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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Transfer Game

One of the rituals of the end of the spring semester is the trickle of students coming into my office and announcing, with varying degrees of sheepishness, that they're considering transferring, and asking if I'd be willing to write a recommendation letter.  So it's quite timely that the Journal of Legal Education's current issue has an article by Jeffrey Rensberger (South Texas) examining the transfer phenomenon.  It's a good read, and important for anyone interested in legal education.

Aside from collating statistics confirming the intuition that students transfer to higher-ranked schools (rather than primarily for geographic or educational-program reasons), Rensberger considers the effects of transferring, both on legal education generally and individual students.  He makes the important argument that the gains intake schools enjoy from transfer students are outweighed by the losses suffered by outflow schools.  To oversimplify, his argument is that transfer candidates, because they perform better, are more likely to contribute to rich classroom discussion and are more likely to succeed both on the bar and in their careers.  (I'm not sure I agree on the career success point, but that may be because I have a broader definition of what constitutes career success.  But he is likely right on the first two points.)  He argues that these gains enjoyed by intake schools are less than the corresponding losses suffered by outflow schools, essentially because the intake schools already have a good number of students who are likely to contribute to the school's success; one more such student doesn't change the atmosphere much.  By contrast, the outflow schools don't enjoy a surfeit of such students, and suffer relatively more when the active, creative class participant and future first-time bar passer leaves.

I agree with this much of Rensberger's analysis.  I've felt real disappointment when first-year stars have sought to transfer, exactly because these students were so great in the classroom and were no bar pass risks.  But I'm not so sure about the next part.  Rensberger then considers the problem from the perspective of the outflow school.  He paints a picture of a school that has taken a chance on a risky student (by definition, he suggests, since the higher-ranked school didn't pick that student originally), and invested time and money in developing her, only to see her poached (his word) by the inflow school.  With the caveat that I'm not speaking from actual data, I'm not sure I agree with this picture.  My sense is that a number of transfer students were toward the top of the outflow school's entering class, based on LSAT/UGPA.  Not always, but enough that it's familiar for me to have a student poring over the choice between foregoing a continuing merit scholarship and transferring up the food chain.

What does this difference mean?  At first blush, it suggests that there's nothing seriously insidious with the current transfer situation.  Remember that U.S. News fails to consider the credentials of incoming transfer students as part of a school's overall student quality.  Thus, if intake schools are just picking up the students they would have taken originally had they not been pushed by U.S. News to artificially bump up selectivity and entering student credentials, then in essence lower-ranked schools have just rented those students for a year, before they found their "natural" place in the law school hierarchy.

But there's more to it, both quantitatively and qualitatively.  First, higher-ranked schools are foregoing first-year tuition for those students they passed on originally and took only as transfers.  Thus, all other things being equal, for their books to clear they need to take a larger number of transfers than they would otherwise take as additional first-years, to make up for that year's worth of lost tuition. Therefore, there's an additional volume of transfer outflow.

What this suggests is that we need to ask whether, for outflow schools, it's worth it to have these students for a year, even if they lose them (and, indeed, lose more than what they would otherwise lose, given the tuition analysis in the previous paragraph).  Is it better to have taught good students and lost (more of) them, then to never have taught them at all?  Rensberger doesn't directly address this aspect of the problem, which I think cuts in both directions.  On the one hand, there is surely a demoralization effect as the best students in the first-year class climb a rung on the career ladder while leaving their classmates behind.  On the other hand, the performance of these out-bound students in the first class may well have an inspirational effect that lasts beyond their departure.  I'm not sure how one would measure these effects, but it would be interesting to see the results, if one could.

Second, there's the impact on transfer students themselves.  Rensberger discusses this in the context of those students' job prospects, and, in particular, their prospects in light of the choice between graduating at the top of their original matriculating school and possibly in the middle or worse of their transfer school.  This is important, and something students often don't appreciate.  But there's more.  Transfer candidates are, by definition, stars in their original school.  They'll get the RA positions, the recommendations, the law review and moot court positions, and, generally, every intangible goody that a law school can bestow.  In my experience, these benefits are often undervalued by transfer candidates -- unsurprisingly, since they haven't experienced them yet.  They also lose out on a lot of the camaraderie that comes from having gone through first year together.  This isn't just a matter of having a lot of drinking buddies -- it's also a matter of developing the core of one's professional network.

So, in sum, transferring is a decidedly mixed bag.  Rensberger concludes, correctly, I think, that the transfer game is an overall net negative for legal education.  My own sense is that it's often at best a mixed blessing for the students who play it.  Ideally, higher-ranked schools wouldn't game the system by artificially restricting their first-year classes for U.S. News reasons and then making up the financial shortfall by taking more than their "natural" share of transfer students.  But that would mean that schools aren't playing the U.S. News game.

