Interview with Mathiew Le, Assistant Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid, University of Washington School of Law
Top Law Schools would like to thank Mathiew Le (ML), Assistant Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid at University of Washington School of Law, for taking the time to answer our questions!
Law School Reputation/Public Perception
TLS: Tell us about the University of Washington School of Law. 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?
ML: What you can't glean from the rankings or our website is the collegiality of the students and faculty-we have a great community. I'm not sure if it's part of the overall Pacific Northwest aura but we're really friendly and supportive of one another. The other thing you couldn't really glean is how connected the law school is throughout the rest of the University and the external community.
TLS: Whether or not they apply to or ultimately attend the University of Washington, 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?
ML: Great question! Applicants should first ask themselves what factors they are looking for in a law school and what kind of learning environment would help them excel. Then, they should determine whether the law school they're interested in aligns with the majority of their factors.
Too often I see students choose a school based on one factor such as a competitive scholarship or simply because a school was higher ranked while completely disregarding all of the other important factors they've identified. And I don't mean to discount [pun intended!] the importance of scholarships and the financial factor because I realize it's a huge part of the decision. But if I had a child applying to law school today, I would advise them to choose the school where they see themselves being successful and where they feel the most comfortable. A school should hit the majority of your important factors, not just a select few.
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 the University of Washington?
ML: Rankings are a good starting point for applicants to sift through the vast number of ABA-accredited law schools across the country. They can help an applicant sort through some objectives factors like placement success, bar passage, and student/faculty ratio, which are of general importance to prospective students. But beyond that, I would encourage applicants to take rankings with a grain of salt and use it as one measure point, not the measure point.
For us, we've lived somewhere between 20 and the 30s over the years and we are exactly the same school that strives for excellence when we are ranked 30 as we are at 20.
TLS: Is there value to additional metrics (e.g., new rankings like the ones promulgated by Above the Law)?
ML: At some point there's too much information, but to the extent that applicants find other kinds of rankings helpful to them, go for it!
TLS: Are there any exciting things on the horizon at the University of Washington School of Law? Any new developments, programs, or opportunities you'd like to share with our readers?
ML: Too much to choose from, but a couple of recent developments at the law school that stand out. The fact that we are located in Seattle means that we're in the center of innovation and there's a high concentration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics opportunities that allow us to explore the intersection with law. We just announced that the Macarthur Foundation awarded our Tech Policy Lab a significant grant amount to the tune of 1 million dollars to pursue research and education around artificial intelligence policy. Professor Ryan Calo spearheads that initiative and his work and his team's work are truly fascinating. One year, he hosted a robotics conference the day of our admitted students' day, and in the hallways we had the original R2D2 roaming around. Needless to say, our enrollment was up that year!
Professors Kathryn Watts and Lisa Manheim co-wrote this wonderful book that explores the limits of the executive branch, specifically presidential power. It's written so that anyone without a legal background can appreciate the constitutional and legal basis of what the most powerful position in our country can and cannot do. Given the heightened focus of the executive branch during current times, it's great to see how the law school plays a larger function in the national conversation.
The last program I'll highlight is our immigration clinic, again in the context of our current political discourse, has been instrumental in connecting the law school with our community. Under Associate Dean for Experiential Education Christine Cimini's leadership, the immigration clinic students worked around the clock to draft motions for stay and emergency habeas petitions for clients who were at risk of deportation resulting from the travel ban policy. When I say around the clock, I truly mean the students were working until the wee hours of the morning. It was extraordinary to see the students galvanize.
TLS: How would you describe the students at the University of Washington?
ML: I would describe them as engaged and again, collegial. The average age for our incoming cohort hovers around 26 each year, so many of them come into the program with a couple of years of professional experience under their belt. That's important because those experiences can really set the tone and culture at a law school. We also draw from a large international student body with our 7 LL.M. programs that also add to overall student body diversity.
TLS: What's student life like? When students aren't studying or taking classes, what types of activities might they engage in?
ML: The students are pretty social. Given the music and art scene in Seattle, students have a number of options to keep them occupied outside of their academics. Almost every week, students have a social gathering called "TGIT" (thank goodness it's Thursday) where they de-stress and socialize.
