Interview with Stephen Brown, Associate Dean of Admissions at the Fordham University School of Law

Published November 2009 thanks Stephen Brown, Associate Dean of Admissions at the Fordham University School of Law, for kindly taking the time to answer the following questions.

The Admissions Process

TLS: What does the admissions process consist of, and how is an application rated?

We begin each evaluation with the personal statement. Reading personal statements is like opening presents! Every personal statement is read, no matter the applicants’ numbers. Fordham had applicants last year with LSAT scores ranging from 136-180, and every single application is reviewed.

The personal statement can make or break an application. This is a chance for applicants to introduce themselves. It’s like a first date! Fordham received some 8,600 applications this past cycle. Every year hits a new record. Students need to set themselves apart, but avoid arrogance or entitlement. It’s also a bad idea to tell Fordham how much you want to attend BU (or any other school). Attention to detail is crucial in this profession.

The school is looking for strong students who will be socially active, engaged, and a pleasure to have on campus.

TLS: Realistically speaking, how large a part of the admissions process are factors other than a candidate’s GPA and LSAT scores? Of these non-numerical factors, are there any that particularly pique your interest (military service, corporate work experience, Teach for America, etc.)? Can you give examples of what you see as excellent, good, and mediocre non-numerical attributes or accomplishments?

Fordham students are smart, but they’re not pure intellect. The school seeks out mature students who are in touch with the world, and have given law school real thought. Work experience, military service, and Teach for America are all very desirable. Obviously the rankings matter, but the school seeks to admit unusual candidates, and others who will add color to the class. Somewhere in this year’s entering class is a tugboat captain. There are artists, musicians, and students with work experience in a wide range of fields. Any activities that demonstrate a sense of social engagement are looked upon favorably.

TLS: Do you have any advice for students preparing to apply to law school?

Apply early! This is my number one piece of advice. Fordham has rolling admissions, and serious candidates should take advantage of Early Action. Students should aim to have their applications complete before Thanksgiving for the best chance at admission.

Applicants should also remember the rules of etiquette. I am looking for students I would want to hang out with. Don’t lie, and don’t be arrogant! Fordham has rejected multiple people with very high numbers because they came across as obnoxious in their personal statements. Applicants also need to consider their online activities. Sometimes message boards can be less than anonymous. Don’t trash the school online, and be a class act on TLS. Yes, I follow it occasionally, though I don’t attempt to figure out whom students are, unless they are beyond obvious.

TLS: What do you consider to be the most important factors an admitted applicant should examine when choosing which law school to attend?

I urge students to visit, and get a sense of each school. When I was considering a position at Fordham, I spent a great deal of time here, talking to students and faculty. I got a true sense of the school, and the “feel” here, which was magical. That was eight years ago, and I’ve been very happy since.

Students absolutely need to visit, if they can, to make the best-informed decision. Intangibles matter.

TLS: How does Fordham view multiple LSAT scores?

Fordham looks at all LSAT scores, but reports the highest. There is no denying that USNews matters to us, but the students matter more. We take a lot of small splitters, but most students are near our medians. (166/3.66 as of the latest report.)

TLS: In what circumstances should an applicant include an addendum to explain his or her low GPA or LSAT score? What should this addendum include?

An addendum should be short and direct. Don’t whine! Be forthright, and use your judgment, if there is something about your application you feel the school should know.

TLS: The number of applications to law schools in general increased last application cycle, and many expect growth in applications to be even more pronounced during the upcoming cycle. Is Fordham expecting and making preparations for an unusually high number of applicants in the 2009-2010 cycle?

We are expecting an increase in the number of applicants, but not to an astronomical degree. The number of applicants grows by around 500 each year, but the nature of this decision is changing. Law school is not inexpensive. It’s an investment, and people take it more seriously. I’m expecting to see fewer people reflexively applying during their senior year of college.

Take some time off. Give this some thought, and make sure law school is where you truly want to be. The school seeks to admit people who want to be here.

Applications were up 5% this year, and should also be up next year.

Financial Aid

TLS: What percentage of students receives scholarships of any kind, and what methodology determines to whom scholarships are awarded? What about scholarships for 2Ls and 3Ls who might not have received any scholarship aid during 1L?

About 38% of Fordham students receive some type of financial aid. About half is need based, and half is granted based on merit (IE: LSAT/GPA).

The bad news is that there are very few new scholarships for 2Ls and 3Ls, who received no aid their first year, though some do exist. Merit awards are guaranteed for all three or four years. Need based aid is reviewed based on summer earnings. Last summer we had students earning in excess of $36,000 for the summer.

Applying Early

TLS: Do applicants, especially those with numbers that fall below Fordham’s medians, increase their chances of admission by applying early? Is there anything that an applicant whose numbers are below your medians can do that would increase their chances of acceptance?

Applying Early Action can be a real help to any candidate to improve his or her chances of admission. Personal statements are more interesting when we have more time to spend with them.

Personal Statements

TLS: Do you have any general advice regarding personal statements for applicants who want to maximize their chances?

