Interview with Michelle Rahman, Former Associate Dean for Admissions, the University of Richmond School of Law
Top Law Schools would like to thank Michelle Rahman (MR), Former Associate Dean for Admissions at the University of Richmond School of Law, for taking the time to answer our questions!
Law School Reputation/Public Perception
TLS: Tell us about the University of Richmond 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?
MR: Richmond Law is a true community-the very opposite of the law school stereotype-located in a dynamic capital city. The focus is on our students, who find themselves at the heart of a distinctly collegial learning environment. Our small size allows for personal connections, mentorship, and life-long friendships, and our personalized approach not only makes the law school experience more enriching, it also produces better lawyers who are more effective in their professional interactions with clients, other lawyers, and judges.
TLS: Whether or not they apply to or ultimately attend Richmond School of Law, 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?
MR: Picking a law school is about more than cost, rankings, location, outcomes, and fit. In reality, the decision should be based on a combination of all these factors. I would ask any applicant to frame the process by evaluating his or her goals and making a list of priorities. For example, is it important to be close to family? Do you thrive (or not) in an urban or rural environment? Do you desire collegiality, or do you need the motivation of a cut-throat atmosphere? How comfortable am I with debt (in terms of investing in one's future)? It is crucial for you to visit each school you are considering and engage with students, administrators, faculty, and (hopefully) alumni. Ask useful questions. For students: What do you like and dislike? Are faculty really accessible? For administrators: What resources are at my disposal? How does career development work with students? How do you help students prepare for practice and employment? For yourself: Do I feel comfortable here? Can I reasonably expect to be happy here? In the end, the answers to these questions will guide your decision-making process. Remember, law school is an investment, and you want to be in a position to thrive and make the most of your three years.
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 Richmond School of Law?
MR: Rankings are a fine guide but should never be the sole reason one would choose a particular school instead of another. U.S. News and World Report uses a particular methodology-and your goals, preferences, and values might be quite different. We are attentive to the rankings because they are important to applicants, employers, and alumni. That being said, our decisions are made through the lens of "How does this benefit students?" not with a focus on self-aggrandizement.
TLS: Is there value to additional metrics (e.g., new rankings like the ones promulgated by Above the Law)?
MR: Credible metrics are always useful. Just make sure you understand the data in context. For example, a particular school might have a lower starting salary (for graduates)-but it's because a large percentage of graduates go into judicial clerkships, which are prestigious but not highly paid. Context is key.
TLS: Are there any exciting things on the horizon at Richmond School of Law? Any new developments, programs, or opportunities you'd like to share with our readers?
MR: Richmond Law is always evolving. In recent years we've introduced a D.C. externship program for third-year students. Participants earn course credit while working full time in federal agencies, courts, and non-profits throughout the Washington, D.C. area. Foreign attorneys now have the option of a one-year LL.M. degree or our unique LL.M./MBA program.
TLS: How would you describe the students at Richmond School of Law?
MR: Richmond Law is known for students who are civically engaged, community-minded, and high-performing. In our everyday life at Richmond Law, we model those qualities - innovation, grit, leadership - that make good lawyers into great lawyers, and you'll see those qualities reflected in our students. Our student body is particularly known for its collegial and collaborative nature.
TLS: What's student life like? When students aren't studying or taking classes, what types of activities might they engage in?
MR: In addition to our 35+ student organizations, our students take full advantage of what the city of Richmond has to offer: a fantastic dining scene, miles of hiking trails, world-class rapids, and some of the best food and music festivals on the East coast. Richmond is home to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, First Fridays Art Walk, the Richmond Ballet, and countless other cultural opportunities.
TLS: How many students participate in student-run legal journals?
TLS: Aside from journals, what are the most popular legal extracurricular activities available to students of Richmond School of Law?
