Interview with Former Dean Victoria Ortiz UC Irvine School of Law

Published April 2009, last updated July 2009

Top Law Schools: Dean Victoria Ortiz, thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts and insight on the admissions process at UC Irvine School of Law. There is a lot of interest on TLS regarding the opening of UC Irvine School of Law and I appreciate your allowing TLS members to learn more about the law school and its admissions process.

TLS: How would you describe the ideal candidate for UC Irvine School of Law?

I guess I would start this answer by saying that there is no one ideal type.  If there were, the law school community we would create at UCI would be incredibly boring, with everyone being the same, albeit “ideal.” 

We seek to bring together at the law school a community of bright, engaged, academically talented, risk-taking students.  Even in our second, third, fourth years of operation, we will still be a new law school and therefore our students will need to be people who are as excited about institution-building as they are about studying law.

TLS: Realistically speaking, how large a part of the admissions process are factors other than a candidate's GPA and LSAT score? Of these non-numerical factors, are there any that particularly pique your interest (Teach for America/Peace Corps, corporate work experience, military service, etc.)?

The non-numerical factors are tremendously important in our assessment or evaluation of a candidate’s file.  I cannot overstate that point.  People, applicants, are not simply a combination of two numbers, with a little bit added on. 

Our strongest applicants first jump off the page because of the quality of their self-presentation, through the application form and the personal and other statements.  That is what the file-reader reviews first, before even looking at LSAT score and GPA.  So what we see off the bat is what the applicant wants to emphasize to us about herself/himself.  We learn about the applicant through a well crafted resume, a personal statement that grabs the reader and makes him/her want to meet the person, and strong and descriptive letters of recommendation. 

The most impressive non-numerical factors?  Again, there is no rule here.  Since we are seeking a richly diverse class, we are as moved by evidence of consistent and committed public interest or volunteer work as we are by someone who raised a family while earning a bachelor’s degree, someone who went back to school after being a scientist or business person, someone who clearly excelled academically in a wide variety of subject areas.

TLS: Is there any advantage to applying early?

Absolutely.  I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to view “deadline” as a sort of warning date that indicates “if I apply by the deadline, it is really too late.” 

Law schools generally start reviewing files on about October 1 of each year.  Admission decisions can be made as early as November.  Obviously, at the beginning of the process there are fewer applicants competing for the available spots.  By the end of the process, the entire pool of applicants is in play.  The danger in applying later in the process is that the class may be full or near full already.

TLS: How does the quality of one's undergraduate school factor into the admissions process? If the undergraduate institute's prestige is a factor, what is the "cutoff" below which a school fails to affect the admissions Richter Scale?

I cannot speak for other law schools, of course, but as far as we are concerned at UC Irvine School of Law, we do not feel it is our place to weight the applicants’ undergraduate institutions or to somehow value some of these more than others.  What matters, what we look at, is the performance of each individual applicant, the nature of their academic trajectory (started weak, got consistently stronger through the semesters; or showed great strength all the way through; or consistent performance with some dips along the way; etc.). 

TLS: How, if at all, will an upward grade trend in an applicant's GPA be viewed in the admissions process?

An upward grade trend is a good thing!!  It is evidence of the applicant’s “getting it” at a certain point.  It’s probably a good idea for an applicant with a noticeable upward trend to append a statement explaining the circumstances of the weaker early performance and what allowed for the upward trend.

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 (old SAT/PSAT scores, etc.)?

To some degree, this is a decision each applicant has to make.  Even someone with a 3.9 might feel that s/he actually could have performed or should have earned a 4.0 and might want to provide some sort of explanation.  But frankly, strong numbers only require explanations if they were earned under incredibly adverse circumstances and the applicant wants to point out how remarkable it is that even under such circumstances s/he was able to maintain or achieve strong numbers.

If the applicant has a history of performing weakly on standardized tests while doing very well in the classroom (as evidenced through strong grades in demanding courses), then it is an excellent idea to provide evidence of that in an addendum.  Applicants are encouraged to request their old SAT/PSAT scores from ETS and submit them along with the addendum.

TLS: How does UCI regard applicants with multiple LSAT scores?

We take the higher score in cases where an applicant has taken the LSAT more than once.  I actually strongly discourage applicants from retaking the test, unless the conditions under which the first test was taken were somehow remarkable (the person was sick, had just gone through some personal trauma, had not taken a prep course at all, etc.).  After having read thousands and thousands of applicant files, I can say with confidence that only a handful actually are able to improve their scores significantly, say increasing them by 10 or more points. 

TLS: Can you offer any advice on the best way for a student to write a resonant personal statement?

