on the coasts when crafting their job searches. If you are seeking legal employment these days, a single market or single-size employer strategy is probably not your best bet.
TLS: What is the law school doing to help its students find jobs in this anemic hiring environment?
SBT: We provide many opportunities and services to our students that help them meet many of the challenges described above. First and foremost, as a W&L student, you will be a part of a very strong alumni network. Our alums take a personal interest in helping our students and graduates find jobs. They have a real love for the school and great faith in the intellectual and extracurricular impact of our educational model. We provide opportunities beginning in the first year for our students to network with alumni and to cultivate meaningful individual relationships with them. In fact, over ninety of our first-year students expressed an interest in our alumni mentoring program this year. We also maintain a support network database of alumni who are willing to host students in their homes, provide informational interviews or furnish background information on their geographic location.
There are a few real reasons for the strength of our alumni network. Our law school has been and will always be extremely selective. Put simply, attending W&L Law is not something just anybody gets to experience. Last year alone, we received thirty-two applications for every seat in our incoming class. Furthermore, there are certain aspects of attending our law school that have simply not changed over the life of the institution (the feel of the campus, our emphasis upon character and integrity, the spirit of the place, etc.). This continuity effectively creates a shared experience that transcends class year and generational difference. Consequently, when you meet someone who also attended W&L Law, you really feel like you have something significant in common.
Furthermore, most of our alumni really enjoyed their law school experience. As an alumnus, I can tell you, when I speak with my friends or other graduates from our law school, I always notice their fondness and redolence for the time they spent in Lexington. As a student, this can only help you, and I think our students are continually impressed by just how eager our alumni are to discuss and share their law school experiences.
In addition to networking with alumni, we continue to emphasize individual counseling and career planning. So much of the job search is about strategy, and at our school, you have unlimited access to our Career Planning professionals as you formulate a plan that is right for you and your goals. We work with our students throughout their time in law school on self-knowledge. We offer tools such as the MBTI and HBDI assessments to help students learn more about their preferences as well as learning and communication styles. We also offer mock interview opportunities with career services professionals and with alumni and other friends of the law school to help students refine their interview techniques. Given the extremely competitive nature of the current employment landscape, when you have an interview, it is imperative you put your best foot forward.
Our goal is to help students develop skills that will help them secure their first job and their last job. We believe these are life skills that are very important regardless of the economy or the employment field.
TLS: Into what job types and areas does W&L usually place large numbers of students?
SBT: As with other law schools, most of our students end up in private practice. The largest number of graduates go to firms with over 100 lawyers. The D.C. area attracts the largest number of graduates (about a fifth of each graduating class, or 25-30 people), but many go to NY and each year we see some going to the West Coast. The Mid-Atlantic and Southeast are the regions where most of our graduates take their first job. We are seeing an increased interest among our students in business and more non-traditional opportunities. This flexibility may be the result of the economy and our encouragement of our students and graduates to be open-minded as they begin their job search.
TLS: What opportunities exist for public interest-minded students? How much support does LRAP provide each year?
SBT: We believe it’s an important part of our educational mission to provide extensive programming and resources for public-interest minded students. We also provide support for these students in more practical ways by subsidizing travel expenses for them when interviewing with public interest employers. We also award a number of grants for students working with public interest employers during the summer. In addition, we provide financial support for students to attend public interest conferences and workshops.
Regarding our LRAP, our Shepherd Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) provided an average of $76,666 in awards annually for the last three years.
TLS: Compared to many of its peer schools, W&L places a high percentage of students as judicial clerks, including in Article III federal clerkships. Why do you think this is?
SBT: I tend to think it’s because we emphasize the importance of clerkships to all of our students, not just the top quarter or third of the class. We believe a clerkship provides an incredible transition experience for anyone graduating from law school and is a great way to begin a legal career. Just think about the things you get to do when you clerk. You research and write regularly. You are in court all the time. You observe so many examples of lawyering (both good and bad). You get to see, up close and in person, how judicial decisions are made. These are things from which any (and every) lawyer, let alone recent law graduate, would clearly benefit. Furthermore, the opportunity to develop a life-long relationship with a judge is an opportunity that really shouldn’t be missed. For these reasons we encourage all of our students to consider this postgraduate path. To this end, our Office of Career Planning provides programming and individualized counseling for students interested in pursuing a clerkship.
