Stuck in the middle with you

It is unfortunate that lately, when the subject of transfer applications comes up, that 1970s song starts running through my head. I don’t like that song, and it also makes me think of the movie Reservoir Dogs, which is a troubling film. But I fear I am doomed, because I quite decidedly feel like Michigan is stuck in the middle between two unfortunate trends.

Recently, almost every day has brought with it some inquiry from a transfer applicant to Michigan who can’t satisfy our pretty straightforward list of application requirements because of some action on the part of the school from which they’re hoping to transfer. The strategies run a gamut.

I’ve heard about an indirect, foot-dragging approach—akin to how a teenager might approach a chore. The administrator charged with sending out the necessary documentation, like transcripts, or letters of good standing (meant to certify that a student has met all outstanding tuition obligations and isn’t involved in any ongoing disciplinary issue), delays performing the task, or expresses reluctance, or even debates would-be applicants about whether the proposed transfer is a good idea. Students that have faced this sort of understandably unpleasant conversation report feeling totally stymied by it—they understand the school to be saying, “We refuse to provide you with a letter to a school we don’t want you to apply to.” But even if a school wouldn’t go quite that far if directly challenged, the implicit message to the student is, “If you do this, we will be unhappy with you.” With perhaps a subtext of, “and have you noticed I’m the person in charge of your transcript?” But having worked inside an educational institution for a long time, I’m here to tell you—no one is going to hold it against you. Chances are, in fact, that the next student request will drive the conversation right off their radar. Aspiring lawyers who really want to transfer should be able to get past the hints of displeasure.

Sometimes schools are more direct, but confine themselves to erecting minor roadblocks. Law schools that normally rank their students, for example, might wait to do so until right before the start of the second year. But while a class rank is very useful to us in assessing a transfer application, particularly when the school in question is one from which we don’t typically see many applications, not having one doesn’t make it utterly impossible to assess the application. And there is, presumably, a legitimate reason for wanting to delay; if a school ranks everyone, and then a few people transfer out, the school has to re-do that work—tiresome—and also has to advertise to all the remaining students that a couple of their cohort transferred—possibly demoralizing. This approach strikes an understandable balance.

But some schools, I think, go too far. We’ve heard about a school that makes would-be applicants who want transcripts mailed out sign a form relinquishing their right to be on law review or participate in moot court—pretty coercive, given the lack of certainty about the success of a transfer application. And last year, I was told about a school that makes a student pay his or her next semester’s tuition before the school will send off a transcript. I really, really want to believe I misunderstood that one.

The faculty letter of recommendation is another pretty essential piece of the evaluation process. It seems to me that a student is entitled to a letter of recommendation as an implicit part of the educational exchange (although I am not of the school of thought that says it is a breach of ethics to write anything other than a favorable letter). Yesterday, an applicant forwarded an e-mail from a professor who said it was against his policy ever to write a letter of recommendation for transfer to another law school. That strikes me as frankly outrageous.

Blatant efforts to put the bottom line of the school ahead of the interests of individual students are discreditable. It is understandable that school administrators and faculty take a little umbrage if told, “I want to leave this law school and go to another law school because I think I will get a better education or have more career opportunities there.” But school policy shouldn’t be governed by hurt feelings. And it is simply undeniable that schools have obligations to support students who want to relocate for a whole host of personal reasons—ranging from “I want to be near a family member who is ill” to “I realize I completely hate this part of the country.”

So, that’s one end of the transfer spectrum. What’s at the other end? The schools that write people who were waitlisted as 1L applicants, or even denied, and encourage them to apply to transfer. The technique is clever—it taps into the human need for affirmation, explicitly dangling the possibility that the school that rejected you before will rectify its poor judgment. On the one hand, I completely get this mindset. I was waitlisted at my dad’s alma mater, and when I did well in my first year at Michigan, I considered whether a successful transfer application might not assuage my sense of rejection. (Reflecting on the fact that I would never actually want to change schools, I got over that impulse.) On the other—do the schools who are doing the chasing think it’s possible that the people they’re chasing aren’t aware of their existence? Are these desperate measures truly necessary? I find the apparent neediness… distasteful. And to the extent the point of the schools’ communication is to assure people they have a shot at admission, I suspect they’re misleading. Schools waitlist exponentially more people than they could possibly accommodate as transfers.

Now, it’s an unfortunate fact of human perception that we tend to blow out of proportion the negative bits of data. There are days where I am inclined to feel put upon and mistreated because of the two ends of the spectrum I have just described. But—a commitment to reality requires me to acknowledge that I only know of about 12 schools that engage in these shenanigans, and there are about 200 law schools in the country. So: we’re stuck in the middle with a lot of company. And that’s some comfort.

-Dean Z. Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions