Interview with Former Dean Sarah Zearfoss of University of Michigan Law School

Published May 2009, last updated July 2009

TLS: Michigan Law’s application process has a reputation for being especially holistic. How is this manifested? It seems like every school touts their holistic admissions process; is Michigan any different?

I do believe that everybody has this as a value — particularly top schools. I only know one school well, which is Michigan. I do have sort of reasonable intuitions about schools that are in similar situations as Michigan; I really have no idea how admissions works at schools that don’t get a huge excess of applications for the number of spots they have so I’m really only talking about schools that are like Michigan here. 

It’s no secret that the rankings every year create great pressure to 1) have a higher median LSAT 2) have a higher undergraduate GPA and 3) have a more selective process so you’re admitting fewer of the people who apply

Given that it creates huge pressures, unless you have some countervailing pressure, you’re going to act in accordance with the pressure. I don’t mean entirely, but you’re going to change your behavior a little bit to act in accordance with the pressure.

Michigan has a countervailing pressure that no other school has ever had. We have been sued on multiple occasions. We get FOIAed [Freedom of Information Act requests] on a very regular basis. From the moment I took this job, it was very clear to me that every single decision I made was at least potentially subject to scrutiny. I went into this job knowing that every time I wrote a note about an applicant, I had to envision myself reading that note aloud in open court. I had to think carefully: Am I being consistent about what we are saying we’re doing? Am I applying this consistently?

Because even when we took race into account as a factor in admissions — which we no longer do [in accordance with Proposal 2, the 2006 state constitutional amendment which banned race, gender and nationality-based affirmative action in Michigan] — but even when we did, we said that it is not the only thing — it wasn’t only race that mattered along with LSAT and GPA. There are many other things that matter.

We do have that countervailing pressure so we have to really be true to our stated goals, We are in a unique position.

TLS: How can you tell from just a few documents if an applicant will be a good fit for Michigan?

Sometimes we learn because I might have had an instinct or another reader had an instinct that this person’s not going to be a good fit and I might have admitted that person anyway because there were other countervailing factors that made me think it was worth it. Or, I might have said I think that intuition is wrong about this person; we might have disagreed. And then that person comes and we learn, the intuition was right. That’s one way we learn. And then we go back and look when we find that out — we add to our list of how we make decisions.

We consider what we do all the time. Another way we sometimes find out is we’ll deny people because we don’t think they’ll be good fits and then those people write us outraged angry emails, which is a good sign that our gut instinct was right.

TLS: Does a Minor in Possession of Alcohol or similar misdemeanor affect how you evaluate an application? In what circumstances do misdemeanors negatively affect the applicant?

One MIP just is not something to be concerned about. What can be a concern is the way people explain it. People can take what is a nothing situation in my point of view and transform it into a cause for concern by being very defensive — sort of combative about it. What I’m looking to see is that you take responsibility for it — that’s all I care about. You need to be able to get yourself in a place where you can say “I take responsibility, I realize that was against the rules” or “I was foolhardy” or something along those lines; that’s a smart way to deal with it. Or at least be completely dispassionate about it. But don’t say things like “I was set up” or “this is an unjust law” or things like that. That’s just not the kind of attitude that speaks well of you.

If I see three or four, though, I do have a concern about your ability to learn from past mistakes.

TLS: Is a high LSAT score attained on the 3rd try regarded differently than one attained on the first or second?

Let’s say we see a 150, a 151 and then a 170. In that situation I would want to hear some explanation for why the person thinks there was that distinction, but assuming there was some sensible story — I don’t really have any presupposition about what that story should be, I just want to hear what the story is. Assuming there’s some sensible explanation there, I would not hesitate to put more weight on the 170.

Let’s say the pattern was a 165, a 167 and a 169. You can’t really go up usually too much on the LSAT — in general the people who take it multiple times score within two or three points. So you would expect someone who took it twice to go up two or three points, just from more familiarity with the test, all other things being equal. So taking it two more times and going up two more points, I would put more weight in that instance on the mean score, the 167. I would think that would actually be the one that’s more predictive.

We report the highest and look at all the scores because each situation is a little different. I do find it troubling when I see people taking it 4 or 5 times. I think it’s much smarter to prepare as well as you can, and take it once hopefully and let that be the end of it. Suppose something goes wrong — you’re sick, there’s a marching band, what have you — take it again if you think that was not reflective of your ability and that should really be the end of it. I mean, it’s possible that you’d have two pieces of really bad fortune back to back and you’d need to take it a third time, but it’s unlikely and you should give an explanation if that’s the case.

