Interview with Johann Lee, Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Northwestern University Law School is thankful to Johann Lee, Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Northwestern University Law School, for this exclusive interview. Published in August 2009.

TLS: Northwestern has established itself as THE top school that loves quality work experience between undergrad and law school. Does the law school have a certain philosophy which has led to this reputation, and how disadvantaged is someone right out of undergrad?

We do have a certain philosophy and it comes from sort of how we do business here at Northwestern. We definitely talk to employers and the legal community to see what they wish out of law school graduates, and where they see legal education going. Based on our strategic plan, we wanted to build a collegial, team-oriented learning environment where 360 degree learning will occur.

By 360 degree learning, we mean students would learn from faculty, which is the traditional sense, students would learn from other students, which definitely does occur, and also where faculty would learn from students. So with this 360 approach, we found that those with substantial work and life experience had the most to bring to the table for the conversation, and we felt that those were the types that would benefit the most from this type of learning model.

As to how disadvantaged is someone right from undergrad, yeah, there is a slight disadvantage. However, if you are applying straight from undergrad, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of doing the evaluative interview as part of the application process. When we discuss work experience, what we are looking for are the things that work experience brings: maturity, strong career focus, good interpersonal skills, and the ability to work in groups in a professional setting. The interview process helps us answer those questions from those who are applying straight from undergrad.

TLS: What about someone applying from undergrad who had really ample internship experience or work experience during her college years?

I think the general overarching theme is that not all work experiences are created equally. For us at Northwestern, getting to know an applicant is really important — especially if an applicant thinks they do not have strong post-graduate work experience — I strongly suggest that all undergrad applicants do the interview, because that’s a way for the applicant to demonstrate to the admissions committee that they have the types of intangible qualities that we’re looking for out of our students.

TLS: What about “unorthodox” time off, like doing nonprofit work, traveling, or training for a marathon?

I think when it comes to the “unorthodox” time off, as I said before, not all experiences are exactly the same. In those particular situations, doing an interview — whether it’s on-campus or off — would definitely help us answer some questions: what was the nature of the time off? What type of experience was it? What was the applicant’s daily nine-to-five like? Things like that.

TLS: Are any types of work experience are looked upon particularly favorably?

We are ideally looking for professional post-graduate work experience. What does that mean? It could mean a variety of different things in a variety of different fields. What we’re really looking for is skills that come out of work experience. We are looking for project management experience, advocacy experience, responsibility and leadership within their different roles.

It’s not really the first line of the resume that’s important to us. It’s the description of what comes after that first line. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful looking titles, but then when you drill down deeper, there’s really not much there.

TLS: Is interviewing at Northwestern’s campus preferred over interviewing off campus?

Evaluation-wise, they count exactly the same. In the end, it really should be the applicant’s preference of whether they want to do on-campus or off. The interview is a two-way street. It’s an opportunity for us, the admissions committee, to learn more about an applicant, and really, it’s also an opportunity for an applicant to learn more about Northwestern.

I think it’s really important when an applicant schedules an interview to think about the questions they want answered. If they want to have answered questions about how does Northwestern place in the market that they’re currently living in, or experiences of alumni, then maybe they should consider doing an off-campus interview, because those questions will probably be readily answered.

If they have never visited the law school, never sat in on a Northwestern Law class, or they want to see what it’d be like to live in Chicago, then maybe doing an on-campus interview would be better to answer those questions.

TLS: How are ED applicants viewed differently (if at all) from regular decision applicants? Is there a boost?

At Northwestern, the Early Decision pool is the first pool that we review. So, before we read any regular decision applications, before we read Accelerated JD applications, we read binding Early Decision applications. There’s a completely clean slate; we haven’t admitted anyone at that particular point in time. So they’re getting a fresh pair of eyes from the admissions committee with regards to review.

One of the things we do look at in the admissions process is whether or not students have done their research about Northwestern and whether or not they’re committed to the learning model that we have in place. Nothing says commitment to a law school then a binding early decision contract. So, is there a boost? Probably a feather on a scale, but basically they’re the first applications that we read.

