Below is the second part of Vault's interview with admissions expert Anna Ivey—founder of Ivey Consulting, former dean of admissions at University of Chicago Law School, and former attorney at a large law firm—who shares advice on applying to law school, pursuing a nontraditional legal career and working within a university.
Vault Law: As the former Dean of Admissions at University of Chicago Law, you must have seen countless law school applications. What are the biggest mistakes that law-school hopefuls should avoid in the application process?
Anna Ivey: Despite the valiant efforts of admissions officers to give applicants insight about what they're looking for (there are some great blogs out there, like Michigan's and Yale's), the biggest mistake I see is a failure to think -- really think -- about what you are being asked to show them and what you want to say, and then a failure to protect your story from well-meaning but misinformed third parties, especially parents. When application materials read as if they were written by committee, it's often because mom and dad had a hand in them, and those essays-by-committee are pretty blah.
Another mistake is the assumption, perhaps a generational one, that you can write your way around any problems with your application; that you can, in essence, sweet-talk someone into ignoring your sub-par transcript or your sub-par LSAT score or that disciplinary charge in college. Explanatory addendum essays are essential in some situations, but sometimes they do more harm than good. The best ones are an exercise in advocacy, judgment, and persuasion, not sweet talking. Many applicants rely a bit too heavily on what they think is their overall awesomeness, even if they don't have the obvious record to go with it, and they want to write meaningless addendum essays about everything under the sun. They miss the crucial step of answering for law schools, "Why should we discount this factor we have already told you is important to us?" and making a compelling argument. It's not enough just to announce that this thing or that thing doesn't represent your otherwise stellar merits. That kind of approach doesn't work in legal practice either.
And finally, the most widespread problem I have seen and continue to see (and I hear this complaint from current admissions officers as well): mediocre or even poor writing skills. Applicants who seek out opportunities to have their written work rigorously edited and critiqued during college will later have a leg up in the admissions process and beyond. If a professor or a writing center or a tutor is willing to critique your writing skills, take advantage of that offer. And you need to write -- a lot -- to get better at it. It's like practicing the piano.
VL: Do you have any advice for law students or lawyers interested in working in law school admissions or other professional roles within academia?
AI: First I would point out that wanting to work in law school admissions isn't necessarily a good enough reason to go to law school. Law school is too expensive for that. In any event, the top admissions roles don't see a lot of turn-over, and there are only about 200 ABA-approved law schools in the United States. That's a pretty small employment base. It's a wonderful place to end up, but there just aren't that many law school admissions slots to go around.
Over the years I've learned from a number of people that serving as general counsel or outside counsel for a university is a really great job. It's a generalist's dream, because you need insight into litigation, contracts, employment, finance, federal, state and municipal regulations, real property and construction, intellectual property, and many other areas. If a student aspires to that kind of role, I would recommend taking classes on non-profit law and also walking over to the business school for classes on non-profit management (while you're there, learn how to read a financial statement; I would recommend that for any lawyer). Higher ed is an interesting and constantly morphing field for a lawyer. My current home turf, Boston, is a hot spot for that, as you can imagine.
VL: As someone who has pursued an alternative legal career, can you offer any guidance for law students or attorneys interested in veering off the practice track?
AI: Plan your exit strategy, and don't rush into the first opportunity that comes along. If law school was a default choice or the path of least resistance for you, don't repeat the mistake in planning (or failing to plan) your next career move. If you're unhappy in your legal job, that desperation can skew your longer-term thinking, because you're so focused on short-term escape. Make sure you have a financial cushion in place too because you'll be unlikely to earn as much as you do in BigLaw, at least when you're first out of school. I've seen people jump over the fence into higher paying jobs (investment banking, hedge funds, etc.), but that's not the norm for most ex-lawyers. If you join a start-up, as many of my BigLaw peers did, that can also mean a short-term hit to your cashflow. While you're at BigLaw, put some money away and pay down your debts aggressively, so that when you spot the right opportunity and you want to make the switch, you're in a financial position to do so.
VL: What do you think makes Ivey Consulting a unique option for individuals seeking help with the law school application process?
AI: We give people the benefit of 360-degree experience. On our team, we bring together experience not just as former law students and lawyers, but also as admissions officers and career services professionals. Personally, I wouldn't derive much enjoyment from admissions consulting if it were just about pushing people into law school. If that were the case, I'd find something else to do. There are too many unhappy lawyers out there and too many people who have made financially ruinous investments in law school. Of course, not everybody listens to us (every lawyer out there can sympathize -- clients don't always follow the advice they're given), but we do administer a lot of tough love, and we have high expectations for the work our applicants produce and the self-reflection they engage in.
We also pride ourselves on teaching transferable skills in the process of working together: you'll be a better law student and future lawyer if you learn how to write a great resume, if you learn how to interview effectively, if you learn how to continue improving your writing, if you learn how to advocate for yourself or for a particular argument. And an application is, after all, an exercise in advocacy. We try to teach all those things in a way that will continue to benefit a person long after applying.
Given my own path through law school and legal practice, but also the constant news about the grim market for law school graduates, it's no surprise that our counseling also helps people clarify whether law school and a legal career make sense for them. We like to take the long view and nudge them to think about how they're going to get from A to B to C. And while we love hearing from applicants who've gotten into School X, Y, or Z, other people thank us when they have an aha moment and realize that they actually want to be doing something else. Pushing an applicant to articulate why he or she wants to go to law school, and what his or her game plan is afterwards, certainly helps the applicant improve his or her candidacy and positioning as an applicant but also benefits him or her personally at an important and high-stakes juncture. Our goal is to help people set themselves up for long-term success.
Read the first part of Anna’s interview here: Alternative Legal Careers: BigLaw to Admissions to Consulting
Ivey Consulting site
Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School (as well as a formerly practicing lawyer), Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can read more admissions advice in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book, and connect with Anna on Twitter and Facebook.