Tell us a story! What are you passionate about? Whatever excites you… Write us a poem! Fordham appreciates creativity, but don’t be weird. Remember, this is like a first date. What constitutes weird? One woman laid down on butcher paper and painted her personal statement on her body. We didn’t admit her. We’ve also been sent a board game about the admissions process, and a shoe, from someone operating a shoe factory in a developing country. The shoe was kind of cool, though.

Please don’t send us videos or books.

TLS: Could an applicant significantly improve his or her chances of admission by drafting a personal statement specifically for Fordham, as opposed to a general personal statement that briefly mentions Fordham, if at all?

This may or may not be helpful. It should go without saying that a Fordham applicant wants to attend Fordham. If you have something specific and detailed to say, though, do so.

TLS: Do you come across personal statements that actually hurt the applicant’s chances? If so, what are some traits of these statements? Are there any clichés or pitfalls an applicant should avoid? How often do you find statements that really stick out from the crowd, and what do these statements consist of?

Don’t be arrogant! In reviewing a personal statement, I ask myself, “Would I want to hang out with this person?” If the answer is no, he or she is likely to be rejected, regardless of LSAT/GPA. We’ve rejected many people with 170+, for being completely obnoxious, and taken interesting people with much lower scores. Don’t be afraid of creativity, but remember your intended audience. Intolerance is another red flag. Grammar and spelling count, and a 6 point font is hard to read!

Letters of Recommendation

TLS: Applicants often have difficulty choosing and approaching potential recommenders. Can you offer some general advice regarding letters of recommendation?

Fordham does not require letters of recommendation. We find that they are usually too generic to be of use, and often the recommender barely knows the applicant. If there is a perceived weakness in the application, however, it can be useful to have a recommender explain it. If there are real strengths or things that the recommender an so to add to the student’s story – that is a plus

TLS: Does the admissions committee come across letters of recommendation that actually hurt an applicant’s chances of admission? If so, what sort of letter should be avoided? How often do you find letters that really stick out from the crowd, and what do these letters consist of?

Students need to ask their recommenders whether they can write something positive! Every year, there are a handful of letters stating: “I do not recommend this person.” It’s not an auto-ding, but it does make us take a hard look at the applicant. We usually call the recommenders to confirm that they actually wrote these negative letters.

Undergraduate & Graduate Education

TLS: How much will an upward grade trend positively influence the likelihood of admission?

Upward grade trends are taken into consideration. I understand that some people scramble to find their footing in college, and this is something we all can relate to.

TLS: Do you consider the relative prestige or rank of an applicant’s undergraduate institution? What about the relative difficulty of an applicant’s undergraduate major?

The quality of the education is more important than the pedigree! Fordham’s top feeder schools are Cornell, Columbia, NYU, and Fordham. The school has admitted military veterans with online degrees, as long as the schools are accredited. There have been admitted students from Empire State (The SUNY system’s college for working adults) as well as specialized schools like FIT (The Fashion Institute of Technology.)

Fordham likes music performance majors; these people tend to outperform their GPAs and LSATs, as do engineering majors, and students who majored in the hard sciences.

TLS: How do you view graduate degrees, and do you take graduate GPA into consideration?

Graduate degrees are a plus. They bring diversity of experience to the class, and show us that students take their education seriously.

The Waitlist

TLS: What is the typical size of the Fordham waitlist, and how deep do you usually go into the waitlist to admit students? Once on the waitlist, are there any steps applicants can take to increase their chances of getting in?

There is so much mythology surrounding the Fordham waitlist. To begin with, the school doesn’t control it. Movement is controlled by the number of students who accept our offer and deposit. Because so many people double and triple deposit, it’s hard to get a sense of the true yield. Please don’t do this!

There was a good amount of movement in the evening division this year, but very little in day. This is likely because we were unable to offer evening students as much financial aid. This is something we’d like to remedy in the future. USNews now ranks both programs together, which has had some effect on part-time medians. Day medians remained essentially the same, but the evening 25th/75th percentiles were 161/165. The median was 163… we were about one student away from a median of 164!

We’d like to maintain our rank, but Fordham won’t game the rankings. We aim to be auditable, and as transparent as possible.

How should students get off the waitlist? Communicate! Nearly everyone we admitted from the waitlist had emailed us. Visiting can be a plus, followed by email, since not everyone lives close enough to visit. Don’t be obnoxious, though. Don’t call three times a day! I have had students name dropping their credentials over the phone, and asking why so and so got in with X LSAT and GPA when they didn’t. Don’t do this. The legal world is small.

Be enthusiastic but sincere. At the end of August, it’s fine to send an email every week, but you don’t need to contact us on a daily basis.

Transfer Students

TLS: How many transfer applications does Fordham Law School typically receive, and what percentage are offered admission? What are the main factors taken into consideration in reviewing a transfer application?

Fordham doesn’t take too many transfer students. There were 31 this year, but 15-20 is more typical. We don’t want to rob any school of all its best students, which is why transfer admissions can be so competitive. We saw people with amazing GPAs this year, but we still seek to admit interesting students, and will sometimes take people with slightly lower grades who have other things to offer.

