Paul L. Caron

Monday, December 29, 2008

ABA Journal: Northwestern Unapologetically Poaches 1Ls at Other Schools

The December 2008 ABA Journal includes Transfers Bolster Elite Schools, by Leslie A. Gordon:

Northwestern University Law School is actively—and unapologetically—re­cruit­­ing top-performing law students from lower-ranked schools, a practice that some deans claim is becoming commonplace at elite institutions.

Each year, 150 or so of Northwestern’s 5,000 applicants turned down for first-year admission receive letters inviting them to apply again for “conditional acceptance” the following fall. “The acceptance would be contingent upon your achieving a certain GPA or class rank during your first year of law school elsewhere,” says the letter, which is signed by the school’s assistant dean of admissions.

Deans of lower-tier law schools argue that such recruiting is pred­atory, allowing elite schools to poach their best students. Moreover, they claim the practice helps top schools boost revenues in their second- and third-year classes, while keeping up their LSAT and GPA averages—both significant com­ponents of U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings.

Northwestern Dean David Van Zandt says that he understands the poaching charge, and that it’s “probably true.” But top-performing students who have proved themselves “should be entitled to transfer, and there’s no harm in us facilitating that,” says Van Zandt. “Chrysler and General Motors don’t agree not to poach each other’s customers.”

During the 2006-2007 academic year, the Chicago-based school—which was listed ninth in the 2008 U.S. News law school rankings—added 43 transfers to its 238-student first-year class. Other top-ranked schools that year had similar gains. At 14th-ranked Georgetown University Law Center, 93 students transferred in. UCLA School of Law, which ranked 16th on the U.S. News list, netted 31 transfers to its 323-student first-year class. Fifth-ranked NYU Law added 38 transfers to a class of 447.

David Logan, dean of Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, R.I., says there’s been a drastic increase in transfer students in recent years. It suggests to him the schools are gaming the rankings, but he admits that would be hard to prove. “Because the ABA has only [collected] transfer numbers for the past couple of years, there can be no definitive proof of a trend over time,” Logan says. ...

While elite schools argue that transfer students benefit from “trading up,” Logan laments a ripple effect that begins with the brain drain on the origi­nal school, which reduces academic discussion and harms the bar passage rate. In addition, faculties lose research assistants, classmates lose friendships, and tuition increases are imposed to offset departing students. And at their new school, transfer students will find it tougher to forge relationships. “They’re just cash cows,” Logan says.

Northwestern’s Van Zandt disagrees: “I find that argument patronizing to a group of people who are going into a profession of judgment. These are smart people. Some transfers won’t work out, just like anything in life. But quite a few are advantaged.”

Clarification:  In Transfers Bolster Elite Schools, ...  Northwestern University School of Law said it extends conditional second-year acceptance to 150 of the 5,000 applicants turned down for first-year admission. A representative for the law school now says it extends only 15 to 25 such conditional acceptances each year.

(Hat Tip: Adam Steinman.)

Update:  For more, see Above the Law and The Volokh Conspiracy.

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J'hn1 - Yes, it happens all the time. In fact, I attended Northwestern law school with at least two friends who went through the transfer process you are talking about (i.e., without a conditional acceptance).

Posted by: Mike | Dec 31, 2008 8:06:28 AM

So, you honestly believe that a high ranked, high testing 1L would take his/her shiny new grades and test scores from 1L and apply to a better school, and that school would eventually get the transcripts from 1L and earlier, verify them, and check the backgrounds, and notify the prospective student in time to change the financials in time to start the fall semester?

Would you like to purchase controlling interest in the International Port of Wyoming? Or some oceanfront property in Arizona? or a bridge in Brooklyn? or some intermittently damp property in Central Florida?

I doubt you are gullible enough for any of the latter, so are not for the former either.

They don't like being accused of poaching, so if everyone with access to the true numbers keeps their mouths shut, who can prove otherwise?

Posted by: J'hn1 | Dec 29, 2008 8:26:12 PM

The transfer have nothing to do with the students and everything to do with dollar. The school simply want to keep second and third year classes full after some firt year student drop out. If they can get higher quality transfer, they bolster their rankings against the competition. I agree with the point that you give up ranking at your old school and reduce your chances of getting on the law review, arguably losing more than they gain, but the school comes out ahead by filling all billable slots.

Posted by: Dave C | Dec 29, 2008 6:49:26 PM

Do diversity stats cover all three years?

Posted by: Jim | Dec 29, 2008 4:41:23 PM

J'hn1--Presumably some of the transfers decided to apply on their own; i.e., without having got the letter from Northwestern the previous year.

Posted by: Jay | Dec 29, 2008 12:46:30 PM

Transfers to elite schools may benefit in terms of improved education (rather arguable). I'm less convinced they get get improved job opportunities, which is what many transfers believe they are getting.

I knew two people that transferred to Harvard, one from Tulane and one from Georgetown. Had either stayed put would have been top of his class and probably would have held high office on that school's law review (HLS transfers are ineligible). Both got top judicial clerkships and nice jobs after, but both would have done great as rock stars at their old schools. The only job area they might have significantly improved their chances in is academia (the Tulane guy also may have had gained some regional flexibility).

So in my mind, for it to be justified a transfer needs to be making a major leap in quality and/or have a specific reason for leaving (very unhappy, specialized field of interest, family reasons). Transferring from Vandy to Penn for the ranking gain is silly, no offense intended towards either school.

Schools definitely benefit a lot from transfers in terms of rankings. HLS only takes a handful of transfers a year (3-7 against of 550 1Ls), whereas most of the top 15 schools average ten times that ratio, mostly taking top performers who had bad college grades or LSATs.

Some schools probably do this for valid reasons, but Northwestern is definitely gaming the system. This is the same school that gives recent grads low-paying research jobs to inflate the employment numbers, that rearranged the budget to increase the spending per student number (I'm sure transferring building maintenance and lawn care costs from the college to the law school budget improved education quality), and that routinely waitlists the applicants with numbers that are "too good" to deflate the acceptance percentage. It's also no coincidence that their GPA/LSAT numbers appear optimized to the US News formula (resulting in the lowest GPAs in the top 15 but LSATs that tie Stanford).

Schools have to decide for themselves their admissions policies and educational priorities, and ultimately results will validate or repudiate those choices. But abdicating those decisions and putting a magazine formula in charge is rather unlikely to be best way to maximize educational quality.

Posted by: Michael | Dec 29, 2008 12:12:10 PM

Let me get this straight.

They got 43 transfers from the 15-25 conditional offers they made.

Sounds like Chicago Machine voter math.

Oh, yes, that is right, they are in Chicago.

Posted by: J'hn1 | Dec 29, 2008 12:12:10 PM