New pre-law advising draws mixed student reviews

Monday, November 5, 2007

The quality of pre-law advising has been disappointing since a long-serving dean in charge of the program left as part of a larger restructuring of the Office of the Dean of the College, several pre-law students told The Herald. But others, including the co-presidents of the Pre-Law Society, said they and other students have been pleased with the quality of advising since the change.

This year, pre-law advising is the joint responsibility of Andrew Simmons, associate dean of the College for health and law careers, and Linda Dunleavy, associate dean of the College for fellowships and pre-law. Simmons and Dunleavy’s prior experience lies in pre-med and fellowship advising, respectively, and both are new to the pre-law field. The duo replaced long-serving pre-law adviser Perry Ashley, formerly executive associate dean of the College and now an executive associate dean in the human resources department.

Simmons and Dunleavy are not alone in filling new or unfamiliar jobs. The Herald reported last month that, since Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron took her post in July 2006, a high rate of turnover in the office and the departure of a number of long-serving deans – some due in part to displeasure with the restructuring – has left the current staff of the office stretched thin, with deans taking on new responsibilities in many cases.

Sources told The Herald last spring that Ashley was one of two experienced deans forced out of their posts as part of the restructuring, which was announced in February by Bergeron following an external review of her office by Princeton Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel and Stanford University Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education John Bravman.

Bergeron has denied that Ashley was fired.

Five of eight juniors and seniors contacted by The Herald who have sought pre-law advice in individual meetings or at pre-law office events this semester expressed varying degrees of displeasure with the advising they received.

Most students contacted by The Herald said they felt Simmons and Dunleavy were working hard to learn more about pre-law advising, but several also said the new advisers’ inexperience has left them unable to answer some questions and reduced students’ confidence in the office.

“I just don’t feel as though we are getting the appropriate pre-law advising that I assumed I would get by going to Brown,” said Carly Edelstein ’08, who said the changes in the pre-law advising – being “stuck in that one year of transition” – played a role in her decision to delay applying to law school until next year.

Edelstein, who attended an event hosted by the pre-law deans and met with Dunleavy during her open office hours, said she was concerned not only that Simmons and Dunleavy are inexperienced, but also that the University is “stretching deans thin” by assigning them pre-law advising responsibilities on top of their work with pre-med students and fellowship applicants.

“I had very good interactions with Dean Ashley before he left, both in a personal and academic capacity, and he knew his stuff,” Edelstein said. “I don’t think that (Simmons and Dunleavy) know everything.”

“I don’t know that they have any real solid connections with law schools either,” she added.

Lizzy Hang ’08, who is involved in the Pre-Law Society and is applying to law school this year, said an information session hosted by the deans that she attended early in the year left her with doubts, in part because Dunleavy incorrectly identified 170 as the highest score possible on the Law School Admission Test – a faux pas cited by other students with concerns. (The highest possible score on the LSAT is actually 180.)

But Christopher Keys ’08, co-president of the Pre-Law Society, told The Herald “the majority of how that office has historically functioned is still intact” and that the new advisers “have been doing a very good job.”

From the perspective of the Pre-Law Society, Keys said, the new deans have succeeded in picking up more or less where Ashley left off.

“The approach is largely the same,” Keys said, noting that Ashley has continued to collaborate with Simmons and Dunleavy since leaving the post. But, he said, “it’s obviously a difficult transition.”

Anton Brett ’09, the Pre-Law Society’s other co-president, agreed. “I think the new advising system inherited a lot from the old advising system,” he said. “Generally speaking, the Pre-Law Society has received all the changes well.”

“My experience with students in the student body they’ve received it well as well,” he added.

But many pre-law students said this year seems different.

Jennifer Tarr ’08, who is applying to law school this year, said that it is “hard to tell” whether the quality of pre-law advising is different this year, as she hadn’t worked with Ashley.

But, she said, the new advisers are “learning about applying as we’re learning about applying,” leaving this year’s class of seniors to be “a first year of test students.”

“After this year, they can rely on our experiences,” she added.

Tarr said she believed that, as a result, her class was relying on recent graduates for more information than they otherwise might. She herself sought out a friend who is now attending law school at Columbia University for tips on applying to that particular institution.

“They meet with you one-on-one for a prolonged period of time so you can get all your questions in,” she said. “But in terms of what’s going to happen in December, I’d probably be more comfortable going to my friends.”

Tarr said she thought Simmons and Dunleavy’s experience with pre-med and fellowship advising might make them a more useful resource later in the process. “They may not know the more technical stuff yet, but this stuff about how to present yourself well, I’m pretty sure they know that,” she said.

“People at least used to talk about Dean Ashley, whereas this year I haven’t heard people talk about pre-law advising,” Hang said. “Personally, I haven’t heard people complaining either, but I haven’t heard people talk about their involvement with it at all.”

Andrew Jacobs ’08, who is applying to law school this year, said the current system is acceptable, but that it could be better.

Jacobs said the current advisers aren’t necessarily able to offer an “insider scoop about stuff that you wouldn’t know,” such as how particular schools approach an application.

“That’s not something that you necessarily need, it’s just interesting to have,” he added.

For his part, Simmons told The Herald that “things have gone as smoothly as we would hope from our end.”

He and Dunleavy are “certainly learning as we go,” Simmons said, noting that Ashley has been a valuable resource this semester.

“I certainly feel confident with my knowledge level,” he added. “I’m equally confident saying, ‘Here’s what I don’t know.’ “

“I think it would be nice to know more about individual schools,” Simmons said. “That’s an area where we certainly can continue to learn.”

Many of the office’s resources are “in some ways better” this year, he said, citing a revamped Web site and a new applicant’s guide.

Simmons said he thought having two deans instead of one working on pre-law advising was beneficial. “If anything, I’m glad to have a colleague doing this with me,” he said.

Dunleavy did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment for this article.

Deputy Dean of the College Stephen Lassonde said he did not think the changes are negatively affecting students this year. “Students who are interested in applying to law school are going to get all the help that they need,” he said. “There’s nothing about this year that’s going to be required that (students) won’t get.”

Lassonde said the transition so far has been “very successful,” calling Simmons and Dunleavy “really knowledgeable, hard-working and conscientious.”

Their inexperience has not proved problematic, Lassonde said, in part because law school admission is much less subjective than applying to college.

“There are real, specific numbers that anybody can look up in a book,” he said, meaning that students are more interested in getting advice that is “more gestalt … What sorts of things can you do to make yourself stand out?”

Lassonde also said he believed spreading pre-law advising over multiple deans was helpful and that by doing so “you get more hours devoted to pre-law advising in the week.”

Brett said he thought the deans had been working hard to get up to speed, and the results of their efforts have showed.

For example, Brett said, Simmons attended a Pre-Law Society event and held a question-and-answer session in which he came across as very knowledgeable.

“A lot of members threw questions at him that were pretty obscure,” he said. “He dealt with some issues that you would really have to know a lot about the process to be able to answer.”

Simmons and Dunleavy have also done a good job of keeping pre-law students informed online through regular e-mails and an improved Web site, Brett said.

Their inexperience has not left them uninformed or unhelpful, he added. “When I’ve asked them specific questions, they’ve always known the answers or been able to look up the answers and get back to me,” Brett said.

In pre-law, as in the dean of the College’s office more broadly, Lassonde said he believed the recent restructuring would improve the services students get. “You adapt the services of the office to the talents of the people you have,” he said. “As people turn over in the office … there will be a deepening of expertise and a broadening of its availability to students because it’s spread out over a few people.”

“Change is always hard for everyone,” Lassonde said. “I would ask the students to trust that things are going to work out.”

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