Interview with L. Pilar Mensah, Assistant Dean for Admissions; Sondra R. Tennessee, Associate Dean for Student Affairs; and Tiffany J. Tucker, Assistant Dean for Career Development, University of Houston Law Center
Top Law Schools (TLS) would like to thank L. Pilar Mensah, Sondra R. Tennessee, and Tiffany J. Tucker from University of Houston Law Center (UHLC) for taking the time to answer our questions!
Law School Reputation/Public Perception
TLS: Tell us about your law school. What would you most like applicants to know that they can't glean so easily from U.S. News rankings or from your law school's website?
UHLC: The Law Center is a collegial environment that fosters a collaborative learning experience for our students. We are able to create a cohesive learning environment, while retaining our competitiveness and fantastic reputation in the legal market. Our students are supported by the administration, faculty, staff and their fellow classmates. The concepts of professionalism and respect are instilled in the students during orientation, before they even attend their first law school class. The students care deeply about their performance, but not to the detriment of their relationships. In addition, due to our location in the fourth largest city in the nation, one of the most diverse cities in the country, and one of the strongest legal markets, the career opportunities for our student body are vast and varied.
TLS: Whether or not they apply to or ultimately attend your 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?
UHLC: Most applicants are concerned with ranking and cost of attendance - and only those numbers - and fail to consider the many other factors that should go into choosing a "good" law school. Those factors can include the strength of the legal market where the school is located, bar passage rate, job opportunities after graduation, the support of the administration and faculty, employment rate, cost of living, whether it's a public or private school, etc. Applicants should consider the overall value of the institution when deciding which law school to attend.
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 your law school?
UHLC: The rankings are a part of the recruitment and admission process, and while we try not to put too much emphasis on the rankings, they are important to potential students. As such, we try to ensure that we have a strong ranking in comparison to our peer schools. Given the rigor of law school, we understand prospective students want to know the education they will receive will garner the respect that they think it deserves.
TLS: Is there value to additional metrics (e.g., new rankings like the ones promulgated by Above the Law)?
UHLC: There certainly may be value to additional metrics for potential applicants, as it gives a more varied perspective than only looking to U.S. News for rankings. Applicants should research the schools they are interested in and any additional information will allow them to make a more educated decision on where to receive their legal education.
TLS: Are there any exciting things on the horizon at your law school? Any new developments, programs, or opportunities you'd like to share with our readers?
UHLC: Recently, we added a joint JD/LLM program to our offerings of dual degrees. Prior to combining the two degrees, a law student interested in the LLM program would apply after graduating from the JD program, and then would spend a year earning their LLM. Now, that process has been simplified by applying to the LLM program after the student's first year. Many credits earned during the JD portion of law school count toward the LLM degree, and the student only has to take one additional semester on top of the JD curriculum in order to earn their LLM.
We also are excited to have a new 3+3 undergraduate/law dual degree program, which enables undergraduate students to begin law school their senior year, one year early. Upon completion of the first year of law school, students will earn a degree in Liberal Studies, with a minor in Phronesis (the study of law, ethics, and politics), as well as a second minor.
TLS: How would you describe the students at the University of Houston Law Center?
UHLC: If I had to describe the students at the University of Houston Law Center in one word, I would describe them as supportive. On a regular basis, I have observed law students coming to the aid of their fellow students. Whether a classmate is ill and needs assistance with class notes or needs a ride to school, they are there for each other. Being part of a strong and supportive community during law school is so important to each student's success. I am proud of how our students are there for each other.
TLS: What's student life like? When students aren't studying or taking classes, what types of activities might they engage in?
UHLC: UH Law Center students have many options of how to spend their "free time," from enjoying a college sporting event or major league sports, live theatre, a wonderful art exhibit or spending time at the beach which is less than an hour away. There are also international festivals along with some of the best food in the world.
TLS: How many students participate in student-run legal journals?
UHLC: About 160-170 students participate in the Houston Law Review, Houston Journal of International Law, Houston Business and Tax Law Journal, Houston Journal of Health Law and Policy, and Journal of Consumer & Commercial Law.
TLS: Aside from journals, what are the most popular legal extracurricular activities available to students of University of Houston Law Center?
UHLC: The moot court and mock trial are two very popular extracurricular activities at the University of Houston Law Center. Students regularly rank amongst the top competitors regionally, nationally and internationally.
