You’re In the Money: Negotiating Financial Aid with Law Schools

•April 27, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Law school is expensive. On average, law school—after including living expenses, your inability to hold full-time work for at least the first year of law school, and everything else—will cost well over $200,000 in the U.S. That’s a conservative number. The quality and reputation of a law school isn’t a significant factor—“top” law schools are not much more expensive than “bottom” law schools. There are exceptions—for residents, state law schools are generally less expensive. Outside of that, though, there is sticker shock.

But…law schools also have a fair amount of merit-based money for students they want. I am always surprised that Advise-In Solutions seems to be the only law school advisor that helps its clients negotiate financial aid with law schools. More important, I’m focused on financial aid from the start, which affects LSAT preparation and the care with which my clients and I assemble their admissions packages—personal statement, diversity statement, reference letters, resume, etc. It’s all designed to put clients in their best admissions position—and their best financial negotiation position. The claims on the internet (and by a lot of LSAT companies) that the LSAT is all that matters are demonstrably false. Every piece of paper or e-mail you send to law schools matters—some more than others but they all matter and you want to design all of them for maximum positive impact.

We also carefully stage applications so that there is a “ladder” to manage offers against each other. A significant financial aid offer at a given school is more likely to make a school in the same reputational neighborhood make a similar offer or move its offer up than is an offer at a school that is further distant on the reputational scale. But a careful laddering of applications opens the possibility of moving pretty far up the reputational ladder by progressively leveraging offers. It doesn’t always work, but it works enough of the time to make clients’ top law school choices a lot cheaper for them than they were originally.

All of that requires a careful and tactful approach. Although law schools have generally gotten much more open about explicitly negotiating competitive offers, still, no one likes to think that someone is trying to mug them. So when speaking to law schools, it’s important to not say certain things, to decide in each case whether a phone call would be better than an e-mail or letter (or vice versa), not to nag them, etc.—those communications, too, all should be designed for maximum positive impact, both in content and timing. These are negotiations, not ultimatums. And schools often really do want to be helpful, so making a friend matters.

There’s one important qualifier to all of this—the up-front money isn’t everything. Just last week, I had a client decline an extremely generous offer from a top 10 school for another school whose offer had become more attractive because of our negotiations—but was still far short of the declined offer. It was the right decision because of the particularities of my client’s career aspirations. The programs and job market for the kind of position my client wanted were simply better at the less generous school, so that the long-term advantage shifted to the less generous school—because they were more likely to be more “generous” to my client’s career, and the likely advantage there more than made up for the lesser upfront money. It’s a little wrenching to give up short-term money (especially if it’s a lot) for long-term opportunities but it can often be the right choice.

And that gets to another point—you can’t approach financial aid in a vacuum. You need to do due diligence on schools to determine their long-term value for what you want out of law school. That’s another area where admissions advisors generally don’t help much. But they should, because getting into law school is a lot less important than getting into the right law school for you.

ABA Proposal to Reduce Full-Time Faculty Requirement: Law Students (Present and Future) Should Make Their Voices Heard

•April 19, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The ABA’s proposal to jettison the requirement that full-time faculty teach the majority of upper-level courses is a terrible idea. The ABA is proposing to replicate what undergraduate institutions have been doing with adjunct faculty, with no protections for students. Undergraduate costs haven’t declined, they’ve skyrocketed—schools have simply pocketed the extra money. Educational quality hasn’t improved and—an important factor—faculty have no commitment to either the institution the institution at which they work and the students whom they are charged to educate. You hire part-time, you will get part-commitment. It hasn’t worked in undergraduate education, except to increase school income, and it’s less likely to work in law schools. I discussed the merits of the proposal more fully a couple of weeks ago.

If you’re in law school now, or are thinking about going, or if you care about the quality of your lawyer, you should take up the ABA on its invitation to comment on the proposed change. It passed committee in March and the ABA will vote on the proposal in July. We all want better law schools and lawyers. The ABA should have to explain clearly how this proposal does that.

Here’s an excerpt from the ABA’s memo with instructions on how to comment:

“We solicit and encourage written comments on the proposed changes listed above by e-mail. Written comments should be submitted no later than Monday, July 10, 2017.

A hearing on the proposed changes is scheduled for Thursday, July 13, 2017, at 1 p.m. The hearing will be held at American Bar Association (321 N. Clark St.).

Please address written comments on the proposals and requests to speak at or attend the hearing to JR Clark, jr.clark@americanbar.org, by Monday, July 10, 2017.”