TLS: How many students participate in student-run legal journals?
ML: About a third of our students will participate in the four student-run journals, which are the Washington Law Review, Washington International Law Journal, Washington Journal of Law, Technology & Arts, and the Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy. Each journal has about 30 members, with the exception of the WILJ, which has about 50.
TLS: Aside from journals, what are the most popular legal extracurricular activities available to students of the University of Washington?
ML: The Moot Court Honor Board is right up there in terms of legal extracurricular activities for students who want to practice their advocacy skills. There are a number of in-house competitions that the students participate in such as our 1L Mock Trial Competition and our annual 2L/3L competition. The students can also join moot court teams that compete nationally and internationally.
TLS: What sort of clinical opportunities are available for students? Are there any clinics that the University of Washington is especially proud of?
ML: You're making me choose one clinic?! That's like asking a parent to choose their favorite child! We're especially proud of all of our clinics. Students can choose among a number of clinical opportunities like our famed Innocence Project Northwest where students work on active cases to free those who believe they've been wrongly convicted; our Tribal Court Public Defense Clinic where we serve as the primary public defender in criminal cases for the Tulalip Tribe and partner with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe to assist families and parents at different stages in the family court system; our Immigration Clinic gives students the opportunity to represent low-income clients with a wide cadre of immigration matters; our Tech Law Clinic offers students the ability to work at the intersection of law and policy surrounding privacy, driverless cars, among other fascinating areas of tech; the International Human Rights Clinic works in a variety of matters centered around advocating protecting vulnerable populations; the Environmental Law Clinic is a great way to learn the practical aspects of an environmental law practice such as filing rulemaking petitions and commenting on proposed environmental regulations; the Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic allows students to serve children and youth currently in the child welfare system and those experiencing homelessness; the Entrepreneurial Clinic is great because it partners with other university departments and community organizations to provide critical early stage legal and business counseling to tech startups, small business owners, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofits; our Federal Tax Clinic serves low-income Washington residents in resolving disputes with the IRS; our Legislative Advocacy Clinic are trained in legislative and public policy advocacy; our Mediation Clinic offers free and confidential mediation services across a number of cases including real estate and landlord/tenant issues; and last but not least, our Race and Justice Clinic aims to address the systemic issues surrounding the disparity of minority youth in our criminal justice systems.
As you can tell, there's a lot going on at the law school!
TLS: What are the best and worst things about going to school in Seattle, WA?
ML: The best thing about going to school in Seattle is that if you're a foodie and love the outdoors, there is always a new restaurant to try and there is always something to do outside year round regardless of the weather. The worst thing about going to school in Seattle is the traffic. We have a pretty good bus system though and we're all pretty excited about the light rail station that is opening next to the law school next year which will make the commute a lot easier for everyone.
TLS: Many law schools have emphasized practical, skills-based learning in recent years. Has the University of Washington taken any steps in this direction?
ML: For about a decade or so our faculty passed a graduation requirement that all students satisfy 60 hours of public service work. This requirement was grounded in the idea that as lawyers we have an ethical responsibility to offer pro bono legal services. And we also wanted to foster a commitment to public service regardless of what the student ended up practicing in while giving students the opportunity to develop lawyering skills. Students can easily satisfy this requirement by taking one of our clinics or public service externships. You'd be surprised at the number of students that go above and beyond the 60-hour requirement!
In 2016, we furthered this emphasis on skills-based learning by requiring students to complete at least 9 credits in courses that had an experiential learning component.
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?
ML: I think all schools would agree that there's an obligation that we provide all students a rigorous academic program to prepare them to pass the bar. Now whether that alone is enough is where I think you start to see differences in approaches across schools. In recent years, our bar passage has hovered above 90% and this past year we had a small drop to 86%-still above the state average. But those numbers should be given a bit more context because our graduating cohorts are comparatively small, so any person not passing would drop our percentage a bit more. That said, we are ramping up our academic support program for students who are seeking it.
TLS: Most law schools have a core 1L curriculum requiring civil procedure, contracts, torts, constitutional law, property, criminal law, and legal writing. Does the University of Washington stray from these requirements? Are there any additional classes students are required to take before graduation?
