Transferring law schools was one of the hottest topics within my 1L class, especially when it came time to start applying to other law schools at the end of 1L year. My law school is unique in regards to transferring because so many students transfer in and out after 1L year. Overall, transferring law schools is pretty rare compared to the percentage of students who jump ships in undergrad. According to inside higher education approximately 5.5% of law students transfer during their 1L summer, whereas 37.2% of undergrad students transfer at least once.
There are two general reasons for jumping ships in law school: 1) the first is for personal reasons such as location, family, significant others, etc, and 2) the second is too upgrade to a higher ranked school because of perceived employment benefits.
This article will not delve into rationales for transferring law schools for person reasons because everyone’s situation is unique. Transferring because of a perceived future employment benefit is fair game to address, as I admittedly fell into this group when I was considering transferring my 1L year.
A Little On My Transfer Story
One of the biggest factors in selecting my law school was the fact that it was the highest ranked school I was accepted into. Well, technically it was the second highest ranked, but there was no way in HELL I was attending law school in Boston (too cold). Luckily I did get more than half off my tuition in scholarships, but law school in Washington D.C is extremely expensive even if you are paying a discounted rate.
From the very beginning I planned on transferring law schools if I could get the grades to transfer. My first semester I obtained a sufficient GPA (3.9), but second semester my grades dropped, leaving me with a 3.8. I applied to several law schools in the T14, but the one I was really aiming for was Harvard. I was accepted into Columbia but rejected out of Harvard so at that point I had a decision to make. Either A) stick with the law school I’m attending now and have significantly less debt and probably get a biglaw job anyways or B) transfer to THE MOST EXPENSIVE LAW SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY with absolutely zero scholarships, an enormous debt load, but have a higher chance at obtaining biglaw employment.
After careful consideration of the fact that Columbia would leave me with more than $300k in debt (GASP) I decided not to transfer.
The realities of transferring
The reality is that transferring law schools to make a jump in ranks is not always worth it, in fact it frequently is not worth it. My advice is to make the transfer significant, it makes absolutely no sense to transfer to a law school that is 5 or 6 ranks ahead of your own. But there are a whole host of considerations to think about that may make it worth it or not to transfer.
Benefits of Transferring
Better job prospects
If you are aiming for biglaw employment when you finish law school you may have a substantially better shot at a higher ranked school. Big firms are most generous with jobs at the T14 level and then biglaw employment prospects decline as you drop in the rankings.
Of course biglaw prospects is not the only reason to transfer. For example, in North Carolina the best regional schools are Wake Forest, Chapel Hill and Campbell. I would include Duke Law but it’s in a different legal market since the vast majority of graduates do not practice in North Carolina. If you are a law student that wants to practice in North Carolina but you do not attend one of those schools, your resume may go a lot further in your job search if you transfer to one of these schools.
Negatives of Transferring
Losing your scholarship money
In my opinion this is by far the worst negative of transferring. If you receive any scholarship money from your 1L school, it will all disappear into thin air if you transfer schools. That’s not to say that the school you are transferring to will never offer you scholarship money, but I have never heard of a transfer student being offered tuition reduction. I receive a $35k scholarship yearly scholarship from my school and the thought of paying sticker price at another private law school was too much for me.
Of course, if you are not receiving any scholarship money than this may play into your decision to transfer. You don’t have nearly as much to lose if your school is not giving you any tuition reduction.
Any connections that you made at your first law school are likely to be lost overtime. My school assigned all of the 1Ls into individual sections of 90-130 students each, we took all of the same classes together. At times it felt a lot like high school, but it worked to create bonds amongst many of the students. I have also found that my 1L professors were significantly closer with the students than my 2L students have been. This is probably because 1L professors understand that part of their job is mentoring new students as well as teaching the subject. Many of these connections you will likely lose over time by transferring schools.
Making New Connections May Be Tougher
A friend of mine transferred law schools after her first year. She also continually flew down every few weeks to visit us. Why? She had a significantly more difficult time making friends at her new school. Now maybe she was not trying hard enough, I cant know for certain but I have heard many stories now of transfer students having a significantly more difficult time making connections at their new schools. It makes sense, 1L year is structured for students to form close bonds amongst one another in their Inns/Sections, but that also ends up creating a more tribalistic mentality amongst students.
Of course, experiences will vary amongst different students and different personalities, but needless to say it’s never easy being the new kid on the block.
Smaller fish in a bigger pond
I really hate this argument, but I recognize that it has it’s merits so I’ll put it in here. The idea goes that you may have been able to do really well at your 1L law school- straight As, law review and you made a skills competition board or two. But once you have transferred you find yourself competing amongst a higher level of competition and you may find that your grades do not stand out nearly as much.
I think I resent this argument because I remember when I was in community college and I informed my professor that I was debating transferring to UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Wilmington or Duke (if I could get in). He informed me that UNCW might be my best option because it was less competitive and I would be able to stand out.
My view is that you never really know how good you are or how well you can compete until you put yourself up against the best you can handle. That is why I do not consider the small fish/big pond argument in making these types of decisions, but I understand that it may be a consideration for some students.
Common Transfer Schools
There are a number of law schools that are regarded as accepting huge numbers of transfer students every year. Georgetown Law is at the top of this list, it typically takes around 100 transfer students a year!
NYU, Columbia, Berkeley, Northwestern and even Harvard all take in dozens of students every year.
Why are transfer statistics extremely important? Because your chances of getting into Duke Or UVA is extremely low because they accept so few transfers every year (around five). T14 schools are already extremely picky when selecting transfers by their nature of being top schools. Schools that select only a few transfers can be even pickier than say a school like Georgetown who relies on a hefty transfer population to remain financially sound.
Schools outside of the T14 that accept tons of students: George Washington, Arizona State, Emory, Rutgers, Miami, UCLA, Texas, American, Florida State and Minnesota.
What Kind of Grades Do You Need?
I really depends on how big of a jump you are trying to make from your current law school. If you are a Tier 2 or Tier 3 trying to transfer in Harvard or Chicago you will likely need pretty close to straight As. A tier 1 student on the otherhand transferring into Harvard can likely get away with a few more slip-ups.
If you are trying to make a significant jump in school ranking you will likely need to be in the top 10-15% of students at your current school.
Congratulations if you have received your grades from 1L year and you are in a position to consider transferring law schools. I understand that transferring to a higher ranked school can be extremely tempting on first glance, but I ask that you take a step back and confirm that it is the right choice for you. Your decision to transfer or not to will have enormous consequences for the remainder of your law school journey and for your career afterwards.