Interview with Dean Zearfoss (Michigan Law)

Published March 6, 2018

LawSchool.Life had a discussion with Senior Assistant Dean Sarah Zearfoss of the University of Michigan Law School to talk about numbers, the concept of “fit,” the GRE, and the changing face of law school admissions.

Certainly the numbers are an important part of the process, at least as the process is currently constructed. So it’s not completely departing from reality to call it a “numbers game.” But in both directions, numbers are not always predictive. Sometimes people with very good scores are not admitted, and people can obviously overcome lower scores and get admitted. So what makes that happen? Law schools do this differently, but one of the things that is different at Michigan is the community that we have. It’s a pretty special place here. There’s a surprising amount that you can discern from an applicant’s essays and letters of recommendation, from the things they’ve been doing in their lives — you can get a pretty strong sense of whether someone seems like a “Michigan person,” someone that we would really love to have here. It’s not necessarily someone who says they really want to come to Michigan; it’s someone for whom I get a sense that they will truly be happy here. That makes it hard to say no, even if the person’s numbers aren’t stellar.


In addition to that, I really care a lot about work experience — someone who has put some thought into taking this step, and who has done something before coming to law school. Not even necessarily full time work after college, but something maybe in college or after college. Either way, they will bring some experience to the classroom that will enhance the experience of everyone else. They’ll know things their classmates won’t know, and they’ll be able to share that and add to the experience.


At the other end of the spectrum, there are people whose numbers are great, but they just don’t connect. They don’t strike me as someone who is really going to love it here. That’s very amorphous, and it can sound a little fake when you hear admissions people talking about “fit,” but it’s real. All schools have different personalities, and I think most admissions people who have been doing this for any time at all think you ignore those personalities at your peril. It’s bad to try to admit people who are very different and try to remake the personality of the school.

I know that people have this idea that you have to write a “Why Michigan” or a “Why Penn” or whatever essay to get admitted, but that’s not true. Often it doesn’t help at all, because a lot of people just copy and paste from the website, or name particular programs that they think sound good. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t really speak to me, and it doesn’t really do much persuading. I’m really looking for the person’s voice and personality. Michigan is not a school where you can easily just go to class, do your work, leave, and not get to know your fellow classmates. It’s hard to do. People will be trying to get to know you, so you’ll have to aggressively ignore them if you want to do that. It’s going to be uncomfortable for you and the people around you. We’re looking for people who will enjoy that environment. It’s not everyone’s style. There are a lot of lawyers who are very introverted. My husband is a very introverted lawyer, and I love him dearly. He didn’t go here, and I’m glad he didn’t, because he would have hated it here. He would have thought that it’s just too much talking to each other, too much community orientation, and I’m sure his application would have reflected that.

I know how easy it is to be cynical about numbers, about “yield protection.” I do this for a living, and sometimes even I will hear about an applicant who didn’t get into such and such school, and my eyebrow will go up, and I’ll think, how did that happen? But then I think, I know how that happened. The person doing admissions at that school didn’t think that applicant was the right fit. That really does happen, and I think it’s a really valid way of making decisions. it’s not about protecting yield so much as it is not wanting to admit anyone who won’t be happy if they attend the school. And I’m guessing; of course I can’t know for sure, but that’s really what I’m really getting at: making people happy. People who open that letter and think, “Oh, I’m so excited about getting into Michigan!” Even if they end up somewhere else, Michigan is a school that speaks to them, and so admitting them was a good choice.

Where to begin? I do want to come out and say that the LSAT is not a perfect test, and I’m all in favor of questioning it, and I’m all in favor of prudently experimenting with alternative admissions techniques. I myself have been involved in a couple of different experiments, including one where faculty at Berkeley Law School were trying to devise an alternative to the LSAT. I applaud that.


However, the schools that have said they are taking the GRE have not declared that they are putting any limitations on themselves in terms of the number of people they’ll admit using the GRE alone. They’ve talked about how they know that the GRE will be successful when they cannot possibly know that. They’ve used studies based on people who they’ve admitted who already had high LSAT scores, then they looked at their GRE scores to see how those predict law school performance. There are so many logical fallacies there, I don’t even know where to begin. That’s not the way to test the predictive ability of a test for law school grades. So I think you’re really just playing with fire to think about admitting a number of people using a wholly untested mechanism, which is what the GRE is.


Additionally, the GRE is just not a great test. For all the flaws of the LSAT, the GRE has all of those flaws in much higher numbers. A lot of the schools who are doing this have talked in vague terms about how they want to increase diversity, and they don’t really define what they mean by that too clearly, but if they are talking about socioeconomic status or race or gender, that’s surprising, because high GRE scores correlate with less diversity on those metrics even more so than a high LSAT does. So that would not increase diversity in law school classrooms. That’s a peculiar justification to me.


If people have concerns and questions about the LSAT, I’d like to see them experimenting with making the LSAT better, investing in that, or investing in a different test, rather than taking a test that’s made for a wholly different purpose and trying to shoehorn it into the problems with the law school admissions process.