ML: We don't stray too far from the traditional approach with one exception. In the last couple of years, our curriculum committee worked in concert with our students to implement a 1L course requirement that all incoming 1Ls take a course that explores critical perspectives as a method of understanding common law to provide context for black letter law. Students get to choose among a number of "perspectives" courses that create a basic framework for understanding the relationship between race, class, gender, sexuality, and the law to help them deepen their ability to represent and counsel clients from diverse backgrounds and personal identities.
TLS: Other than the core required classes, what courses would you suggest students take before graduation?
ML: I'm a huge fan of any advanced writing course, so I would suggest taking those before graduating. As someone who reads thousands of essays each year, I probably have more examples of poorly written work than good examples and this goes the same for law graduates.
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?
ML: We don't assign any specific percentage weight to any of the factors because we truly review applications holistically, that is we consider all aspects of your application. But we do start off with the personal statement and resume so that we understand the motivations for pursing a legal education and how their background (personal and professional) would add to our community. Once we get a sense of those aspects, then we determine whether they have the ability to do well academically.
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?
ML: It is definitely the most influential part! We tell students to think about their application as a puzzle. We have many pieces of information about them already (resume, LORs, LSAT, grades), so take a step back and think about what isn't being said about them that they feel is important for the committee to know. That may be why they want to be a lawyer, what unique experiences/perspectives they would bring to the classroom, or why UW is a good fit. We don't interview candidates, so this is their opportunity to tell us about themselves. The personal statement is also a sample of your writing, so make sure it is written well. Attention to detail is important.
TLS: How often do you find statements that really stick out from the crowd? What do these statements consist of?
ML: The ones that stick out for me are well written and clearly show the student's motivation for pursuing law. It sounds simple enough, but not every applicant is able to articulate this in their personal statement. How do you know if you are on the right track? Ask for feedback from multiple people. If they don't understand why they want to go to law school, they need to go back to the drawing board.
TLS: Are there any personal statement topics that applicants should probably steer clear? Any clichés or pitfalls to avoid?
ML: I advise students to be careful using humor; they may be funny in person but not on paper. You should also avoid giving us a rhetorical narrative of their resume. We already have that information, so give us something else to consider. Beyond that, it's really up to them. Just be mindful of who your audience is - usually faculty and admissions staff.
TLS: Do you come across personal statements that actually hurt the applicant's chances?
ML: Yes. A high LSAT or GPA can't make up for a poorly written statement or one that leaves us wondering why you are applying to law school.
TLS: Some schools allow students to submit a "diversity statement" separate from the personal statement. How does the University of Washington view such statements? If such statements are potentially helpful, can you discuss when a diversity statement is or is not appropriate?
ML: While we don't ask students to submit a diversity statement, we offer students the ability to respond to one of three optional statements. Diversity encompasses many facets and we welcome students to include any information about their background or life experiences in their personal statement or in one of the optional supplemental statements.
TLS: Could an applicant significantly improve his or her chances of admission by drafting a personal statement specifically discussing an interest in the University of Washington?
ML: Not necessarily, but it is interesting to know if there is a particular program drawing them here or if there is something in their background that they think would be a good fit with UW. But don't spend so much time writing about us that you forget to focus on your story.
LSAT and GPA
TLS: Realistically speaking, how large a part of the admissions process are factors other than a candidate's GPA and LSAT?
ML: They are very important, but they're not the sole determining factor for us. Students are more than just numbers, and we pay very close attention to the personal statement, resume, and letters of recommendation. Applicants that stand out are those who have taken the time to put together a strong application package.
TLS: How does the University of Washington 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?
ML: We have access to all of the previous scores, but will consider the highest. If you have taken numerous exams or had a very high jump in scores, you should include an addendum.
TLS: If an applicant cancelled an LSAT score, does the school like to see an addendum explaining why?
ML: If it has happened only once, I would not need to see an addendum, but if there is a pattern of cancelled scores, I would want to know why.
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?
ML: Our deadline is March 15, so the latest exam we will accept is the January/February administration.
TLS: Beyond undergraduate performance and LSAT score, what else does the University of Washington look at when reviewing applications?