MR: Our students are involved in over 35 student organizations. Students in our Moot Trial Board, Alternative Dispute Resolution Society, and Client Counseling and Negotiation Board participate in national competitions to refine their litigation, arbitration, mediation, and negotiation skills. Other organizations - like the Black Law Students Association, Richmond Women's Law, Equality Alliance, or the Veterans and Military Law Association - host networking opportunities and professional development lectures that bring top attorneys to the law school to interact with our students.
TLS: What sort of clinical opportunities are available for students? Are there any clinics Richmond School of Law is especially proud of?
MR: We prepare our students for practice from Day One through robust clinical offerings, skills-based courses, and extensive practicums that blend theory and practice. In addition to our in-house clinical offerings, students can participate in external Clinical Placement Program, with positions available in civil, criminal, in-house, judicial, and litigation placements, plus a London Clinical Placement Program and a D.C. Externship Program.
- Students in our Actual Innocence Institute worked toward and achieved a commuted sentence from President Obama for a non-violent offender sentenced to life in prison.
- Students in our Children's Defense Clinic work with immigrant children who have suffered abandonment, abuse, or neglect in their home countries to achieve Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.
- Students in our IP and Transactional Law Clinic provide legal advice to local start-up businesses and entrepreneurs.
- Students in our Family Law Clinic represent indigent families on every kind of domestic relations matter, from custody disputes to adoption.
TLS: What are the best and worst things about going to school in Richmond?
MR: Richmond is home to more state and federal courts than almost any other city, plus eight Fortune 500 companies and the state capital - meaning that student opportunities for externships and networking are practically endless. Here are just a few other things the city is known for:
- Happiest Metro Area in the U.S., U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research
- Best River Town, Outside Magazine
- Top 20 "Millennial Magnet" Cities, USA Today
- Top Cities for Food Travel, National Geographic Magazine
TLS: Many law schools have emphasized practical, skills-based learning in recent years. Has Richmond School of Law taken any steps in this direction?
MR: Richmond Law has always offered a wide variety of clinics, externships, and other skills classes. But over the last five years, we have added six full-time skills faculty, launched a "semester in DC" program at government agencies and non-profits, and created new skills classes in immigration, housing, elder law, finance, international law, wills drafting, and anti-corruption law.
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?
MR: Richmond Law takes bar preparation very seriously. After all, if you can't pass the bar, you can't practice law. Prior to graduation, all of our students have the opportunity to participate, free of charge, in an intensive supplemental bar preparation course. The course runs a full semester and provides a substantive review and intensive test-taking instruction for both the multiple choice and essay portions of the bar exam. The course is not jurisdiction-specific, and it is designed for students planning to sit for the bar in any jurisdiction. In addition, during the bar study period, two faculty members provide individual tutoring and bar preparation counseling to any and all interested graduates. The faculty tutors meet with graduates weekly and provide substantive instruction, critique practice essays, and advise students on effective bar preparation strategies.
TLS: Most law schools have a core 1L curriculum requiring civil procedure, contracts, torts, constitutional law, property, criminal law, and legal writing. Does Richmond School of Law stray from these requirements? Are there any additional classes students are required to take before graduation?
MR: Richmond students take a first-year class in Legislation & Regulation in addition to the traditional courses. In the second and third year, every student must take two additional skills courses-based on in-person advocacy and one on drafting for practice-and a course in professional responsibility, which includes specialized options in family law, criminal defense, and prosecution.
TLS: Other than the core required classes, what courses would you suggest students take before graduation?
MR: The answer is different for different students. The important thing is to decide what fields interest you, and then work closely your faculty adviser to craft a curricular plan that will develop your doctrinal and practical expertise in those fields. In particular, the second year is for courses that build a foundation of knowledge, and the third year is for courses in which you can apply that knowledge in real-world settings and begin the transition into practice.
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?
MR: We holistically review each application and make admissions decisions based upon numerous factors, including (but not limited to) undergraduate GPA, graduate work (if applicable), LSAT score, undergraduate institution, undergraduate major, life experience, work experience, extracurricular activities, grade trend, age, geographic location, recommendations, etc. While academic credentials and test scores are important components in our decision, we are also seeking insight into an applicant's passion, character and commitment to helping others.
