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Jerome Organ

Law School Transfer Data and Professional Identity Formation

By: Jerry Organ, Bakken Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, University of St. Thomas School of Law

This blog posting updates my blog postings over the last several years regarding what we know about the transfer market, for example 2022, 2021 and 2020. With the ABA’s posting of the 2023 Standard 509 Reports, we now have a decade of more detailed transfer data from which to glean insights about the transfer market among law schools, which has been in decline for most of the last decade. This posting also includes a new section on transfer “feeder schools” and some reflections on whether and how law schools might be providing opportunities for professional identity formation for their transfer students.

Numbers of Transfers and Percentage of Transfers Continue to Decline to the Lowest Levels in the Last Decade

As shown in Table 1 below, the number of transfer students received by law schools in 2023 decreased for the third consecutive year to 1162, the smallest number of transfers in the last decade.  For the last several years, the transfer market has been shrinking, having declined from 5.5% in 2014, to 4.7% in 2016, to 3.4% in 2019, to 3.0% in 2022 and again in 2023.  Aside from a slight bump in 2017, and another bump in 2020, this drop reflects a continuation of a gradual decline in transfers over the last several years – from nearly 2200 to less than 1200 and from 5.5% of first-years in the previous fall to 3.0% (both down over 45%).

Table 1 – Number of Transfers and Percentage of Transfers from 2014-2023
After an increase in transfers in 2020, we have seen declines in 2021 to 1375 and 3.6%, 2022 to 1231 and 3.0%, and 2023 to 1162 and 3.0% – the lowest number and percentage in a decade.

My sense is that the dramatic increase in scholarship assistance over the last decade, including the elimination of conditional scholarships at dozens of law schools, has made the financial equation associated with transferring much less attractive. (The number of law schools with conditional scholarship programs dropped from roughly 140 in 2011 to fewer than 80 as of 2020.)  If a student were going to be paying full tuition at a given law school and could transfer to a much higher ranked law school in the region for only marginal additional cost (and perhaps without having to move), transferring might make sense. But if a student has to forego scholarship assistance and absorb significantly more financial cost to transfer, then staying at the student’s initial law school might seem to make more sense.

SOME LAW SCHOOLS CONTINUE TO DOMINATE THE TRANSFER MARKET

Table 2 below lists the top 15 law schools participating in the transfer market in descending order in Summer 2020 (fall 2019 entering class), Summer 2021 (fall 2020 entering class), Summer 2022 (fall 2021 entering class), and Summer 2023 (fall 2022 entering class).

(Note that in Table 2 and in Table 4, the “repeat players” are bolded – those schools in the top 15 for all four years are in black, those schools in the top 15 for three of the four years are in blue.) Seven of the top 15 for 2023 have been on the list for the largest number of transfers all four years, with four having been on the list for three of the four years (including 2023). Florida dropped out of the top 15 this year after having been in the top 15 the prior four years, while Florida State and Miami dropped out of the top 15 this year after having been in the top 15 the prior three years. There are four newcomers to the list in 2023:  Vanderbilt, Florida International, Hofstra, and St. John’s.  Table 2 also shows that for 2023, the concentration of transfers in the top 15 law schools for transfers increased back to 50%, where it was in 2020, up from 43% in 2021 and 47% in 2022.

TABLE 2 — Largest Law Schools by Number of Transfers from 2020-2023

As shown in Table 3 below, if we focus just on the top ten law schools for transfers in, the total number of transfers is 494 – 43% of all transfers – the highest percentage in the last decade.

TABLE 3 – Totals for Top Ten Law Schools for Transfers In as a Percentage of All Transfers for 2014-2023
In terms of law schools with the highest percentage of transfers in as a percentage of their previous year’s first-year class, as shown below in Table 4, eight law schools have been on the list each of the last four years – Chicago, Florida, Florida State, George Mason, Georgetown, George Washington, Northwestern and UNLV.  Four law schools have been on the list three times in the last four years – Florida Int’l, Harvard, NYU, and Vanderbilt (including 2023).  Two of the other three schools have been on the list in two of the last four years (including 2023) – Columbia and UCLA. The number of law schools welcoming transfers representing 20% or more of their first-year class has fallen from nine in 2013 (not shown), to none in 2019, four in 2020, two in 2021, and only one in 2022 and 2023 (Georgetown in both years).

