Interview with Jay L. Austin, Former Assistant Dean, Admissions and Student Financial Services, UC Irvine School of Law
Top Law Schools would like to thank Jay L. Austin (JLA), Former Assistant Dean, Admissions and Student Financial Services, UC Irvine School of Law, for taking the time to answer our questions!
Law School Reputation/Public Perception
TLS: Tell us about UCI Law School. What would you most like the applicants to know that they can't glean so easily from U.S. News rankings or from your law school's website?
JLA: I've always thought there were more similarities among the nation's top law schools than differences. That was until UCI Law came into existence. To begin a new law school within a great global university brand-the University of California system-and to establish core values for the law school that include an excellent, student-centered environment with an unwavering commitment instilling the value of public service-and to achieve such extraordinary success in ten years is mind-boggling. It is true; yet you must experience our community for yourself. Come visit.
TLS: Whether or not they apply to or ultimately attend UCI Law School, what do you think applicants should consider when choosing a law school? If you had a son or daughter applying to law school this year, how would you advise them to choose between schools?
JLA: One, I would encourage applicants, including my own child, that if they can, make sure to visit the schools. These opportunities are often facilitated and financed by the schools, as it is in their interest to have informed students enrolled. You must assess the community and determine if it is a place at which you will be happy and thoroughly engaged intellectually. Law school is only three years. You do it once and you want to do it right.
TLS: What is your view on the role the U.S. News and World Report rankings play in the law school recruitment and admissions process? How do the rankings affect UCI Law School?
JLA: Given the perceived and often ancillary benefits from attending "higher ranked" law schools, it shouldn't be a surprise that prospective students (and hiring committees, potential faculty members and donors, etc.) use USNWR to confirm what they already believe. Of course, there are both resounding similarities (first year curriculums) and notable differences (class size, geographical location, resources) between the nation's law schools, yet what matters most is finding the school at which you will thrive and survive. That doesn't always mean it's a highly ranked school.
TLS: Is there value to additional metrics (e.g., new rankings like the ones promulgated by Above the Law)?
JLA: Since applicants and admitted students vary tremendously, I believe it is useful to have multiple guides that use different metrics. More information that uses a wider range of criteria is always better than less or narrowly focused criteria.
TLS: Are there any exciting things on the horizon at UCI Law School? Any new developments, programs, or opportunities you'd like to share with our readers?
JLA: UCI Law is just ten years old! The accomplishments in one decade have been nothing less than extraordinary and we will always be proud to have been the highest ranking new law school ever in USNWR. There is sufficient reason to believe this achievement will never be surpassed. We are not resting on our laurels, as we've already enrolled our first LLM class (American Law) and anticipate offering an LLM in Taxation in the near future. Our next decade will bring new clinics-perhaps additional degree programs and certificates, and continued evaluation of our existing curriculum, in conjunction with the development and enhancement of co-curricular offerings.
TLS: How would you describe the students at UCI Law School?
JLA: UCI Law attracts the widest possible range of students that represent every facet of our society. However, what I know is that they all share a desire to be in a vibrant intellectual community, yet also have an active role in institutional building. It is not often in life, academic or professional, that someone is given the opportunity to engage in ground floor work to build an institution that will exceed one's own lifeline. That's a pretty awesome experience to consider as a 1L and continuing law student.
TLS: How many students participate in student-run legal journals?
JLA: In any given year, there are approximately 120 students participating on our current journals. This is about 25% of our student body. As we launch new journals in the years to come, I would anticipate the number of students participating to increase.
TLS: Aside from journals, what are the most popular legal extracurricular activities available to students of UCI Law School?
JLA: Although we don't have a mandatory public service hours' policy, by graduation it is not unusual that 90% or more of each class has completed substantial hours of pro bono service. We have a dedicated director of public service who works with current students to identify and facilitate their service. We also have a separate Externship Program, again with a dedicated director overseeing the operations. Finally, students are able to participate in the UCDC Program, which offers law students from the various UC law schools a chance to spend a semester working in a government agency in DC with a classroom component.
TLS: What sort of clinical opportunities are available for students? Are there any clinics UCI Law School is especially proud of?