TLS: Suppose an applicant with a 3.5 GPA gets a 168 on the LSAT. His heart is set on Michigan but he missed the ED deadline. Should he retake the LSAT?

He should not retake the LSAT unless he has some very good reason for thinking the 168 was an aberration — and that’s going to be very hard to be sure about. Once you get above a 165 — and we’re talking science here, this is straight from the incredibly big brains at the Law School Admissions Council — your chances are very high that you will decrease your score on a retake. It’s the law of regression to the mean.

TLS: I feel like I mostly hear of people going up, though?

Yeah, I don’t think they tell you when they go down. They go down. And again, if you have a 168, and you take it again and get a 169, that’s not going to help you.

TLS: For those on the waitlist, how frequently is too frequently to update you on interest / new LSAT scores/ awards etc?

It is helpful. When the time comes for us to make an offer from the waitlist, we’re hoping to give it to someone who really wants it. We’re hoping to be able to make someone happy. It’s embarrassing and uncomfortable for us to call someone who’s clearly not interested.

That said, you don’t have to tell us every three minutes that you are interested. I guess I’d say every couple weeks is a nice amount. It doesn’t have to be “I still am interested.” We actually solicit input through the summer, so you could wait for those, too. Certainly if you have new information, send it along. Or if someone wants to write a recommendation letter on your behalf, that is helpful to know.

All that said, it is not absolutely required that you do it. We certainly make offers to people who haven’t contacted us because we’re very interested in what they have to bring to the class, for example. But I don’t see how it could ever hurt you, assuming that you’re doing it in a normal way and we haven’t gotten a restraining order.

TLS: How do you value graduate work and graduate GPA?

We do value graduate work — the ability to well in other graduate work is certainly an indication that you can perform well in a professional school like Michigan. As with all other things, it depends on: What is the discipline? What is the school?

In terms of graduate GPA: Not much weight, because unlike with undergraduate GPAs, where we get a lot of information from the LSAC about the mean of the individual school and the patterns over the person’s career versus the overall patterns at that school, we don’t get any information like that at the graduate level. There are graduate programs where the most common grade is an A. So if you get all A’s, I don’t know if you’re in that kind of program. It’s more the fact of your having done the graduate work that’s what’s important.

TLS: How important is work experience for those students coming straight out of undergrad? Are students who have had trouble finding internships and held the more "typical" summer jobs (e.g. waiter, bank teller, etc.) at any disadvantage?

You’re talking to a dean of admissions who worked as a CVS technician — that was one of my glamorous jobs — and probably my most glamorous was my two years in a butcher shop. 

I happen to believe that those jobs taught me more about working-world skills than any other experiences I could have had. I am very impressed by people who have managed to sustain that kind of job, and I feel like they’re going to have had a maturing experience. I’m also impressed though by people who have fancy internships, not because I think that their 8 weeks in the internship probably taught them a ton; it will have taught them something, but usually there’s a lot of vetting that goes on to get those jobs, so that tells me that someone else who sees a lot of applications, a lot of talented young people vetted a group and came up with Student A to be their intern, so that’s impressive.

I would like to see a job where you could have been fired. I’d like to see that you didn’t get fired — or even if you did get fired. Sometimes people get fired, but I think that’s a very important developmental experience for people, that you have a job where you have to please someone else, and where if you don’t, the forces of the private sector are going to throw you out on your rear end. I think that’s really helpful. Even if you got fired I think that really teaches people something.

TLS: Suppose a freshman in college has his heart set on attending law school. What advice do you give him, re: choosing his major, what to do during summers, and extracurricular involvement?

I really think you should choose the major that speaks to you. If you are really interested in pursuing anthropology, it would be silly to be a poli sci major simply because you know that poli sci majors are one of the most common majors in law school. Do what it is that speaks to you and do well in it. Any major can prepare you for law school — it’s more important that what you’re doing is challenging yourself within the major and without. Don’t confine yourself to courses in your major — we look to the whole curriculum to see how adept you are at stretching yourself to other disciplines. 

Other things you should do: You should certainly be doing something every summer. You shouldn’t be sitting around and saying boy I really need to relax in between school years. School is hard — I can see why people might think that’s a perfectly reasonable choice to make, and it is, but you know, it doesn’t make you stand out in a law school application to do that.

