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Susan Krinsky, an associate dean at University of Maryland Carey Law, says transfers can be based on a student’s changing needs — or the ‘trading up’ phenomenon. (File photo)

Law schools vie to attract more transfer students

Competition for students among law schools has grown fiercer in recent years, as enrollment numbers nationwide hit their lowest point since the 1970s.

These schools aren’t just vying to attract the most talented 1Ls, however. Even the relatively small number of students who transfer schools after their first year are sought after.

“One of the things that’s happening more and more in legal education is the competition for students,” said Donald Tobin, dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. “As law schools shrink, some law schools are working harder to make their enrollments larger by taking transfer students, and so there’s been more of a move to try to entice students away.”

UM Carey Law recorded 29 students transferring in during the 2012-2013 academic year, the most recent year for which data were available, while 21 students transferred out. While that was still a net gain for the school, the prior year saw a much more favorable scenario: 34 transfers in, 8 transfers out.

At the University of Baltimore School of Law, the 2012-2013 academic year saw five students transfer in and 36 transfer out. The year before, the figures were much closer, at 17 students in and 22 out.

The disparity with other law schools in the region is striking. According to figures that all ABA-accredited law schools are required to submit to the American Bar Association:

* At Georgetown University Law Center, transfers-in rose more than 75 percent in just two years, growing from 71 in the 2010-2011 academic year to 85 the following year, to 122 during the 2012-2013 year.

* After falling sharply a year earlier, at George Washington University Law School transfers-in were up 50 percent, rising from 63 in the 2011-2012 academic year to 93 for 2012-2013.

* In that same period, transfers into American University’s Washington College of Law increased from 49 to 68, or about 38 percent.

Officials at UB Law and UM Carey Law cautioned against viewing the numbers as a trend. Laurie Harow, UB Law’s director of law enrollment services, said students often transfer to a school in the geographic region where they want to practice law. Susan Krinsky, UM Carey Law’s associate dean for students and student services, said she’s heard from students who want to earn a degree from a higher ranked school and those who simply want to live in another part of the country.

“It can be anything from a family reason — a spouse or significant other has been transferred or needs to be in another place — and then, of course, there’s the ‘trading up’ phenomenon,” Krinsky said.

That phenomenon — in which a law school student transfers to a more prestigious, more highly ranked school — is exacerbated by the current law school enrollment climate, said Jeff Zavrotny, assistant dean for law admissions at UB Law. With lower enrollment nationwide, even more highly ranked schools are eager for students, he said, and some of them may lower their standards for transfers.

“I’m seeing more people who in the past would not have been admitted to other schools as transfers and are now getting admitted to those schools,” he said. “That would decrease our transfer numbers.”

Same rank, different result

Officials at each of Maryland’s law schools also said they’re not concerned with how their transfer numbers stack up to those of other law schools.

Both Zavrotny and Krinsky said their schools do not admit a set number or percentage of transfer applicants each year.

“There’s no minimum or maximum,” Zavrotnysaid. “The biggest factor is going to be the strength of the applicant pool.”

Krinsky said UM Carey Law considers transfer applicants who successfully complete their first year of law school elsewhere, but doesn’t actively recruit transfer students.

In an “abstract” sense, “you always want to replace the people you lose,” Krinsky said. “But that goal does not trump the goal of having people we feel can do well here.”

Compared to schools with similar U.S. News rankings, UM Carey Law’s net gain compared favorably to its counterparts in 2012-2013.

Two other schools shared UM Carey Law’s #46 rank, George Mason University School of Law in D.C. and Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. George Mason Law gained one student, with 12 transfers in and 11 transfers out. Tulane Law broke even, with 16 in and 16 out.

UB Law shared its #135 rank with Howard University and Hempstead, N.Y.-based Hofstra University School of Law. Howard Law had 5 transfers in and 4 out in 2012-2013. Hofstra Law matched UB Law’s 36 transfers out that year, but Hofstra saw 30 transfers in, compared to UB Law’s 5.

Caveat transfers

Accepting transfer students has clear benefits for the law schools — it boosts tuition coffers without impacting U.S. News rankings, which are largely based on first-year student data, including LSAT scores and undergraduate GPA.

For students, too, the move would seem to make perfect sense. By spending their 1L year at a state law school, where tuition might be half as expensive as it would be at a more highly ranked private school, those who “trade up” are essentially receiving a discount on the more prestigious degree.

But for students who decide to transfer, even those who move up to a higher tier school will face downsides, Krinsky said. Once you’ve invested a year at a particular school, it takes time to make new connections and regain that ground somewhere else.

“It’s going to take you another year to build those relationships,” Krinsky said. “You’re not going to be the first person that a faculty member looks to recommend.”

But the data show that some students are going to make that change each year despite the risk that may be involved, and law schools need to address that challenge, Tobin said.

“The more we can provide an education that they find valuable, and the more that we can create a community that is supportive of them, the more they’ll want to stay,” Tobin said, “and that’s just an obligation we have.”

Transfers chart