Q&A with Shelli Soto

08/28/2012
Shelli Soto
Shelli Soto is Chief of Staff and Associate Dean of Students for the College of Law. Hired in 2005 to lead the admissions and financial aid operations of the law school, under her leadership the school has enrolled students with the highest Law School Admissions Test scores and undergraduate grade point averages in its history. The ability to attract such talented students has been the largest contributor to the College’s Top 10 ranking among public law schools and its ability to achieve the 26th ranking overall.

Soto’s achievements have extended far beyond the College of Law. Over the past few years she has also served as Assistant Vice Provost for Graduate Enrollment Management at the university level. In that capacity, she has worked with graduate programs on ASU’s four campuses to coordinate central services and build more efficient and effective recruitment and enrollment strategies.

She began her career at her alma mater, the University of Texas School of Law. After earning a B.A. in economics at UT-Austin and a Doctor of Jurisprudence at UT Law, Soto served as the Assistant Dean of Admissions for about eight years before becoming Director of the Center for Law and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. She moved from there to ASU in 2005.

Question: How does financial aid contribute to law school recruitment?
Answer: We have been very fortunate in the past few years to have had added support from the university and from the dean in addition to increased generosity of alumni and friends of the law school. It has allowed us to be able to recruit some of the best credentialed students the law school has ever had, and to better support students in financial straits, especially during a time when the economy is placing such serious financial challenges in front of them, and the cost of legal education is rising across the country. Because of this support, we have been able to keep our tuition increases modest.

Q: What do you like best about your work at the law school?
A: Most of the work I do here at the law school relates to students, getting them here, serving them while they are here, and ensuring the best possible experience for them to achieve their goals afterward. Students are the best part of this place. They are involved in so many things – student groups, journals, moot court teams that travel and compete, more than 250 externships each year, clinics with a spot for every student, and pro bono activities that last year provided more than 100,000 hours of free legal service. It’s exciting to watch them start to develop their professional identities.

Q: Do classes differ in their group dynamic?
A: Each class definitely has its own personality. Every year before they show up, we know if they are heavy in work experience, or in life experience, or educated beyond a bachelor’s degree. But we don’t really know what they’ll be like. Very quickly after they arrive we can see if they’re studious and concerned about their academic achievement, or if they’re joiners who want to be involved in everything like pro bono activities and mentoring. Each class has its own charms, and they multiply when three classes are blended together to make up the entire law school student body. There has always been a lot of pride in the law school, but in recent years there has been an added level of pride among the students in the incoming classes. I love seeing how that builds and develops into the alumni ranks.

Q: How do the Master of Legal Studies students enhance the law school?
A: The M.L.S. students add an exciting dimension to the class simply because they are non-lawyers who look at the law through the lens of another profession. Their presence enhances the education of all the students with whom they study. I love that the law school recognizes the value of legal training across a broad section of society. It’s great to have among us an architect, or human resources executive, or a teacher or health care professional, who wants to grow in their profession.

Q: And the Master of Laws students who already are attorneys?
A: When I arrived in 2005, I was amazed at the breadth of options and programming that this relatively small law school had and that it could produce strength of curriculum in so many areas. It’s a perfect choice for a student who wants to specialize after completing her J.D. or spending some time in practice. In the past couple of years, we’ve had an increasing number of international students - lawyers in their own countries - who are studying in the LL.M. program, and that only enhances the experience for J.D. students.

Q: How has career services changed to reflect the challenging economic times?
A: In the past few years, we have transformed the career services office. We now do a wide variety of programming and instructional sessions to guide students into any possible choice of legal career. In this market, we realized the traditional practice of career services offices wasn’t going to get our students ahead, so we changed the culture. The counselors don’t wait for students or employers to come to them. They seek them out and arrange a variety of venues in which they can make connections. As this transformation continues, we hope to see every graduate finding a position that is fulfilling and makes use of their talents and training.

Q: How have the centers of specialization contributed to the law school’s culture?
A: We’ve been incredibly busy at the law school in the past few years. The energy and activity that surrounds us daily provides an added level of excitement to our work. The number of conferences and events that we are hosting each year has almost doubled in recent years, and it has attracted the attention of people from across the country. A large part of this activity is generated by the law school’s five centers – Law, Science & Innovation, Law and Global Affairs, the Diane Halle Center for Family Justice, the Indian Legal Program, and the Clinical Program. The programming developed by these centers over the past couple of years is fantastic. And many students find a home for professional growth by connecting with one of these centers.

Q: How has the law school attracted increasingly credentialed students?
A: I am incredibly proud of all the students who enter each year. As a group, their credentials are climbing, and this year they - again - had the highest credentials in the history of this law school. I think it important to mention, however, that credentials are not the end all and be all. We are committed to full-file review and continue to admit students who are extraordinarily talented but may not have the highest credentials. I am so proud of the accomplished and talented students that enroll with us. Beyond that, our alumni are a community of accomplished and talented people. Because of the exciting trajectory this law school is on, there is increased attention by prospective students. They are applying to five to 10 law schools apiece, and many receive multiple offers. I work with admitted students to make sure they have enough information to be able to see themselves as part of this community, and as future members of our alumni community. It’s rewarding work. There are lots of challenges. The national applicant pool has been declining in numbers over the past few years. We have the advantage of being in Phoenix and of having a really fantastic community of students, faculty and staff. The staff in the admissions office is a wonderful, dedicated group that cares about the students.

Q: How do you coordinate your roles in the law school and the Provost’s Office?
A: A year ago, I had the opportunity to split my responsibilities at the law school and work with the Provost’s Office on graduate enrollment strategies. The big picture at the university level is very different than the view from the law school because it is so much broader with more moving parts. I enjoy the balance of the two roles. With the Provost’s Office, the work is more about structure and solving the macro issues that arise. With the law school, the work is more personal, helping one individual to figure out the best options for solving his problem. I so enjoy working for Dean Sylvester and for Provost Phillips.

Q: What do you like about working in higher education?
A: I love my work. I love the puzzle of higher education, of figuring out how one student is able to accomplish multiple goals and still graduate on time and keep his or her debt low. I love figuring out the best strategies for coordinating the efforts of development, career services and student services. I’m a strategist. I was an economics major, theory-based through liberal arts, because I liked it. I match well with the culture of this university, in particular. Nothing is static; it is high energy and constantly looking for ways to be better and do more. I love to be able to look at something and say, “It doesn’t matter that this is the way it has always been done. Is it the best way to do it? This is a better way,” and to have people to work with who are excited about changing it with you. It’s cool.

Q: How do you like to unwind?
A: People always ask, “Beach or mountains?” For me, it’s always mountains. It’s where I feel at peace, relaxed. There’s something about being in a place where there is less of a human footprint. I am a nature lover.

Q: If you could have any other job, what would it be?
A: If I weren’t in higher education, I don’t know what I would be doing, but I feel certain that I would be unhappy. People have told me that I would be a good political strategist. I don’t see myself in that role, but maybe … I like a fast-paced environment with room to build and create.

Q: What is your hidden passion?
A: I love theater. I just went to see Jersey Boys and recently took my niece to see West Side Story. Earlier this year, I bought myself a book of Shakespeare’s plays. Theater has always been a nice distraction for me.
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