TLS: What sort of clinical opportunities are available for students? Are there any clinics the University of Houston Law Center is especially proud of?
UHLC: UH Law Center legal clinics offer law students an exciting opportunity to have hands-on, practical experience in the legal profession while still in law school. Under the guidance and supervision of clinical faculty, our law students handle all aspect of cases, from interviewing, to filing motions, to conducting trials in court. We have the following clinics: Civil Practice Clinic, Consumer Law Clinic, Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic, Immigration Clinic, Criminal Defense Clinic and Mediation Clinic.
We are proud of all of the clients that our faculty and students are able to support, but we are particularly proud of the ability to provide legal counsel to women and children who have been held in detention centers and were facing imminent deportation.
TLS: What are the best and worst things about going to school in Houston?
UHLC: One of the best things about going to school in a big city like Houston is the number of opportunities students have to connect with attorneys in all areas of practice. The networking opportunities and job prospects are terrific. The downside of living in the big city is the traffic. But I think the best things outweigh the worst.
TLS: Many law schools have emphasized practical, skills-based learning in recent years. Has University of Houston Law Center taken any steps in this direction?
UHLC: Hands on experience prior to graduating is very important for law students. At the UH Law Center we require students to have six credits of experiential learning. These courses consist of simulation courses, clinics and externships. Each of course offers students the opportunity to develop an important lawyering skill.
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?
UHLC: UH Law Center prepares students to succeed on the bar exam by giving them a solid education that combines both theory and practical skills. We do not teach to the bar, but students are exposed to many of the subjects that are tested on the bar; therefore, when the students studying for the bar they are not seeing material for the first time.
UH Law Center has about an 86% first-time bar passage rate on the Texas bar exam.
TLS: Most law schools have a core 1L curriculum requiring civil procedure, contracts, torts, constitutional law, property, criminal law, and legal writing. Does University of Houston Law Center stray from these requirements? Are there any additional classes students are required to take before graduation?
UHLC: UH Law Center requires Statutory Interpretation during the first year. We also require Professional Responsibilities, a senior writing class and six credits in experiential courses.
TLS: Other than the core required classes, what courses would you suggest students take before graduation?
UHLC: During Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's spring 2018 visit at the UH Law Center, she said that Federal Income Tax was the most important course that any law student could take. Every person and corporation are affected by taxes. It is important that every lawyer have a basic understanding of the subject matter.
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?
UHLC: Like many law schools, we employ a full-file review approach to all applications. We don't assign a particular weight to any specific portion of the application. LSAT and GPA are extremely important, of course, but aren't the only determining factors. Our admissions committee puts a solid emphasis on an applicant's personal statement as that serves as an "interview on paper" as well as a writing sample. Letters of recommendation are also critical as they give us insight into the applicant from another person's (usually professors or professional references) perspective. In addition, the resume can provide additional details regarding an applicant's work experience, accomplishments and involvement in extracurricular activities. Our review of an applicant is comprehensive when determining whether a student is a good fit for the Law Center.
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?
UHLC: The personal statement is undoubtedly one of the most crucial parts of an application. Applicants should treat it as if it was an interview - what would they tell our admissions committee if they had an opportunity to have a personal interview? They also need to remember to whom they're speaking in the statement. This is a professional, graduate school, so their writing needs to reflect professionalism while giving us an insight into who they are personally, and what has brought them to this point in their journey where they're applying to law school. In addition, since the personal statement is used as a writing sample, they need to make absolutely sure that correct grammar, spelling, and syntax is used at every turn!
TLS: How often do you find statements that really stick out from the crowd? What do these statements consist of?
UHLC: We have typically a few each cycle that will truly catch our attention. While there's not one particular "thing" that makes a personal statement better than all the rest, focusing on a life event or life lesson that has truly made an impact on the applicant, all while being able to hold our attention through the storytelling and flow of the statement, can really make it stand out from the rest.
TLS: Are there any personal statement topics of which applicants should probably steer clear? Any clichés or pitfalls to avoid?
UHLC: Avoid getting personal to the point of making the personal statement uncomfortable. Stay away from badmouthing others, proselytizing, regurgitating your resume, or making excuses. Remember that the personal statement is about you - the applicant - and spending too much time talking about someone who had an influence on you, while not necessarily a bad thing to touch on, defeats the purpose of the "personal" statement. In addition, don't leave unanswered questions. An applicant should review their entire application as a cohesive package and determine if there are any holes that need to be filled.
TLS: Do you come across personal statements that actually hurt the applicant's chances?
UHLC: Yes. Typically, poorly written statements with copious misspellings, grammatical errors, or seemingly no concept of how to write a cohesive essay are huge red flags. In addition, applicants who write about a life event but who seem bitter, angry, or as if the personal statement is more of a journal entry than a professional essay can do themselves a disservice.
TLS: Some schools allow students to submit a "diversity statement" separate from the personal statement. How does your school view such statements? If such statements are potentially helpful, can you discuss when a diversity statement is or is not appropriate?
UHLC: Diversity statements are generally always appropriate for UHLC. We are in one of the most diverse cities in the country, and our school reflects that in all ways. Diversity to us takes into account not only race and ethnicity but background, professional experiences, travel, military experience, personal factors (such as being LGBTQ or religious preferences, for example), etc. We are committed to having the most diverse law school as possible, so we absolutely encourage applicants to submit diversity statements.
TLS: Could an applicant significantly improve his or her chances of admission by drafting a personal statement specifically discussing an interest in your school?
UHLC: The instructions surrounding the Law Center's personal statement are very general; however, the application does prompt an applicant to include information as to why they are interested in attending our school. As such, an applicant should touch on why they are interested in the Law Center whether within the personal statement or in a separate addendum.
LSAT AND GPA
TLS: Realistically speaking, how large a part of the admissions process are factors other than a candidate's GPA and LSAT?
UHLC: All factors play a part in our admissions process. Realistically, the personal statement is going to play the biggest part aside from the LSAT and GPA as that enables us to get the best look into an applicant's personality, writing ability, and passion.
TLS: How does your 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?
UHLC: Taking an LSAT multiple times is not necessarily negative and can demonstrate an applicant's drive and determination to succeed. All LSAT scores are reported to us by LSAC, however we give primary consideration to an applicant's highest score.
TLS: If an applicant cancelled an LSAT score, does the school like to see an addendum explaining why?
UHLC: It's certainly helpful to us if we have an explanation of why a candidate cancelled or was absent from an administered LSAT; however, it's not mandatory.
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?
UHLC: With the addition of the new LSAT dates starting in the summer of 2018, the latest LSAT administration an applicant should take for our full-time program would preferably be January, although we will consider March on a space-available basis. The Law Center also has a part-time program with a later application deadline. Therefore, the latest LSAT administration an applicant should take for our part-time program would preferably be March, although we will consider June on a space-available basis. If an applicant is waitlisted and receives a considerably higher summer LSAT score that they feel would change their admission status, they should alert us to this new score for reconsideration.
TLS: Beyond undergraduate performance and LSAT score, what else does your school look at when reviewing applications?
UHLC: We look at every component of the application package, including undergraduate institution, grade trends, difficulty of major, LSAT score, cumulative GPA from degree-granting institution, personal statement, letters of recommendation, character and fitness addenda, and any optional statements.
TLS: How much do you value pre-law school work or life experience?
UHLC: We value all types of experiences at UHLC, whether an applicant is fresh out of undergraduate and may have held internships or has been in the work force for a couple of decades and decides to pursue law to fulfill a lifelong dream. All work and life experiences are looked at and taken into consideration. One applicant's experience doesn't trump another's; they're simply different sides of the law school admissions coin.
TLS: What can "K through JD" applicants do to stand out in the application process?
UHLC: For applicants coming straight through from undergrad, we like to see that they're able to balance and juggle academics with extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, internships, Greek life, or whatever else in which they choose to invest their time. Law school is a balancing act, so we need to see that an applicant can successfully make time for and prioritize both their education and any outside activities.
TLS: Applicants often have difficulty choosing and approaching potential recommenders. Can you offer some general advice regarding letters of recommendation?
UHLC: An applicant should choose recommenders who know him or her well enough to provide a glowing, personal letter of recommendation, not simply a form letter. Recommenders can be anyone from professors to pre-law advisors and colleagues to bosses. Avoid asking family members, friends, or your aunt's best friend who is a judge but whom you've never met. When asking recommenders to write a letter, be sure to ask them well in advance if they're comfortable providing you a positive letter, and bring them all pertinent information (resume, transcript, personal statement).