If you care about the quality of legal education, make a comment. The earlier, the better. There’s no need to vituperate à la Twitter. Firm and polite comments are likely to mean more; the sheer volume of them will also matter. The ABA has to understand that it can’t just be in the business of feathering the business of law schools. It has to know, because it seems to have forgotten, that high quality education matters to law students. And to the quality of legal advice that clients of those law students will receive.

More Adjunct Faculty in Law Schools: ABA Oversight Once Again Looks Like a Fantasy

•April 5, 2017 • 1 Comment

The American Bar Association, whose oversight (or lack thereof) of law schools is supposedly in the interest of law students, seems up to its old tricks, i.e., being little more than a shill for law schools. The latest proposal from the ABA is to eliminate the requirement that at least half of law school upper-level courses be taught by full-time faculty.

Where have we seen this before? Basically in all of undergraduate education, where the vast majority of faculty positions are no longer tenure-track or full-time. It would be hard to defend the proposition that the quality of undergraduate education has improved since those moves, and I know of no one who has brought forward data to show it.

What has improved are undergraduate institutions’ retained income. And that’s what’s behind this proposal as well. As law schools increasingly struggle, they are looking to improve their bottom lines and would like the ABA to put a fig leaf on that.

A more reasonable conclusion is a fair number of law schools probably should go out of business. Their employment numbers aren’t very good, the legal profession is changing—itself providing fewer full-time jobs—and the cost of law school tuition continues to skyrocket, leaving a swath of students with unmanageable debt and not much of a career. All that has been written about for years—but nothing has changed, and that’s partly the ABA’s responsibility. It professes to regulate in the best interests of law students and then it doesn’t. It’s even strange, in my view, that there is not a 50% (or higher) requirement for lower-level courses—you know, the ones that are foundational to the upper-level courses. But that battle was lost long ago.

Even the normally sober Law School Transparency project has decided not to object to this latest proposal, on the grounds that “Part-time teaching resources are a real opportunity to bring down the costs of legal education, while satisfying the demands of the practicing bar,” while recognizing that “it also has the potential to create an army of aimless, well-intentioned adjuncts.”

And what do the data show? Do they show that when undergraduate education did the same thing, tuition costs decreased? They do not. Anyone who has attended college in the last 30 years can attest to that. To believe that law schools will limit increased tuition (or even decrease it) in any proportion close to their declining faculty costs is an empty hope and doesn’t recognize that law schools, non-profit or otherwise, are businesses that are interested in making money for their institutions and constituencies already on the ground—the facilities, administration, full-time faculty, etc. If this proposal were coupled with a hard limit on tuition increases, ok. But it isn’t. It’s a giveaway.

To be fair, I don’t think that law schools are quite the same as undergraduate institutions. The difference is that law schools can get practicing lawyers to teach some of those classes. Practicing lawyers can bring much-needed perspective and depth to law schools in a way that the average otherwise unemployed humanities adjunct professor cannot.

Which is to say, that what law schools could do with their adjunct faculty is different and better than what undergraduate institutions can do. Law schools can do that right now; many do, to their credit. But they’re asking for a lot more. Why? Most likely, so that they can and will do exactly what colleges have done—draw from a pool of unemployed or marginally employed lawyers and others because that’s the cheapest labor pool. Not the best but the cheapest. Period.

I am no fan of knee-jerk regulation. Nor am I a legal pessimist—I’m not down on law school, legal careers or their importance for society. My clients applying to law schools do their due diligence and their results, both in law school and their careers, are excellent. That’s because we work hard to maximize merit-based financial aid and carefully consider potential debt against likely employment opportunities (although the ABA’s employment data is little help there). There are no law school “bargains”—but there are some very good values for your dollar, even at current tuition levels, for those dedicated to the law.

There are also some awful values. The point of a regulatory body should be to maximize the good values while minimizing the awful ones. On this measure, it’s hard to see how the ABA can claim much success. If you’re going to say that you are a regulatory body protecting the interests of law students, then you should actually be that, rather than leaving the impression that there is effective regulation when what there is is a strong bias toward the entrenched powers, including law schools. The one-time players, i.e., law students, are left out in the cold while being told that they are being warmed by ABA protection.

The Virtue of Simplicity in LSAT Prep

•March 28, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Advise-In’s very first blog post was about simplifying the LSAT. I warned about the “blizzard of paper” that LSAT study guides and programs produce, which make studying for the test more difficult rather than easier. There are too many decisions to make and each one of them takes you away from the words on the test page, which is what you need to focus on during a pressurized exam day.

