BY OWEN ALTERMAN
In August 2002, Mark Leen had just finished his first year of law school at the University of Washington. He was happy with the school and satisfied with life in Seattle. He lived in the region where he had grown up and had just started dating a friend of a friend moving up from Texas.
But there was one other thing. Leen had always dreamed of going to Harvard. He had applied three times before: for undergrad, an undergrad transfer, and then entry to the law school. Now, he hoped the fourth time – transferring to Harvard Law School – would turn out to be a charm.
By early September, with Joyce Curll’s letter in tow, Leen could finally trade the Seattle rain for the pleasant New England fall.
Leen arrived in Cambridge as part of the small group of transfer students who enter as 2Ls each year at HLS. They come here from law schools throughout the nation and survive a very competitive admissions process. According to Director of Admissions Todd Morton, HLS usually accepts around eight transfer students, although numbers can vary between six and ten, out of “100 or so” applicants.
Those applicants move through a very quick application process. Because the admissions office requires a transcript with spring semester grades, it does not mail acceptance and rejection letters until early August. Within weeks, those accepted and wishing to transfer must pack up their lives and move to Cambridge.
Once here, they attend an orientation breakfast, meet with the registrar, and then head into the HLS mainstream.
For Leen, that has meant digging into courses with Arthur Miller and Charles Fried, working as a research assistant for Martha Field, and rising to symposium editor of the Journal on Legislation. And, yes, through it all, he and the girlfriend are still dating.
“I just pinch myself all the time that I’m there [at Harvard],” Leen says from Seattle, where he is interviewing for clerkships (and visiting the girlfriend).
Still, Leen notes that there have been challenges. “[My view of HLS] has been colored by the transfer experience,” he says, “because you come into a place where people already have relationships, and you really feel like a bit of an outsider.”
“It’s like the 1L experience, but you’re the only one going through it,” he adds.
While students have treated him well, Leen says that others should think carefully before deciding to transfer schools. Those without a strong motivation or clear rationale may find themselves disillusioned, he says. “For nine out of ten people, it may not be the right decision.”
For Darin Sands, also now a 3L, it was the right decision. A transfer from the law school at Georgetown, Sands says, like Leen, that HLS students have accepted him. Harvard’s large size has helped him to integrate, Sands adds, because even 2Ls and 3Ls do not know everyone. “People were welcoming when they found out I was a transfer, but most of the time they just thought I was from a different section,” he says.
Academically, Sands says the transition was swift, despite the high standard. “The average student here is at a higher level, you feel like everybody’s impressive here, not that they aren’t at Georgetown. There are smart people at Georgetown, but not to the same extent.” After only a month, though, “you realize that you deserve to be here [also].”
When asked whether he saw any drawbacks to HLS, Sands noted the “surprising lack of intellectual interaction.” He added that, with all of the important events which have shaped our time, he would have expected a livelier intellectual climate.
Leen also says he was surprised by the many “complacent” students at HLS. He also would have wanted a slightly more thorough orientation. “Maybe have a time when previous transfer students can meet with incoming transfer students just so that the transfers can see people who’ve made the change and hear what their suggestions were,” he says. “Even something as simple as getting together for dinner.”
Another interesting aspect of the process is the admissions office’s policy of considering both the applicants’ pre-law school record and their first-year grades. The admissions office’s website, consistent with the office’s other materials, tells applicants the following: “Successful transfer candidates usually would have been admitted or wait-listed as first-year students on the basis of their pre-law school credentials, and have placed very near the top of their first-year class.”
When asked why the admissions office weighs pre-law school academics when applicants have actual law school grades, Director of Admissions Morton says that “it’s still pertinent to have a sense of whether they’ll fit comfortably into the student body here.” He adds that the admissions office is “looking at the whole package” rather than weighing one factor against another.
Faculty members do read transfer applicants’ files, Morton says, though the process may be different than the one for applicants for the 1L class.
Whatever the ins and outs of the admissions process, Leen and Sands are happy to have become HLS students. As Leen says, “Being in a place where [top professors] are is a great experience, really a joy.”