If you have to earn money, that’s fine — you should just be earning money. But it is also impressive if you can combine what you need to do, in terms of earning money, with some effort to explore your interest in the law. So maybe you could volunteer two hours a week at the American Civil Liberties Union answering phones or at legal services in whatever town you’re in, or any one of a jillion non-profit legal organizations. Or you could try to get an internship for a few weeks so you could still earn money for the bulk of the summer. That would be, I think, a smart and impressive thing to do. Or you can try to find a job doing clerical work at a law office, which isn’t going to tell you too much about being a lawyer, but it’ll tell you a little and it will also start expanding your network of people in the legal profession.

Get involved. I just like seeing people have some interest outside their grades during the school year. It tells me 1) that they are well-rounded and 2) that they have the ability to handle multiple tasks which is key to being a lawyer.

TLS: How often do you put down a personal statement and think “Wow?” Are there any attributes that such statements share?

I definitely do think “Wow,” I mean, it is my favorite part in the file. Of course, sometimes the “wow” is [sad head shaking] not the kind of wow you’re hoping to elicit.

Say I’m doing 40 first reads; maybe 2 out of those 40 are going to be “wow” personal statements.

What makes those stand out? One is just that they are well written and well expressed. Two is that they are just good stories. You’re telling a story here; I don’t mean it in a fictional sense, a huge part of lawyering is being a persuasive writer so you have to figure out what’s going to appeal to a reader; what’s going to draw him in.

Sometimes it’s not that it’s an amazing personal tale, it’s more that it’s incredibly well-expressed and clever in the sense of they have drawn together the many separate threads of their application and brought it all together in a coherent package. That’s just impressive.

TLS: Which of these personal statement themes should be avoided? Or, is there any way to make any of them work? 1. I just broke up with my significant other and it changed my life 2. I spent a semester in Florence and it opened up my eyes 3. I have the entire DVD collection of law and order and I’m a really good writer and I could beat you in argument and I’m going to be the best lawyer ever 4. I want to change the world.

Actually I think only one of them is a dead loser, and that’s number three. I guess I can imagine anything working with enough humor, so even number three, if you have some sense of humor about it… could work. But it is the one where we see a fair amount of this theme and it almost never works.

Topic one: I can imagine that working but it almost never does because I want to hear about you, and not about your love life. It does make you sound like you haven’t evolved beyond it, like you haven’t processed it. It’s just a little embarrassing.

Now the semester of Florence, people can actually do that quite well sometimes, and I find it very charming. If what they’re saying is I was relatively inexperienced or uncultured and I saw this glimpse of another life and it really did open my eyes, I think that can be expressed quite well.

I want to change the world topic: If you’ve got anything to back that up, I want you to change the world too, and I’d love for you to do it with a Michigan Law degree, so that’s okay with me. But you have to have some content there.

All of this should be taken with a huge grain of salt because I only know one law school; I only really know me and my own idiosyncrasies. I talk to lots of other law school admissions deans, but I don’t sit with them while they read files. It occasionally will come to our attention that you have admitted this person and I have admitted this person or you denied this person and I admitted this person and vice versa; we’ll sometimes find this out, so you can learn a little bit about other people’s predilections.

Plus for all my hard-and-fast rules, there are exceptions. One hard-and-fast rule I’d say is never ever ever start your essay with a Robert Frost “The Road Less Traveled” quote — never do that — but I did admit someone this year who did that, because he used it very well and very cleverly in a way I’d never seen before. But law school’s really not the road less traveled, so don’t start your essay that way.

TLS: Is it okay to write a “Why Michigan?” essay on some non-academic factor? For example, for students who aren’t sure where they want to focus and cannot recite the scholarship of certain faculty members, would it be silly to write the essay based on geographic, anecdotal, or “gut feeling” factors? Similarly, can you tell when a student has taken to the website and — excuse my language — “bullshitted” about a subject they hoped would sound impressive?

It’s absolutely fine to talk about a non-academic factor. I think that’s really helpful for us to know. And yes, I do like to think we can really tell when someone is just miming our language from the website. And it’s just not worth it write one if it’s pro forma (as we say in the law). You shouldn’t do it. It is helpful to write an optional essay just because sometimes people blow it on the personal statement and that extra essay really gives me an important piece of information.

TLS: But like, what about “I like to go to dinner with my family on Sundays” or something?


But I just want to say those optional essays can really help you, because I think the personal statement’s tricky and the directed format of a particular question often allows people to shine in a way they can’t in a personal statement.

TLS: So my application goes complete. What happens next?

There are three people who could be first readers, but by and large there is one person who is the principle first reader; we’ve just devolved this over the years. She was a Math major here at U of M undergrad, was a law student here, and she’s incredibly bright and incredibly insightful. And she’s the rare individual who can handle reading about 250 applications a week as her full time job.