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?
MR: The personal statement should allow us to get to know the applicant in a "personal" way-it's really the applicant's chance to speak authentically about his or her background, experiences, and viewpoint. I recommend the applicant choose a narrow topic-offer details about a particular experience or characteristic rather than generalities about a broad topic. Focus on a concrete experience and the impact it has had upon you. Be yourself, and write with energy and use the active voice. Finally, don't forget to proofread carefully and ask several people you trust to read your statement and provide feedback.
TLS: How often do you find statements that really stick out from the crowd? What do these statements consist of?
MR: Every year I read a number of statements that are truly superb. To my mind, the most interesting statements paint a vivid picture and tell a story. The best statements create "visuals" that make the personal statement memorable and clearly convey a simple and compelling idea. Applicants should pay particular attention to their first paragraphs-it should immediately grab my attention and make me want to read more.
TLS: Are there any personal statement topics that applicants should probably steer clear? Any clichés or pitfalls to avoid?
MR: Do not offend your reader, and you never know who may read your file-it could be an admissions professional, current law student, or faculty member. While attorneys rarely shy away from controversial topics, you should think twice before advocating a controversial view. You do not want to appear close-minded or pedantic.
TLS: Do you come across personal statements that actually hurt the applicant's chances?
MR: Absolutely. Grammar mistakes, mechanical errors, including the wrong school name are all signs of sloppiness and leave a bad impression. Proofread and follow instructions (e.g., if we say the statement should be one to three pages, we mean one to three pages, not four.).
TLS: Some schools allow students to submit a "diversity statement" separate from the personal statement. How does Richmond School of Law view such statements? If such statements are potentially helpful, can you discuss when a diversity statement is or is not appropriate?
MR: We welcome diversity statements. A supplemental statement is especially helpful when an applicant's ethnicity, family, religion, socioeconomic background, or similar factors have influenced the applicant's viewpoint and motivation for pursuing legal education. If you choose to include a diversity statement, make sure it and the personal statement address different topics.
TLS: Could an applicant significantly improve his or her chances of admission by drafting a personal statement specifically discussing an interest in Richmond School of Law?
MR: No. Applicants should use the personal statement for its intended purpose-to allow us to get to know them better. If an applicant wishes to speak specifically about his or her interest in Richmond Law, they should include a separate "Why Richmond Law" essay.
LSAT and GPA
TLS: Realistically speaking, how large a part of the admissions process are factors other than a candidate's GPA and LSAT?
MR: It's not just about LSAT score and GPA-every applicant, especially those with less competitive credentials, should present an application that highlights his or her skills and tells us how they would contribute to the diversity of the class.
TLS: How does Richmond School of Law 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?
MR: We consider the high score. Applicants should consider supplying an addendum if his or her most recent score is more than five points above or below the high score.
TLS: If an applicant cancelled an LSAT score, does the school like to see an addendum explaining why?
MR: An addendum is not necessary unless the applicant has a pattern of cancelled scores.
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?
MR: We accept scores from the June LSAT administration for initial or waitlist consideration.
TLS: Beyond undergraduate performance and LSAT score, what else does Richmond School of Law look at when reviewing applications?
MR: We look at the entirety of the application. It is truly a holistic process. The personal statement, résumé, letters of recommendation, and any addenda (optional) all allow us to learn more about the applicant. We're looking for engagement, passion, career achievement, work ethic, and other characteristics. Your job as an applicant is to provide us with a thorough "picture" of who you are and what you bring to the table.
TLS: How much do you value pre-law school work or life experience?
MR: Work and life experiences help tell your story-but it is more than the job or internship on its own-we want to know what you took away from that experience and which skills you've developed and how your experiences have shaped your perspective and viewpoint.
TLS: What can "K through JD" applicants do to stand out in the application process?
