Friday, March 6, 2009
About this time of year, I start getting requests for letters of reference from students seeking to transfer to another law school. Students ask us for recommendations because we are the people they got to know best during their first year of law school. At schools with very large first-year classes, this is more often the case. However, this is a gray area for many ASP professionals for several reasons. First is the loyalty we owe our employers, especially at schools dependent on tuition revenue. If you are struggling with this quandary, it's best to ask the student why they want to leave. Are they unhappy about the location? Do they want to be closer to home? Is cost an issue? Frequently you will discover the reasons the student wants to leave the institution have little to do with the institution, and are more reflective of family or personal issues. Tougher issues arise when the student says that the institution IS the reason why they are leaving; citing poor education, a lack of community, or unavailable/unapproachable faculty. Sometimes these students are voicing frustration about legal education in general, and their issues will not be solved by transferring to another school. In the most diplomatic, empathetic manner possible, it may be best for you to chat with the student about law school in general. They may be happier if they pursue a passion that has a different graduate school environment. But there are some who really are unhappy with the institution, and can give detailed, explicit examples of the issues or people fueling their unhappiness. When you get such a student, it is wise to inform the administration and/or the faculty about the issue. There may be no possible resolution that will appease the student, but it may flag a bigger issue simmering under the surface for many other students who can't transfer. I have encountered this, and I have still written the recommendation for the student. I may not share their assessment of the school, but I do care about the student as a person, and it may be mutually beneficial if the student continues their education elsewhere.
Another challenge with recommendations has to do with the students we serve. We tend to get to know the with the most significant academic challenges. It may be difficult to write a recommendation for a student who doesn't understand basic legal analysis after hours of one-on-one instruction. I take a different tack with those students. I will still write the recommendation, and I will not lie or hide academic issues, but I also try to get to know why outside, personal issues may have contributed to their struggles. I can not overstate the impact of unhappiness on a student's academic potential. If a student would rather be close to home, the burden of their unhappiness and guilt may make it nearly impossible for them to focus on schoolwork. I had a student years ago who wanted to transfer from a lower-ranked law school to a school that was highly ranked in their home state. The student was well below the median at the lower-ranked school, and no amount of extra assistance from ASP seemed to make a difference in the students grades. When I asked the students about the desire to transfer, I was heartbroken by the story. A family member became ill during the first semester, and passed away second semester. The student could not focus, felt enormous guilt for not being able to help the family, and could not grieve because school work was too overwhelming. The student did get into the law school in the home state as a provisional admit. After their first semester at the new school, the student was in the top half of the class. Sometimes it makes all the difference for a student to find a law school that feels like home. When the student feels comfortable with the community, they can blossom academically. My message is this--don't lie or hide information when an academically challenged student asks for a recommendation, but don't underestimate the potential of happiness on academic success.