First Year, Second Chance

For eleven stellar seasons, the CBS hit “The Jeffersons” told the hilarious story of George and Weezie, who had moved on up the socio-economic ladder to “a deluxe apartment in the sky.” [1]  In contemporary legal education, a growing phenomenon parallels George and Weezie’s desire to get a “piece of the pie.” [2] This article will examine the trend of the transfer law student in addition to the successes, complications, and possible prejudices experienced by transfer students in securing employment.

For many prospective law students, the application process ends in heartbreak. One’s entire life is broken down into discrete components by way of an LSAT score and GPA. Many cannot help but see their self-worth reflected, for better or worse, by such abstract enumerations. As these numbers are the primary considerations in law school admissions, poor scores can have the potential to bar applicants from admission to their ideal schools. Falling on the ugly side of the LSAT’s bell curve may force an applicant to compromise his or her school selections. For instance, an applicant may well abandon significant criteria, such as location or reputation, in favor of the pragmatic “whoever will let me in.” Inferior scores have forced many students to select less than ideal law schools in their quest to get their J.D.

That is, until recently. The fait accompli of enrolling into a law school is far less permanent than in previous years. Students who enrolled in their “second-choice” schools as 1Ls now transfer into the programs that initially rejected them. While this only applies to 1Ls with outstanding grades (the general consensus appears to be that a class rank from anywhere in the top 20% to the top 5% of a class is required) trading up appears to be a growing trend. 

II: That Lean and Hungry Look

The reasons for transferring tend to break down into two general categories: personal and professional. This article will focus on the latter. Those who transfer for personal reasons typically have spouses, families, or significant others in regions geographically distant from their 1L law school.
First year law students who are motivated by professional concerns, however, seem to represent the majority of a transfer class. With the exception of the truly elite law schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale (the so-called “Trinity”), law students typically practice within some regional proximity to their law school. Transferring into a law school close to one’s target city allows access to valuable alumni networks and placement in internships/externships.

“Upgrading” one’s law school is also a motivation for those that transfer for professional reasons. [3] As flawed as the U.S. News World Report ranking of law schools [4] might be, law firm recruiters seem to draw more heavily at higher-ranked law schools. Highly selective law firms often will not consider law students outside of a given range of law schools. For example, the prestigious New York City firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz is reported to rarely consider any law student not hailing from Yale (ranked #1 by US News), Harvard (#2), New York University (#4), or Columbia (#5). Thus, even if students find themselves happy with almost all other factors at a given law school, some will still ambitiously transfer “up” to a more nationally respected law school. For students hungry for positions at elite law firms or highly prestigious Federal clerkships, transferring opens  significant professional doors. 

III: But What Have You Done For Me Lately?

The reasons for a student seeking to transfer appear quite commonsensical. What are the motivations, however, for the law school administrators letting transfers into their programs? The answer appears deceptively simple, as noted by Nkonye Iwerebon, Dean of Admissions at the Columbia University School of Law: “They often turn out to be some of our very best students.”[5] That, however, is only part of the story. Part of the difficulty in selecting a class of law students is the attempt to predict who will flourish in this highly competitive and Type-A driven environment. Undergrad GPA is not the best indicator of future success due to issues such as grade inflation and dissimilarity between majors. [6] The LSAT is arguably an even worse indicator. [7] Accepting transfer students allows admissions deans to expertly cut this Gordian knot. By requiring transfer candidates to be in the top 20% of their 1L class (if not better), admissions deans can admit students who clearly possess the ability to succeed in law school. There is little, if any, uncertainty; these students already have made the cut. This allows a law school to further “stack the deck” in having candidates that will likely pass the bar exam and flourish in law practice, all while holding a “___”School of Law J.D..

Further, transfer admissions are a “backdoor” of sorts in regard to the information a law school is obligated to report to the American Bar Association (“A.B.A.”). Law schools report the median LSAT and GPA of each year’s entering class to the A.B.A., factors significantly utilized (25%) by U.S. News in their rankings. [8] Transfer students, however, do not come into play under this rule. [9] Therefore, law schools get the best of both worlds: already proven students that will not drag down LSAT or GPA medians. Consider further that 20% of a law school’s ranking is based in employment rates and bar passage rates. [10]  It is truly a positive sum game.

IV: The Devil is in the Details

As alluded to in the second section of this article, transferring into a top law school is only half of the battle. The basic question that served as the galvanizing spark for this article was “do transfer students have a harder time in securing the same employment as their peers?” The answer, as best as this author can surmise, is an exasperated “maybe.”