MR: Approximately thirty to forty percent of our entering class comes straight to law school from undergraduate (or graduate) education. Because these applicants are unlikely to have significant work experience, they should use the application to highlight their engagement in extracurricular activities and write compellingly about their passions and ideas.
TLS: Applicants often have difficulty choosing and approaching potential recommenders. Can you offer some general advice regarding letters of recommendation?
MR: The best letters of recommendation come from individuals who know the candidate well. Make sure to ask early enough in the cycle to give the recommender sufficient time to draft a detailed letter, and don't hesitate to ask the recommender to highlight a project or work you are particularly proud of doing (e.g., research that led to a capstone project.). If you're a student at the time you apply for law school, at least one letter should come from an academic source. Finally, If the potential recommender hesistates or suggests that someone else might be better positioned to write a letter on your behalf-take that advice-otherwise, you're likely to get a lukewarm (at best) recommendation.
TLS: Tell us how Richmond School of Law treats transfer applicants. How many transfer students do you take each year? Where do these students come from?
MR: Applicants for transfer submit the same application as entering students. The personal statement should detail the applicant's reasons for transfer, and we prefer to have at least one letter of recommendation from a law school professor. We also require a law school transcript and letter of good standing. Applicants come from law schools all over the country. There is no cap on the number of transfer students we admit.
TLS: What are the most important criteria for selecting transfer applicants? Is the LSAT score still relevant? How about undergrad performance?
MR: The student's first-year law school grades are the most recent indicator of that student's academic achievement, and as such the student's first-year academic record is a significant criterion in determining acceptance as a transfer student. There are no minimum law school GPA requirements; however, transfer applicants are expected to have a fairly strong GPA and class rank if their school ranks. A transfer applicant's entire file, including undergraduate record (LSAT/UGPA), is reviewed in determining whether that student will be admitted.
TLS: How many students transfer out of Richmond School of Law after 1L year to attend other institutions?
MR: Typically, anywhere between one and five students transfer out each year.
Career Opportunities and Employment Outcomes
TLS: Describe the legal market in Virginia. What's the outlook for the next few years?
MR: Richmond, and Virginia, more broadly, supports a diverse economy, including the legal, government, technology and financial services sectors. The law school's location in the state's capital affords students many opportunities for internships and externships in government, the courts at all levels, and with various corporations whose headquarters are in the area. Further, the city is a relatively short distance from the nation's Capital, Washington, D.C., in which the law school hosts an externship program for third-year students. While the state currently is enjoying low unemployment, economic diversity provides some insulation during periods of economic uncertainty.
TLS: What are the most common career paths for graduates of Richmond School of Law?
MR: Richmond Law graduates (typically 15 - 20% of each class) go on to judicial clerkships at a rate almost double the national average, law firms of all sizes (with our graduates more likely to enter smaller firms), and positions in government (frequently as prosecutors and public defenders), among many other options.
TLS: On average, how many graduates leave the state for work?
MR: In June 2017, Time Magazine named Richmond the number two area in the country for millennial move-ins. While 47% of our most recent entering class came to the law school from out-of-state, only 25 - 35% of each class chooses to leave after receiving their degree.
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?
MR: About 20% of Richmond Law graduates report securing their first position through one of the law school's on-campus recruiting programs.
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?
MR: Students in the middle of the class secure the same kinds of opportunities described above, including positions with small and mid-size firms and with prosecutor and public defender offices, among other positions. The law school offers a wide variety of experiential learning opportunities to ensure that students have the practical skills they need to secure the jobs they seek.
TLS: Nearly every law school has recent graduates who cannot find permanent, full-time legal employment. What does Richmond School of Law do to help them get on track?
MR: In addition to robust advising and career development offerings for current students, the law school sponsors a Bridge to Practice Fellowship (BTP) program for recent graduates. The BTP program opens doors to government and public interest law by allowing recipients to continue gaining valuable experience between the bar exam and admission to practice. Recipients of these fellowships have pursued internships with the International Criminal Tribunal, the United States Congress, the Federal Public Defender, and more. Fellowship recipients also receive enhanced career development services to ensure success. Many Fellowship recipients are hired by their sponsoring employer upon bar passage. In addition, we have a full-time CDO staff member dedicated to working with our alumni.