TLS: Does the school's focus on work experience limit its potential to rise in the rankings, since they may sacrifice college seniors with high GPA/LSAT scores (or those students wouldn't choose to come to NU)?

I think, to a certain extent, our admissions statistics speak for themselves. Since 1996, our median LSAT has risen from a 164 to a 170. So, it hasn’t limited us with regards to that particular statistic. I think in the end we are looking for strong students — students who will contribute to the Northwestern Law community. If a college senior who has a high GPA and a high LSAT score is interested in Northwestern, they should definitely come in and do an interview and state their case. Because the fact of the matter is, we would like to get to know the applicant a little better in that way.

I think the one thing that college seniors who apply to Northwestern Law often fail to do in their application is to really convey the message of why they want to go to law school. That’s really important to us, especially when evaluating an application of a college senior. The one thing that we try to screen for, in general, are applicants who are going to law school just to go to law school, and not as part of a discernable career plan. Applicants that are delaying the inevitable of finding a job, who say “I can’t find a job — I’ll go to law school!” In the application process, we try to look into the motivations of why the applicant wants to go to law school, especially among college seniors.

TLS: In recent years, entry-level pay at top law firms has skyrocketed, and the cost of tuition at many schools has skyrocketed with it. As top-paying jobs become harder to come by, salaries begin to drop, and more students potentially turn to lower-paying public interest work, does Northwestern (as one of the most expensive law schools) have any plans to scale back the tuition with these changes?

This is a year-by-year decision. The fact of the matter is, we at Northwestern Law are constantly evaluating the legal marketplace: where it’s going, our cost of tuition, and the services that we provide. At this point in time, we are still in the evaluation process for the future. Our tuition did go up this year, but it did not go up as much as perhaps some of our peer schools might have gone up. And also, when it comes to folks who are going into public service careers, we are working with our student-led committee in reevaluating our Public Service Fellowship program.

In the end, we’re taking sort of a long-term perspective as opposed to a short-term perspective with regards to pricing and cost. I also think a top law school is still a fairly decent investment over the long-term course of a person’s career, as opposed to not.

TLS: How does Northwestern ensure the interview process is fair? How do they balance it if one interviewer is incredibly easy on the candidate and writes a detailed, glowing report, while a different interviewer grills the candidate mercilessly and then writes a short, negative report?

All of our interviewers are given an interviewer handbook. The write-ups are pretty standardized. We definitely cue the interviewers as to what we’re looking for, with regards to leadership, questions regarding career focus, questions regarding project management experience, things like that.

We do provide a certain amount of standardization for our interviewers, but I think in the end, the interviewers are structuring their interviews very similar to law firm job interviews. There’s still definitely some randomization involved. If an applicant decides to interview on-campus, then all the on-campus interviews are pretty much standardized. All on-campus interviewers are trained exactly the same way.

TLS: How much does the interview count for in an applicant’s package?

It’s one piece of information among a whole cohort of different pieces of information. I would say that the interview tends to act as about a half a step in a process. If, let’s say, a person without the interview would have been placed on hold or on the waitlist, a really strong interview can tip them up higher. And by the same token, if a person let’s say may have been waitlisted without the interview, a really poor interview will push them into the other range.

The interview is definitely worth something — it’s definitely worth it for us to do, because it gives us more information about an applicant. In the end, it’s a portfolio assessment. We’re trying to make the best decision we can with the information in front of us. The interview, we think, breathes some life into the application, beyond just the personal statement, LSAT, GPA, LSAT writing sample, letters of recommendation…

TLS: You look at the LSAT writing sample?

We actually do.

TLS: Really?

Yeah. The reason is, based on the input we’ve received from employers, writing skills are really important. And so, the LSAT writing sample is an un-canned, unprepared for, candid look at a person’s writing. We’re fairly certain the LSAT writing sample was not proofread by other eyes, and it didn’t go to an admissions consultant, so it’s a really candid indication of a person’s writing style. So if, let’s say, we’re reading a personal statement, and it doesn’t really display an individual’s ability to write, we’ll turn to the writing sample to get a second opinion.