JLA: From the beginning, the commitment to our experiential learning program was a core mission. We required every student to earn a minimum of 6 units from one of eight different core clinics (Appellate Litigation, Community and Economic Development, Criminal Justice, Domestic Violence, Environmental Law, Immigrant Rights, Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology and International Justice) where they act as the primary legal representative for their clients. After completion of their core clinical experience, students will also consider one of our seven elective clinics (CA Dept. of Fair Employment & Housing Civil Rights, Civil Rights Litigation, Cyber Victims Defense, International Human Rights, Reproductive Justice, Startup and Small Business and a clinic devoted to assisting veterans and their families). In fact, we are equally proud of all of our clinics!
TLS: What are the best and worst things about going to school in Irvine?
JLA: The city of Irvine is a manageable small city located in an aesthetically beautiful region of the country. Not many miles separate the relaxing sandy ocean to the west and the majestic mountains to the east; that are a short distance away in ideal year-round weather conditions. For those law students who seeks different outlets beyond the immediate area of Irvine and surrounding cities, Los Angeles to the north and San Diego to the south offer all the amenities of "big lights, big city" living.
TLS: Many law schools have emphasized practical, skills-based learning in recent years. Has UCI Law School taken any steps in this direction?
JLA: Our entire curriculum and co-curricular programs were specifically designed to offer substantial experiential (skills-based) learning outcomes. We continue to receive high national ranking as a law school that provides robust opportunity to receive practical training.
TLS: What role do you believe law schools should play in preparing students for the bar exam? And how have your graduates fared with bar passage in recent years?
JLA: We have always taken an active approach to provide resources and to partner with our students to maximize their opportunity for successful bar passage. Our Academic Skills Program (ASP) is one of the resources available for all students to solidify the necessary skills for success in law school. The CA Bar is notoriously difficult and in recent years, only five CA law schools have enjoyed a state pass rate of 80% or higher. UCI Law is one of those five.
TLS: Most law schools have a core 1L curriculum requiring civil procedure, contracts, torts, constitutional law, property, criminal law, and legal writing. Does UCI Law School stray from these requirements? Are there any additional classes students are required to take before graduation?
JLA: I don't think the word "stray" captures the principled purpose of a carefully proscribed 1L curriculum like we have here at UCI Law. Rather, the appropriate word would be "innovate". Yes, our first-year curriculum teaches students areas of legal doctrine traditionally taught, but in a unique way that focuses on methods of legal analysis and skills that all practicing lawyers use. All students practice law under the supervision of an attorney beginning in the first-year Lawyering Skills course, where they do intake interviews at legal aid or public defender offices, and culminating with substantial client representation in an in-house clinic before graduation. Additionally, there is a required course-International Legal Analysis-that is in the first-year curriculum.
TLS: Other than the core required classes, what courses would you suggest students take before graduation?
JLA: Since the best predictor of success on the bar exam is successful completion of upper level doctrinal classes, we encourage students to continue to take challenging upper-level courses in their 2L and 3L years.
TLS: Could you please explain the weight or emphasis given to each part of a student's application, such as GPA, LSAT score, personal statement, and letters of recommendation?
JLA: There is no matrix that prospective students have to fit into in order to gain acceptance. Our committee reviews all aspects of each individual candidate. Since the academic record (UGPA, and perhaps previous graduate/professional grades) and superb writing ability can be useful predictors of continued academic success, our admissions committee looks favorably on those factors. With every candidate we admit, regardless of LSAT and/or GPA, we believe there is solid evidence to expect their success at UCI Law. Also, since we are a small collegial community, observations that are shared by LORs are also useful and often times revealing.
TLS: The personal statement seems to be the part of the application a prospective student can most independently influence. Can you offer applicants any advice regarding writing the personal statement?
JLA: First, follow the prompts in our application. Second, I approach each PS with the notion-"I'm reading your short story at this moment", therefore, in your most authentic voice, weave your narrative (don't write what you think I want to hear). Finally, for those who are challenged to write their PS, my advice has been-again with the prompts in mind-turn the recorder on your smartphone, stand in front of a mirror and talk it out. I guarantee you'll hear cues and gems that will assist in the writing of your PS.
TLS: How often do you find statements that really stick out from the crowd? What do these statements consist of?
JLA: I come across memorable PS all the time. Sometimes a PS sticks out for the right reasons-incredibly well written and compelling. Sometimes they stick out for the wrong reasons-crazy talk, lots of typos, etc. You don't want your PS to fall into this latter category.