ML: Like most schools, we are looking for well-rounded candidates who have been involved in volunteer or professional work, have developed leadership skills, and whose background and experiences will enrich our community.
TLS: How much do you value pre-law school work or life experience?
ML: Life experience is valuable. Students who take some time off before law school bring a great perspective to the classroom. The average age of our student body usually hovers around 26 years old.
TLS: What can "K through JD" applicants do to stand out in the application process?
ML: K-JD students can develop great skills in college to help them be more competitive. Take on leadership roles with student organizations, seek out research or internship opportunities, and get engaged in your community. It should go without saying that whatever you get involved with, do it because you are genuinely interested, not because you think it will get you into law school.
TLS: Applicants often have difficulty choosing and approaching potential recommenders. Can you offer some general advice regarding letters of recommendation?
ML: When considering who to ask, think about your relationship with that person. How well do they know you? Do you feel they can write a strong letter with specific examples of your accomplishments? If so, schedule an appointment with them to talk about your application and reasons for wanting to go to law school. This can help them craft a good letter. And be careful choosing a professor solely because they gave you an "A". I've read recommendations where the professor will say that the student earned the "A" grade, but did not enjoy having them in class or question whether they are a good fit for law.
TLS: Tell us how the University of Washington treats transfer applicants. How many transfer students do you take each year? Where do these students come from?
ML: On average we admit about 20 transfer applicants out of a pool of 60-80 applicants. Historically students have come from schools along the west coast and the Pacific Northwest.
TLS: What are the most important criteria for selecting transfer applicants? Is the LSAT score still relevant? How about undergrad performance?
ML: Their academic performance during their first-year is the most important criteria and having an understanding how the University of Washington could help them achieve their career aspirations. I would say LSAT and undergrad performance are less important at this stage particularly if a candidate has proven with their 1L performance that those markers were not demonstrative of their academic success in law school.
TLS: How many students transfer out of the University of Washington after 1L year to attend other institutions?
ML: A very small number ever transfer out. In the last year only four students transferred to other programs and most of them are driven from personal matters.
Career Opportunities and Employment Outcomes
TLS: Describe the legal market in Washington State. What's the outlook for the next few years?
ML: I'm truly optimistic that the legal market in Washington State is on the upswing. Part of it is connected to the booming market we're seeing in Seattle across all industries, but particularly in tech and health. Seattle's legal market had been traditionally insular for a long time, and because of the economic growth we've seen over the last decade, more opportunities have been created and will continue to be created well into the future.
TLS: What are the most common career paths for graduates of the University of Washington?
ML: The majority of our graduates are still entering into the private sector, but given our public service focus, a large cohort are entering in government positions as well.
TLS: On average, how many graduates leave the state for work?
ML: About 15% of our graduates will leave the state with California being the most popular location and the third location varies between Alaska, Oregon, and DC.
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?
ML: Our numbers are consistent with the national average for students who receive firm jobs through OCI, which hovers around 15% or so. The majority of the students are obtaining their jobs through networking, resume submissions, and through other paths.
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?
ML: I think the true "median" student can expect to have the same kinds of legal opportunities like everyone else whether that's in the private sector or in public service. I believe the students attending law school now have an understanding that they will have to put in the time and energy to secure a job.
TLS: Nearly every law school has recent graduates who cannot find permanent, full-time legal employment. What does the University of Washington do to help them get on track?
ML: We have a comprehensive approach that expands outside our Student & Career Services team. Our faculty participate in our Adopt-a-Grad program where if there is any student who is still looking for employment, they connect students with potential employers, review their resumes and cover letters, and practice mock interviews with the students. It's been a widely popular initiative here at the law school because it shows how much we are all invested in the students' success.
TLS: Do you think transfer students are disadvantaged at all when it comes to seeking employment?
ML: I don't think they're disadvantaged at all partly because our admissions standards are already high to begin with so the students have already demonstrated their academic success. The timing of our transfer application process also aligns so that the students who are admitted as transfers can participate in our OCI process seamlessly.
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?