Yes, in an admissions office, if you can subtract the 40 lowest LSAT scores from your pool and use the GRE instead, it’s a lot easier to get a slightly higher median LSAT or to preserve whatever LSAT median you would like to have.


Also, by taking the GRE, there are some suggestions that you would Increase selectivity for US News purposes, because lots of perhaps unqualified applicants are going to apply because they don’t need the LSAT and they already took the GRE. So they’ll throw their hat into the ring because the LSAT is not required.


I would also note that the schools that have jumped in with both feet here are all relatively larger schools. It’s much harder to keep your LSAT median with a large class size. Five or six years ago, Michigan used to have an average entering class of 360, and now our target entering class is about 300. We’re smaller, so that has made my life easier for median LSAT scores.That’s not why we did it, but I can tell it makes a difference. All the schools that have taken the GRE are larger than Michigan, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.


One other thing I wanted to say about the GRE regarding it not being that great of a test. The GRE has a verbal part, a quantitative part, and a writing part. I served for four years on the test development committee for LSAC, and at that time we were trying to come up with a scored writing component to the LSAT. Basically I became convinced during that time that you can’t score writing in any kind of reasonable way. I just don’t think it predicts anything. So I would completely discard the writing part of the GRE as being useful. I also noticed that for the quantitative part of the GRE, a perfect score is only the 97th percentile, which is crazy. At least one or two of the schools moving in this direction have an average LSAT that is above the 97th percentile. I just don’t know how those schools are going to use the GRE.

I would imagine it would depend on what the ABA does. Right now, it looks like they’re moving in the direction of saying no test at all. If that happens, yes I do think most schools will at least experiment with the idea of taking the GRE or other tests entirely. And I think that’s really unfortunate. I just dont think its right to take large scale risks with people’s lives by admitting them to a school at which they may not be prepared to succeed. And of course you can never know these things for sure in admissions, but you can know them with more certainty than if you’re not using any standardized test at all I suspect. At least, that’s my view. But, this year we’re seeing a lot more people take the LSAT, and increasing numbers applying to law school, so the pressure is really lessened in these circumstances for schools to take the GRE or any alternative test. I suspect that schools might say they’ll take the GRE, but they won’t accept many people on the GRE alone. At the end of the day, they’re interested in the long term success of the institution, so if they can avoid taking people who don’t have an LSAT score, they would prefer to do that.

It’s very disheartening to me. The group that should be regulating this is the ABA, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to play that role. There’s a lot of incentive — law schools really hate the tyranny of the rankings and the extent to which the rankings place a lot of primacy on the median LSAT score, so even for people in schools who think this is a really bad idea, such as me, it’s hard not to think, “Well, it would be really nice not to have to think about the U.S. News LSAT median.” For that reason, I think there may be a lack of will to foment a revolution on these grounds, because there is some benefit to it for schools, to be frank, which is distressing too.


I do think U.S. News has a role to play in this too, because if schools do start taking GRE, they should be figuring out how they’re going to work that into the rankings, because it’s clearly not as good a test. It’s clear that a school using it is going to be getting an advantage; even if that isn’t their motivation, it’s clearly the result. So if U.S. News turns a blind eye to it, that really enables it. So maybe some other rankings group will come along and capture that information and account for that differential — maybe something like, if you had a class of 100 and 20% is GRE applicants, maybe you give that school some kind of a discount on their average LSAT,, for your forumula, something like that.


Can I say one more thing about the GRE before I forget? I do think there is one scenario where it makes sense to use the GRE over the LSAT. I haven’t done this, but someone asked if I would, and I thought yes, that I could see doing. That’s when you’re a school that has a lot of dual degree programs, or strengths in other departments, like Michigan does — say that a faculty member in the economics department knows someone, and think he’s great, and they want him to apply for a J.D. in addition to his PhD in econ. I could absolutely imagine in that circumstance saying, “Fine, I’ll just use your GRE, because I already have so much information about you, because my own faculty are telling me that you’re great. I don’t need you to go take the LSAT.” Under those circumstances I could imagine using a GRE score, but that would be a very rare circumstance.

One of my favorite podcasts is Slate’s Political Gabfest, and there’s this guy on there named David Plotz who’s had this theory for a long time now (for 5 or 6 years), and his theory is that we are going to evolve as a society where things like sexting or getting caught for something like that is not going to be the death knell of someone, because we’re all just going to get used to not paying attention to it, or not taking it seriously. When I first heard it, I thought it was stupid, and that would never happen, but now I do feel like we are moving a little in that direction.


I never Google applicants before I admit them. I don’t do that for a plethora of reasons. One, very practically, I don’t have the time. Number two, I really feel like it’s just wrong. It’s really not an attractive thing to do. Number three, I think there’s a really high possibility that I won’t understand it. I have children who are law school age. One of them doesn’t let me follow him on Twitter, and one does, but sometimes I don’t even understand what they’re talking about online. I don’t get their jokes, even though I know them really well. If I were looking at a stranger’s Twitter feed or Instagram posts, I think there’s a good chance I would misunderstand or misinterpret what I’m seeing. I just think it’s a very bad idea. I don’t look at TLS or your site LSL. I know some young people in my office do, but they know I don’t want to hear “this guy seems like a jerk so don’t admit him,” so I never hear about things like that. Sometimes they’ll tell me people don’t seem to understand this one thing we did, or people liked this one thing we did, but that’s about the extent of it.


