You’ve heard it said ad nauseum – go to the best law school that you can get into. So you did your diligence and applied to about 10 schools: two or three “safety” schools, three or four “on par” schools and three or four “reach” schools. But, because the law school admissions process is, by nature, a total crap shoot, you now find yourself going to a law school that you’re not entirely thrilled about.
Should I Transfer?
Of course, we can’t answer that for you. But, if you are still on the fence about whether you should transfer or not, here are some factors you should be weighing:
Big Fish/Small Pond v. Big Pond. If you are a viable transfer candidate, congratulations, you are probably a pretty big fish, and that comes with some privileges. Law review membership, a conspicuously high class rank and GPA, and Latin honors are likely in your future. Employers like to see these sorts of things, and as a big fish, your professors will likely want to go to bat for you when you need them to.
On the other hand, coming from a big pond also has its privileges. The cachet of a “prestigious” law school can open doors your current school just may not. The short-term benefit may not be substantial, as firms will likely evaluate you based on your old school during recruiting, but the name on your diploma will follow you for the rest of your career. Plus, though it could be a tougher road, you will likely still have the opportunity to write onto law review anyway.
Insider/Outsider. Remember how you didn’t know anyone at the beginning of 1L year, but it was OK since everyone was in your same boat? It’ll be the same way again as a transfer, except all your peers will have already forged strong bonds and friendships. Transferring means starting over with your friends, colleagues, and professors, which, depending on your personality and comfort zone, can either be a daunting challenge or an exciting opportunity.
Career Ambitions. At this point in time, you may or may not know what sort of career you’d like to have. But, if you are determined to work at the Office of Legal Counsel and clerk on the Supreme Court, then transfer to the best school possible (and keep on getting A+’s). If, however, you want to practice in your current city, moving across the country to go to a somewhat better school may not be worth the trouble.
Educational Opportunities. Although positioning yourself for the best entry-level position is a legitimate reason to transfer, law school should be about becoming the best lawyer possible. Transferring can provide you with the opportunity to study with better professors, participate in better clinics, practicums, or externships, work on better journals, and take classes with better students (and note that none of these necessarily corresponds with the U.S. News rankings), and those experiences can pay dividends over your career.
So, assuming your answer is yes, you should begin to plan your exit strategy via transfer as soon as possible (ideally before the school year begins).
There are two keys to transferring: 1L grades/class rank and recommendations from your law professors.
Grades and Class Rank
No surprise. Just like future employers, law schools will be looking at your 1L grades and class rank to determine whether you are fit for admission as a transfer. The folks running the admissions office are looking to “cherry pick” the best and brightest from (typically) lower-ranking law schools (i.e., students that they may have initially overlooked because of undergraduate grades or LSAT scores but have now proven, through their 1L performance, that they have their A-game on and are likely to be successful lawyers who will give prodigiously back to the law school as alums). There’s no magic GPA or class rank that will get you into every school, but it goes without saying that the higher your GPA and class rank, the more likely that you are to get in to the school you want. So, lock yourself in the library for a few months and say hello to your new pals Learned Hand, Benjamin Cardozo, and John Marshall.
All that studying will be for naught if you sit mutely in the back of the classroom and your professors can’t speak substantively about you as a student and individual. What this means is that you should always be prepared for class, speak up when you have something meaningful to say, and take advantage of office hours to get to know two or three of your professors. What this doesn’t mean is being the annoying student who talks incessantly without adding value and stalks every single professor you have.
When it comes to transferring, getting to know your professors and letting them get to know you are no less important than acing your classes. The admissions committees will take note if your professors can speak to your personal attributes and contributions in addition to your (obviously) masterful oratory and legal writing skills. When it comes time to ask for a recommendation, it might be awkward (Hey! Great class, Professor Jones, now can you write me a recommendation so I can transfer out of this popsicle joint into a real law school?), but the vast majority of professors are understanding and happy to oblige if you have built a relationship over the course of a semester or two. Be sure to ask your professors for recommendations 2 to 3 months before your transfer applications are due (they’re busy too).
Besides grades and recommendations, there are a number of soft factors that admissions committees will look at and, while they won’t necessarily change an admissions decision, they might make a difference if you’re on the cusp of admission.
Moot court. Among the soft factors, participation on moot court is probably looked upon most favorably (see exception in journal participation discussion). Winning the competition or getting on the moot court team is especially favorable, so put on your pantsuit and start channeling Jack McCoy from Law & Order.
Journal Participation. The typical write-on and journal membership decisions aren’t made until well after most transfer applications are due. If you happen to go to a law school where the write-on and membership decisions are made before your transfer applications are due, then you should definitely write-on because membership will be regarded at least as favorably as moot court membership. Even if the write-on and membership decisions aren’t made until after your transfer applications are due, you should still write-on to hedge your bets. After all, if your attempts to transfer are fruitless, membership on a law journal will put you in the best position to get a job as a 2L. Think of it as a consolation prize.
Other Extracurriculars. While these are nice to have on your resume, they are by no means going to make or break your admissions application. By all means, participate in an extracurricular or two if you have a genuine interest in said extracurricular or if the group will allow you to interact with a professor who could help you out, but acing your classes and participating on moot court/journal are a better use of your limited resources during your 1L year.
TA. If you are asked to TA for one of your professors, you should be as forthcoming as possible about your desire to transfer. That said, you should not decline the position outright, given that you’ll need and want the position if the transfer gig doesn’t pan out. The best case scenario is that you share your transfer aspirations with your professor and he or she agrees to hold the TA position for you until the transfer situation sorts itself out. The worst case scenario is that the professor wants an immediate answer, in which case you’ll have to decline if you’re really hell bent on transferring. Regardless, the fact that the position was offered to you at all should make its way into your transfer application – either on your resume or, if you asked the professor for a recommendation, in the professor’s recommendation letter.
Don’t be alarmed if you hear nothing for weeks on end after submitting your transfer application. Radio silence is oftentimes typical given that schools are trying to sort out how many transfer slots are available. Just be prepared for a late-breaking decision and to act immediately if you are accepted for transfer.
There is no question that the transfer process can be long, tedious and nerve-wracking. You might wonder whether it’s worth it but, overall, the work that transferring entails isn’t much more onerous than the work that you’ll do anyways as a law student in this marketplace (assuming that you want to be gainfully employed post-graduation). Consider the benefits: You get to list a higher-ranked school (usually) as your JD alma mater, have two legal networks to tap into in the future for job prospects and prospective clients, and have a meaningful experience to discuss in OCI interviews than can speak to your ability to overcome adversity. Given the benefits and the fact that you’ll be doing much of the legwork anyway, the relative benefits of transferring far exceed the drawbacks, especially if you can make a significant jump in law school rankings.
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