Believe it or not, we actually read them. I know a lot of people blow it off — we see all the writing samples when they come in on the LSDAS reports, and we see some where people just draw pictures on the entire thing. A little stick figure next to a house with a chimney and smoke coming out. That says something about an applicant.

TLS: For transfer applicants, is the school they are attempting to transfer from or their 1L grades given more consideration?

I would say it’s a combination of where a student is transferring from and how they did at that school. When we’re looking at transfer applications, we’re looking for students who’ve demonstrated they can succeed in law school, and also, we’re looking for students who will succeed in our learning environment.

We’re looking at work experience, and at how they did in law school. We’re looking to see if how they did in law school is consistent with how they did in undergrad. We’re looking to see the rigor of the law school that they went to. It’s a combination of a lot of factors. We also ask for a legal writing sample as part of our transfer application, so we’re also looking at how well a student can write in a more practical form, outside of a timed or untimed contracts or civil procedure exam.

TLS: Do transfer students ever receive any type of merit-aid or is it solely need-based or loans?

Unfortunately we don’t offer scholarship assistance to transfer students.

TLS: Are there any dates in the application cycle that applying after will put an applicant at a disadvantage? Applying before which date will put him at an advantage?

I think a lot has been made about applying early, and the one caveat I would give to that is make sure you’re able to put your best application forward. In the fall, one of the questions I hear all the time is something like, “I took the October LSAT, I didn’t do as well as I thought I could do, I wanted to take the December LSAT, but I’m afraid of postponing my application.”

The fact of the matter is, we want applicants to put their best foot forward, so if you need extra time in order to redo your personal statement, schedule an interview with us, or retake the LSAT examination, I’d rather have a student take a little extra time, and get those things done well, then get an application in on the first day we accept applications.

A general rule of thumb I would say is to get your application in one month before applications close out for any of our programs (whether it’s JD, AJD, LLM, or whatever it may be). It’s more logistics than anything else. Because we’re dealing with assembling a lot of pieces of material for a committee to review, it’s best to give as much lead time as possible in order to have that to occur.

In the end, I always feel that a strong application is a strong application. If a person submits a strong application at the deadline, or if he submits it the first day we accept applications, we would admit this person.

The only thing is that when it comes to scholarship assistance, we do it on a first-come first-serve basis. So applying closer to the deadline may put a student at a disadvantage with regards to that. However, if we’re talking admission, a strong application is a strong application.

TLS: So two identical applicants, one who applies October 1st and one who applies January 1st, have the same chance at admission?

Yes, I think so. If we’re talking straight admission, then yes, absolutely.

TLS: But scholarships might be different?

Scholarships might be different, yes, and that’s just based on the fact that we give out our scholarships on a quasi-rolling basis.

TLS: How are scholarship amounts and distributions determined?

There is a scholarship committee that gets together to review everyone who has applied for a scholarship. At Northwestern, our scholarships are a combination of need and merit. There’s not a pure-need scholarship, and there’s not a pure-merit scholarship — we take a blended approach to everything.

So to apply for a scholarship, not only do you have to submit a separate form to ask to be considered, but an applicant also needs to submit his or her financial aid application.

It’s based on need-level, based on academic credentials, based on work-experience; it’s basically another applicant review process. We go ahead and assign scholarships accordingly.

TLS: How do you deal with multiple LSAT scores?

We see all the LSAT scores, but the committee generally takes the highest as the best representation of a person’s ability.

TLS: What if someone retakes and drops a couple points?

It’s still the highest score. There are so many factors that go into an actual LSAT score. One is preparation, which a student has control over, but there are so many other factors like personal factors and environmental factors. So, if the person drops a couple points, we still take the highest score as the best representation of their efforts.

TLS: What are some situations in which an addendum would be useful, and what are some situations where students write unnecessary addendums? Can they ever be damaging?

When it comes to addendums, the most common addendums that I see are addendums regarding GPA performance and GPA trends. There are also a lot of addendums regarding LSAT performance, and regarding any sort of additional personal circumstances.