The problem in asking the above question is that there is little empirical evidence to analyze. Certainly, no law firm would admit to having a policy of disregarding transfer interviewees. Transferring is also such a recent phenomenon that there appears to be no scholarly comprehensive study of the matter. Much of the information posited below (and above) has been assembled from non-traditional sources in the form of correspondence with transfer students, reading of blogs prepared by and for transfer students, and the databases found within the TransferApps Yahoo! group, in addition to this author's own experiences as a transfer student. The names of students interviewed and law firms mentioned will remain anonymous out of respect for the privacy of those involved.

In considering their On Campus Interview (“OCI”) and Call Back Interview (“CBI”) experiences, many transfer law students recalled a number of questions/matters of confusion arising from their transfer. One transfer student at the University of Illinois College of Law (#25) told of multiple interviews in which, despite his life-long residency in Illinois, including attendance at an Illinois college, his single year at an Arizona law school threw the interviewers for a loop. Lawyers conducting the interviews could not comprehend that he neither resided in Arizona nor intended to return to Arizona once Arizona was seen on his resume.

A disturbingly common issue experienced by transfer students during OCIs is confusion regarding the grading system at their 1L school. Law school grading systems can run from traditional (A+, A, A-, etc) to unique (numerical values from 1-99) to the outright bizarre practice of the University of Chicago Law School (numerical values from 155-186). [11] When an interviewer encounters a “rogue” grading system, the reactions appear to range from the flummoxed to the agitated. Other school-to-school variations, such as the name of the award given to the top student in each class (C.A.L.I. award, American Jurisprudence award, the Book award, etc), tend to make interviewing unnecessarily complicated. [12]

By far, the single most common question directed toward transfer interviewees appears to be “why did you transfer?” As a 2L transfer preparing for OCI this fall, this author was told by 3Ls to prepare a good answer for this almost certain question. In the law student blog “Droit Femme,” a transfer student author expressly recommends other transfer students also prepare for this very question in her OCI oriented advice.[13] The “Sua Sponte” blog, written by a student who transferred from UC-Hastings (#36) to the University of Chicago (#6), makes the same suggestion. [14] The blog offers specific advice for the answer an interviewee might proffer: “‘This is a much better school’ does not count, regardless of how true a motivator it was for you.”  [15]   

A far less innocuous problem with the 1L grades of a transfer student lies in the value, or lack thereof, prescribed to them by the interviewer. Several students indicated receiving either tacit or expressed indifference to 1L grades coming from an “inferior program.” Law recruiters told a transfer student at Illinois Law that they would reconsider him for a position once he had Illinois grades, despite him being ranked in the top 10% at his 1L law school. Similarly, a transfer student at the University of Michigan Law School (# 8) recalled significant prejudice during her interviews at elite Washington D.C. law firms. Several firms explicitly told this student to reapply as a 3L as the firms would not even consider her 1L grades.  Such discrimination can represent a significant issue for transfer students in the fall OCI process. Many firms fill their Summer Associate class roster  in the fall, leaving few, if any, positions open in the second semester. 

V: Just the Facts Ma’am

Given the myriad first-hand accounts gathered, the interview prospects for transfer students at our nation's best law schools seemed  precarious at best, if not outright bleak. Yet as this author ruminated, this pessimistic paradigm seemed to be contrary to what was known by fellow transfer students at not only at Illinois Law, but nationwide.

The Yahoo! Group, “TransferApps,” represents a grass-roots collaborative effort by transfer law students and transfer hopefuls to demystify the application process. [16] On this site, transfer students from previous years ably answer the questions of nervous transfer candidates. More importantly, there exists the “2006 OCI Results for Transfers” database, in which many transfer law students reveal their successes and failures at their new law school. [17] Information such as 1L school, current law school, academic distinctions, number of firms interviewed with, number of firms giving offers, etc, is documented. [18] Review of the database reveals highly encouraging information to prospective and current transfer students. A student who left the University of Buffalo-SUNY (#77) to attend Columbia (#5) secured a highly prestigious summer associate position with the New York City powerhouse, Sullivan & Cromwell. [19] Similarly, a student from Brooklyn Law School (#60) transferring into N.Y.U. (#4) reports CBIs from not only Sullivan & Cromwell, but also Skadden, Arps, Meagher, & Flom, and Debevoise & Plimpton. Transfer students at Harvard (#2) and Georgetown (#14) both report: “all the transfers here did very well.” 21

Obviously, this database is hardly comprehensive (only 30 students have posted their OCI information for the Fall of 2006) and can surely fall prey to exaggeration and/or self-selective reporting. However, the database clearly demonstrates that not only can transfer students be competitive in OCI process, but they are. 

VI: Certain Uncertainty

In interviews and discussions about the unique status of transfer students in the OCI process, some students suggested that the A.B.A. or other agencies could issue a law that officially prohibits interviewing firms from discriminating against transfer students.