TLS: How many students typically transfer out of Fordham each year? What are the reasons behind these transfers, and are there specific schools the transfer students are going to?

We lose 15 or so in a typical year, mostly for reasons of geography. Most of our top students are very happy here, and can secure whatever type of employment they might be looking for. People don’t want to leave their friends and established social networks without good reason. There is a real plus to being at the top of any class.

The USNWR Rankings

TLS: Whether for good or for ill, a lot of applicants take a close look into the US News and World Report Law School Rankings, and factor those rankings into their decision making process. Does this pressure the admissions office into being more numbers driven than they would like to be?

Yes, the rankings matter, but we would rather have interesting students, so we do sometimes admit individuals with lower numbers. This is the value added of starting with personal statements, rather than numbers. We want to admit smart people who have lives and social skills. Involvement in clubs, community service, and leadership on campus or at work shows us that students are more than a composite of their numbers. There is a reason admissions decisions are made by committees of humans, and not by spreadsheets.

Fordham Law School Distinctions

TLS: What do you feel students enjoy most about Fordham Law School?

The other students! Students also come here for the faculty, including the adjuncts, practicing attorneys and judges who often teach classes in the clinical program. Fordham offers a range of clinics, from mediation to criminal defense, and students really love the clinics.

TLS: What is the chief critique that current students have about the law school and what is being done to address this concern?

Sometimes students gripe about technology, particularly wireless service on campus, but we’re improving as we speak. We have a new administrative computer system, which should go a long way toward addressing concerns. Students don’t complain too much, though. At a recent SBA student leaders’ meeting, people were mainly upset that the trash didn’t get cleaned up often enough.

TLS: A lot of students who gain an acceptance from Fordham will likewise receive offers of admission from other very good schools, like George Washington and Boston College. What distinguishes Fordham from similarly ranked urban schools?

We do get a lot of cross admits, and we tell people that the networking in NYC really is a strong selling point. The students here are smart, but real. We want students to be happy with their choice, though, no matter the choice they make. Fordham is an excellent choice for access to the NYC market. The school also has a unique feel. I would urge our admitted students to visit!

TLS: Is it a good idea for students who may wish to practice in smaller legal markets, such as those in the Midwest or Northwest, to attend Fordham instead of more regional schools, even if these regional schools may be of a lower tier?

Fordham students overwhelmingly self select for the NYC market. Some 96-97% indicate on employment surveys that they wish to practice here. Only about half come from in state, though, and there are active alumni chapters all around the country. The Bay Area is particularly active. The degree does travel, but we have a hard time getting people to leave. We try to send people home (after they graduate, that is!) Fordham has a huge alumni base, with graduates practicing in Boston, Miami, San Francisco, Palo Alto, and even Detroit. This alumni base is a wonderful resource for students and graduates.


TLS: What type of debt and employment situation is the typical Fordham law student going to be in after graduating near the median of his or her class?

In 2008, the average student with debt (about 80% borrow) owed about $103,000. In 2009, it was about $109,000.

In 2008, the average salary was $131,477. The median was $160,000. 87% of graduates reported salary data.

In this economy, the model may be different, since firms have slashed their hiring, and are deferring new associates. It’s bad. I’m not going to lie, but it’s not a cause for freaking out. There are still options available to students.

TLS: There’s some concern about New York City being a saturated legal market, which didn’t fare very well in this latest recession. Some students worry that Fordham Law graduates might get crowded out by graduates of top 5 schools like Harvard, Columbia, and NYU. Has this ever been an issue and do you foresee it becoming one, given the state of the legal market during this recession?

Last year, around 88% of Fordham students stayed in the mid-Atlantic region for their first job. There is a definite concern that big firms are rethinking the way in which they hire. New York City is the biggest legal market in the country, and it’s been hit hard. Students are worried, and justifiably so, but every market is cyclical. This economy won’t last forever. There are other options available. More students are taking government jobs and clerkships, sometimes in geographic regions where they hadn’t thought of working. Students are branching out to other markets and other states.

Fordham students are still well represented in big NYC firms. Our alumni network is vast. Fordham’s NYC placement exceeds that of all but five T14s, by absolute numbers, owing in part to the school’s size. We’re a large school, which works to the benefit of the students. Fordham has great name recognition, and employers know that Fordham students receive practical training in addition to instruction in legal theory.

General Advice

TLS: Do you have any additional, general advice that you would like to offer applicants who are reading this interview before putting together applications for the Fordham University School of Law?

Apply early, and take the application process seriously! Research the school, and proofread your personal statement to be sure you don’t come across as arrogant. Don’t be boring! Invest time in your application, and pay attention to detail. Applying early is a real plus, as is staying in contact with us if you are on the waitlist.

We believe this school is a welcoming community, and a great place to learn how to think like a lawyer. Fordham students are smart, but real. They’re strong academically, but they haven’t been #1 in everything since pre-school. They’re still in the top tenth of their classes, and they tend to be resourceful and creative. Fordham students make great lawyers. Employers know this and are eager to hire our alumni.