I disagree with her a lot and she disagrees with me a lot but that’s actually great because it makes me second-guess myself and I think makes me make better decisions and it makes her second guess her own biases.

Usually she’ll read it first and then bring it to me and I will read it and make a decision.

We do it all on paper. She writes notes — both substantive and qualitative notes. So she’ll write “Rec letter from…Sarah Zearfoss.” And then she’ll say what she thinks of the rec letter.  And then she’ll do the same thing for everyone else. So I’ll look at her notes and then start flipping through myself.

The biggest area of disagreement for us is usually on the personal statement, which should give some comfort to applicants to know that I don’t think there is any right kind of personal statement. I think there are always the very very best and the very very worst — we always agree on those — and then there’s everything in the middle, where we might read it in different ways and we come to better decisions by hearing each others points of view.

TLS: So it’s mostly just the two of you reading, then?

It’s mostly the two of us, and then we send on files to faculty members for scholarships. We pull them and suggest them and they make decisions on who will get them — just for the Darrow scholarships, which is our full scholarship. Very few people get those.

TLS: Let’s talk about Michigan’s crappy economy.

First of all, I’m really impressed with the university, which has had — as one might expect from a public institution — very conservative and sensible money managers. For a couple years before this all fell apart, you saw a lot of stories about elite private institutions and the huge gains they were making in their portfolios and you’re here at Michigan and you think “Wow, that’s really impressive” and “I feel sad that that’s not us.” And now you think “Aha!” Wow, how clever those people with the money were actually, because we are not hurting. I mean, everyone’s hurting, but we didn’t lose anything like the people who made the huge gains.

[Regarding the endowment, many schools will determine the amount of money used from the endowment on year-to-year returns.] Michigan is one of the very few schools who averages over 7 years, so you have a very consistent amount that you’re taking out every year. So the highs are not so high, the lows are not so low, so as a result we don’t have the volatility of a year-to-year system.

The Law school has done incredibly well. We raised a lot of money in the campaign that just finished and we have great money management and we have a very sensible dean. So we have not been hurt. And the law school itself gets almost no money from the money the state gives to the University, so we are even more insulated.

All that said, it is definitely of a concern to us how our state does, and again, Ann Arbor has been in this bubble so you’re here and you’re seeing construction and you’re seeing people in restaurants, so things are good here. But it can’t be forever the state of Michigan is suffering and Ann Arbor goes merrily along its way — we are in the midst of this.

I do think if it were to go on for ten more years, we would really feel it, but I also don’t think it will go on ten more years, I really think we are seeing changes. I think we’re being positioned for strength in the next few years. And we at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor will weather this just fine as a result.

TLS: Another concern is that if the perception is that our state is in trouble, students and faculty won’t want to come here.

That’s absolutely true. We’re lucky because Ann Arbor is, itself, really wonderful and I think our challenge is to get people here. And I think people really turn around. I’m from the East Coast originally, so I am well aware of the snobbish view of the middle of the country that you find on the coasts. And it really does require getting people to come here to see what it’s like, and to see what an incredibly pleasant place Ann Arbor is to be a student, whether it’s a graduate student or an undergraduate student. It’s affordable, it’s manageable, it’s not crowded, it’s not crime-ridden, there’s a lot of culture — it’s a fantastic place to be.

TLS: What are you doing to retain competitive faculty and keep them from being “poached” by other elite law schools? In which areas are we looking to hire faculty? Are we hiring?

We have a program now where entering students are going to wash the faculty’s cars. I hope that’s not off-putting to anyone.

No, we have had such a great hiring year, partly because we’re in this very strong economic situation, vis-à-vis our peer schools. It’s very unusual that anyone we make an offer to isn’t getting offers from all the best law schools in the country, and of course that just decreases the chances that they’ll take our offer just because they have so many offers to choose from (not because Ann Arbor’s not great, of course.) This is a rare year where people might only have two other offers instead of ten other offers.

We have had a fantastic hiring year, both in terms of lateral faculty and in terms of entry-level, and I am so excited about some of the people who are going to be on our faculty.

We’ve particularly had some really good international law hires, antitrust, legal history — it’s just very exciting.

Now the poaching question is a little different, because this is a great year in that nobody has any money so nobody’s getting poached.

But it is an important fact of life that being a great law school means that at any given moment, virtually anyone on our faculty can pick up the phone and get an offer from some other great law school, and that has always been the case and it always will be the case. And Ann Arbor has always had something of a disadvantage of location. Ann Arbor is very appealing for many people, but there are often people for whom it isn’t appealing.

