Handicapping Your Law School Transfer Odds

Thanks to Above the Law, I was intrigued to learn, on the day of the royal wedding, that the British monarchy owns all of the swans in its fair kingdom. Or it can claim ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open waters, or some such thing. Which got me thinking about Property Law (bundles of sticks, Pierson v. Post, the tragedy of the commons), which got me thinking about 1L classes more generally, and then I started wondering how this year's batch of 1Ls fared. Is law school what you hoped it would be? Any surprises, good or bad?

Not surprisingly, this time of year some 1Ls think about transferring. In fact, some started thinking about transferring way back in September, when they had barely even finished orientation. That struck me as too early to be plotting your escape, but in a post I wrote at the time (Law School Transfer Applications) I discussed the most important factors that will come into play if and when the time comes. Now that time is here.

How easy is it to transfer to a more competitive school? It's very easy if you're a superstar in your 1L class -- somebody will snap you up -- but probably quite hard if you're not.

If you are one of those superstars, how do you calculate your odds of transferring to a particular school? Transfer odds are practically impossible to calculate for any given school, even if you've got great 1L grades. To recap from that earlier posting:

Because schools themselves don't know how many slots they are going to have to fill until late in the game, and because the pool of transfer applications is relatively small, it's next to impossible to look at data for previous years and try to make any meaningful predictions. A school might find itself taking 10 transfers in one year and one the next. Or maybe last year it was able to snap up a superstar, but this year the best it can do is to take the person who got a B- on his Property final. Schools can't predict the quality of the pool or the number of spots in advance.

And neither can you. Plus, a school might have transfer odds of zero for reasons that have nothing at all to do with you.

So how do you decide whether transferring is worth a shot? In general, if you're aspiring to transfer to a more competitive or higher caliber school, you should be at least in the top 25% of your 1L class. That's not a bright-line rule -- and for the very top schools you'll probably have to rank even higher -- but think about it from the admissions officer's perspective: if you're closer to the middle of the 1L class or even below, then you probably landed at the right place to begin with.

By the same reasoning, if you're looking to transfer to what is roughly a peer school, then you don't need to be one of the top people in your class. Some people aren't necessarily looking to upgrade the caliber of their law school; for example, they might need to make a geographic move for personal reasons.

Bottom line: even though you can't really handicap your transfer odds for a given school, if you're in the top part of your class, even the most competitive schools in the country will at least take you seriously as a transfer applicant, assuming they have a spot (or spots) to fill. And the top one or two students in a class can almost certainly trade up, whether it's Top School A or Top School K that ends up having room to fill.

And schools do like to hear from transfer applicants, in part because their transfer students don't affect their rankings. They effectively let you prove yourself at some other law school that was easier for you to get into with your LSAT score and undergraduate record, and then they can accept you as a transfer without taking any rankings hit. In practice, they end up poaching you from the school that was nice and smart enough to bet on you originally, but that's not your problem. More importantly, your LSAT score and undergraduate GPA become irrelevant when you apply to transfer, which will be happy news for some of you.

Schools also love transfers because transfers are cash cows. Some schools might offer you some grant money as an admitted transfer, but keep your competition in mind. If you're trying to upgrade schools, there's always someone else who is eager to do the same (not unlike the waitlist scenario). In that circumstance, you don't have a lot of leverage to negotiate for discounted tuition. Chances are, if you get into one of your target transfer schools, you're going to be paying full fare for the privilege of upgrading.

Conversely, if you do find yourself with an upgrade option, don't be surprised if your 1L school throws some money at you -- completely unsolicited, no less -- in an attempt to get you to stay. Schools hate losing their star students.

Do you have your own transfer wisdom to share? Or any other questions about transferring? Please send them our way by posting in the comments.


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book, and find Anna on Twitter and Facebook.