First of all, the personal statement should be an authentic piece.  Although applying to law school is a very time-consuming activity and most students apply to many, many law schools, it is a good idea to attempt to tailor the personal statement to the school to which it is being sent.  And I don’t mean tailor by simply putting in the name of the law school (“I want to study at *** School of Law because…”)  I mean showing the reader that the applicant has understood what characterizes each particular law school and can address in the statement why s/he would be a perfect candidate for that school.

If it is too onerous for an applicant to do this, minimally s/he should take great care and be thoughtful in writing the all-purpose statement.  I encourage applicants to write several drafts.  Put it aside.  Revisit it a few days later.  Revise it again.  While it is good to show it to friends or family for proof reading, it is a bad idea to have too many eyes reviewing it if these people are all suggesting different approaches, different changes.  The statement is the applicant’s opportunity to introduce him or herself to the admissions committee members; it is an interview on paper.  So it has to be the applicant’s absolutely authentic voice.

TLS: With regard to the personal statement, can you stipulate any pitfalls or clichés an applicant should avoid?

Do not repeat in narrative form what is on your resume.  Do not use a commercial, canned statement.  Do not have someone else write it for you. 

Each admissions person can come up with pet peeves in this area.  One of these is beginning a personal statement with some version of: “ever since I was five years old I have wanted to be a lawyer.” 

Do not be cute.  Do not submit personal statements in poetry form.  Do not pretend the personal statement is a memorandum of law submitted to a judge. 

Remember that admissions personnel are professionals and the applicant is aspiring to become a professional. The personal statement should reflect this professionalism.

TLS: Does researching UCI and then tailoring the personal statement to UCI increase one’s chance of admissions?

I cannot say this would increase the chance of admissions, since there are so many factors we review in order to reach a decision.  However, as stated above, knowing about the school to which one is applying and showing the admissions personnel that one is familiar with the specific program reveals a seriousness of approach on the part of the applicant that cannot go unnoticed.

In the case of UCI School of Law, we require (and will continue to do so for at least several years) a second statement that addresses the applicant’s reasons for wishing specifically to attend this brand-new school.

TLS: Can you briefly discuss who should write a diversity statement and how much impact such a statement typically has on the admissions process?

Diversity is not a monolithic category.  There are many, many kinds of diversity, because each applicant is different from each other applicant.  Some diversity can be described as ethnic, racial, national, or religious – in other words, identity diversity.  There is also geographic diversity, political diversity, age diversity, gender identity diversity, and sexual orientation diversity, among others.  The diversity statement is a chance for the applicant to show us what is unique about him or her.

TLS: Can you offer any general advice regarding letters of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation from professors who have taught the applicant are by far the best letters to provide.  It is important to remember that even though law school is a professional school, it still involves three years of academic work.  We want to be sure that the applicant has the intellectual make-up, the study habits, the curiosity and level of engagement in ideas that are required of successful law students. 

Letters from employers are ok, but they must focus on describing skills and attributes that are necessary for strong students.  This is not a job application, so punctuality or neatness would only be important, for example, if the writer of the letter can link these to strengths required to be a successful law school student.

Applicants should never submit letters of recommendation from relatives or friends, even if these people can address the applicant’s intellectual and academic strengths.  Likewise, letters from public figures who know the applicant’s family or from neighbors or others who have known the person since she or he was a child are virtually useless unless they actually address the academic matters described above.

TLS: Please discuss the advantages and disadvantages of Irvine as a location for law school.

Southern California is a wonderful area of the country.  The climate is fabulous.  There are beaches, desert, and mountains all within close proximity.

UC Irvine is a bustling and excellent research university, all of whose resources are available to our law students.  The campus is beautiful, graduate student and family housing is extraordinarily comfortable and affordable, the campus’ services for all students are above par.

For students who are uncomfortable outside of urban settings, it is important to know that Irvine is not your typical city.  While it is a thriving community, there is no real downtown.  There are many wonderful places nearby where students can shop, play, walk, and eat.  If you prefer cities like New York, San Francisco, etc., Irvine might be a culture shock.  But remember, Orange County has tremendous diversity and offers a wide range of cultural, social, and recreational opportunities.  Additionally, it is less than an hour from Los Angeles and relatively close to San Diego as well.

TLS: With regard to ranking: As a brand-new law school, UCI faces an uphill struggle to become highly-ranked; however UCI has made a clear impression that they intend to do so (and quickly). Realistically, how soon do you see UCI Law competing with UC Davis, UC Hastings, and even UCLA and USC in the rankings?