Since then, little has changed LSAT prep industry. There are more and more study guides with more and more techniques, and certain programs have gotten even more complicated and jargon-filled than they used to be. Still peddling the same stuff, just more of it. Good for them but not exactly the wrong approach for you (there’s a reason Advise-In hasn’t published an LSAT study guide, despite the financial upside).

I love football. I especially love great defense. I’m struck by how many times a new defensive coordinator comes onto a team and team defense improves. The reason usually is that the new coordinator has simplified the defense. The defense of my beloved Denver Broncos in their 2016 Super Bowl championship was simplicity itself. And maybe (with the 1986 Chicago Bears) the best defense in Super Bowl history.

That isn’t the approach of most LSAT prep. If there’s a way to complicate, one study guide or another, one program or another, will do it. Now, you can understand the multiple different techniques that each gives you (and if you add them all up, people are telling you about 20 different things, and they’re usually jargon-filled) to answer, say, an assumption question. But so many techniques become their own distraction and suddenly, the offense—or the grouping game—has scored on you.

I understood the various recommendations in a gazillion study guides, and then threw them all in the trash. Why? Because I couldn’t execute what they were telling me to do in the 35 minutes I had per section. Even less did I have time to decide which of the 20 techniques I had was the right one for this question. And every decision I had to make took me away from what the questions were actually asking.

And then the light bulb went on. I needed one process for each question type and it had to be flawless—I could be flawed, but the process couldn’t be. Part of flawlessness was simplicity. That’s what produced my score of 180. Simplifying the test. What I knew was that if I followed a simple process each time, I’d get the right answer. I didn’t always do it, and that’s ok—I did it enough.

I didn’t have self-confidence, really, but I had a lot of confidence in the processes I’d honed. I had that confidence because it worked—as long as I did things the same way every time, I got the right answer every time. Plus, when I got distracted—as is inevitable on test day and during every practice test—I could re-ground myself by locating where I was when distracted and simply asking, OK, what’s the next step? Back in the flow.

I work hard with my clients to help them make the LSAT simpler rather than endlessly complex. That, along with admission and application advising, is why they are extraordinarily successful in getting into top law schools and getting significant merit-based financial aid.

The LSAT is a hard test. It’s supposed to be. It’s hard because the writers of the test are superb at preparing questions. It’s not because they’re trying to trick you; they’re not. But they also don’t mind if you trick yourself, and the more complicated you make the test, the more you’ll trick yourself. Simplify, simplify, simplify. It’s still true.

Harvard Law Accepts GRE as Alternative to LSAT: Big News (Or Is It?)

•March 21, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The LSAT has enjoyed a monopoly over law school admissions testing for a long, long, long time. Last year, the University of Arizona announced that it would accept Graduate Record Exam (GRE) results in addition to LSAT results in admissions decisions. Recently, Harvard Law School announced a “pilot program” to do the same thing.

Some of my clients, including former clients who went to Harvard Law, mused about this development with me. How big a deal is it? Arizona is a fine law school; Harvard’s pilot program seems to signify something far bigger.

But does it? In the short run, no. In the long run, maybe.

For right now, if you’re thinking about going to law school and you’re going to apply to any schools other than Harvard and Arizona, the change means nothing. You’ll still have to take the LSAT. There’s a very small subset of people for whom the change might make a difference, namely those who had already taken the GRE and were happier with that score than with their LSAT score. And who only want to apply to Harvard and/or Arizona. Otherwise, you still have to take the LSAT.

I’m a good example. I was a college professor when I made the decision to go to law school, so had taken the GRE. I’d still have taken the LSAT simply because I wanted to cast my net wider. And although I was pleased with my GRE score, I did better on the LSAT, scoring a 180, for the simple reason that the LSAT is a more predictable test, so I could prepare for it more efficiently.

So, for the short-term, Harvard’s pilot program doesn’t mean much for applicants. It may mean more in the long-term, but only if a few things happen. First, other schools would have to join with Harvard and Arizona. Harvard’s action makes that somewhat more likely. Second, the law school ratings system would have to incorporate GRE scores in their rankings. Schools worry about rankings—they are convertible into prestige and therefore money—and if a lot of applicants (even at Arizona and Harvard) decided not to take the LSAT, those schools would have to be confident that they weren’t going to be dinged in the rankings as a result. Thus, even the medium-term impact of Harvard’s decision isn’t obvious. But it’s worth staying tuned for.

Test-Taking Consistency: A Key to Your Best LSAT Score:

•March 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

LSAT success depends on two things: understanding the content of the test and executing that understanding time after time after time.

