The Page Turns for Al

Admissions, Placement Dean Retires After 36 Years at UVA Law
July 25, 2002
Al Turnbull
Turnbull poses by the Spies Garden pond with his new fishing gear.

When he attended the law school he now works at, Al Turnbull faced a different world: less than 75 percent of his class graduated, there were only four women and one African-American in his class, students could expect a starting salary of $5,000 to $10,000, and even securing employment meant "you got out on the sidewalk and you found a job," as Turnbull put it. Today virtually every student graduates. Almost 45 percent of J.D. candidates are women, more than 15 percent are minorities, students benefit from aggressive on-Grounds recruiting, and the starting salary in New York City averages about $125,000. Having overseen revolutionary changes at the law school for 36 years as associate dean for admissions and placement (now Career Services), Turnbull is retiring at the end of July, content with his work at the University and ready to concentrate on fishing for small-mouth bass rather than high-achieving applicants.

"I feel good about it," Turnbull said, reflecting on his career. "I feel I've been able to do a good job."

After graduating, Turnbull clerked for two U.S. district judges in Charlottesville and spent two years in a private firm in Norfolk, Va., working as a trial lawyer before he got a call from then-Dean Hardy Cross Dillard — would he be interested in making his mark in a new position at the law school?

"I had a wonderful experience as a student, and I thought the institution was exceptional," Turnbull said. "This seemed like a very interesting, if unexpected, opportunity."

Turnbull took the job in 1966, and faced numerous challenges in building an admissions and career placement office as the student demographic underwent enormous changes. "There's literally been a revolution — and very interesting to watch," he said.

Turnbull worked for several years without professional assistance, other than an admissions committee made of faculty members. Turnbull's own class initially numbered 236, chosen from 566 applicants. Because the standards for admission were not as stringent then, only 170 had the academic ability and stamina required to graduate. By 1966, Turnbull's first year on the job, the applicant pool ballooned to 1,841, and during the 1970s the school and the applicant pool continued to grow. Employers were also beginning to notice Charlottesville's place on the legal education map.

"We were getting more and more employers wanting to recruit here," he said. "The logistics of handling that were exploding."

As a result, in the mid-1970s the school created two assistant jobs — now held by Steve Hopson, senior assistant dean for career services, and Jerry Stokes, senior assistant dean for admissions and financial aid.

The growing interest of employers in hiring outstanding graduates marked a shift from the past, Turnbull said, when young lawyers were considered privileged just to be working for an esteemed firm, and initially earned low salaries. In March 1968, New York City law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore kickstarted a frustrating recruiting season by upping their starting salary from $10,000 to $15,000, setting a new benchmark. Although now it's common for newly graduated law students to make $125,000 a year in New York City, at the time "that was a monstrous change in compensation," Turnbull said, and it had a gradual impact across the country. Soon after the firm's announcement, students posted a message on a school bulletin board: "Definition of 'going rate': $15,000 or we're going to Cravath."

With hundreds of firms coming to Charlottesville to compete for students each year, students now benefit from a new paradigm, Turnbull said. Students can also request and schedule interviews more easily with CASE, the school's online job search system that gives students 24-hour Web-based access to job opportunities and employer information. The Career Services office posted 1,460 openings on CASE in the fall of 2001 alone.

While serving on the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), Turnbull was involved in the changing admissions process of law schools as well. In 1972 Turnbull worked on the three-person subcommittee that created the Law School Data Assembly Service, a tool that admissions offices at every American law school use to evaluate an applicant's transcript, GPA, LSAT scores and other factors.

Turnbull also served on the LSAC's Board of Trustees when the organization decided to break from Educational Testing Services. LSAC's decision was considered a "risk" at the time, Turnbull said, but has since proven to offer benefits to both the schools and applicants. Today LSAC offers applicants specialized services, including the ability to apply electronically to multiple schools and check their candidate status online.

"A lot of progress has been made," he said. "Within 10 years I have no doubt that all of this information will be electronic."

While the mechanisms of submitting an application have changed, the basic criteria for getting admitted have not. Turnbull said a student's GPA, LSAT scores, school they attended, and undergraduate or graduate curriculum all factor in to the applicant's desirability, but admissions committees also weigh other aspects of an application.

"There is no ideal candidate because we're looking for a whole range of different backgrounds and perspectives," Turnbull said. "We want smart people. We want hard-working people."

Turnbull prepares his Scott STS fly rod, which he received as a retirement gift from Dean Jeffries.

The Class of 2004 includes 350 students selected from 3,562 applicants — more than a 600 percent jump from the applicant pool of Turnbull's own class. Because of an increase in students and faculty (now 71, they numbered around 18 when Turnbull attended), "Students don't have as much of a common experience as we did," Turnbull said. Every member of his class was taught by Hardy Cross Dillard (Contracts), Emerson Spies (Property), Charles Gregory (Torts), and Mortimer Caplin (Income Tax). "Considering the remarkable quality of these great professors, the Class of '62 got a common experience that is really a wonderful thing," he said.

While deciding whom to admit requires rejecting many applicants, Turnbull said his office always creates a wait list in case students offered admission choose not to enroll at Virginia. One year the office ran through the entire nonresident waitlist, and a few days prior to enrollment still had one nonresident space available, putting him in an unprecedented situation. Turnbull recalled one out-of-state candidate who had made a favorable impression in her interview. Because of the intense nonresident competition, she had been rejected, but Turnbull believed her interest in Virginia was so strong that she likely would still want to attend, even on short notice. Turnbull tried to contact her on the Friday before students were set to arrive. When he reached her father at his law firm, "he was inexplicably grumpy about the call." The woman's mother called Turnbull at home later that night to apologize for her husband's response and explained that when Virginia rejected their daughter, they used the money they were going to use on tuition to buy her a new car, since she had gotten a full merit scholarship at another school. The mother said her daughter, who at the moment was driving her new car to the other law school, would definitely be interested in going to Virginia, but "we have a cash flow problem that we will have to work out."

"She was a wildly successful student here," Turnbull recalled.

Turnbull's retirement years are sure to involve one of his favorite pastimes — fishing. When casting for small-mouth bass on the James River in early May with fishing buddies Professor Alex Johnson Jr. and guide Chuck Kraft, Turnbull admitted he was ready to buy a fly rod to replace his old 1960s-era Orvis bamboo rod — something Kraft had been recommending for years. Without hesitation Kraft told Turnbull to buy a Scott STS rod, 9-feet long for 7-weight line, with an Old Florida reel. Kraft insisted that Turnbull accept nothing less. When Turnbull was surprised with precisely that rod and reel by Dean John Jeffries Jr. later that month at the faculty dinner, Turnbull learned that Kraft's recommendation wasn't a coincidence. When Jeffries had called Turnbull's son a few months earlier to see what kind of gift would be appropriate, he called his brother, and both agreed that Kraft would be the best source of a recommendation. Johnson later told Turnbull that Kraft, who was facing away from Turnbull during the conversation on the James, had winked furiously at Johnson while making his insistent recommendation.

Turnbull's new rod has become a favorite topic of conversation. "It's like a magic wand compared to my old 1960s rod," he said.

Although fishing and spending time with his grandsons are in Turnbull's future, other plans are uncertain.

"It's fascinating to me to consider a situation where I don't have a daily agenda dictated by the structure of my job responsibilities," he said. "I find it exciting to think about being able to gravitate to whatever direction appeals to me."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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