We strongly believe that we will be a top 20 school from the first time we are ranked.  Our founding faculty all came from having taught at top 20 law schools.  In fact, when university of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter, on his blog “The Leiter Report,” ranked law schools in terms of faculty scholarly impact, UC IRVINE was number 10, tied with the University of Pennsylvania.  Our entering class of students – as measured by the median LSAT, GPA, and selectivity – are solidly within the top 20 in the country.  We are confident that we will be a top 20 school, by any measure, any time we are ranked.

TLS: Can you briefly discuss any impact (positive or negative) that attending a brand-new law school might have on an applicant seeking employment, especially in this turbulent economy?

We firmly believe that our students, both before and after they graduate, will be exceptionally competitive in the job market, even in a turbulent economy.

First of all, our students will be attending and graduating from a University of California Law School.  Brand-new or not, a law school with such an affiliation starts several paces ahead of many, many other law schools because of the national (indeed international) reputation of the University of California.

Secondly, we have already garnered commitments from over 70 employers – private, public interest, and government – that they will interview our students during on campus interviewing and consider them for employment.

Thirdly, because of our innovative curriculum, which will be emphasizing experiential learning and the integration of practice and theory, our students will be much better prepared for the actual practice of law than most of their counterparts at other law schools, even after only one year of law school.  I predict that when our inaugural class goes to work during their first summer, their employers will be so impressed by their actual lawyering skills, in addition to their intellectual and theoretical strengths, that future job opportunities will be very much available.

And finally, the small size of our inaugural class (and probably of our next two or three classes as well) will mean that these students will be the recipients of a degree of attention by our staff and by the legal, business, and government communities virtually unmatched in recent history. 

TLS: How large do you anticipate the incoming 1L class at UCI Law will be? Is this going to be the standard, or is this likely to change in future years?

At this point, our inaugural class consists of 68 students.  Our target for the future will be classes of 200, but we will approach that figure quite slowly over the next few years.

TLS: What sort of moot court and law review opportunities are in the works?

We certainly will have a law review and a moot court program (both internal and one that competes nationally).  But we will work with our students on developing these.

TLS: What was lacking in the Southern California legal community that convinced UCI to start a law school?

There are three public law schools in Northern California and, until UC Irvine School of Law was founded, only one in Southern California.  At the same time, the region is home to close to two-thirds of the state’s inhabitants, many of whom have critical and as-yet unmet legal needs. In addition, increasing numbers of large corporations are establishing offices in Southern California and national law firms are enlarging their existing local offices or opening new ones. 

In other words, we believe (and the legal community does as well) that Southern California overall will benefit tremendously from the presence of a second great public law school.

TLS: Generous scholarships are being offered to this year's incoming 1L class. Is it safe to say that this will be the case for a few years, or is this a one-shot deal to reward those willing to chance their legal education on a new law school?

It is certainly our goal to provide substantial financial aid to our students in the future.  We are just beginning plans for the class that will be enrolling in august 2010 and expect that there will again be substantial financial aid available, though likely not a full scholarship for every student.  In the long-term, we will provide scholarships based on merit and need.

TLS: Will UCI be accepting transfer students? How will the transfer application process work?

We do not yet know whether we will be accepting transfer students in the fall of 2010.  As soon as we make a decision in that regard, we will post the information on our website.

TLS: How soon does UCI reasonably expect to be fully accredited by the ABA?

We are eligible to apply for provisional accreditation in the spring of 2010 and will be visited the follow academic year (2010-2011).  The school’s application for provisional accreditation will be considered in early 2011.  If provisional accreditation is granted, our students can take the bar exam in any state.  We, of course, cannot guarantee or promise the outcome of this process, but we will do everything possible to ensure our compliance with every ABA requirement for accreditation.

After our inaugural class graduates, in spring 2012, and the graduates take and pass a bar exam and become employed, we will be eligible to apply for full accreditation.  At that time, we would again be visited by an ABA site evaluation team and, if all goes well, we would become fully accredited.

TLS: What is UCI Law's position on diversity in the student body? What, if any, steps are being taken to ensure student diversity (whether that diversity be ethnic, racial, religious, political, geographical, or other criteria)?

As a public institution in California, we are committed to enrolling a class each year that reflects the states richly diverse population.  We have designed and are implementing a far-reaching recruiting strategy that has taken us and will continue to take us to both traditional and non-traditional sources for qualified applicants.  We plan to continue our energetic outreach efforts by visiting more California state university campuses, more small and middle-sized liberal arts colleges throughout the country, more large state universities.  We will meet regularly with prelaw advisors, prelaw societies, and career center personnel.