TABLE 4 — Largest Law Schools by Transfers as a Percentage of Previous First-Year Class – 2020-2023
TRANSFER FEEDER SCHOOLS

There also are some law schools that appear consistently in the list of top feeder schools for transfers as shown below in Table 5. These fifteen schools have been responsible for roughly 25-30% of transfer students in each of the last three years.

TABLE 5 — Largest Law Schools by Transfers Out for 2021-2023

Eight law schools have been on the list of top transfer out law schools in each of the last three years – American, Barry University, Brooklyn Law School, George Washington University, Nova Southeastern, Touro University, University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, and the University of Miami.  There are three additional law schools on the list in two of the last three years (including 2023): Boston University, Stetson University College of Law, and University of Maryland.  In addition, there are three schools that made the list of the top-15 law schools for transfers out in both 2021 and 2022, but not in 2023: Southwestern University, St. Thomas University (Florida), and Widener University-Delaware.

Notably, two of these schools – George Washington University and Miami — show up on both the transfer out in Table 5 and the transfer in list above in Table 2.  They are losing students to higher-ranked law schools and then back-filling with their own transfers from lower-ranked schools.

NATIONAL AND REGIONAL MARKETS –

Starting in December 2014, the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar began collecting and requiring law schools with 12 or more transfers in to report not only the number of students who have transferred in, but also the law schools from which they came (indicating the number from each law school). In addition, the law schools with 12 or more transfers in had to report the 75%, 50% and 25% first-year, law school GPAs of the students who transferred in. This allows one to look at where students are coming from and are going to, as well as the first-year GPA profile of students transferring in to different law schools.

Table 6 below focuses on the seven law schools in Table 2 that have been among the top-15 in terms of number of transfers in for each of the last four years, presented in descending U.S. News & World Report (U.S. News) rank. Table 6 indicates the extent to which these seven law schools were attracting transfers from the geographic region in which they are located and highlights that the transfer market, to some extent, is a set of regional sub-markets.

TABLE 6 — Percentage of Transfers from Within Geographic Region 2021-2022-2023 and Top Feeder School for 2023 at the Seven Law Schools among the Top-15 for Transfers In for 2021, 2021, and 2023

All seven law schools had at least 35% of their transfers from the region in which they are located.  Two of these seven law schools, Northwestern and Florida, obtained most of their transfers from within the geographic region within which the law school is located for the last three years, (with 80% for Northwestern and 60% for Florida in 2023). On the other hand, three law schools (Harvard and Georgetown and George Washington) had 48% or fewer of their transfers from within the region in which the law school is located in each of the last three years.

When one looks at the transfer out schools in Table 5 in comparison with the transfer in schools in Table 2, one can see some of the regional realities.  In Florida, Barry University, Miami, Nova Southeastern, St. Thomas University, and Stetson are transfer feeder schools with Florida, Florida International, Florida State, and Miami receiving a number of those transfers.  In the Mid-Atlantic, American, Baltimore, Catholic, George Washington University, and Maryland are transfer feeder schools with George Mason, Georgetown, and George Washington receiving a number of transfers.  In California, Loyola Marymount, Southwestern, and the University of California College of Law San Francisco are transfer feeder schools with Loyola Marymount,  University of California Berkeley, and University of California Los Angeles receiving a number of transfers.

Table 6 also identifies the law school that provided the largest number of transfers to each listed law school in 2023, as well as the percentage of transfers that came from that school.  One of the seven law schools had a significant percentage (more than 20%) of its transfers in from one feeder school – Northwestern – with 25% of its transfers coming from Loyola-Chicago (and over 65% from Loyola/DePaul/UIC).

Notably, six of these seven law schools that are consistent players in the transfer market are on the East Coast (Harvard, Columbia, Florida, George Mason, Georgetown, and George Washington) while one is in the Midwest (Northwestern).

