Consider This Before You Transfer

Changing law schools is no simple task. Find out what it takes.

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This time of year I get a lot of questions from two groups of people about transferring: those who just finished their first semester of law school and are waiting for their grades and hoping to transfer to another school, and those who are starting to hear back from schools and are wondering about their chances of transferring "up" after their first year of law school.

Here are the considerations:

1. First year grades and class rank

2. The quality of law school you are attending as a first year student

3. A law faculty letter of recommendation

For current first year law students (1Ls) it all comes down to grades and class rank this semester. The better you do, the more ambitious you can be about transferring. However, where you earned those first year grades plays a big part as well. After all, since everyone from the top 10 is trying to transfer to Harvard, and everyone from the top 20 is trying to transfer to the top 10, you won't be transferring from Thomas Cooley to Harvard. (Actually, it's extremely difficult to transfer from Thomas Cooley to anywhere…)

[Read more considerations for law school transfer applicants.]

Since schools don't have to release any information about the qualifications of people admitted as transfers, picking schools is a bit more unpredictable than applying for your 1L year. You should call the schools you're considering transferring to and ask them, given where you attend law school, what the minimum class rank would be for consideration. Typically, the lines are drawn quite clearly. For instance, when I was director of admissions at Loyola Law, we used to have a rule for local law schools (students transferring from Southwestern Law School had to be in the top 25% of their class, from Chapman University in the top 10%, etc…boy have times changed in the last decade…). Many schools will give you similar information if you are polite about asking for it.

Here are some examples of clients I've worked with who transferred in the past few years, proving that working hard in your first year does pay off:

Cardozo to Columbia

Touro College to Cardozo

Southwestern to the University of Southern California

Catholic University and Loyola-Los Angeles to Georgetown

New York University to Stanford and Harvard

Drawbacks to transferring:

1. Getting a faculty letter of rec: Please keep in mind that getting the required law school faculty letter of recommendation can be harder than you think. Some faculty members refuse to help any student try to transfer anywhere else. "My sense is that most professors would be willing to write a rec if you were relatively active in their class and showed up to office hours a couple times," says Maxwell Gilbertson, a 2L at USC who transferred from Southwestern. "That being said, there may be a couple of grenades thrown into the mix who won't give you a rec no matter who you are."

2. Payback: Some schools will actually refuse to allow you to sign up for on campus interviews if you request your transcripts to be sent to another law school.

3. Losing Opportunities: Having to write-on to law review at the new school when you "walked on" at your current school. Facing prospective employers who come for campus interviews and think it's strange that you've only gone to this school for a week by the time they are interviewing you. Not being able to participate on Moot Court. Being a smaller fish in a bigger pond. These are all potential inconveniences and drawbacks to transferring.

[Listen to this podcast for more information about transferring.]

One former client who transferred from a top 50 school to a top 5 institution told me anonymously that faculty at his former school were better teachers and more interested in students than at the higher ranked school where faculty seem more interested in their research and in publishing than in students. While he believes it was a good long-term decision to transfer, the top of the class at his old school is consistently well employed in the same city where he hopes to work, and he claims he missed the level of comfort he developed with fellow students and faculty during his 1L year.

However, one of my former clients, a 2L at Stanford Law who transferred from NYU, said the only drawback was that he could not study abroad because Stanford requires two years of residency to graduate. And Gilbertson, of USC, said that giving up law review at Southwestern turned out to be worth the sacrifice. "Transferring was a great decision because I was able to write on to an honors program at USC even though I gave up law review at my old school."

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