I will give one warning. Sometimes people say things in their applications, like they’ll talk about jobs or groups that I don’t understand. It comes up a lot on resumes where people will have worked for a company that I’ve never heard of, and I can’t tell from their description what the company does. You’d think that wouldn’t happen that much, but you’d be amazed how often it does. So sometimes, if I’m thinking about admitting that person, I will Google the company so that I can understand what’s going on. And about two or three times in my life, doing that has led to information that was not favorable to the applicant, whether something was made up or it’s something sketchy. But really, that’s only two or three times out of maybe 500 times that I’ve done it, and out of more than 100,000 files I’ve read overall. That’s two or three people who didn’t get in who otherwise were likely to have gotten in, so the odds are extremely low. I would just say, I do think it’s prudent to be cautious.


Regarding the story about Harvard — that seems like exactly the kind of thing I wouldn’t want to do, because again I feel like there’s some humor there that I’m not getting, and it seems bad but I’m not really sure that it is unless I have a 17-year-old on staff if I’m Harvard undergrad admissions. I wouldn’t know what ot make of that. So I think that’s problematic. The article I read was unclear; they said “racist memes” were posted, but the description of them wasn’t clear. If something was jocular, I would really worry about making a decision based on it. So that’s why I don’t look at these things.

Some schools will though. That is one way that schools have of “yield protecting” — they’ll Google you and see if you’ve expressed interest in another school or committed to another school. I’m aware that that’s something that people do, so I do think that being cautious is a good idea. But I don’t know anyone who’s really trying to do a background check on people via the internet before they admit them, and I disapprove of it heavily.


People at my office tell me that there are at least a couple of people who are apparently people we’ve admitted who have used their actual names on TLS or Law School Life, and I think that’s charmingly naive. I just don’t think that’s the first thing you want to pop up when your name is Googled, your law school application chats, even if it’s totally harmless.

I think it’s great the proliferation of data that has come about since 2009 or so in terms of what’s available about jobs. I think it is a completely salutary influence, I really do.


I do think that applicants sometimes treat that data much the way they treat rankings, or much the way they think admissions offices treat LSAT scores, which is assigning undue weight to tiny differences. So I don’t think it’s right to make a decision by saying, for instance, I will go to Michigan over the school ranked directly below Michigan just for that reason. I do not think that’s a sensible way to use rankings. I don’t think it’s the right way to use the LSAT either, for admissions, to admit a 177 over a 176 for instance.


In the same way, I don’t think it’s the right way to use employment statistics. I worry that there is this use of employment numbers by people who may not fully understand the meaning of them, and that is not to their benefit. That’s an education issue, and it’s on the law schools to do our best to communicate about what it all means and be willing to address any questions that people have, and to be frank and non-defensive about what your numbers show. I do think students should be looking at outputs, and it’s great that they’re so refined now. I would say that you shouldn’t just look at how many people are employed; you should be looking at how many are going to jobs that you can imagine yourself going to, and how many are going to parts of the country that you can see yourself in, and if you have an idea of what your dream job is, it would be good to know if anyone in the whole world of that school has ever gone to that kind of job. It’s also not just important to look at what jobs people are going to after graduation; it’s also important to see what firms and what employers recruit on campus. Who does the school bring in? And that kind of information is now available at many, many schools where it used to not be available. I can’t see any downside to that.


Indebtedness is little trickier. I do think it’s worth taking on debt for many law school choices, not for all law school choices and not for all goals, but for many of them I do think it makes sense. I also think the ABA has backed away from collecting some of the data that is most useful about debt, which is frustrating. I know that we still collect it at Michigan, but applicants can’t compare because not all schools collect it. Debt in itself is not bad if you can pay off the debt in a reasonable way, and if the school is supporting you with that debt if you choose a job that doesn’t allow you to pay it off.

We worry all the time about the future of PSLF. Even pre-Trump, it was also under attack during the Obama administration. So we’ve been worrying about it for a long time, and gotten slightly inured to it because they’ve been talking about it for so long without anything actually happening. Even if something happens to it during this legislative season, it wouldn’t affect people entering 2018; it wouldn’t take effect until 2019. This is something we’re trying to make clear to people when they come for our admitted students weekend. That said, we do have sort of a brain trust — our law and econ people, our tax people, our public interest law faculty, we have a cadre of them who we have asked to start looking into this: assuming PSLF goes away, what is our best design for a program? We had a program before there was a PSLF, starting in 1989 I think. We changed it when there was federal funding available to take advantage of the federal funding. If the federal funding goes away, we will change it again. It will not be as generous as it could be with the might of the federal government behind us, but we will continue to do whatever we can to support them. Is the school thinking about this and aware of it? At Michigan, certainly we are. It’s something we’re very conscious of.

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