VARIED QUALITY OF THE TRANSFER POOL

Table 7 below shows the tiers of law schools from which these seven largest law schools in the transfer market for each of the last four years received their transfer students.  Four of the seven law schools that consistently have high numbers of transfers in are ranked in the top 15 in U.S. News, while the other three are ranked between 28 (Florida and George Mason) and 41 (George Washington).

TABLE 7 — Percentage of Transfers from Different Tiers of School(s) for 2021, 2022 and 2023 at the Seven Law Schools Among the Top-15 for Transfers in 2021, 2022, and 2023

Two of the seven law schools – Harvard (no lower than 72%) and Columbia (no lower than 55%) — have consistently had large percentages of their transfers from law schools ranked between 1 and 50 in the U.S. News rankings.  By contrast, in 2023, four of these seven law schools had more than 40% of their transfers from law schools ranked 101 or lower (Florida, George Mason, George Washington, and Northwestern).

TABLE 8 — First-Year Law School 75th/50th/25th GPA of Transfers in 2021, 2022, and 2023 at the Seven Law Schools among the Top-15 for Transfers in 2021, 2022, and 2023

Table 8 above highlights the reported GPAs of transfers in for these seven law schools.  In looking at Table 8, one quickly sees that of the four law schools ranked in the U.S. News top-15, only one – Harvard — has a 50th GPA for transfers in 2023 that is above 3.9, and a 25th GPA of 3.8 and above. Harvard also is accepting most of its transfers in from top-50 law schools, making it clear that it is accepting transfers in who could have been admitted to Harvard in the first instance. Columbia is a close second, with all three of its metrics close to 0.1 below those of Harvard.

The other two top-15 law schools – Northwestern and Georgetown – are a step below in terms of the credentials of their transfers, with 50th GPAs of 3.75 and 3.67, respectively, and with 25th GPAs of 3.63 and 3.55, respectively, in 2023.  In 2023, more than 65% of Georgetown’s transfers were from law schools ranked 51 or lower while 75% of Northwestern’s transfers were from law schools ranked 51 or lower.  For Georgetown and Northwestern, with a majority of their transfers coming from law schools ranked outside the top 50, many of these transfer students may not have had the credentials to be admitted as first-year students at Georgetown or Northwestern.

Once you drop out of the top-15, the other three law schools – Florida (3.55), George Mason (3.42), and George Washington (3.35) – each has a 50th GPA well below that of the other four law schools on the list and 25th GPAs that drop to 3.33, 3.31, and 3.23, respectively.  With 85% or more of these transfers coming from law schools ranked 51 or lower, these law schools clearly are welcoming a number of transfer students whose entering credentials almost certainly were sufficiently distinct from each of those law schools’ entering class credentials that the transfer students they are admitting would not have been admitted as first-year students in the prior year.

STILL MANY UNKNOWNS

As I have noted for the last few years, these more detailed transfer data from the ABA should be very helpful to prospective law students and pre-law advisors, and to current law students who are considering transferring. These data give them a better idea of what transfer opportunities might be available depending upon where they are planning to go to law school (or are presently enrolled as a first-year student).

Even with this more granular data now available, however, there still are a significant number of unknowns relating to transfer students, particularly regarding gender and ethnicity of transfer students and performance of transfer students at their new law school (both academically and in terms of bar passage and employment).

With the increased emphasis on professional identity formation reflected in ABA Standard 303(b)(3) and (c), there may be questions about how law schools are addressing professional identity formation for transfer students, particularly at those law schools that have added a first-year course/program focused on professional development or professional identity formation.

Are these law schools requiring transfers to take these courses with their incoming first-year students? Are there specific professional development or professional identity formation courses structured for transfer students at those law schools with a significant cohort of transfer students (10-15 or more)?  Are there better ways to address the professional identity formation of transfer students that would help them integrate into the law school community into which they are transferring? These are questions for which additional research would be warranted.

Please feel free to contact me at jmorgan@stthomas.edu should you have any comments or questions.