While this proposal sounds initially intriguing, this author doubts it could be of any practical significance. 
The reason for such pessimism lies in the inherent plethora of variables that contribute to law firm hiring decisions. Not only will a firm consider grades, law review, and moot court, but also the personality and background of the applicant. If a socially inept or rude transfer student applied at a firm that traditionally refuses to hire transfer students, who is to say which contributed to the rejection? It presents a true “the chicken or the egg” scenario.

Given the myriad criterion a hiring partner might consider, it would be all but impossible to attribute a job rejection to an applicant’s transfer status in all but the most extreme and explicit circumstances. 
Further, it may not be wrong to treat transfer students differently from their traditional 2L peers in that transfers are in fact, different. Were a law firm were to require all transfer students be in the top 10% of their 1L class, an unofficial requirement relayed to an Illinois transfer student by several prestigious Chicago law firms, who is to say this is discriminatory/unreasonable? Would this be different from a Chicago law firm restricting hiring to the top 25% of the University of Chicago (#6), the top 20% of Northwestern (#12), and the top 10% from Illinois (#25), Washington University-St. Louis (#19), and Notre Dame (#27)?

The matter of the 1L school of a transfer candidate also complicates the transfer interview process. A random survey of the 2L transfer class of Illinois reveals law students from: Chicago-Kent (#60), John Marshall-Chicago (4th Tier, ranking #150-200), Wisconsin (#31), Michigan State (3rd Tier, ranking #100-150) and Northern Illinois (4th Tier). Such a wide variety of law schools, some more selective in their admissions than others, reflect differently on each respective candidate. Analogous to the question posited in the above paragraph, is it discriminatory or totally reasonable for a law firm to view a transfer student coming from a Top-50 law school differently than a law school with a lesser reputation?

VII: Ain’t Nothing Going to Break My Stride

One cannot help but escape the answer suggested Section IV of this article. The answer to the transfer question can be nothing more than a “maybe.” The OCI experience for transfer students is without a doubt different than for traditional 2Ls. This difference may be as minor as merely having to inform a curious interviewer why one decided to transfer or as significant as not being considered for a position due to the prejudices and policies of an elitist law firm. Practical considerations appear to preclude any attempt to excise possible institutional biases against transfer applications.

The potential for such problems seems unlikely to stem the growing tide of future transfer students. By nature, transfer students are those used to adversity and overcoming past failures. Given the considerable sacrifice and additional work that burdens the law student who elects to transfer [22], it is unlikely that the smug bombast of a few hiring partners will be more than an annoyance. In light of how quickly the administrations of our nation’s top law schools have warmed to the thought of transfer students amidst their ranks, it is not improbable that even the elite white-shoe law firms are not far behind.

[1] JA’NET DUBOIS & ORIN WATERS, Movin’ on Up (Theme to the Jeffersons), on TV LAND PRESENTS: FAVORITE TV THEME SONGS (Rhino/Wea 2002).

[2] Id.

[3] Karin Dybis, Trading Places, NAT'L JURIST,  Mar., 2007, (Magazine), at 28, available at:http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/cypress/nationaljurist0307/index.php

[4]  America’s Best Graduate Schools 2008, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REP., (Magazine), available at:http://www.usnews.com/usnews/edu/grad/rankings/law/lawindex_brief.php

[5] Dybis, supra note 3.

[6]  David A. Thomas, Predicting Law School Academic Performance from LSAT Scores and Undergraduate Grade Point Averages: A Comprehensive Study, 35 ARIZ. ST. L.J. 1007 (2003). 

[7] Id.; Jeffery S. Kinsler, The LSAT Myth, 20 ST. LOUIS U. PUB. L. REV 393 (2001).

[8] America’s Best Graduate Schools 2008: About the Rankings, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REP., (Magazine), available at:http://www.usnews.com/usnews/edu/grad/rankings/about/08law_meth_brief.php

[9]  Id.

[10] Id.

[11] THE 2007 BCG ATT’Y SEARCH GUIDE FOR AM.’S TOP 50 LAW SCHS. (BCG Att’y Search, Pasadena, CA), 2007, available athttp://www.bcgsearch.com/pdf/BCG_Law_Schoool_Guide_2007.pdf

[12] Id.

[13] Transfer Law Students & Fall Recruitment; DROIT FEMME,http://droitfemme.blogspot.com/2006/08/transfer-law-students-fall-recruitment.html (last visited Apr. 23, 2007).

[14] Transferring F.A.Q. 1., SUA SPONTE, http://www.suasponte.org/archives/000798.php (last visited Apr. 23, 2007).

[15] Id.

[16] TransferApps: Law Students Attempting to Transfer,http://groups.yahoo.com/group/transferapps/ (last visited Apr. 23, 2007).

[17]  2006 OCI Results for Transfers Database,http://groups.yahoo.com/group/transferapps/database?method=reportRows&tbl=23  (last visited Apr. 24, 2007).

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Dybis, supra note 3 at 28-29.

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