How do we combat it? We combat it by being as great as we can be at the things we do well. There isn’t a single person on this faculty — including the ones who have left — who wouldn’t say this isn’t an unbelievably collegial faculty. There are definitely schools where there is one orthodoxy, one way of thinking that is acceptable, and if you are not on that page, you are marginalized. That has never been the case here. There are definitely schools where there are the elite superstar professors who are quoted in the paper and then there’s the riff raff below and they get trodded upon. That has never been the case here — well partly that’s a Midwestern thing. I mean there’s just this ethos of egalitarianism that I love, and the more I learn about other schools, the more I love it here.

It’s a really great place to work as a result. I’ve never seen anyone leave here who wasn’t happy with Michigan, they left for other reasons, so it doesn’t really hurt us too much when that’s the case.

TLS: How have applications been this cycle, in terms of volume?

About flat, to down a couple percentage points. Frankly, the news about the state of Michigan can’t have helped our application numbers from outside the state. People who know the state aren’t troubled because they know that Ann Arbor is in good shape. People who didn’t, quite understandably, might have said that doesn’t seem like a good time to explore that place.

Returns are still coming in, but I think we’re going to have a great year in terms of the people coming; people who I was really hoping to get.

TLS: Are there really individual people who you want to get?

Yes, definitely — people who I really think will make a difference. I definitely have people every year who I really want to come.

TLS: What factors go into determining scholarship money? Has the pool of available funds increased or decreased in recent years?

The pool has not changed. We have experimented in recent years with how we distribute it to try and achieve our overall goals for enrolling a class.

In large measure, LSAT and GPA are big components of how we distribute the money. But we also pay attention to what the schools that we compete with give out and we allow people who don’t make our initial criteria to let us know about those offers and sometimes we try to compete with those.

We also give out need-based aid for people who are coming from really tough economic circumstances and who don’t meet either of those other two categories. And then there are the Darrows, which are merit-scholarships where LSAT and GPA certainly play a role, but it’s something much more than that. It’s such a small handful of people. They have to be very bright, but there is neither a floor nor a ceiling for the LSAT and GPA on that — it’s really more what will this person bring that is completely different and special, and we get some very interesting and unusual people.

TLS: What about retaking the LSAT in June to try for some (or some more) scholarship money?

By the time we get to June we have given out our money and we expect you to have made your choices and we usually don’t have anything more that we can do.

I will say this about money. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have merit scholarships — or maybe we’d have a few Darrows — what we would have is a more affordable law school system. That said, people who graduate from here typically go on to earn very large salaries or qualify for our debt management program, where we pay back your loans.

It’s something we’re all very conscious of here and we’re thinking about it a lot. And while I don’t think the rankings have affected our admissions systems I do think it has affected the way we give out financial aid. It’s a very difficult circumstance.

TLS: Any updates on the new building? When should that be complete?

The student center on the quad should be finished before you graduate for sure — I think it’s two years that it will be finished. And then the new building might be finished before you graduate but it might be finished right after. They haven’t completely come up with timeline yet.

TLS: All my life I’ve wanted to do X specialty program / Y Clinic, and Z law school is the best for that. But I really want to go to Michigan, even though they aren’t known for their X program or Y Clinic. What should I do?

Mostly my advice is to go to the school that you think is a great fit. If they don’t teach it at all — like, if you really want to do equine law, Michigan doesn’t teach that, so you better go to a school that has a course in that. Maybe that’s not even true. The glorious thing about being a lawyer is that you can teach yourself almost anything.

You don’t need to have taken any particular doctrine in order to practice that doctrine — you need to have learned how to be a great lawyer. And you can learn a lot about various disciplines of the law by studying other disciplines, because laws work very similarly in different fields, and it’s really more about understanding the logic of the law and the ways laws work and the way you use laws that you learn in law school versus learning a particular code.

All that said, I think it is really important to get on a website of a law school and look at their curriculum. What courses do they offer in a typical year or two years? Is there enough there? Do I want to take 20 courses there? If I do, I’m fine, it doesn’t matter that I’m not taking clinic X or clinic Y — I just need to be able to be happy there. If it looks like a curriculum that’s really weighted toward something you have no interest in, then you should be very cautious, and maybe it would not be a good fit there.

I can’t name any other schools because it just sounds terrible and it’s totally unfair but you definitely find schools that are really known for a particular expertise and they tend not to be schools that overall offer as many advantages or options career-wise as a school like Michigan. That might make sense if that’s really the only thing in the world you’re interested in, but if it’s not, then you’re better off going to the school you love.