Jerome Organ is the Bakken Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law

David Grenardo, Jerome Organ, Neil Hamilton

The Holloran Center in the News

by Felicia Hamilton, Holloran Center Coordinator

Jerry Organ, Associate Director of the Holloran Center, earned recognition as one the Top 20 Most Influential People in Legal Education by the National Jurist. From being a major player in the conversation that led to the revision of ABA Standard 303 to presenting at conferences on legal education and wellness around the world, Organ has been making major strides to advance professional identity formation and well-being for law students.

More details on this nomination are forthcoming upon the release of the National Jurist’s spring edition.

Neil Hamilton, Founding Director of the Holloran Center, was featured in the winter edition of the National Jurist. The article “What best prepares you for the practice of law?” by Sherry Karabin discusses the importance of experiential education. In this article, Hamilton is quoted regarding methods that encourage the thoughtful development of professional identity: “We think it’s…important that…educational experiences are coordinated in a progressive engagement of guided reflection over three years with the help of faculty and staff coaches.”[1]

Co-Director of the Holloran Center, David Grenardo, was interviewed by USA Today about the history of nepotism in the NFL prior to the 2024 Super Bowl. Drawing from his expertise in Sports Law, Grenardo highlights the contradiction between the perception of competitive sports as meritocratic and the existence of ownership structures that are decided by lineage or connections.

Speaking on the fact that 16 of the NFL’s 32 owners inherited their teams from family members, Grenardo notes: “’One of the reasons that these statistics may bother some people is that sports is supposed to be a meritocracy…The best players play on the team, and the team that plays the best wins. Meritocracy, however, applies to players, not ownership or coaching.’”[2]

 

[1] Karabin , S. (n.d.). What best prepares you for the practice of law? The National Jurist, 33(3), 9–10.

[2] Schrotenboer, B. (2024, February 8). Super Bowl is a reminder of how family heritage, nepotism still rule the NFL. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/super-bowl/2024/02/08/super-bowl-nepotism-nfl-49ers-chiefs-kyle-shanahan-andy-reid/72488948007/

Celebration
Barbara Glesner FInes, David Grenardo, Felicia Hamilton, Jerome Organ, Kendall Kerew, Louis Bilionis, Neil Hamilton

Welcoming the new year with gratitude: Holloran Center Resolutions for 2024

By: Barbara Glesner Fines, Dean and Rubey M. Hulen Professor of Law, UMKC School of Law

What better time to reflect on professional identity formation than the new year, when so many of us are making resolutions for growth and improvement.  Here are three of our resolutions for the Holloran Center’s continued formation:

  1. We resolve to be grateful.  We are grateful for the leadership of Tom Holloran, whose example of servant leadership inspires us. We are grateful for the work of scholars and teachers in other professions who have given us so many insights and inspiration. We are especially grateful to you, our colleagues engaged in this work of coaching, mentoring, and guiding our students in their transformation from student to lawyer.
  2. We resolve to listen.  This past year, we have learned so much from the questions and critiques posed by our colleagues.  What do we really mean by formation? How is it different from the knowledge and skills transfer we aim to teach and provide? How do we assess development?  How do or should concepts of professionalism and civility fit into professional identity? What about this idea of “identity”?  How does that singular-sounding noun reconcile with our diverse cultures and values as individuals and communities? How do we ensure that the work of formation is shared and equitably by our entire community? Our understanding of our work has evolved with each question and challenge.
  3. We resolve to share. Since 2013, over 400 scholars, teachers, and student services professionals from over 60 law schools have attended a Professional Identity Formation workshop or conference or symposium sponsored by the Holloran Center. We look forward to hosting at least three additional workshops in 2024: a conference for professional responsibility scholars and teachers in April, along with two summer workshops.  We will continue to support others leading in this effort. We are also working to develop our online community: revising our databases of materials and inventories, and growing our blog and listserv.  Let us know how we can help.

Happy New Year!