ML: This past year, our average debt was $107,000 which was $14,000 less than the average debt last year for graduates. What I'm particularly proud of is our various financial literacy programs to educate students on what taking out an additional $10,000 in loans actually means over the course of the loan's life, or offer ways to lower expenses, or offer budgeting strategies. I believe this generation of law students is more price sensitive and rightfully so-going to law school is a huge financial investment.
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 the University of Washington taken any steps to adjust class size?
ML: Our adjustment in class size really was a reflection of our commitment to maintain the academic quality of our entering students more so than driven by difficulties of un- and under-employment. Historically our 1L class size hovered between 160-180, and with the exception of a couple of years, we've managed to hit those enrollment targets without sacrificing the academic quality.
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.?
ML: I think law schools are doing a better job than we used to for sure in educating students on the financial impact of attending law school and the resources that are available to students to help them make informed decisions for themselves. At the same time, students also have to be proactive in researching their options, asking questions, and understanding what and how going to a law school where you will end up a quarter-million dollars into debt means for them, their family, and their choices.
TLS: What sort of tuition increase should entering students anticipate over the next three years?
ML: That's hard to project as there are many variables that go into why tuition increases. And while we've kept our tuition relatively flat for the last 5 years and have actually decreased our nonresident tuition rate, I would project that at some point we will have to evaluate where our tuition price point compares to the market.
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?
ML: Our Gates Fellows Public Service Scholarship program is our largest scholarship program that offers a full ride, living expenses, and some, to five entering 1Ls who've demonstrated a deep commitment to public service and who are making a commitment to work in public service for 5 years after graduation. The rest of our scholarships are through a general scholarship application process that evaluates merit- and need-based factors for the admitted students.
Washington residents also have the ability to be considered for additional need-based funding if they submit their FAFSA by January 15 each year and list the UW federal code. Those two criteria are important because if you do one and not the other, the student would be ineligible categorically for consideration for that funding.
TLS: How are students selected to receive scholarships?
ML: For our incoming students, any student seeking merit- or need-based scholarships are required to submit a scholarship application for consideration. Unlike some schools that will offer a scholarship upon admission, we actually want to identify those students that are seeking aid given our limited resources. We have three stages of scholarship offers, the first after March 15, the second after April 15, and then the third after May 1.
TLS: Is there anything prospective students can do to increase their chances of receiving aid?
ML: Students who apply and are admitted under our binding Early Decision Program are given earlier consideration and access to the scholarship pool than other students, so that's the only way to increase their chances of receiving aid.
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?
ML: 0% of our scholarships have any academic performance stipulations to continue to receive them. As long as you're enrolled in the JD program full-time, you will continue to receive the same amount each year.
TLS: Do you offer any additional scholarship awards to retain current students based on their performance during law school?
ML: We have a number of scholarships that recognize students who perform well academically and those that are based on excellence in trial advocacy, journal participation, and other criteria.
TLS: What sort of financial aid is available for transfer students?
ML: We have a very limited scholarship pool designated for incoming transfer students, but once they enroll, they will have access to a larger pool of scholarship and grant opportunities based on their academic achievements, specialty interests, and involvement in journals and moot court.
TLS: Describe any loan repayment programs UW Law offers. Who is eligible for loan repayment assistance?
ML: Our LRAP runs a bit different from other programs I've seen out there. For ours, we support up to three new graduates who are working in public service legal careers in Washington State. The total each recipient receives is $15,000 that we pay them over the course of three years in $5,000 installments annually. They have to submit renewal documentation and commit to remain employed in public service during the three-year period.
TLS: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Any parting thoughts for applicants considering the University of Washington?
ML: First, thank you for the opportunity to share my perspective and for the interview! I would say come visit us in Seattle and the law school. Nothing is better than walking through the halls, sitting in on a class, taking a tour of the campus, and meeting with a professor to truly get a sense of what our community is like. Law schools spend thousands of dollars on their marketing materials and view books and we want students to get a true representation of the culture and community here at the law school to see if it would be a good fit for them. If you visit, we can pair you with a Student Ambassador who can show you the ropes. I also encourage visitors to randomly stop a student and introduce themselves to ask questions of them. We have nothing to hide and every student here was in their shoes not too long ago.
And lastly, try visiting us during the end of March when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, but if you're visiting us during the winter time, don't forget your galoshes!
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