Thoughts on Transferring for Law Students

This blog post is aimed largely at law students, not at law professors.  But I have felt I should say something about the topic of law student transfers for some time, if for no other reason than so that I can point them somewhere.  My students almost inevitably discover I was a transfer student myself (Georgetown to Harvard) so I get inundated with emails that run something like this:

Student: “Can we meet sometime to talk about something not related to Property Law?”

Ezra: “Yes.”

Then they come to my office and immediately want to close the door to talk about a “sensitive topic.”  If this weren’t my first time, my nervousness would shoot way up, but having heard the spiel before, I know the next line is, “I’m thinking about transferring.”

Student interest in transferring is I think is a product of rational thought and fear.  Rational thought in part because they look at their professors and their professors almost without fail have all gone to the same group of schools.  And if they ask me if it matters where they graduate from, I don’t lie, of course it does.  When Harvard accepted my transfer application, doors and opportunities opened up that I will forever be grateful for, in much the same way as I am grateful to my recommenders for helping open that door.  And fear because the job numbers out of all but the most elite schools (and even some of them) are scary.  They are scary to me to some extent but they are a lot scarier to a 1L student.  Transferring seems to offer a way to capitalize on the hard work of their 1L year.  And for the best students, I think it offers exactly that: an opportunity to use a single year’s worth of work to significantly improve at the very least the odds of having a job at graduation (and often more than that).  But for many students the prospect of transferring also serves to close doors on the 1L experience, on closeness with peers, and on commitment to the school community that initially welcomed them.

What You Get from Transferring

Although in theory students could transfer down the U.S. News rankings, in practice students transfer to move up rankings.  Occasionally students will tell me that they are committed to live in a particular geographic location (California often comes up among my students) but even then, the school they want to go to is a higher ranked not a lower ranked school.  Among my colleagues at American, there is a sizeable contingent of (mostly older) faculty that likes to spend faculty meetings heaping derision on the U.S. News rankings.  Given my school’s recent slip in the rankings this is a healthy attitude to have.  [Observers might note that around when I was hired we were in a huge tie for 43 and we are now ranked 72; it is, frankly, just a little concerning that I appear to be dragging us down in this way.]  But faculty and students do know and pay attention to the rankings which in my mind makes them a bit like grades: you may not feel the grade is fair, you may have lots of arguments about how meaningless the grade is, but at the end of the day grades do seem to matter, at least in the short-term.  So the number one thing you get from transferring is ranking.  And since that is why the student wanted to transfer in the first place, what you get from transferring is what was desired from transferring.

But was does school rank mean?  Here the answer is going to depend, a lot!  If you know you want to live, practice, and die in Lexington, KY, then the University of Kentucky might be a better choice than even Yale.  But if you aren’t sure about where you want to live or what you want to practice, then ranking may be more important to you, all other things being equal.  And for many students, it takes advanced calculus (or a guess) to figure out how to weigh ranking against what you lose when transferring.

A second thing you can get from transferring is a better peer group.  I am not going to go into specifics here but I will tell my own version of this story.  I loved my classmates at Georgetown and I was in awe of a couple of them.  I liked my classmates at Harvard and I was in awe of more of them.  (The two who most stood out for me at the time were Matthew Stephenson (now teaching at Harvard) and Sasha Volokh (now teaching at Emory).  They won’t remember me – in part for reasons I will get to at the end of this post – but I could see that they were both brilliant.)  As you move up in rankings there are of course things about the peer group that get worse, mainly centered around the sense of entitlement that pervades elite institutions, but overall the rankings system is largely a giant sorting system and moving from the top of a smaller hill to the middle of a bigger one can be an advantage of transferring.