Posted by Bill Araiza on May 18, 2011 at 01:50 PM | Permalink


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Orin Kerr had a good post a couple of years ago too:


Posted by: Tranfser Ace | May 20, 2011 8:09:54 PM

I should add, that at least anecdotally, I've heard transfer students do well at their new schools. But there may be selection bias in the reporting of results there.

Posted by: Matt | May 20, 2011 5:48:07 PM

This post is very timely. For me, I had a fairly good undergraduate GPA (3.88). My LSAT came in at a rather disappointing 162.

I even had to ride the wait list at my current institution. Now as I finish my first year my GPA is 3.92. I'm still waiting on some more classes, but that puts me around the top 2-3 percent. Like many other people I'm considering transferring "up" from a school in the lower part of the first tier.

Perhaps the decision is easier for me, as I'm receiving no scholarships, nor is my school prepared to order me one to stay. My concern is, like you said, I would be forgoing things like law review at my current school for the unknown.

Posted by: Matt | May 20, 2011 5:45:24 PM

I teach full-time at a T4 school. My school loses its fair share of top students each year to T1 and T2 schools. I've had several students who, in the past few years, have transferred to top twenty schools. And when I am asked to be one of their references for job searches in their third year at the new school, I usually find that the student maintained his or her high, pre-transfer GPA or did even better at the receiving school.

I don't mind writing the transfer letters, though I am always sad to see them go. I understand the student is doing what he or she believes is best. What I do mind is the fact that some law schools are aggressive in contacting our top students in an effort to get them to switch schools. To them, it's good business; to me, it's shameful. Many of my students are content at our school (most transfers express an "I don't want to leave because I love this school, but I'll have more opportunities at the new school" attitude and I believe them). They don't even think to transfer until someone else mentions it. When the someone else is another law school "poaching" (yes, I'm using the word because it's honest) our student, I have a problem with that.

As for the person earlier in this post who said that students at lower ranking schools, even if they're at the top of their class, can't get great jobs, that's simply not true. Our top students regularly land lucrative jobs. Maybe that's because they learn how to be an attorney rather than learn about textualism and purposivism.

Posted by: No-Snob Prof | May 20, 2011 3:59:45 PM

A few comments:

"I was a transfer from a school ranked in the 70s to a school bear the bottom of the (I hate this term) "T14." The differences in employment outcomes between me and peers with similar grades who'd stayed at my first school were shocking. For all the reasons this post enumerates, I think I would have had a better intellectual experience had I stayed at my first school. Even so, the long term consequences of school prestige are simply too significant to ignore."

I second this statement entirely--I also transferred to a T14 and the job prospects were better.

Snobbishness is a big problem in the legal community and in the school I transferred to. I was fortunate enough to graduate near the top of my class, which means I consistently out-performed my peers at the t14 school, but people still try to explain to me that transfers are not really as good as the normal admittees because they didn't face that school's 1L curve.

Finally, I think the ability to transfer is most important not for the students who had a high GPA/LSAT but ended up at a lower school for a different reason, but for those that the predictors of law school success (that's what GPA and LSAT are supposed to be--predictors, not things of independent value) were just plain wrong. One student I know had a 151 LSAT, earned a 4.0 GPA at a tier four school, transferred to a T14 school, and did pretty well there. Clearly the LSAT guessed wrong on his performance. The ability to transfer reduces the problems with LSAT tyranny.

Posted by: Tranfser Ace | May 19, 2011 3:13:35 PM

Another interesting aspect of the transfer game is a student a highly ranked (but not the best) school who did well first year. That student would have very little incentive to transfer from say, Chicago to Yale, but gets none of the financial benefits available to students who threaten to transfer. Many top students were not those who received scholarships upon enrolling at their 1L school, and therefore are paying their own way. While at the same time, other students at their school, who did well on the LSAT but did not do well in the first year, enjoy scholarships for the rest of their education. The only way for the achieving student to benefit financially would be to disingenuously threaten to transfer and ask for a scholarship. Not a great position to be in.

Posted by: T6 Student | May 19, 2011 1:24:53 PM

There's one part of your analysis of the transfer students' experience that I think is wrong, and that is their chances of excelling at the more highly-ranked school. 2Ls and 3Ls can choose smaller classes (in which curved grading requirements may not apply) and "game" the system so that their grades are higher. When they report their gpas, then, applying for jobs in the future, those gpas may look better because the students never competed with the students in their transfer school for 1L grades. Sure, they did fantastically well in their original schools, but we're already positing that they were big fish in small ponds. The students at the higher-ranked school may be just as smart, but because they had to go through 1L with lots of other really intense fish, they probably have spottier first year performances. All this leads to really impressive performances by transfer students at the higher-ranked schools. They do, of course, miss all the "goodies" you mentioned, in addition to the camaraderie (you can't have a beer and recall old study sessions with your transcript).