Neil, Jerry, David, Lou, Barb, Kendall, and Felicia

 

Barbara Glesner FInes, David Grenardo, Jerome Organ, Louis Bilionis, Neil Hamilton

Standard 303 and the Development of Student Professional Identity: A Framework for the Intentional Exploration of the Profession’s Core Values

 

By Felicia Hamilton, Holloran Center Coordinator

Holloran Center Directors Neil Hamilton, Jerry Organ, and David Grenardo, along with Holloran Center Fellows Barbara Glesner Fines and Louis Bilionis recently co-authored an article that supplies a framework for understanding the core values of the legal profession. The authors’ intention is to guide legal educators into a thoughtful exploration of the nature of these values, and to encourage law school faculty and staff to make intentional choices around how their programs highlight them. Using the metaphor of a tree, the authors address the core values of the “trunk” (a sense of responsibility to those whom the professional serves and the commitment to professional development) and the “branch” values as codified into the Model Rules.

Read more in the abstract for “Standard 303 and the Development of Student Professional Identity: A Framework for the Intentional Exploration of the Profession’s Core Values” below:

Legal educators, following the change in ABA accreditation Standard 303(b)(3)[1], must face directly the question “what are the core values of the legal profession?” This article offers a framework both to help faculty and staff clarify their thinking on what are the profession’s core values and to spotlight the choices law schools need to consider in purposeful fashion.

The framework offered here should also help allay two concerns that faculty, staff, and students may have about core values of the profession.  One concern is that all statements of values are subjective in the sense that they are expressions of individual subjective preferences, beliefs, and attitudes.[2]  A second concern is that statements of values tend to privilege the traditional, and hence fail to reflect the diversity of the profession and the experience and views of marginalized members of the profession – particularly with respect to the elimination of bias, discrimination, and racism.[3]

On the first concern, the article analyzes first the core values of all the service professions to point out two core values foundational to all of them. The article then analyzes the legal profession’s core values articulated in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, adopted with some variation by all fifty states. The fifty-state adoption of the Model Rules indicates a strong consensus on the core values of the profession.  On the second concern, the values framework offered here makes clear that elimination of bias, discrimination, and racism is among the profession’s core values, and that the profession should, on an ongoing basis, seek feedback widely regarding its core values, particularly from marginalized groups, and reflect on the feedback.

Part II outlines the ABA accreditation Standard 303 changes that require each law school to help students develop a professional identity through the intentional exploration of the values of the profession. This means the faculty and staff need to discern the values of the profession they want the students to explore.  Part III analyzes what is a professional identity?  Part IV provides a framework to help legal educators clarify their thinking about the profession’s core values.  The framework features some widely shared fundamental values for all the service professions, and locates also values particular to the legal profession. Part V explores how the core values of the profession in part IV connect to “successful legal practice.”  Part VI discusses cautionary arguments that traditional values like those in the Model Rules can privilege some groups and fail to account for the experiences and viewpoints of marginalized groups.

[1] Standards & Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools, Standard 303(b)(3) (Am. Bar Ass’n 2023), [hereinafter Accreditation Standards], https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_admissions_to_the_bar/standards/2023-2024/23-24-standards-ch3.pdf.

[2] See, e.g., Joseph Singer, Normative Methods for Lawyers, 56 U.C.L.A. L. Rev. 899, 902-911 (2009).

[3] See discussion in Part VI of this article.

You can download the article from SSRN here.

Neil Hamilton is the Holloran Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota.

Jerome Organ is the Bakken Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law

David Grenardo is a Professor of Law and Associate Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

Barbara Glesner Fines is the Dean and Rubey M. Hulen Professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

Louis Bilionis is the Dean Emeritus and Droege Professor of Law at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

Felicia Hamilton, Jerome Organ

“We’re Always Shaping People”: Podcast Interview with Jerry Organ, Co-Director of the Holloran Center

By: Felicia Hamilton, Holloran Center Coordinator

Jerry Organ, Bakken Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, University of St. Thomas School of Law

Our very own Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership, Jerry Organ, was recently featured on the Legal Docket segment of the podcast The World and Everything in It: September 11, 2023 Episode. Legal correspondent Jenny Rough speaks with Organ, along with hosts Mary Reichard and Nick Eicher, about the revision to Standard 303(b), which encourages law schools to provide opportunities for the development of a student’s professional identity.

In the interview, Organ emphasizes the importance of identity formation in a career that is focused on serving others:

Law school… [is] about developing a specialized knowledge base and a specialized set of skills that are directed toward serving others. So, part of professional school really is a shift from a kind of a self-focus to now acquiring knowledge, acquiring skills. I’m going to shift from being a student absorbing information to a lawyer who’s now serving others.” [1]

He also highlights the need for law students to have the opportunity to discover and test out their professional interests along with the importance of being able to process those experiences with a faculty mentor or advisor, noting that at the start of second and third years of law school there is a rich opportunity to help students process their summer experience and then plan for next steps on their journey.

Organ also speaks to the importance of having courses like St. Thomas’s Serving Clients Well intensive, which highlights communication and relationship skills and encourages students to focus on client service and to act in accordance with their values.

According to Organ, law schools arealways shaping people. We just have tended not to be very thoughtful about it. And what this new movement is really talking about is trying to help us as law professors and people involved in legal education be more intentional about what it is we want to be communicating to our students about what it means to be a lawyer.”

Listen to the full podcast episode and read the transcription here! The interview can be heard starting at 08:45.

[1] Rough, Jenny. “Legal Docket: Law and service.” The World and Everything in It, World News Group, September 11, 2023, https://wng.org/podcasts/legal-docket-law-and-service-1694291807.

Jerome Organ is the Bakken Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law

Felicia Hamilton is the Coordinator for the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

Janet Stearns, Jerome Organ

Well-Being and Professional Identity: Inextricably Linked

By: Janet Stearns, Dean of Students, University of Miami School of Law
Jerry Organ, Bakken Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, University of St. Thomas School of Law

Well-being and professional identity are inextricably linked. While this has been true through the ages, the new articulation of professional identity in Interpretation 303-5 embodies this linkage when it states:

Professional identity focuses on what it means to be a lawyer and the special obligations lawyers have to their clients and society. The development of professional identity should involve an intentional exploration of the values, guiding principles, and well-being practices considered foundational to successful legal practice.

In earlier posts for this Blog, Dean Stearns has spoken of infusing law school orientation with lessons about well-being, activities for the October 10 Mental Health Day, and two new important books that can be used to educate law students about mindfulness and stress reduction.

Much of our teaching and advocacy involves explaining these principles of “well-being practices” and integrating these into the law school curriculum and larger professional identity environment. The needs are great. The news is filled with too many stories of suicide. The students who are now entering our law schools have faced significant isolation and related depression and anxiety through these recent pandemic years.

The best snapshot of the state of our law students today is the national survey published in the University of Louisville Law Review Symposium under the title “It Is OK To Not Be OK”: The 2021 Survey of Law Student Well-Being (Summer, 2022). The authors of this study were David Jaffe (Washington College of Law, American University), Professor Kate Bender (Bridgewater University), and Jerry Organ (University of St. Thomas, MN), and the work includes an analysis of data from 39 law schools across the country. The 2021 Survey showed that the percentage of respondents who had a diagnosis of anxiety in their lifetime increased from 21% to 40% since the original Survey of Law Student Well-Being in 2014. Similarly, the percentage of respondents who had a diagnosis of depression in their lifetime increased from 18% to 33% since 2014. Roughly one-third of the 2021 respondents had considered suicide sometime in their life (up from 20% in 2014) with 11% having considered suicide in the previous 12 months (up from 6% in 2014). The 2021 Survey also found that five in six respondents had experienced trauma, with one in five dealing with challenges to their day-to-day thriving associated with their experience of trauma (based on responses to the PCL-5, a screening tool for PTSD).

The data continues to be evaluated but the high levels of reported depression, anxiety, suicidality, and trauma should give us all pause.

One of the most critical lessons that we can teach in law school is the ability to reach out and access needed resources. Professional identify includes our ability to address needed self-care while balancing duties to clients and the profession. Tragically, many law students believe that they cannot access these resources, and in fact some believe that their admission to the bar will be jeopardized if they access resources. We teach these life-saving lessons in the classroom and when we respond to students in crisis. Dean Stearns has received calls and emails from students who are en route to an emergency room to ask if their bar admission will be impacted if they are admitted for mental health treatment.