TLS: Tell us how the University of Houston Law Center treats transfer applicants. How many transfer students do you take each year? Where do these students come from?
UHLC: Students in good standing at another ABA-accredited law school may apply to transfer to the UH Law Center. Admission as a transfer student is competitive and first consideration is given to applicants who have performed well in the first year of law school. On average we matriculate 25-35 new transfer students each year. Approximately half of the Law Center's transfer students are from other Texas law schools. The remaining students come from all over the country, including Texans hoping to return home after attending another school in another state, and those new to our area.
TLS: What are the most important criteria for selecting transfer applicants? Is the LSAT score still relevant? How about undergrad performance?
UHLC: Primary consideration is given to the first-year performance of the transfer applicant. For first-time applicants, the LSAT and GPA are used as predictors. However when considering a transfer applicant, not as much weight is given to these predictive factors, as we have two semesters of law school courses to consider.
TLS: How many students transfer out of University of Houston Law Center after the 1L year to attend other institutions?
UHLC: We have low attrition. Over the last five years, we have had an average of 7 students per year who transfer.
Career Opportunities and Employment Outcomes
TLS: Describe the legal market in Texas. What's the outlook for the next few years?
UHLC: The legal market for Texas is very robust. Law school graduates who gain substantive legal experience while in law school can expect to have excellent employment prospects.
TLS: What are the most common career paths for graduates of University of Houston Law Center?
UHLC: Most UHLC graduates accept positions in law firms. The next most common career path is business and industry.
TLS: On average, how many graduates leave the state for work?
UHLC: On average (during 2014, 2015, and 2016), approximately 6% of recent UHLC graduates leave the state for work.
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?
UHLC: In 2016, 17.5% of UHLC students secured paid law firm jobs through the OCI process. The University of Houston Law Center (UHLC) Career Development Office (CDO) also assists students with getting paid positions through direct employer outreach, job fairs, and an online job bank.
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?
UHLC: Recent graduates who have a median GPA at graduation can expect to work in small and midsize law firms, business and industry, government and public interest agencies, judicial clerkships, and educational institutions.
TLS: Nearly every law school has recent graduates who cannot find permanent, full-time legal employment. What does [your school] do to help them get on track?
UHLC: UHLC provides recent graduates with a designated alumni career counselor, tailored one-on-one career advising, a Post Graduate Job Search Handbook and training, Graduate Resume Books distributed to employers throughout the year, and regular Graduate Jobs Digests highlighting entry-level legal positions.
TLS: Do you think transfer students are disadvantaged at all when it comes to seeking employment?
UHLC: Employers want to be sure that transfer students have received the same high quality education and professional development that 1L UHLC students receive. Transfer students who work closely with the UHLC CDO to engage professionally with employers and who engage fully in UHLC specialty programs, advocacy training, and clinics are generally advantaged when seeking employment.
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? How are students selected to receive scholarships?
UHLC: The Law Center financial aid packages consist of competitive scholarships and student loans. Currently, all of the scholarships are based on a close review of an applicant's admissions materials. There is no purely need based scholarship; however, on occasion need-based money has become available. Applicants should have a current FAFSA on file to be considered for those funds.
TLS: Is there anything prospective students can do to increase their chances of receiving aid?
UHLC: Applicants are encouraged to apply early in the admissions cycle to receive full consideration for all funds.
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?
UHLC: Entering students are not awarded conditional scholarships.
TLS: Do you offer any additional scholarship awards to retain current students based on their performance during law school?
UHLC: Yes, we do. After the completion of the first year of law school, we review students who performed in the top of the class for an initial scholarship or additional scholarship support if students already have a scholarship.
TLS: What sort of financial aid is available for transfer students?
UHLC: The Law Center financial aid packages consist of small recruitment scholarships and student loans.
TLS: Describe any loan repayment programs the University of Houston Law Center offers. Who is eligible for loan repayment assistance?
UHLC: We do not have a loan repayment program.
TLS: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Any parting thoughts for applicants considering University of Houston Law Center?
UHLC: A University of Houston Law Center education will teach students how to think like a lawyer, empower them to seek justice, and instill in them the confidence to achieve their professional goals. The supportive faculty and staff at the Law Center provide students with the tools to not only survive the law school experience, but to excel! In addition, the location of the Law Center offers students the opportunity to begin their legal career in one of the most diverse cities in the country, with one of the nation's largest legal markets.
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