If there’s a significant GPA trend and there’s a reason for it, I would definitely like to see an addendum on that, instead of wasting personal statement space.

With regards to addendums about LSAT performance, I think if a person took the LSAT once and then is going to submit an addendum regarding their LSAT not being indicative of their actual ability, I tend to discount that a little bit, because frankly, if you take the LSAT once and it’s not indicative of your ability, take it again. I think if a person has taken it a couple times, then I can see an addendum regarding that as appropriate.

The fact of the matter is, at Northwestern, when we review an application we want as much information about the applicant as possible. And so I think when it comes to addendums, we sort of take the line that feel free to write as many addendums as you wish, but remember that the more addendums you write, the more the impact on the reader’s eyes tends to diminish. So make sure to write your addendums appropriately.

One time someone submitted an addendum to me about their grade performance, saying that spring semester of their 3rd year was not indicative of the rest of their grade trend. And basically they had dipped from a 3.9 to a 3.7. So I think that’s an instance where an addendum could be damaging, but generally addendums are a good thing.

TLS: Students have said that Northwestern has less of a “community” feel, as students are a bit older and many have families or commute to campus. Do you think Northwestern does have a different “feel” in this respect than other top law schools?

I definitely do think Northwestern has a different feel, because there’s no other full-time law school that has the work experience demographic that we do. So on the academic side, it’s definitely a different vibe in the classroom. Socially, I think we do emphasize community and teamwork. I think the folks that do attend Northwestern are a little different, but I think we have more of a community feel as a result of some of our efforts than maybe some other law schools.

TLS: Is there any sort of admissions boost for students who are already established in Chicago?

Most of our applicant pool comes from outside the Chicago-land area. I think when it comes to admissions, we’re fairly even when it comes to geography in the admissions process. And also, if you look at the breakdown on the website, I think we are one of the most geographically blended law schools in the country.

Only about maybe 30, 31% of our admitted class actually comes from the Midwest. Most of our students come from the Northeast, west coast, south, and other areas.

TLS: Which types of personal statements strike you? Do the best personal statements that you read share any common themes?

Yes — introspection. I think the best personal statements that I’ve read show that the applicant has actually thought about the topic that they’re writing about, and they’ve looked within themselves to write about said topic. They don’t read as being formulaic. There’s also some emotion in the writing. I think the personal statements that stick out in my mind are the ones that definitely reflected the individual and are distinctive, where I can say that X person wrote this personal statement and I’ve never read anything like it.

TLS: What sort of weight do you place on letters of recommendation?

When it comes to reading letters of recommendation, they’re all pretty much positive. What we’re looking for is the depth of detail within the letter of recommendation. It’s important to us that the recommender really knows the student well, and can really speak to his or her ability as a possible law student, and/or work ability.

TLS: You ask for one letter of recommendation from either a professor or employer. Which do you prefer?

Our preference is that we want to know who the student is now, as opposed to who they were then. Especially with folks with work experience who’ve taken some time off, we prefer the work-related over the academic. If you’ve worked for three years, there’s definitely some distance, and a person’s a different person now than they were then.

For our AJD program we have our own detailed letter of recommendation form.

TLS: Are there certain things students applying for the Accelerated JD program should particularly stress in their applications?

The things that we’re looking for from an AJD applicant are basically the things that we’re looking for out of our JD applicants — it’s just at a little bit of a higher level. We’re definitely looking for strong work experience — the average number of years of work experience in our AJD class is six years. We’re looking for strong project management experience, we’re looking for career focus, we’re looking for leadership experience — the same sort of intangibles we’re looking for in our JD students. Most of our current AJD students have had established careers, and they’re looking at a law degree to take them to the next step in whatever field they’ve chosen.

TLS: Thank you so much for your time. Anything else you’d like to add?

I see a lot of law applicants and admitted students make their decisions without doing their due diligence. When they make the decision to go to law school, they should definitely visit schools, talk to students, and test drive and kick the tires.