Friends with cognitive benefits.

Last night I had a lot of fun addressing a horde of Michigan undergrads with prelaw interests, on the doubtless fascinating subject of my career path. Certainly a considerable percentage of people contemplating law school are doing so with an eye toward ending up in the field of law school admissions, right? No wonder so many people turned out. There are many reasons to value the population of Michigan undergrads, but not least of them is their sheer numerosity. (Word™ is insisting “numerosity” is not a word. The 1996 Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Law, however, holds a different view. Obviously, I find the law dictionary more persuasive.)

Now, don’t worry: the sparse crowds at various other undergraduate schools I visit help keep my ego in check. Last week, my counterpart at Chicago Law School and I did a lunch panel together where we had a turnout of 12. And two of them were the moms of prospective applicants. So, you know, I kind of feel like I had earned the big crowd last night.

Speaking of keeping my ego in check, someone hung around afterwards to ask some questions, and queried, “Hey, are you still writing your blog?” Damn. A glass half-full perspective would be, “Someone reads my blog!” But I heard this more as, “You are screwing up. Get to work.” So to work I get.

One question I got from the audience was along the lines of, “What stands out in a law school application?” I twisted the question to my own ends, and answered a variation: what are we looking for in a law school applicant? As a general proposition, the answer is that we’re looking for a whole lot of different—different perspectives, different backgrounds, different areas of expertise—but there is in fact one common thread: the ability to work and play well with others. We look for hints of this in the personal statement, in letters of recommendation, in the sorts of choices reflected by a résumé. Sometimes, to be sure, we get it wrong, but mostly, an application contains far more indications than one might think (often inadvertent, and often hilarious).

But why do we care? Arguably, all law schools should care about this. Law schools are not producing people who will go off and work by themselves in a lab; many of the tasks of a successful lawyer require an instinct about how to get along with others: persuading a judge, reaching a deal with opposing counsel, getting retained by clients. Getting along with others becomes particularly important in the setting of Michigan Law School, though, where students and faculty are all very much focused on the law school experience. Ann Arbor is not a major metropolitan area; that means that virtually everyone who comes here is uprooting him- or herself and making a new home for three years, and it means that the principal incentive for doing so is the law school itself. This setting really can only work well insofar as the participants are largely good eggs.

Turns out that there’s some pedagogical benefits to our approach, too. According to a study by the University’s Institute for Social Research, “talking with other people in a friendly way can make it easier to solve common problems . . . . but conversations that are competitive in tone, rather than cooperative, have no cognitive benefits.” Nice and smart. Works for me.

-Dean Z. Assistant Dean for Admissions and Special Counsel for Professional Strategies