Janet Stearns, David Jaffe, and other national well-being advocates have been working for years to reform state character and fitness investigation processes to ensure that students understand their ability to access essential resources; their efforts have seen some success with a number of states amending their questions. The most recent article on the topic by Stearns and Jaffe is Fixing a Broken Character Evaluation Process, which was published online in the ABA’s Law Practice Today in May of 2023. The article evaluated the mental health and substance use questions in the various jurisdictions and assigned grades to the states (and NCBE) on the basis of our rubric. The more a state’s questions focused primarily on conduct than condition, the higher the grade it received – an A was the highest grade available; and the more a state’s questions focused on condition instead of conduct, the lower the grade it received – an F was the lowest grade available. We continue to advocate for questions that will focus on conduct rather than condition, with a goal of destigmatizing efforts for law students to seek appropriate help and support for these challenges.

This month, Jerry Organ added a new and significant dimension to this advocacy. He analyzed two questions in the 2021 survey, separated law school responses by state, and then correlated those to the grades that Stearns and Jaffe had assigned in the ABA article.[i] The two critical questions were:

C15: Percentage who strongly agree or agree to the following statements (by year in law school)

If I had an alcohol or drug use problem, my chances of getting admitted to the bar are better if I hide the problem rather than seek treatment.

D21:  Percentage who strongly agree or agree with each of the following statements (by year in law school)

If I had a mental health problem, my chances of getting admitted to the bar are better if I hide the problem rather than seeking treatment.

Jerry Organ’s analysis determined the following:

The overall averages for “better off keeping problems hidden” (reluctant to seek help) were 49.8% (substance use) and 39.9% (mental health).

Schools in A/B jurisdictions had average scores for “better off keeping problems hidden”(reluctant to seek help) of 47.5 (substance use) and 37.3 (mental health).

Schools in C jurisdictions (including Virginia) had average scores for “better off keeping problems hidden” (reluctant to seek help) of 51.8 (substance use) and 42.6 (mental health).

Schools in F jurisdictions (Georgia/Florida/Nevada) had average scores for “better off keeping problems hidden” (reluctant to seek help) of 55.9 and 47.1.

These data suggest that there is a correlation between the type of state character and fitness questions and the reluctance to seek help among law students. The states that focused their character and fitness questions more on conduct rather than on condition have lower percentages of students who believe they are better off keeping problems hidden for substance use and mental health. And the states that focused their character and fitness questions more on condition instead of conduct have higher percentages of students who believe they are better off keeping problems hidden for substance use and mental health. The more than 8-point spread between A/B and F states on substance use and the nearly 10-point spread between A/B and F states on mental health strongly suggests that a relationship exists between the nature of a state’s character and fitness questions and a law student’s reluctance to seek help.

Law schools and boards of law examiners have to continue to message the importance of help-seeking so that the percentages of respondents who believe they are better off keeping problems hidden begins to decline. On this front, efforts in Minnesota and North Dakota are noteworthy. Respondents from law schools in those two states were among the lowest in terms of the percentage who believed their chances of being admitted to the bar were better if they kept a substance use or mental health problem hidden. In both states, the law schools have worked closely with their board of law examiners to facilitate messaging in the first year of law school about the importance of seeking help. Those efforts seem to be bearing fruit.

For all of us who care deeply about professional identity education, we must continue to understand the inextricable link between our work and ensuring the well-being of the next generation of our profession.

The authors welcome comments and input. You may connect with them at jstearns@law.miami.edu or JMORGAN@stthomas.edu. If you live in a state that has not yet reformed the substance use and mental health questions on the bar, then please contact Janet Stearns or David Jaffe (djaffe@wcl.american.edu) for strategies and advocacy resources.

[i] The only exception to the grading system was that Virginia, which Stearns and Jaffe assigned a B-, was included in the “C” category.

Janet Stearns is Dean of Students at the University of Miami School of Law and Chair of the ABA COLAP Law School Committee.