TLS: Are there any personal statement topics that applicants should probably steer clear? Any clichés or pitfalls to avoid?
JLA: Generally, like our society, it appears that individuals are more willing to tackle and discuss deeply personal experiences. I think this is true in the application process of today. I am increasingly amazed at the complexity of human existence and how we navigate the world. Applicants, rightfully so, seem much more willing to discuss topics that would have been taboo just a few years ago. Nonetheless, it is important that candidates use their own professional judgement and discretion. Clearly, this demonstrates the skills that they will use in law school and in the profession.
TLS: Do you come across personal statements that actually hurt the applicant's chances?
JLA: Again, if the PS is crazy talk, or worse, if it is abundantly clear that the applicant spent "zero time" working on the PS.
TLS: Some schools allow students to submit a "diversity statement" separate from the personal statement. How does UCI Law School view such statements? If such statements are potentially helpful, can you discuss when a diversity statement is or is not appropriate?
JLA: Though not explicitly a part of our prompts, we do welcome our applicants to submit additional statements of reasonable length, which may include "diversity statements". We review all submissions of written expression. Unless the diversity statement is just a repeated discussion from the main PS, we will consider it valuable.
TLS: Could an applicant significantly improve his or her chances of admission by drafting a personal statement specifically discussing an interest in UCI Law School?
JLA: We actually require two separate statements-one, the personal statement and two, a second statement where we explicitly ask you a very simple question-"Why UCI Law"? Hint, you should do more than regurgitating back to us language from our website or printed material.
LSAT and GPA
TLS: Realistically speaking, how large a part of the admissions process are factors other than a candidate's GPA and LSAT?
JLA: We definitely consider writing ability as demonstrated in the LSAT Writing Sample and in personal statements. Although, we are hip to the fact that for the latter, an inordinate amount of drafting and editing occurs (or should).
TLS: How does UCI Law School view applicants who apply with multiple LSAT scores? Do you only look at the highest score, or do you consider all scores in the aggregate?
JLA: Like most schools, we have always reviewed applicants who present results from multiple LSAT administrations. Now that the LSAT is offered nearly every two months with no restriction on the number of tests per year, I anticipate we'll see even more multiple testers. All previous LSAT scores are noted. Uless the ABA standards change in the near term, we, like all ABA accredited schools, will continue to report the high score for ABA data collection.
TLS: If an applicant cancelled an LSAT score, does the school like to see an addendum explaining why?
JLA: When the actual LSAT results are not released by LSAC and there is notation of another reportable action on the CAS Report, keeping full disclosure as an important framing tool, I advise applicants to err towards offering an explanation. There is nothing worse than to let us assume.
TLS: What is the latest LSAT administration an applicant can take and still qualify for admission during the admission cycle? If an applicant is placed on the waitlist, can a new summer LSAT score help his or her chances?
JLA: As long as the application is received prior to our deadline, candidates are permitted to submit results from late spring and early summer LSAT administrations. Candidates placed on our waitlist are also encouraged to provide updated information. This may include an updated PS, resume, more recent transcript with fall, spring or summer grades, and perhaps the results of more recent LSAT administrations.
TLS: Beyond undergraduate performance and LSAT score, what else does UCI Law School look at when reviewing applications?
JLA: We like to see applicants who have been engaged on their campus, in the community or through other opportunities. Often applicants believe they have to be involved in everything to show the admissions committee how much they've accomplished. Clearly, it is easier to be more deeply involved if you're excited and passionate about the activity. I believe it to be far better to be a leader of one or two organizations than to be a member of ten.
TLS: How much do you value pre-law school work or life experience?
JLA: Professional experiences at any point along the path to law school are often received in a very positive way by the admissions committee. The experiences don't always have to be a high level job such as paralegal or an analyst. In fact, other experiences, including working in retail or in the service industry, can be quite informative.
TLS: What can “K through JD” applicants do to stand out in the application process?
JLA: Maintain a balanced life trajectory that reflects perseverance and flexibility. Period.
TLS: Applicants often have difficulty choosing and approaching potential recommenders. Can you offer some general advice regarding letters of recommendation?
