Thank you to Dean Janice Austin for participating in Parliament’s Admissions Spotlight Series. Dean Austin is the Assistant Dean of Admissions for UC – Irvine School of Law.
As the Assistant Dean of Admissions, what are your day-to-day responsibilities?
My role is really a jack-of-all-trades, which is probably one of the reasons I’ve remained excited about coming to work every day. Reading applications and deciding from amongst a talented pool who receives one of the prized, first-year seats, is really a small slice of the day-to-day operations. I like to say that I manage expectations for internal and external constituents.
What do you consider the most significant parts of an application, the parts which applicants should prepare the most carefully?
To me, the most important parts of the application remain those that the applicant still has control over— personal statements and who writes the LORs. Their academic record (classes, grades) is history; likewise, so is the LSAT (although in the case of the LSAT, applicants can still go back and take it again). So, to focus on what they articulate about themselves, their experiences, accomplishments and aspirations through the written expression of the statements, is most important to me. Additionally, making sure they select individuals who know them well and who are recommenders who support their endeavor of applying to law school, is another important aspect.
Is there anything you frequently see on an application that you hope to never see again?
I think applicants are doing a better job of recognizing the value of what it means to be an advocate in this process. Thus, they seem to be less prone to falling victim to some of the miscues that were once commonplace; these now occur less often. But with that said, I think the one that continues to plague many applications is the insertion of the name of the law school in a statement. Every admission cycle, I review at least a dozen statements that have the wrong school name in the body of the text. You want to say to them…..at least get the correct law school in your statement!
What common pitfalls should applicants be careful to avoid?
In spite of the administrative tasks associated with the job, law school admissions professionals are gatekeepers to the profession. I take seriously my role in the education of future law school graduates. Applicants should never lose sight of the fact that they are applying to a professional degree program that requires a high level of integrity.
Are there any myths about the application process which you would like to dispel?
The biggest myth, to me, is that applicants believe the process is impersonal. I know it’s crazy, but I continue to sign every decision that leaves my office. Of course, an electronic signature would look just as nifty, but I want every applicant to know that we/I took the time to engage with the process, just as I hope they have.
What advice would you give to an applicant with below-average test scores but significant work experience?
Of course, the first piece of advice is to select a wide range of schools to give themselves the best opportunity for a positive outcome. Beyond that, how applicants demonstrate their extensive employment experience will be crucial, and I don’t just mean how they format the type on their resume. Rather, how best to capture their experiences and accomplishments to show the law school they (the applicants) have what it takes.
Do you frequently have to turn away applicants whom you wish you could admit? If so, what could those applicants do to be admitted?
Let’s be honest. Any admissions officer is in the business of denial, since a far larger number of candidates won’t be admitted to the respective school. We all see many more fine candidates than we can admit, and I have always believed that if someone wants to go to law school, there is a law school for them. Otherwise, for any candidate denied to a particular school, even to UCI, it is hard for them to change their relative position in a competitive pool in a subsequent year—so even the reapplication route isn’t always the best way.
How much faith do you have in the ability of the LSAT to predict success in law school?
The LSAT does what it does. My job is to use that information as one of the many criteria at our disposal to assess whether a candidate should be admitted to my law school. I have been in legal education long enough to bear witness to law students who outperform and underperform the predictive value of the LSAT, as well as the undergraduate GPA.
What do you look for in a recommendation letter?
The first thing I look for is whether the applicant selected wisely in the choice of the author.
Clearly, seeking a LOR from someone who has actually been their academic instructor is a good move. Additionally, a direct supervisor, an advisor or mentor, or the person who can speak directly to the applicant’s talents for success in law school, including their analytical and writing abilities, is most useful. Letters from outside the circle– neighbors or from someone that knew them eons ago, like high school principals– I find less useful.
Suppose an applicant has little or no experience relevant to your program, but has significant experience in other fields. What can that applicant do to distinguish himself or herself in your eyes as a good candidate for your program?
There is no ideal law school applicant. In fact, law schools seek to enroll individuals who represent a wide range of educational backgrounds and experiences. I like to say that disciplines from anthropology to zoology- and everything in between- are welcome. So there is no magic bullet. The secret lies in presenting the most honest and realistic application possible, giving the LSAT your best shot, and if you’re still in school—avoiding senioritis.
What trends in admissions have you noticed regarding incoming students’ preparedness for law school?
Since I’ve been doing this for nearly three decades, the biggest trend (and the most troubling) is the diminishment of writing skills I am noticing. Blame can be tossed around to any number of areas—K-12 education, less demanding writing classes in college, increased use of informal language on the internet, etc. For generations, lawyers have been considered among the best wordsmiths. It’s fundamental to the profession, among other necessary skills. I hope that students of the future begin to embrace the importance of the written word, and that this trend will be reversed.