Understanding Law School Admissions Office Titles & Hierarchies

This blog comes from our consultant Joe Pollak. You can read his full bio at the end of this post.

Applicants are often interested in the inner workings of admissions offices. How are they set up? What happens each day? Who is in charge?

The truth is that there is way too much variation between admissions offices to explain comprehensively in a single blog post. Nonetheless, the general structure of an admissions office is nearly universal.

You can assume that the assistant dean of admissions is the leader of the admissions office. There’s usually only one, but in some cases, there are two, particularly if the more senior person also has responsibility for another office, like financial aid. Some law schools also have vice deans, associate deans, or senior deans. If those people have “… of admissions” in their title, from the applicant’s perspective, you have probably identified the head of the admissions office and all you need to worry about is addressing them as “dean.” Along the same lines, you don’t need to repeat their full formal title. If you see a business card that reads Senior Associate Vice Dean of Admissions, Financial Aid, and Parking Services but Only on Tuesdays Mike Spivey, your email should start: Dear Dean Spivey.

The assistant dean of admissions has executive responsibility for the admissions office. The assistant dean sets the admissions strategy with goals for class size, academic credentials (LSAT/GRE and GPA), diversity, and other factors, probably with input from the dean of the law school, chief financial officer, or a faculty oversight committee. They also manage the admissions office and staff and execute the admissions strategy. It is typical for the assistant dean to review application files and personally make decisions on who is admitted. Although applicants use the term “AdCom,” referring to an admissions committee, these days, there are few offices that truly make admissions decisions by committee. Usually, a single person is designated to make admissions decisions, and that person is usually the assistant dean.

Next in rank is the director of admissions, associate director of admissions, and assistant director of admissions. Not every school has all of those positions. Also, it can get tricky because some law schools call their top admissions officer “director” when I just told you that person was “assistant dean.” Sorry, that’s just how it is. For the most part, assistant director is the entry point for an admissions officer’s career, and the other titles indicate longevity or seniority.

These admissions officers’ jobs are primarily applicant-oriented. They may represent the law school at recruiting events, lead campus tours (or organize student volunteer tour guides), answer applicants’ questions by phone and email, lead question and answer sessions, conduct interviews, and read applications. When they read applications, in some cases, they might make the decision to admit. In other cases, they make a recommendation, and the next reader makes the final decision.

Writing Dear Assistant Director Spivey to begin your email is okay but cumbersome. No one ever minds being promoted, so writing Dear Director Spivey or saying, “Good Morning, Director Spivey,” would be acceptable and technically correct because an assistant or associate director is a kind of director. If their email signature refers to Dr./Ms./Mr./Mx. Spivey then you also won’t get in trouble for mirroring that style in your communication, but gendered courtesy titles can be problematic when you don’t know your interlocutor’s preference. When I found myself on the receiving end of those communications, I always told the applicant to call me by my first name, but your mileage may vary.

Some schools have an admissions counselor who is more or less equivalent to an assistant director. For other schools, admissions counselor is a title of convenience intended to lend some authority to the email signature of the staff member who answers the phone and greets visitors at the front desk of the admissions suite.

Finally, most admissions offices have one or more administrative staff members with varied formal job titles. These staff members do the hard work of verifying and organizing application materials, running data queries, navigating the chasm between LSAC’s servers and the university’s bespoke and finicky enterprise database, and accounting for application fees. These people are important because they make an admissions office work (also, they are usually the people who update the status checker and click send on the “Congratulations!” email). Despite their significance, their roles are often entirely behind-the-scenes, so you may never meet them.

Joe Pollak is a former admissions officer for the University of Michigan Law School, where he negotiated scholarships, counseled students on their law school aspirations, ran the waitlist, supervised application processing, and managed applicants’ campus visits, among other responsibilities. Joe received his B.A. and J.D., both with honors, from the George Washington University. During law school, he worked as a fellow in the writing center and was a member of the George Washington International Law Review where he evaluated articles for publication. At other points in his career, he was an associate attorney with a large law firm in Washington, DC, nonprofit executive director, summer camp director, and editor for job seekers’ cover letters and résumés. In his free time, he is a fair-weather hiker, so-so bread baker, and novice bike-camper. Joe lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife and two sons.