JLA: I'll take the academic LOR first-someone that you've had for more than one class is a good choice to ask for a letter. They might be most familiar with your abilities and can speak to the trajectory of your performance (assuming it was outstanding). Second, it is increasingly likely that faculty in particular disciplines are most familiar writing on behalf of law applicants-applicants should seek them out. Non-academic employer LORs are trickiest when they don't know you're considering leaving for law school. In which case, perhaps asking someone who no longer works for the same employer or is less vested in whether you stay or leave may be a viable option. In many situations, it is useful to provide your recommenders with a recent resume and perhaps synopsis of your personal statement.
TLS: Tell us how UCI Law School treats transfer applicants. How many transfer students do you take each year? Where do these students come from?
JLA: We believe that transfers students can be a critical addition to the law school. We usually seek to enroll 8-10 transfer students each year. This is highly dependent upon the applicant pool as we seek students that as 1L's elsewhere have done exceptionally outstanding work. We consider transfers from only other ABA accredited schools and have matriculated students from a wide range of schools from across the country. We also welcome 3L visiting (non-matriculating) students for the fall, spring or both semesters.
TLS: What are the most important criteria for selecting transfer applicants? Is the LSAT score still relevant? How about undergrad performance?
JLA: We consider transfer applicants who have completed the first-year equivalent at another ABA accredited school, where their performance as demonstrated by first-year grades and rank-in-class (if available) are most important. All components of the application are important but the examples of your writing (personal statement and the second required "Why UCI Law?" statement) and LORs from law faculty are equally as important.
TLS: How many students transfer out of UCI Law School after 1L year to attend other institutions?
JLA: The number transferring out is relatively small, 2-4 students in the past few years. The reasons students transfer out are varied and personal that may include a multitude of factors, none of which point to any deficiencies they've identify for leaving UCI Law. Overall, it is worth reviewing the most recent LSSSE surveys, as we know that our students are far happier and pleased with the educational experience than students at other peer law schools. Hence, we have a low transfer out rate.
Career Opportunities and Employment Outcomes
TLS: Describe the legal market in UCI Law School. What's the outlook for the next few years?
JLA: The current employment market in CA is robust. The number of jobs posted is increasing, notwithstanding the plateau that has taken place nationally. As for UCI Law, every year there continues to be an increase in interested employers who request to participate in our OCI/EWI and other on-campus opportunities to engage with students.
TLS: What are the most common career paths for graduates of UCI Law School?
JLA: It's pretty balanced at UCI Law, with about half going into the private sector, and the other half split between government, public interest, and judicial clerkships.
TLS: On average, how many graduates leave the state for work?
JLA: We know many students that enroll at UCI Law are CA residents who, after being out of the state for academic study (bachelors, and/or other graduate/professional school), are returning home. We also have a large number of non-CA residents who are making the affirmative decision I call "California Dreamin'" to relocate. Thus, graduates who are CA res and non-CA res will elect to stay to enjoy employment opportunities in the most populous state. Nonetheless, depending on the year, about 15-30% of our graduates leave the state for their initial post-JD employment experience.
TLS: How many students get paid law firm jobs - ones that turn in to full-time employment after school - through the on-campus interviewing process?
JLA: Over the past years, our students have been very successful in getting offers through OCI/EIW. Every year, there continues to be an increase in employers that wish to recruit on our campus.
TLS: What about a student who graduates in the middle of the class - the true "median" student, so to speak. What sort of work can they realistically expect to have in 2018/2019?
JLA: This is entirely up to the student. The CDO supports everyone across the grade spectrum. There is not a lack of legal employment opportunities for students who are motivated to find a job, regardless of standing in their class.
TLS: Nearly every law school has recent graduates who cannot find permanent, full-time legal employment. What does UCI Law School do to help them get on track?
JLA: CDO continues to offer the same level of support during the post-JD first year out of law school. This includes continued individual support with search strategy and mock interviews.
TLS: Do you think transfer students are disadvantaged at all when it comes to seeking employment?
JLA: Yes and no. While employers sometimes wish to see students with UCI grades under their belt first, CDO continues to include transfers in OCI/EIW and other job search opportunities, and offers the same level of support to transfers as it does to the rest of the students.
TLS: What is the median (not average, but median) debt for a graduate from your law school who finished school this year? Given the employment opportunities for the average graduate, is this debt load tenable?
JLA: The median debt for law students graduated in May 2017 is $22,458. Depending on the career path, there are a number of institution-based repayment programs (LRAP) and at the present time, there are also federal income-based repayment programs that we strongly encourage graduates to utilize.