What You Give Up from Transferring

I think the best account of this and the account I always give my students when they come to me was written by David Jaffe, my school’s Associate Dean and not coincidentally the person all students are required to meet with when thinking about transferring.  His article—David Jaffe, Should I Stay or Should I Go?, National Law Journal, Jan. 2012—is great and I have little to add.  Read it.  To put what you give up in my own words, I think there are two categories of loss: mentors and friends.  First, on the professional side, top students will end their first year with a fairly long list of professors who think very highly of them and would love to see them in upper level classes and would love to serve as mentors.  [The topic of this post is not what professors lose when students transfer, but this year has been a particularly rough one for me in that respect – I really liked a lot of the students who ended up transferring and I feel that my biggest champions and people I really wanted to champion have left the building.]  And that is a loss.  There are ways to get over that somewhat but it is one thing to have a mentor who saw how great you were in an elective or two and it is quite another to have a mentor who can attest to your growth throughout law school.  Second, on the personal and professional side, friends matter.  That should go without saying but often it doesn’t (among students and faculty alike).  My best friends from law school were people I met in my 1L year, not the people I met at my new school in my 2L and 3L year.  And those friendships are not as strong as they would have been if I hadn’t abandoned town after a year.  In the 1L year, people are open and excited about making new friends; by and large by 2L and 3L year they are more interested in continuing the friendships from their initial section.  That means that transfer students either must be very good at being social or remain content having lost some potential to make deep friendships.  When I tell students about this loss they often don’t take it seriously, but it is important.

Thoughts on the Transfer Market

Things have changed since I transferred.  My year, there were five total transfers to Harvard.  That number is now up to the forties and fifties according to a 2010 interview.  This year was the year as a recommender I could really notice the opening up of the transfer doors and I am still trying to make sense of what it means.  Positively, some outstanding students got some outstanding opportunities.  On a more mixed level, some students that I recommended because they were strong in my class got in to places as a transfer that I did not expect given their overall record.  What does it mean when neighboring area schools take students whose 1L grades didn’t even reach the 3.0 mark?  One thing it clearly means is that the transfer applicant standard has fallen.  It also means they are aggressively playing the U.S. News rankings game.

The other thing I think it says is that students value the rankings over the educational experience they had as 1Ls.  Though they may be telling me lies, I honestly believe that many of my students have great professors, and I am not talking about their Property professor [me].  My school places an insane amount of emphasis on teaching—a senior colleague once told me pre-tenure that scholarship mattered some but teaching is all anyone actually looks at in the building, and though he may have been just a bit bitter about that, he had a point.  We care about teaching and consequently I do believe the students routinely have a great professor at the front of the classroom, especially for the large 1L classes (our Crim faculty in particular are rockstar teachers).  The transfer market is such that none of that matters or it matters very little.  The higher ranked school is seen as better even if the educational experience the student has had they themselves understand was great.

Things to Do if You Transfer

In this final section, I am going to note some of the things I think one should do upon transferring.  My first suggestion is to continue to work hard.  Most law students, especially at higher ranked schools where the future is more set, do noticeably less schoolwork in their 2L and 3L year.  As a transfer, if you maintain something close to the level of intensity that you had as a 1L, you will be surprised both by how strong your grades end up being and by how much the professors appreciate your effort.  Second, try to get on law review at the school you transfer to.  I did not and still feel not trying was stupid.  Law review is a way to surround yourself with motivated students and being a nerd among other nerds is fun.  Third, because you transferred, it is important to make a more concerted effort to nurture mentor-mentee relationships which means consider taking 2 or 3 classes taught by the same professor (ideally but not necessarily a professor who teaches in the field you want to enter).  Fourth, regardless of where you go to law school, do clinic.  Finally, try to enjoy law school.

Those are my suggestions.  I should add in the interest of disclosure that I followed only some of this advice and only some of this advice worked out for me.  I did do all the reading assigned to me throughout law school, a level of effort that did get professors to notice me in the classroom, but that was possible in large part because I did not do law review.  I took three classes with Roberto Mangabeira Unger which means I can spell his name from memory and could predict many of his answers to student questions, but I never made much of an impression on him I don’t think.  On the other hand, I took a single class with Duncan Kennedy and he became an amazing recommender and played a significant role in getting me my current job, a debt I can never repay.  So that advice, while I think it is still sound, didn’t work out in my particular case.  More than anything else, after transferring I spent my time doing something not included in my above list of suggestions: I courted my then girlfriend and now wife of ten years.  She was and is far out of my league in every respect and wooing her was the best decision I ever made, far more important than the transfer decision.

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