Ultra Vires


Transfers on Trial

There used to be a way to get into the Salvador Dali museum in Paris for free. All you had to do was enter the gift shop, walk directly to the bathroom, and, upon exiting the bathroom, emerge into the first exhibition hall.  In your miserly glee you might end up splurging all your savings on a droopy clock postcard, but that is not the point.

The point is that some native U of T law students might think that transfer students similarly got into U of T for “free” through the back door: they put in just enough work to get into Acme Law School, worked just hard enough to get barely transfer-friendly grades, and then proceeded unscathed to the same prize without having to suffer through 1L at U of T law. To put some extra salt on that wound, they also saved thousands on tuition and expanded the OCI applicant pool.

It doesn’t seem fair. Why would a law school subject its 1L natives to such a grave injustice? And come to think of it: what are these transfer students doing here anyway?

First, the facts. U of T accepted 10 out of 119 transfer applicants in 2013 – an 8.4% acceptance rate. In 2013, the 1L acceptance rate was around 15%. The 2015 class “bulged” by 8% as a result of these transfers. Some top US law school classes bulge much more. Columbia Law’s transfers[1] will increase the 2016 class[2] by about 17% and Berkeley Law’s transfers[3] will increase it by about 12%.

Before we burn these transfers at the stake, though, it is important to understand why law schools accept them in the first place. Few schools provide an official rationale, but various blogs and articles sordidly claim that transfers are attractive for law schools because they bring in cash without defiling incoming class statistics.

This reason is amusing but doesn’t account for why U of T’s transfer acceptance rate is lower than the 1L rate. If U of T was just poaching transfers for easy cash, it could have accepted more of them. Eager to get to the bottom of this, I approached Professor Benjamin Alarie, the Co-Chair of the U of T Law Admissions Committee. “We admit transfer students with a view to improving the JD class for 2L and 3L, in terms of academic excellence, diversity, and extracurricular accomplishment,” he said.

And who can blame a school for wanting to improve its 2L and 3L classes? Helpfully, this explanation also rebuffs the myth of the so-called back door entry. If the 10 accepted transfers were able to demonstrate that they can improve the U of T class, it is very likely that they were at least as worthy of their admission as were the native 1Ls.

But sceptics will press further and ask: then why didn’t these sufficiently awesome transfers get in as 1Ls? According to Professor Alarie, “it is natural that we admit some transfer students who we had rejected for admission into 1L because we have much better information about their abilities as law students once they have proven themselves elsewhere.”

Still, transfer animosity can run deep, and some might feel that transfer students, even those who “deserved” their admission, faithlessly exploited their 1L law school (the one that was actually willing to accept them in the first place) as an easy stepping stone to U of T prestige. While this may be true (though I can assure you that for most transfers, prestige was not the number one motivation), it is also important to remember that transferring is not exactly a walk in the park. It involves giving up on very valuable 2L opportunities, foregoing lifelong small-section connections, and joining a student body whose maximum security cliques are more impervious than the Shawshank prison.

So yes, perhaps one can argue that transfer students are akin to those who break into the Dali museum for free. But don’t forget that along the way they may have tripped over some droopy clocks, bumped into several protruding mustaches, and produced a few masterpieces of their own before emerging, slightly bruised but eternally grateful, into the main exhibition hall.

[1] http://web.law.columbia.edu/admissions/jd/apply/transfer-student

[2] http://web.law.columbia.edu/admissions/jd/experience/class-profile

[3] http://www.law.berkeley.edu/43.htm

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