Furthermore, our faculty is heavily involved in working with students to obtain clerkships as well. We believe the close relationships our students develop with faculty benefit them in the clerkship application process. Because they know the students well from both in and out of the classroom, our faculty members are able to provide detailed recommendation letters.
Our loyal alumni base comes into play as well. Our alumni who clerked are more than willing to work with current students interested in clerkships. They meet with students through formal programs and informal conversations to discuss and share their experiences. They also encourage the judges for whom they clerked to consider Washington and Lee students for clerkship positions.
Life at W&L
TLS: The Honor System is central to W&L in so many ways. What are its main benefits, and how does it make Washington and Lee Law different from other law schools?
SBT: The Honor System allows you to live and learn in an environment defined by trust and honesty. In law school, this is particularly liberating because it allows you to truly focus on being a law student. We continually reemphasize to prospective students what an ideal setting Lexington is for law school. The cost of living is low. Rent is cheap. It’s safe. There is little to no traffic. Parking is not an issue. With the Honor System, you know you can trust everyone around you. Our students regularly leave their wallets, laptops, purses, iPods and any number of other valuables sitting out on their carrels or on tables throughout the law school. When you’re studying, not having to pack up all your possessions every time you want to use the bathroom or get something to eat is nice. Or imagine not having to download a bunch of special software during exams or even having to take your exam in a classroom. These are a few minor examples of the many ways the Honor System regularly and positively impacts our students’ day-to-day realities. Such things may seem small, but when taken together, they create an environment in which you have the time and energy necessary to focus on your legal education.
Furthermore, the Honor System combined with our small size precludes a lot of bad behavior that has unfortunately been associated with law school and law students generally. While our students are ambitious and have very real professional goals, we do not have a cutthroat academic culture at W&L Law. We do not have a problem with people hiding books or ripping pages out of books, and I believe the Honor System is a large reason why. Once you’ve agreed to uphold this central set of principles that precludes things such as lying, cheating or stealing, you’re obviously not going to behave in a way that intentionally disadvantages your classmates. For anyone who has ever attended our law school, the idea that a W&L Law student would ever do anything like hide a book is an anathema to our school and its values. Our students do not have to deal with such distractions during their time in Lexington, and this allows them to focus on what’s truly important during these three years: doing the best work they possibly can.
The Honor System even benefits our students as they move forward in their careers. If people know one thing about W&L, they typically know about the Honor System, and, after spending three years in an environment in which character and integrity are so important, employers know you will be ethical and honest; never bad associations in a profession in which your reputation is really all you have.
TLS: Some law applicants balk at three years in a small, rural town. What do W&L Law students do for fun? Is there a kind of person for whom Lexington is a bad fit?
SBT: We readily acknowledge that our setting is not for everyone. However, if it’s the right fit for you, Lexington is a wonderful place to live and a great place to study the law. If a major metropolitan experience, or having a dozens of nightlife options or even a Starbucks is important to you when choosing a law school, W&L Law is most likely not the school for you. However, if you are interested in a personal law school experience where you will have the time and energy to truly focus on law school, where you will know everyone and they will know you, where you can enjoy a very high quality of life and a balanced lifestyle, where professors and administrators will take an interest in you, W&L Law just might be the right fit for you.
First and foremost, our students are definitely not bored. Yes, this is a school where you can come and focus on your schoolwork, but that is definitely not all you will do during your time at W&L Law. At our school, because of our location, you do a lot more with your classmates than simply go to class. You will live near each other. You will play intramural sports together. You will socialize with one another on nights and weekends. There is this richness of interaction that comes with attending a very small school in a small town that couldn’t be achieved if you took our school and moved it to a major metropolitan area.
As these statements indicate, as a result of our small size and location, you will have a unique opportunity to be a connected and contributing member of a truly tight-knit campus community. “Community” has become such a buzzword in law school admissions. It seems to be everywhere these days. However, we believe the culture and atmosphere of our school are truly different, and this is something upon which our visitors regularly remark. If you spend even five minutes on our campus, you will quickly realize what a friendly law school W&L is, how well our students know one another and what a central role the law school plays in both their academic and social lives.
As a law student, a lot of your social opportunities will be structured around law school events. The Student Bar Association sponsors a number of parties and events throughout the semester, and there is seemingly something every week or every other week for students to attend. These events are open to the entire law school and are always well attended. It is also common for our students to get together informally for cookouts and potluck dinners. We also have a very popular and surprisingly competitive intramural sports program at the law school which is only open to law school students. Students play football in the fall, floor hockey and basketball in the winter and softball in the spring, and, recently, there has even been a staff/faculty team for many of these seasons. In addition, we have over forty student organizations at the law school and most of our students are doing two or three different things in addition to going to class.
Lexington also has a number of community-wide events that are popular with students such as the Fall Community Festival and the annual Wine Festival, and if you are a lover of the outdoors, Lexington is a great place to be. We are fifteen minutes away from the Blue Ridge Parkway and cycling, hiking, running, camping, swimming, canoeing and kayaking opportunities abound. And if you ever feel like you need to get away, you are within a very short drive of some very interesting places: Charlottesville, Roanoke and Harrisonburg are about an hour away and DC is three. Once a month, many of our students choose to take a night or weekend to get out of Lexington, and that is something that can be easily done given our location. However, this is definitely not a school where people are always gone on the weekends. Our students truly enjoy spending time with one another, and when you are gone, you will likely feel like you’re missing out on something.
TLS: As an overall institution, W&L is fairly homogenous and conservative, with a “fratty” reputation. What would you say to TLS users who are interested in the school but concerned that they don’t fit this mold? What efforts does the law school make to ensure diversity?
SBT: The law school has a decidedly different feel than the undergraduate campus. If you asked our students, they would tell you the same, and this makes sense given that our students are older and in professional school. If you previously visited Lexington when applying to college or haven’t ever visited at all, I would encourage you to take the time to visit the law school. There are certainly some similarities between the campuses (both are friendly, both are in the liberal arts model, the Honor System is a huge part of life, the classes are small, the faculty is accessible), but there are marked differences.
For example, our students do not fit easily into a single mold. They are from all over the country and from a wide range of backgrounds. They maintain a diverse range of beliefs and philosophies and are interested in political issues. The law school is definitely not conservative, but it is also not exceedingly liberal. We tend to have much more moderate political climate with students on all sides of every political question. Furthermore, approximately 25% of our students are members of racial or ethnic minority groups or are of diverse sexual orientation. Given that you will interact with all of the people around you all of the time, you will really get to appreciate the diversity, life experiences, talents, skills and perspectives of your classmates. This is the greatest thing, socially speaking, about attending W&L Law. You end up with this great, bright and supremely talented group of friends, which is honestly not really what anyone expects when they start thinking about law school, but is definitely a part of life at our law school.
Diversity is a huge point of emphasis for our office each and every year, and we are continually working to enroll a class in which as many different perspectives as possible are represented. This year, we have already met with every one of our diverse student organizations (BLSA, APALSA, LALSA, WLSO and OUTLaw) in an effort to hear their thoughts and ideas as to how we can sharpen our efforts to bring students from traditionally under-represented groups to campus. These were great conversations, and we feel like we came away from these discussions with some really exciting ideas.
TLS: What is the most common complaint from students? Is W&L doing anything to improve that area?
SBT: We have made a number of curricular reforms over the past few years, and we have asked a lot of our current students during this period. However, we have also asked them for their feedback as we’ve implemented these changes. As you know, the area where we made the most changes was our third year. Changing this year of law school in order to provide our students with a much needed transition to practice was, without question, the right thing to do. These are tough times for lawyers, and the market wants law graduates who are better prepared for the realities of the profession. We feel our third year goes a long way towards preparing our students for these very realities while providing them with a really interesting academic experience.
However, any time you make such a change, there will always be things that will need to be adjusted and refined. While we have been thinking about and planning for this reform for over six years, it is nearly impossible to get everything right the first time. The core curricular experience has remained the same since the revision’s announcement three years ago, but there are definitely aspects of the third year that have changed, and the primary motivator for these changes was student feedback. We’ve asked the students who’ve participated in the third year (next year is the first year it will be mandatory for all third year students) to let us know what they think worked and what they think needs improvement, and we have made changes accordingly.
This concern for the student experience is, in our opinion, a very W&L thing. We genuinely care about our students, and while we are not always able to act upon every comment or critique, we are almost always willing to listen.
TLS: What distinguishes W&L Law from some of its nearby peers, like William & Mary?
SBT: There are a number of schools with which we overlap regularly, but we think W&L is a law school unlike any other. With only 410 students, we are smaller than almost every other law school. Lexington is also something that makes us different. It is an uncommon location for a school of this caliber, and the interplay of our small size and unique setting create an atmosphere and community that are truly singular. This is why we strongly encourage prospective students to visit. While our school may seem similar to others when viewed from an arm’s length, once you step on campus, you realize it’s something altogether different.
TLS: The U.S. News & World Report law school rankings have been criticized by just about everybody in legal education, but there is no denying that law school administrators and applicants pay attention to them. In recent years, W&L has slid from the low-twenties to #34. What are your thoughts on USNWR in general and W&L’s position in particular?
SBT: That’s a tough question. I do not like the rankings as I feel they mask critical differences between law schools by reducing them to a nonsensical number and, consequently, do little to help a student find the law school that is right for her. However, I also realize that hundreds of people apply to our law school each year simply because of our ranking. Schools pay attention to the rankings because they matter to a number of important constituencies, but it is my sincere hope that one day this cycle will stop.
We have dropped in the rankings recently, but as someone who has been on this campus for seven years, I do not think this is in any way reflective of the quality of a W&L education. Furthermore, a lot of what makes this school what it is and why people love going here is simply not captured by the USNWR methodology. We like to joke that we are more than a number and so are the students who apply to our law school. After all, how many people really want to be defined by their LSAT and GPA? We feel the same way about our US News and World Report ranking.
I am completely envious of the opportunities our current students have. I graduated from W&L Law less than five years ago, and the explosion of international offerings, practicum courses, clinics and externships has been amazing to watch. When I talk to students who just spent two weeks in Liberia or Cambodia or who are working on a simulated merger, movie deal, criminal prosecution or workplace discrimination lawsuit, I truly can’t believe all the great things students can now do and study that were just not available when I was a student. There is no doubt in my mind that students coming to W&L Law today will receive the best and most complete education our law school has ever provided, and, as an alumnus of this school, I am proud to say that.
TLS: What’s on the horizon for Washington and Lee Law that TLS readers should know about?
SBT: Not a whole lot of news, which for us, given our recent history, is probably news. The past few years have been a time of considerable curricular change at our law school, but we feel like we are in a great position going forward. In the coming months, we will continue to assess and refine our recent curricular reforms. Next year, our third year class (i.e. our current second-year class) will be the first class of students to participate in the revised third year on a mandatory basis. Other than that, the law school continues apace.
TLS: Do you have any parting advice for those considering law school?
SBT: Just two things:
1) You should absolutely visit every law school you are seriously considering attending. Every law school is different, and the things that will matter to you as a law student (the culture and atmosphere of the place, the way students interact with and treat one another, etc.) cannot be accurately judged from a website or a viewbook. You have to actually set foot on the campus, go to a class, talk to current students, walk around and observe life to do this effectively.
2) Understand and be realistic about what you are getting yourself into. There are still law jobs out there, but certainly not as many as there were two or three years ago. And the kinds of jobs that are available and where they are have most certainly changed during this period. A legal education is a tremendous experience and it certainly opens doors, but these are challenging times for lawyers. All the numbers and information point to a legal economy in the midst of significant structural shifts, and it will likely be a few years before the market truly stabilizes. Consequently, you will need to come to law school prepared to work, hustle, network and take initiative. Give yourself the time to consider whether law is really the right path for you. And if you decide that it is, take the time to understand what is really going on with legal employers, law schools, post-graduate debt and any number of other factors that will likely bear upon your law school experience. A little research on the front-end can save you a lot of heartache on the back-end.
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