It is astonishing how many LSAT prep courses and study aids (almost all, in my view, which is one reason I didn’t use any of them ) focus only on the first. Many don’t even do that particularly well. The result is that a lot of LSAT takers feel like they knew the material better than they could show in the actual test. That’s because the second key to success—test-taking—is ignored, and the result is that test takers leave a lot of points on the table.

I got a perfect LSAT score the only time I took it. That wasn’t because I necessarily understood the material better than a lot of other high scorers. What I did better—and now help my clients do better— was consistent execution of the most straightforward accurate techniques.

On test day, I was focused on test day on doing things the best way, the right way, 125 times. Nothing the proctor did mattered. Nothing my neighbor did mattered. And the only thing that I did that mattered was doing what I knew how to do—125 times, not 100 or 90 or 105. Hard question? Ok, do your job and make your choice. And once that question is done, it’s done, and the only thing that matters is the next question. I trusted the process that I’d honed for the prior 10 weeks, didn’t try to do more than I knew how to do, and did things exactly the same way as I’d done them in my LSAT preparation, which was also highly disciplined.  I got my best score. That should be everyone’s objective, whether that best LSAT score is a 180, a 165 or a 150. Do your job the right way—that’s a tall enough order if you’ve done your work the way you should.

Why are my clients extraordinarily successful on the actual LSAT (not just the last practice test, which is how most companies report their improvement data)? It’s because we spend a lot of time together working through process execution and consistency—doing things the same way every time, tailored for individual client learning styles (and sometimes, obstacles). If you do that, you should be very close to or exceed your best practice score on test day. If you don’t—if you panic, if you pay attention to distractions (which is anything other than the correct next step), if you’re thrown by a hard question or a tough game—you will leave points on the table.

Path Games: The Undead of LSAT Analytical Reasoning (Logic Games)

•February 27, 2017 • Leave a Comment

At Advise-In Solutions, we counsel our clients not to pay attention to the readings of tea leaves about the LSAT that are all over the internet. It’s a fool’s errand because it takes your focus away from doing what you need to do—prepare for the 20 or so question types the LSAT has used for over 25 years now. Guessing at how many assumption questions they’ll ask, whether there will be more main point questions than there were last test, etc., which some LSAT advisors talk about endlessly, doesn’t help you. You’ll be wrong as often as you’re right. You need to be prepared for each question type and be prepared for the test environment. That’s all, and it’s a lot.

That said, in the last two released LSATs, the LSAT has revived a type of logic game that had (with one prior exception) been dormant for over 20 years—the path game. Our clients were always prepared for those—because you never know when the LSAT will decide to go back to the archives. Now they have, and every one of my clients was ready, not because we called the LSAT psychic hotline but because we all did our jobs and prepared. Don’t be surprised if the LSAT decides to revive circle or formula games at some point, either.

Don’t be surprised, be prepared.

What is a path game and how do path games differ from the (still) more typical line, grouping and grid games? If you’re thinking about the LSAT properly, and many test takers and programs don’t (in my view), it is all operational. So, in analytical reasoning, if I’m going to say that path games are different, that’s because they are asking you to DO something different than they ask you to do in other game types.

The key to path games is that they ask you to move through TIME. Line games appear to but don’t. Line games ask for an order—what comes first, second, third, etc., but you can set that up in one framework (see a couple of videos on Advise-In public YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/AdviseInSolutions). You may have multiple diagrams but the skeleton—a line with a certain number of slots—is exactly the same.

Path games, however, force you to deal with various states of the world across time. So, for example, building owners own certain kinds of buildings that they can trade under specified rules (a recent path game). Then the test asks you who can own what after a number of trades. That requires you to see up a time flow chart to make the game manipulable and easier to solve. If you’ve been properly taught and paid attention—and have done some of these so you’re not surprised—you know how it’s supposed to look.

Initially, some of my clients have found path games generally easier than other kinds, some have found them a little harder. That only matters for how much effort we put into making sure that a client is prepared on test day. It’s part of the individual instruction that Advise-In does because each client is different.

But…as always, the keys are diagnosing what type of game it is and finding the cleanest, simplest way to set the game up. There are invariable rules for setting up path games, the same as there are rules for all other game and question types. Understand what those rules are, you can solve the game.

Don’t try to read LSAT tea leaves. Instead, be prepared for whatever they decide to ask on your test date. It may be another 20 years before the LSAT features another path game. On the other hand, they might put one on the next test.  Be prepared.

 
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