Interview with Michelle Mumford, Assistant Dean of Admissions at BYU Law School
AA: Dean Mumford, thank you so much for your time in giving this interview. First, can you tell us what sets BYU law school apart from other law schools?
MM: BYU Law School is definitely unique for a variety of reasons. We are consistently ranked a top value law school – one of the few private schools to have that distinction. Those rankings take into account tuition, student debt, AND employment numbers. In short, we can get a student exactly where she wants to be – whether it’s a big firm in New York City or Los Angeles, or a small not-for-profit organization concentrating on projects in Africa – without much debt. The lack of debt works to broaden opportunities and choices for our students. Is your dream job in a local prosecutor’s office but you need to work in a firm for 10 years first to pay off your debt? Students at BYU go right into their dream jobs – because the debt doesn’t limit their choices.
But while value is important, the quality of education students receive at BYU Law is what really stands out. We have top faculty from across the country –six are either current or former Supreme Court clerks. Most notably, our faculty is eager and willing to form relationships with students. Our students enjoy working closely on legal research and publications with faculty members. These personal connections last throughout careers. We have a Center for Law and Religion Studies that brings in legal scholars from all over the world, as well as provides our students with opportunities to travel internationally for externships during the summer. One-third of our students take advantage of these international opportunities.
AA: As a former BYU law student and now as Dean of Admissions, what has changed since you attended law school?
MM: Well, the market outlook has changed, but not much else. Many seem to think that means jobs aren’t available, but that’s not what I’ve seen. I think it means law firms are more cautious and selective with whom they hire. I graduated in what seemed to be the most recent heyday of big firm excess – large summer classes, three-course lunches and events most every night. I don’t remember going to the grocery store during my summer clerkship experience at a large law firm in New York City. And while students can bemoan the fact that those things aren’t around anymore, they weren’t what defined the summer experience for me. What I remember most are the relationships I made with partners through the cases I worked on, and continued helping with after I left; the pro bono opportunities I took advantage of despite the added workload; and the immersion into the firm culture and the legal world. The actual practice of law hasn’t changed much. It still requires new ideas and critical thinking and careful writing. And I love it.
AA: In which state or geographic region do most BYU law graduates end up practicing?
MM: About half of BYU Law students practice in Utah, mostly because their families are here and they want to stay. Our next highest placement states rotate between California, Washington D.C., and Texas.
AA: What surprised you most when you took on the role of Assistant Dean of Admissions?
MM: What surprised me the most in my role as Dean of Admissions at BYU Law School was simply the new world of higher-education admissions. The rankings system focuses schools’ priorities on objective numbers rather than subjective life experience/skills. It’s difficult to see a stellar applicant with a lower-than-average LSAT score limit his opportunities because he doesn’t want to take the LSAT again to increase his score. The LSAT is a game: the more you play it, the better you perform. Students who understand this win the game in the end.
AA: What personal and academic qualities are you looking for in applicants?
MM: At BYU Law we’re looking for students who are willing to work hard. Academic accomplishments can most often show how hard a student is willing to work. But not always. We’re also looking for students who serve in the community and are leaders in some area of their life.
AA: What, in your experience, is the biggest surprise students encounter in law school?
MM: The biggest surprise students encounter in law school is that it’s a lot of hard work, and life still goes on. There are still going to be life challenges and family trials and the like, but law school keeps going. Students need to figure out how to meet the challenges of life and stay on top of law school obligations, because that’s what will happen during bar study, or a big case at the firm, or the night before a deadline. Another surprise is that the busy extends beyond the first year. I remember being even more busy my second year because of involvement in co-curriculars and extra-curriculars, and then employment during my third year. The added experiences were worth it, though.
AA: Tell us more about your much-vaunted externship program.
MM: I mentioned a little about the international externship program earlier, but yes, BYU Law is known for its externship program because of the success students have found through it. Students often ask what is an externship? Simply, it’s an internship for school credit as opposed to a paycheck. We have dedicated faculty members who oversee students on externships, we have loan funds available where federal funding isn’t available, we don’t charge students regular tuition to obtain their credits, but just a minimal administrative charge, and our Career Services office works diligently to set up opportunities. Students have three ways to find an externship – a typical resume drop scenario, a match program that matches students with employers regardless of GPA, and a find-it-yourself externship. I always prefer the last type – I call it the hustle. For students who know what they’re interested in, it only makes sense for them to go out, find some alumni contacts, build relationships, and create opportunities to be involved. In the end, an externship is not about easy credit, graduating early, or filling time — it’s about employment. The clerkship program helps to keep our employment numbers high because so many relationships are starting early.
AA: Do employers come for on-campus interviews to BYU? How does BYU work to place students outside the Utah job market?
MM: Many employers do come on campus for interviews. We also have dedicated one-week breaks during each semester for students to travel for interviews. The Career Service office helps to set up these regional interview trips. We use existing relationships we have with employers and courts nation-wide to place our students. We’ve found that once an employer hires a BYU student and experiences first-hand the quality of education as well as the work ethic BYU students have, the employer is highly likely to hire from BYU Law in the future. We also use our extensive alumni network to help place students, as well as the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, which is an organization of lawyers throughout the country who meet on a regular basis to network and enjoy fellowship. These society members may not be alumni but are often members of the LDS Church, and they are eager and willing to help place BYU Law students.
AA: Can you give us some do’s and don’ts for writing personal statements?
MM: Do write an interesting and compelling story that will capture the reader’s attention without trying to shock them just to be memorable. Do edit your personal statement at least three times. Do use proper grammar. Do write about what will make you a valuable member of the incoming class. Don’t repeat your resume. Don’t tell us how great BYU Law is. Don’t be arrogant or narcissistic.
AA: Do you have any other advice for students applying to BYU Law School?
MM: if you’re LDS (Mormon), your mission is not a unique experience. Don’t write your personal statement only about your mission and how it helped you really see a disadvantaged population – you should have been able to see them before. Don’t submit letters of recommendation from stake presidents or bishops – submit letters from professors. While we are a church-sponsored school, we’re not looking for the most righteous people. Be yourself.