I vividly remember my first encounter with some 1L summer starters when I arrived at law school several thousand years ago. They had already completed their first semester at the time I was beginning mine, and I was bitter. Somehow, in filling out the Michigan Law application, I had failed to notice—or perhaps, just to comprehend—the opportunity to begin law school a few months earlier than the typical fall start (and thus, to end earlier as well). Summer start would have been a perfect choice for me. I had been working after college for a couple of years, and was eager to get started in law school. Plus, I was living in south Florida at the time; while people may complain about Michigan winters, I assure you in the most fervent possible terms that they are nowhere near as unpleasant as West Palm Beach summers. Escaping to Ann Arbor for June would have been genius.
Alas, I blew that one. But that doesn’t really explain the question of my bitterness—my lost opportunity doesn’t/oughtn’t naturally lead to any strong sour-grapes sensation toward those who were more on the ball. But man, those summer starters seemed SO on the ball when I met them: full of confidence and even swagger in the face of my anxiety about my law-related ignorance; tossing around terms like res ipsa loquitur with reckless abandon; exhibiting with aplomb a mastery of the Law School’s eccentric geography, like the way the third floor of one building linked, surprisingly, to the seventh floor of another. Who wouldn’t be bitter? It was one thing for the 2Ls and 3Ls to evidence their superior knowledge, but these people were my classmates.
More grievously, rumors abounded about the benefits flowing from summer-starterness. Specifically, it was rumored, because the summer starters have a lighter first-semester load (two doctrinal courses rather than three, plus legal writing), they all had higher GPAs than the fall starters. Mind you, my willingness to believe this completely false rumor underscores both my inability to understand the concept of a grading curve (the curve is applied to each first-year section, and so all sections have the same distribution of grades), and my wholesale buy-in to what I now, as an administrator, recognize as a recurring phenomenon of law school life, at least at this law school: What law students suspect to be true, they occasionally will support by inventing plausible-sounding evidence. Kids, don’t try this in the courtroom.
Anyway, all I could think was: Who were these people, one step ahead of me on their way to lawyerliness (lawyerosity? Lawyerousness? Lawyericity?), and with higher grades to boot?
I’m happy to report that I eventually made my peace with the summer starters. Some of my best friends, as they say, are summer starters. (Of our senior administrators and faculty who are Michigan Law grads, a higher than proportional number are summer starters. (J.J. White!) Does this bespeak an even higher than average devotion to the place? Or—wait—maybe that GPA rumor was true after all!) Good thing, too, since my job calls upon me to answer lots of questions about summer start, most prominent among them—why do it? But the other day I got a first-time question on the subject, and I thought it might be of interest beyond my one-person audience: How do we decide to put some people in summer and others in fall?
Filling the summer section is different in some fundamental ways from filling the fall sections. For one thing, although it’s roughly a quarter of the class (about 90 people), we start out with significantly fewer regular-decision seats to fill. When we admit people for a future term (that is, when we defer people from the presumptive year of entry to a future year), we tend to have them start in the summer; people who are deferred for a year don’t have any trouble planning to begin their law school careers a few months earlier. Likewise, our early-decision program requires people to begin in the summer. All told, we end up having only roughly 40 regular-decision seats to fill in the summer.
In any event, the question of who “fits” in the summer is really just a microcosm of the overarching admissions determination of fit. As an initial matter, applicants have to indicate a willingness to be selected, by checking the appropriate “either summer or fall start” box on our application form; if you don’t do that, we don’t consider you for summer. But even if an applicant is willing, we’ll tend not to slot someone for summer if we sense the hint of a conflict with the starting date; likewise, since doing five semesters in a row can be a rough prescription, we tend to avoid putting college seniors in the summer section unless they’ve evinced a particularly strong motivation to begin. By the same token, if someone has taken time off since college and has had a position for long enough that leaving in May isn’t likely to result is in a hardship (have they plateaued in their skillset? Is there little “value added” to be derived from a couple of more months in the job?), that makes the summer start seem sensible. And sometimes, people very helpfully express an affirmative interest in starting in the summer, for a whole slew of personal or professional reasons—and then it’s easy for us to make them happy.
Mostly, though? It’s just the usual ineffable guesswork we engage in routinely. Summer starters often just seem like summer starters. I’m sure if you’re a summer starter, you interpret that as meaning they seem superior, but dammit, that’s not what I meant. Fall starters are people too.
Assistant Dean for Admissions
and Special Counsel for Professional Strategies