Law School Transfer Applications

What an interesting year this is shaping up to be. It's only early September, and we've already received an unusual number of emails from people who have just started law school and are already looking to transfer. They're not even willing to give their schools a chance. Why is that?

I imagine that 2010 saw a large number of people saying "yes" to their law schools out of desperation, and now that they find themselves at school and are bumping into so many 3Ls who are up to their eyeballs in debt and still struggling to find jobs, they're having second thoughts.

My advice to law school applicants is not to say "yes" -- or even apply -- to a school from which you wouldn't want to graduate. Attending a school only on the assumption that you will be able to transfer to a more competitive one is too risky a strategy. You have to be a 1L superstar to launch yourself into a higher caliber of law school, and statistically, most people aren't going to find themselves at the top of their 1L class. It's not as hard to transfer to a peer school, but for many transfer applicants, that's not the goal; they're hoping to upgrade. When you accept an offer to attend a law school, you should be reasonably happy with the possibility (even probability) that you will end up having to stay.

If you find yourself in a situation where you want to transfer out, here are some tips to keep in mind as you plan your first year:

1. Grades, grades, grades. Transferring is all about your 1L performance. After your first year of law school, your undergraduate grades stop mattering, and your LSAT stops mattering. Why would that be, when those were so important for your applications the first go-round? Because admissions officers look to your LSAT and undergrad performance as proxies to try to predict how you're going to do in law school. Once they have your 1L academic record, they don't need proxies anymore; they have the real deal. So if you have your heart set on transferring, protect your 1L transcript, even if that means forgoing other things you might like to do during your first year. (That strategy will also help you when it comes time to interview for summer jobs. Sought-after legal employers are very grades-conscious, and grades are your best leverage during on-campus recruiting.)

2. Professor recommendations. In order to apply for transfer, you'll need to submit recommendations from 1L professors. That can be tricky, because 1L classes tend to be large classes involving one big final exam, so you have to be proactive. If you're the kind of person who tries to keep his head down and get through the Socratic Method with as little attention as possible, your professors aren't going to remember you very well when you ask them for recommendations. Of course, being the superstar on the final exam is the best way to get noticed, but it helps if, when reading your stellar exam, they're not thinking, "Who is this person?" Without being a pest, take advantage of office hours and opportunities for feedback after your first-semester exams. Be prepared for class so that when you get called on (or volunteer your thoughts), you'll be remembered for having contributed to the discussion and moved the analysis along in a meaningful way.

When it comes time to ask for a letter, be very sensitive to the diplomacy involved. By applying to transfer, you are in effect saying to the school (and its professors): you're not good enough for me. Nobody likes to hear that, so make sure to approach them in a way that minimizes any offense they might take. That means being able to articulate well thought out reasons for transferring. Do not approach your potential recommenders until you have something intelligent to say about why you're hoping to transfer. And if you find yourself unable to transfer out to your desired target schools, be mindful that you might face some awkwardness with professors and administrators at the school you were hoping to leave behind. Many of them will be supportive of you either way, but that's not always the case, and feathers can sometimes get ruffled.

3. The transfer essay. When you apply to transfer, you'll be expected to write an essay explaining to your target school why you are seeking to transfer. You'll need to be able to articulate your reasons for seeking to transfer, and you have to walk a careful line. It would not reflect well on you to talk negatively about the school you're trying to leave. That would be unprofessional and would also make you sound whiny. Instead, focus on the advantages of the target school. Are there better opportunities for federal clerkships? Do they have better placement in your preferred geographical job market? Do they have expertise in a particular practice area or academic subject that your current school lacks?

Practical, non-academic reasons for transferring are fine, too. You might be attending a perfectly good school for 1L but would like to move to Chicago/Boston/Miami/wherever because your spouse is doing her medical residency there. Personal reasons are perfectly valid, but make sure to supplement them with academic or professional aspects that also attract you to that particular target school.

4. Timing.
Transfer application deadlines are very, very tight. Many law schools require you to have a complete 1L transcript before you can submit your applications, and many transfer applicants find themselves bumping right up against those deadlines. There are even suggestions (perhaps apocryphal) that some schools intentionally delay reporting the last set of grades in order to block students from transferring. Whether or not that's actually true (they are anecdotal stories), it is the case that some professors don't turn their grades in on a timely basis, so you might end up missing an application deadline because one of your professors couldn't get his act together. You don't have any control over the timing of your 1L grades, so be prepared for the possibility that you will make some deadlines but might have to miss others. It can't hurt to contact the target school whose deadline you're in danger of missing and finding out if they will grant you some kind of extension, but understand that they might say no. Transfers are like waitlists. When a school finds out that it has a spot to fill, it has to move quickly, and there's no upside (to the school) to wait for you if there are other perfectly good transfer applicants who can say yes right away.

Keep in mind why schools accept transfer applications in the first place: every 2L and 3L seat that goes empty represents lost revenue. It's like an unsold airplane seat. So when administrators find out how many spots have opened up (because some of their own students have transferred out, gone on leave, been accepted for a dual degree, etc.), they need to fill those slots, pronto.

5. Odds. For the same reason, the odds of transferring into a particular school are impossible to predict. 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, either.

Also, because your final 1L grades come in so close to deadlines, you will very likely find yourself having to make decisions about whether and where you want to transfer, and get all your other application materials lined up, before you even know where you stand academically at the end of the year. If you end up at the top of your class, you're going to have nice options. If you're not at the top of your class, you'll have to throw some applications out and see what happens. Frustrating, but that's how it works.

Do you have transfer application stories or tips to share? Please post!

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. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).