Transferring to a New Law School: Is it Possible? Is it Worth the Effort?

In the coming weeks, when the new law school year begins, 1Ls will face new campuses, courses, and classmates--and so will transfer students. Hundreds of law students try to transfer every year, sometimes for personal reasons (a partner gets a job in a different location, a family member in one's hometown becomes ill, or financial concerns warrant a move from a private to a state school) and oftentimes for strategic career-planning reasons: the students hope to graduate from higher ranked law schools that they couldn't gain admittance to as first-years. (Note that a law student may apply to transfer prior to his 2L year, but a student who spends her 3L year at another school is a visiting student and will graduate with a degree from her home school.)

The Law School Admissions Council provides important advice about some of the potential downsides of transferring: students may lose scholarships; they may not be eligible for journals or moot court until their third year; they may be admitted too late to participate in all aspects of early on-campus recruiting programs; popular classes may be full; and their G.P.A.s and rankings from their original law schools are not counted at their new schools. The LSAC also states that "[s]tudents often comment on the loss of community and close friendships they made in their first year when they transfer to another law school," but I think the potential benefits of transferring outweigh this particular concern.

Ideally, you will put time and effort into your first (and only!) round of law school applications and gain admittance to a well-regarded school that works for your needs. A highly-ranked (top fifteen) law school will help you gain maximum access to federal judicial clerkships, large law firm jobs, federal attorney honors programs, academic teaching positions, and other highly competitive opportunities. Back in September 2007, Anna blogged about the importance of attending a highly ranked law school and cited her book, The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, where she wrote,

The top fifteen [law schools]. . .offer a level of job security that other law schools can't. . . .Once you get to the second tier and below, you need to be at or near the top of your class to end up at a top firm in your region or with a top judge in your region (the national market is a much more difficult proposition), and people in the bottom half of the class often face grim hiring prospects.

In today's legal market, where top firms are cutting back on summer associate programs or canceling them altogether (see Greg's recent post here), both your school and your grades take on even greater importance (read my recent post here). In this climate, some applicants are already considering the possibility of transferring next year. Can one start out at a lower-ranked law school and reapply as a 1L to more competitive programs?

Because law school ranking and reputation are so important for career prospects, it may be worth the time, effort, and drawbacks (as discussed above) to apply and transfer to a top school. However, you should only enroll in a law school from which you are willing to receive your JD -- transfer admissions are extremely competitive, and you cannot count on being able to leave your original law school for a more prestigious school. When you apply as a transfer, your undergraduate G.P.A. and LSAT scores are not the key factors for the admission office -- your performance as a 1L is what will determine whether and where you are admitted. Only students who perform at the very top of their classes at lower-ranked schools will be admitted to top tier programs; at Georgetown Law, competitive candidates are typically in the top 15% of their current law school class, and the likelihood that any one student will be in that top 15% is low.

So if you're planning on applying to law school for the 2010-2011 academic year, it's time to think carefully about where to apply and get started on making your applications as effective as they can be-so you won't feel a need to repeat this process again.


Nicole Vikan is a graduate of NYU Law School. She spent her first law school summer at a large law firm, and her second summer in the Homicide Investigation Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. She returned to the District Attorney's Office after graduation and spent five years as a criminal prosecutor, handling cases such as robbery and assault. Nicole then joined Fordham Law School's Career Planning Center, where she advised students seeking employment in the private and public sectors. She is currently a career counselor at Georgetown Law Center's Office of Public Interest and Community Service. As part of the Anna Ivey team, Nicole works with law school applicants and people exploring legal careers.