Jerome Organ is the Bakken Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law

 

Jerome Organ

Student “Nastygrams” and the “Whole Building” Approach to Professional Identity Formation

By: Jerome Organ, Bakken Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, University of St. Thomas School of Law

A few weeks ago, there was a conversation on the NALSAP (National Association of Law Student Affairs Professionals) listserv regarding “nastygrams” – emails from students to administrators that reflect a very unprofessional tone.

I mention this to highlight one of the key foundational concepts surrounding professional identity formation of law students – the reality that it is a “whole building” effort.  This set of messages highlights the important role that law school administrators and staff play in identifying and addressing opportunities for professional identity formation.

One of the contributors offered a very helpful framework for engaging with the student both about the substance of the email and about the tone of the email:

“Dear ________,

I want to thank you for raising the issues regarding _______ to my attention. It is helpful to have your perspective.  In order to address the issues you raised, I propose the following steps. . . . Please let me know if you have any questions, concerns, or other suggestions on how to proceed.

I feel like I would be remiss if I did not also share that the tone and tenor of your communication felt unnecessarily harsh/hostile/accusatory, given that we are part of an educational/work community committed to a shared purpose and a shared expectation of collegiality.  The issue you raised is important; however, the way in which you raised it does not serve to support your cause.  If anything, it could possibly undermine it.  I share this in my role of supporting you in your professional development, and I hope you can receive it in that spirit.  I am happy to discuss this feedback further if you want to schedule time to talk.” (Edited slightly)

I was reminded of a “nastygram” I received when I was serving as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs many years ago.  We had a policy that required even distribution across semesters for an upper level required course but had not put a “cap” on enrollment for the fall semester during registration in the spring.  That meant that during the summer I had to “move” some set of students (approximately 15) from the fall to the following spring to “balance” enrollment.

I sent out an email on a Friday informing the students who had registered that we would be randomly selecting some students to shift to the spring to conform with the policy but would provide exceptions for those who had a particular reason for needing to take the fall course.  I asked students to send me an email explaining their situation and indicated that I would consider their circumstances in identifying students for the shift to the spring.

One student replied on Saturday with an email that started “I am so angry . . .” followed by other inflammatory language about what an outrage it was to have to submit a request to remain in the fall course.  The email proceeded to provide one reason it was necessary for that student to be in the fall course.  The student followed up with two additional emails – one later on Saturday and one on Sunday explaining additional reasons for needing/wanting to remain in the fall course.

I wrote to the student late on Sunday indicating that I did not understand why the student was so angry when all I had asked the student to do was to send me an email explaining their circumstances.  I also advised the student that as an advocate, one doesn’t generally benefit from attacking the decision-maker.  In addition, I noted that in the appeals process, one normally gets only one opportunity to raise issues.  I then asked the student to redraft the email, with an appropriate tone and with all reasons incorporated into that one email, noting that I would consider the student’s request following receipt of a new, measured, complete email request.  I also offered to meet with the student to better understand the circumstances that had made the student so angry.  That “learning moment” was meaningful for the student – who apologized and submitted an email with an appropriate tone and with all factors included (and the student was allowed to remain in the fall course).

One of the things we are (or should be) teaching our students – or trying to help our students learn – is how to conduct themselves as professionals so that they can be the most effective advocates for their clients.  That rarely involves ad hominem attacks or a snarky tone.  When our students manifest a lack of awareness of the importance of carrying themselves as a professional and communicating as a professional, they offer us “learning moments” – moments in which we can intervene to help them learn important lessons about who they want to be as a lawyer and how they should conduct themselves as lawyers and as officers of the court.

These conversations with obstreperous students are not always easy – as the students are not always receptive to the idea that this should be a “learning moment” for them.  But I think we have a responsibility to our students, to the profession, and to those we serve to guide our students to avoid cantankerous behaviors as they develop their voice as an advocate for themselves and for others.

While some of these misguided communications may be directed to faculty – providing faculty members the opportunity to facilitate a “learning moment” for the student – many of them are going to be directed to administrators and to staff – members of the law school community who also share a responsibility to help students through “learning moments” as they transition from the identity of student to the identity of lawyer.  It takes the whole building.  We are all in this together.

Please feel free to contact me at jmorgan@stthomas.edu should you have any comments or questions.

Jerome Organ is the Bakken Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law