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Donald Resnick has learned to spot the telltale signs. Slick packaging and a cookie-cutter personal essay are dead give-aways that an undergraduate has paid an admissions consultant to pretty up a law school application. As a former dean of recruitment for New York University School of Law and the current director of graduate enrollment for the entire university, Resnick said he sees an increasing number of applications that he suspects are polished by admissions consultants. Charging as much as $300 an hour, consulting services have moved way beyond helping undergraduates prepare for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Today’s consultants-and there are plenty-assist applicants in explaining run-ins with the law, crafting personal letters to schools, choosing which schools are a good match for them and interviewing with admissions officers. While Resnick and other admissions faculty say that they have no qualms with applicants paying someone to help them with LSAT preparation or school selection, they are concerned that an application’s authenticity can get lost in the professional packaging. “We see personal statements that say the same thing, with different names and schools inserted,” Resnick said. Bringing focus? But admissions consultants assert that they simply bring out the best in their clients, who often lack focus when trying to set themselves apart from the nearly 96,000 applicants vying to get into the nation’s law schools every year. Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com, a Los Angeles-based admissions consultancy, said that her approach is to “encourage self-examination” among her clients. Charging $200 an hour, she and her team of 11 consultants most often help clients draft a personal statement, the first-person writing requirement that is part of most law schools’ application process. The statement, usually 600 to 900 words, is designed to help students highlight their individuality and explain why they are a good fit with the school. It can also be a pitfall for applicants. “People tend to blather on in general terms about how they love the law and how they’ve loved it since the first grade,” said Abraham, who estimates that she has helped about 500 students get into law school since she founded the consultancy 10 years ago. A former writing instructor at the University of California at Los Angeles with a master’s degree in business administration from UCLA, Abraham did not attend law school, although she has consultants on her staff who did. She works mainly by phone and computer with clients, helping them develop a theme for their statements. She also will review their essays for grammar and spelling mistakes.
BAR/BRI action Los Angeles-A federal judge in Los Angeles last week certified a class action of 300,000 law school students in an antitrust case filed against the makers of the BAR/BRI law review course. In the case, seven law school students allege they were overcharged by about $1,000 each after West Publishing Corp., the owner of BAR/BRI, and Kaplan Inc., which makes the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), conspired to monopolize the law exam market. Ryan Rodriguez v. West Publishing Corp., No. 05cv3222 (C.D. Calif.). The case seeks triple the $300 million in damages and applies to all students who took the BAR/BRI course from 1997 to 2006. John Shaughnessy, senior director of corporate communications at the legal and regulatory market group of The Thomson Corp., the parent company of West Publishing, said, “BAR/BRI believes the new claims . . . are without merit and intends to defend the case vigorously.” -amanda bronstad

The ethical line is drawn, she said, where the consultants’ ideas become the clients’ ideas. “We want them to maintain their voice so that the essays don’t sound like our writing,” she said. In 2005, some 95,800 people applied to law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, according to the Law School Admission Council. Although that figure represented a 4.8% decline compared with 2004, law school applications generally have risen sharply since 2000, when 74,600 undergraduates applied. Likewise, the number of admissions consultants appears to have escalated as well. The National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals (NAGAP), which includes law school admissions consultants, has about 1,500 members, according to New York University’s Resnick, who serves on NAGAP’s board. He said that NAGA originated in the mid-1980s from a handful of consultancies based in New England. Many law school administrators say they sense that more students are using consultants to help them get accepted to their institutions, but they add that they often cannot determine for certain if an applicant has paid for outside help. Most schools require applicants to attest to the truthfulness of the information provided in their applications, but schools generally do not require disclosure of any assistance the individual has received in preparing the information. Spotting red flags Even so, law schools are learning to spot some red flags, said Chloe Reid, associate dean for admissions at University of Southern California Law School. Last fall, USC law received about 7,000 applications and accepted 215 first-year students. Personal statements that look “too perfect” create suspicion among admissions faculty, she said, and can work to the applicant’s detriment. “There’s something internally after you’ve read one that just doesn’t feel right,” she said. “We start thinking, ‘Let’s scrutinize this a bit more.’ “ The biggest problem with using a consultant, Reid said, is that it creates a misconception about an applicant’s writing ability. LSAT scores and grade-point averages are solid indicators of a student’s aptitude, but writing skills are essential to performing well in law school, she explained. Although students are wise to get professional instruction to prepare for the LSAT, most consultancies are “a big waste of time,” Reid said. “It’s a gimmick for students,” she said. “I think consultants exploit students by making them feel they have an ‘in.’ “ For one law student, however, using a private consultant was pivotal in getting accepted to Georgetown University Law Center. The student, who requested anonymity, applied two years ago to the school but was wait-listed and eventually was denied admission. Last year, she decided to try Accepted.com to get in. Earlier this month, she finished her first year at Georgetown. She said help with her personal statement, which cost her about $800, made the difference. But she added that she had some hesitation about using the service. “I felt sort of guilty,” she said. “Other people may not have the resources like I did.” Columbia Law School Dean of Admissions Nkonye Iwerebon said access to consultants is a concern. She is troubled by the specter of classrooms filled only with students who have the means to professionally prepare their applications. Iwerebon added that increasing competition among applicants wanting to get into top law schools has prompted them to try to “improve their odds” by using consultants, which has made it more difficult for her to determine the “authentic individual” from the application package. The degree of input a consultant provides and the quality of that input varies greatly in the industry, said Steven Marietti, director of the prelaw division for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. “There are a variety of providers-that includes ethical and unethical,” Marietti said. Kaplan Test and Admissions is part of Kaplan Inc., a $1.4 billion subsidiary of the Washington Post Co. Marietti said that most of the service his division provides is helping applicants select a list of schools to which they want to apply. Kaplan also helps students identify their strengths and weaknesses for the personal statement, but it does not help them write it, he said, and it does not review the statement. The company offers three different levels of services, from a basic three-hour package costing $599 to a comprehensive 10-hour package costing $1,599. Marietti analogizes the services that Kaplan provides to those of a personal trainer. “You can use a personal trainer, but the personal trainer can’t work out for you. Ultimately, it is you who has to do it,” he said. A cottage ‘angst’ industry That may be true, but Monica Ingram, assistant dean for admissions at University of Texas School of Law, takes issue with what she sees as the underlying foundation for much of the law school admissions consulting market. “It is a huge cottage industry revolving around the angst-ridden student,” she said. “I think it’s unfortunate that it has to exist.” She questions the qualifications of many consultancies, whose staffers may be “rusty” about the current admissions processes at law schools. She attributes an increase in private consultancies to a shortage of university advisors at the undergraduate level. “We don’t have enough experienced prelaw advisors to help the mass number of students who want to go to law school,” Ingram said. The growth of private admissions consulting market led Donna Mancusi to specialize her services. When she founded Palo Alto, Calif.-based Law School Connections in 2001, she said she was “doing it all,” from helping with school selection and some LSAT preparation to personal statements. More consulting competition is part of the reason she now focuses on helping applicants “spin a story” for their personal statement, she said. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Mancusi said that while there she worked in its admissions office counseling prospective students. She had the opportunity to read “hundreds of applicant files” and learn what distinguishes one applicant from another, said Mancusi, who charges $250 an hour. These days, some of the people she sees have blemishes on their records-whether dips in grades or criminal backgrounds-and need help prioritizing their strengths and weaknesses in their personal statements. “They’ll spend a page and a half talking about the trouble they’ve been in,” she said. “It becomes the focus of the whole statement.” Mancusi does not advise clients to omit past troubles. Instead, she helps them “put their best foot forward,” she said.

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