TLS: Do you think transfer students are disadvantaged at all when it comes to seeking employment?
MR: By working closely with our Admissions team, we incorporate transfer students into our career development processes as quickly as possible. We reach out to prospective transfers when they are admitted to provide information about our services and recruitment programs. The earlier transfer students begin actively working with the CDO, the faster we can help them to develop a plan to reach their career goals. Many students transfer to be closer to the geographic area in which they are seeking employment.
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?
MR: The median debt for Richmond Law graduates is $95,710. We use a number of strategies to help students keep this number as low as possible during their time here.
Throughout the academic year, the law school dean's office offers a variety of programs to help students manage their debt and maintain their financial health.
Through the Summer Public Service Fellowship Program, each Richmond Law student is guaranteed funding for one summer of unpaid work in the public sector. This program enables students to get valuable work experience and improve their post-graduate employment prospects without significantly increasing their debt load.
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 Richmond School of Law taken any steps to adjust class size?
MR: Richmond Law's class size has been remarkably stable over the years; however, the classes entering in 2016 and 2017 were approximately twenty-five percent smaller than our average entering class size of 150. Not only is a smaller class size beneficial from an employment standpoint, but it helps preserve our unique close-knit and collegial atmosphere. Smaller class size and faculty hiring has allowed our student-to-faculty ratio to drop to 7.7:1, which further enables faculty accessibility.
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.?
MR: Richmond Law is among the most affordable of the Top 50 private law schools; however, cost of attendance should be an important consideration for any prospective law student. We all should do more to assist students in understanding these costs and making sound financial decisions.
TLS: What sort of tuition increase should entering students anticipate over the next three years?
MR: Richmond Law works extremely hard to keep tuition costs low. In fact, we have one of the lowest tuition rates for a private school in the Top 100. Tuition increases have been reliably low, and we don't foresee any larger-than-average increases in the future.
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?
MR: Richmond Law students fund their legal educations through scholarships (awarded by the school and from outside sources), federal and private loans, the Federal Work-Study Program, and military benefits (e.g., Yellow Ribbons). Students must submit a FAFSA (parental income is NOT required) to be packaged for federal loans and work-study.
TLS: How are students selected to receive scholarships?
MR: There is no separate scholarship application. All admitted students are automatically considered for scholarship aid based on the information contained in their application for admission. Scholarships are awarded based on prior academic performance, high LSAT score, and other factors.
TLS: Is there anything prospective students can do to increase their chances of receiving aid?
MR: Prospective students should apply by February 15 for priority scholarship consideration. They should also file a FAFSA as soon as possible.
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?
MR: No, our scholarships come without strings attached. As long as a student is enrolled and making satisfactory academic performance, they are eligible to receive scholarship funding for all three years of their enrollment.
TLS: Do you offer any additional scholarship awards to retain current students based on their performance during law school?
MR: No. Scholarships are only awarded to entering students.
TLS: What sort of financial aid is available for transfer students?
MR: Transfer students are not eligible for scholarship funding; however, they may receive federal or private loan funds, Federal Work-Study, and military benefits (if eligible).
TLS: Describe any loan repayment programs Richmond School of Law offers. Who is eligible for loan repayment assistance?
MR: At this time, we do not offer a loan repayment program. Graduates working in public service currently qualify for the federal Pay as You Earn Program and loan forgiveness following ten years of qualified employment. Richmond Law prioritizes its funding to the Summer Fellowship Program (currently a $3,500 stipend for qualified unpaid work) and our Bridge-to-Practice Program.
TLS: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Any parting thoughts for applicants considering Richmond School of Law?
MR: Richmond Law is a special place, and I encourage you to visit our campus, sit in on a class, take a student-led tour, meet our faculty, and get to know us.
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