TLS: How exactly do you plan to create a new model for legal education? UCI's website says that it plans to "build a new school that is relevant to law practice and legal scholarship in the 21st century and that pushes the frontiers of the profession".  How exactly you plan to do that?

Our first-year curriculum will soon be available on our website.  This innovative approach to legal education blends practice into theory, providing experiential approaches to the teaching and learning of legal theory and concepts.  Our first-year students will be trained in many analytical and practical skills which are not traditionally taught in the first year, such as fact investigation, negotiation, interviewing, and the various types of analysis used by lawyers (common law analysis, constitutional analysis, procedural analysis, statutory analysis, etc.)

In addition, we will be requiring all our students to have a clinical experience during their third year.  The required clinical units will be earned by participation in either one of the in-house clinics we are developing or in one of a number of externships with organizations that will partner with us. 

TLS: Approximately what percentage of applicants will be admitted to UCI Law this year? Is this likely to change in the next 2-3 years?

This year we made offers of admission to 4% of our applicants.  We certainly hope and plan to continue to be highly selective in the years ahead.

TLS: Many people (including Brian Leiter) have taken note of the excellent faculty that you've recruited to teach at UCI Law. While the Southern California weather was no doubt a draw, there were inevitable many factors that enabled you to achieve such an impressive feat.  What do you think inspired so many brilliant legal scholars to make a career gamble and switch to UCI?

Aside from the personal reasons each individual faculty member may have had, I think that all of them share in the strong desire to be an integral part of building a new, vibrant institution.  Each member of our faculty is a committed teacher and each of them wants to participate in the creation of an exciting new curriculum.  In addition, all of us, faculty and administrators alike, were drawn here because we wanted to work with Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

TLS: Will the 1L curriculum at UCI consist of any unique classes or seminars beyond the typical 1L bar subjects?

The 1L curriculum will use the traditional courses (torts, contracts, criminal law, etc.) As vehicles for the teaching of essential analytical and practical skills.  In addition, our first year students will be taking a year-long legal skills class, a year-long legal profession class, and a spring-semester course in international legal analysis.

TLS: Will outgoing UCI 1Ls have to take the California "Baby Bar" due to the school's Accreditation situation?

No.  Because we will be applying as early as possible for ABA provisional accreditation, we will not be on a track that would require that our student take the “baby bar.”  They will be able to wait until they graduate and can take the regular bar examination in the state of their choice.

TLS: How likely is a waitlisted student to be admitted to UCI?

It is hard to say at this point.  We don’t have any prior experience upon which to predict this.  Nor have other schools ever done this before.  It is just impossible to predict how many, if any, we will be able to take off the waitlist.

TLS: What steps can a waitlisted student take to improve his or her chances of gaining admission? Is a LOCI (Letter of Continued Interest) recommended? If so, have you any tips on what a student should be sure to include in his or her LOCI?

There is really nothing a waitlisted student need do beyond being sure to let us know that she or he wishes to remain on the waitlist.

TLS: By virtue of the fact that you are devoting your time to this interview (and we at TLS sincerely appreciate your doing so), it is clear that you are aware that a significant percentage of law school applicants spend time in online communities, such as TLS, where they discuss law schools and the applications process. There is a persistent rumor that members of admissions committees browse the forums and, in some cases, what individuals post online might affect (negatively or otherwise) their chances for admission. Can you shed some light on this or provide any specific examples of when this has been the case?

I cannot speak for other admissions personnel, of course.  If I take the time to read the postings, it is generally to get a sense of where the thinking of some applicants or potential applicants is.  Because people do not use their real names, it is not necessarily easy for a law school administrator to figure out who that person is, nor is it really a very significant thing to try to do. 

That said, my serious advice about this type of website and any other where people make public their views about one thing or another, is for applicants to be aware that there is always the possibility they might be identified or identifiable, now or in the future.  As long as the people posting comments do not care who knows their opinions or the manner in which they express them, then there is no problem. 

TLS: Last but not least, is there any general advice you can share with TLS members regarding the law school application process as a whole or even success in law school itself?

1. If at all possible, applicants should visit the law schools to which they are applying and particularly those where they are accepted.  The three years of law school are very intense and stressful and it is important to get a feel for the community in which the applicant/admitted student will be living and the people which whom s/he will be sharing the experience.

2. No one should choose to go to a particular law school solely based on that school’s ranking.  There are many factors that go into having a positive law school experience and most of these are actually not reflected in the ranking.

3. Don’t consider applying to law school as a default choice – oh well, what shall I do after I graduate?  Maybe I'll apply to law school.  Each applicant should research careful both what a legal education entails as well as whether that experience and the professional opportunities a JD degree opens up are good fits with her/his personality, values, capabilities, and goals.