TLS: Some schools have adjusted class size in recent years to mediate the difficulties of un- and under-employment for recent law school graduates. Has UCI Law School taken any steps to adjust class size?
JLA: From our first class of sixty students in fall 2009, we have maintained our original goal to steadily increase the class size to where we are today at one hundred-sixty per entering class. Our plan was to continue to increase the number of professional staff members in our Career Development Office as our class grew.
TLS: Are law schools doing enough to ensure that prospective students get enough information to decide whether to go a quarter-million dollars into debt for a J.D.?
JLA: Here at UCI Law we are committed to being as candid and transparent as possible. The decision to attend any law school, and graduate with a high debt load must be an honest, personal decision. For some, going to law school may not be the right decision at the moment. I would encourage a thorough and painstaking review of the ABA 509 Disclosures to learn more about any school's post-JD employment statistics, indebtedness of graduates, and bar passage rates. You cannot be over-informed.
TLS: What sort of tuition increase should entering students anticipate over the next three years?
JLA: The tuition fees are set by the UC Board of Regents for the law schools during the budget cycle each year. One of the unique applications resulting from any fee increase is what we call the return to aid. A set percentage of any tuition increase is earmarked back to the financial aid budget in the form of scholarship funding to support students.
TLS: What sort of financial aid opportunities are available for applicants? How does the school allocate these resources between need-based and merit-based awards?
JLA: UCI Law offers generous awards in the form of scholarships, fellowships and need grants. To ensure that the law school remains financially accessible to law students, both need-based and merit-based awards funds are allocated. Each student's eligibility for the need-based grants are determined by utilizing the information submitted on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
TLS: How are students selected to receive scholarships?
JLA: Every student admitted is considered for merit-based awards. Ultimately, scholarships are allocated to those with demonstrated outstanding qualitative and quantitative experiences and whose academic records demonstrate exceptional promise for outstanding law school performance.
TLS: Is there anything prospective students can do to increase their chances of receiving aid?
JLA: Prospective students should use their entire application and ancillary supporting documents (LORs, etc.) to show evidence for outstanding law school performance.
TLS: Are scholarship packages for entering students ever contingent on academic performance? If so, why impose restrictions like this? Isn't that putting a lot of pressure on scholarship recipients?
JLA: We require all scholarship recipients to be enrolled at the law school for six (6) consecutive semesters of full-time enrollment and the student must remain in good academic standing at the end of each year. Since the ABA 509 Disclosures require schools to report scholarship retention rates, it's notable to point out that our retention rate is rather high. This is not smoke and mirrors or bait and switch, as we have a competitive process and those successful at gaining acceptance, we anticipate will graduate.
TLS: Do you offer any additional scholarship awards to retain current students based on their performance during law school?
JLA: All of our merit-based awards are renewable for the 2L and 3L years, provided the terms for renewing are met. Both entering and current students are encouraged to search for a wide range of external scholarships available on the UCI Law outside scholarships page, for which continuing students may apply.
TLS: What sort of financial aid is available for transfer students?
JLA: Transfer students are encouraged to complete the FAFSA to apply for Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Federal Direct Graduate PLUS Loan. There is also a wide range of external scholarships available on the UCI Law outside scholarships page, for which transfer students may apply. On a case by case situation, where the transfer student is not a U.S. citizen or has F1 Visa status, we may consider them for limited institutional aid.
TLS: Describe any loan repayment programs UCI Law School offers. Who is eligible for loan repayment assistance?
JLA: UCI Law offers a generous Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) intended to expand the career options of UCI Law graduates by removing the financial burden created by federal education loans, including undergraduate and law school loans.
TLS: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Any parting thoughts for applicants considering UCI Law School?
JLA: When the first class enrolled in fall 2009, they were affectionately known as "the inaugurals". A group of sixty students who elected to apply and enroll in a school that was basically a start-up with a grand plan orchestrated by a visionary founding dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, ten founding faculty who came from highly respectable law schools, and a small group of seasoned senior administrators and support staff. Now ten years later, UCI Law continues to attract a student body that is welcomed and supported by a collective of individual legacies of achievements embraced by faculty who are among the nation's most brilliant scholars and teachers and a staff extraordinaire. Thank you for reading this and remember #thatssoUCILAW!
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