The Tragedy of the Student Commons: Law Student Transfers and Legal Education
Forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Education
29 Pages Posted: 30 Apr 2010 Last revised: 14 Dec 2012
Date Written: July 21, 2010
This research examines law student transfers. It aims to accomplish two things. First, it sets out some basic data on law student transfers. Using data collected from the last three editions of the ABA Official Guide to Law Schools, it quantifies some of the characteristics of transfer students based upon the characteristics of schools that are net gainers and net losers of transfers. While we do not know the individual characteristics of transfer students (such as their entering credentials, ethnicity, or law school GPA), one can ascertain the general flow of the population of transfers by looking at the schools that they come from and the schools to which they go. Some of the results are not surprising (the flow is in the direction of schools having higher U.S. News rankings and toward those with higher LSAT medians), but other findings are less expected (the flow of transfers is distinctly away from private schools). Even as to results which conform to what one might have expected, this research demonstrates and quantifies what many in the academy have supposed.
The second aim of the article is to make a preliminary assessment of whether high volumes of law student transfers are a good or a bad thing. Much of the discussion among law schools on this point to date has been parochial. Transfers are good for some schools and bad for others; those whom receive transfers think they are good and those who lose them think they are bad. I attempt to rise above a purely self-interested viewpoint in order to examine whether the gain to the winners exceeds the loss to the losers. My thesis is that in the aggregate transfers cost the losing schools more than they benefit the gaining schools. The result is an inefficient taking of a common resource due to its being unprotected and underreported by the ABA and the US News ranking system, thus the title of the piece.
Keywords: law schools, legal education, rankings, transfers
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