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2011 10:03:34 AM

Personally, I would be deeply disappointed if the transfer system stopped working the way it did, for the following reasons. Professor Araiza, in his post, suggests that a large number of transfers - perhaps the majority - are people with strong LSAT/UGPA and merit scholarships. That happens, but it's my experience that people who take the scholarship and forgo attending a more prestigious school stick it out. In my own experience, and in the case of most of the transfers I know, people who transfer are people who are very strong in one indicator (more often the LSAT), but very weak in the other. They are people whose aptitude for law school was not accurately predicted by the metrics, or perhaps more accurately, people whose aptitude was predicted by their LSAT score but whose UGPAs were too radioactive, for rankings purposes, to be touched by top schools. For such people, a strong 1L year is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and redeem themselves from their poor LSAT, their bouts of depression in their undergraduate years, their chronic laziness, their disinterest and poor performance in the courses outside their major, or what have you. If they do well, they can go to a school commensurate with their actual talent. Because the top schools game the system in the way they do, finishing in the top 5-10% of one's 1L class, so long as one goes to a good institution, is these days a ticket to transfer admission to a top ten school. In this way, I think law school admissions end up being remarkably fair and accurate. Being that where one goes to school is absolutely vital to one's career prospects, I think it's a wonderful thing that transfer admissions correct some of the errors of the first go-round and help make where one goes to school a more accurate index of talent.

As to the 'outflow' schools, there's no doubt that it's absolutely devastating. The school I left was in the midst of a protracted rankings plunge (from the day I applied to the day I left, it had fallen 9 spots over two cycles), so perhaps outflows were a little exaggerated at our school. With that said, at that school there were maybe a dozen stand-outs in the class. The rest were merely good, competent, or not so competent law students. Of that dozen, maybe 9 left for such destinations as Harvard, NYU, Chicago and Georgetown. Of the few stand-out students who stayed, the one who was by far the brightest became the President of the Law Review; I chatted with her a month ago and discovered that 2 years into her law school career she didn't know what textualism or purposivism were. The rest of the law review is comprised, in no small part, of people who had trouble their first year wrapping their minds around diversity jurisdiction. One can't help but feel badly for the 'outflow' school, but I can't really see them as a victim when they received about $600,000 in first-year tuition from those of us who transferred and practically the entire top end of their LSAT spectrum, a top end which saved them from sinking even further. In addition, though I think it's fanciful to think our example continues to inspire those who stayed behind (or was even inspirational at the time, rather than, often, resented), we surely did lighten the pedagogical burden and vastly enhance classroom discussion.

Posted by: An Anonymous Transfer | May 18, 2011 11:44:01 PM

I was a transfer from a school ranked in the 70s to a school bear the bottom of the (I hate this term) "T14." The differences in employment outcomes between me and peers with similar grades who'd stayed at my first school were shocking. For all the reasons this post enumerates, I think I would have had a better intellectual experience had I stayed at my first school. Even so, the long term consequences of school prestige are simply too significant to ignore.

Posted by: matth | May 18, 2011 8:10:30 PM

Bill: Thanks for the reply. I was responding to your discussion of the impact on transfer students.

I agree that transfers within - what we might call a prestige tier - make a lot less sense than a transfer to a higher tiers. Although one would think that the prestige jump from the top of one tier to the bottom of the next would be small, in my experience there are fairly sharp discontinuities.

Posted by: Brad | May 18, 2011 7:12:08 PM

Brad: I'm not sure to whom you're replying, but, for what it's worth, I agree with your general statement about "snobbishness" or, as one might call it more gently, the profession's heavy premium on credentials. In terms of the calculus a would-be transfer student faces, it's always a matter of what she's leaving behind and what she's getting. In the case of your comment, it's how much more prestige she's getting by transferring up -- that is, how high up she's going. That's absolutely a factor in the decision -- but it's only one factor, it seems to me (and one that students may actually over-rate, or at least, one where they may be more prone to making granular distinctions than are warranted ("The school ranked # 16 must be higher prestige than the school ranked #15.")

Ani: Just so we're clear, I didn't use the "captured animals" analogy; Professor Rensberger did (partly in jest, I think). For me, though, the question is not whether transfers are good or bad per se, but whether law schools create a situation where more transfers happen, because of their temptation to game U.S. News by limiting the size of their first year class.

Posted by: Bill Araiza | May 18, 2011 6:49:35 PM

I think you strongly underrate the degree of snobbishness in the legal profession including, perhaps especially, legal academia.

Entire career paths are simply not open to graduates of lower ranked schools no matter how well they do. For a student interested in such paths, a fighting chance at a more difficult school is better than no chance at all at a less difficult school.

Posted by: Brad | May 18, 2011 6:06:43 PM

It's highly likely that transfers are bad for net transferor schools, good for net transferee schools, and a mixed bag for others. But so what? Much the same complaint can be made about any situation of social or economic mobility.

I guess I am unpersuaded that "the market for law students operates similarly to one in captured and escaped animals."

Posted by: Ani | May 18, 2011 5:57:53 PM

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