By Ian E. Scott, Esq. Bio
If you go to the airport and get upgraded from economy to first class, you should accept the upgrade without asking any questions. Human nature is such that most want to apply the same philosophy to many aspects of life and want to upgrade homes, cars, and even law schools. The current system allows you to “upgrade” law schools by transferring to a different higher ranked school after your first year and this option could put your dreams of going to an ivy league school well within reach. In some cases a transfer makes sense but “upgrader” beware as higher rank does not always mean better.
What Does A Transfer To Another Law School Mean?
After you have completed one year of law school, you are eligible to transfer to another law school. If you transfer after your first year, you will get the degree from the new law school that you go to instead of your old school. If you transfer after your second year, you will get the degree from the school that you went to for the first two years. I attended Brooklyn Law School for my first year and then transferred to Harvard Law School. As such, I received a law degree from Harvard Law School that does not indicate that I went to Brooklyn Law School for my first year.
There are two primary reasons for transferring. First, people transfer because they have a personal change in their lives such as a spouse that gets relocated to a different city. The second reason that students transfer is to “upgrade” schools. This upgrade is done because a law school’s ranking is very important and students will often try to move from a second, third, or fourth tier school to a first tier school. This is what I did when I moved from a school with a rank in the mid 60s to Harvard Law School, ranked number 2. Attending a highly ranked school, especially in a poor economy, could have a significant impact on your ability to find a job and your other opportunities as a lawyer. Not all moves are beneficial however so you should make an informed choice if you choose to transfer.
How Much Of Jump In Rankings Is Needed To Make A Transfer Worth While?
Many students wonder whether or not they should transfer schools based on a small or moderate jump in rankings. I know one student who transferred from a school ranked around 70 in New York City to a school ranked around 60 that was also in New York City. This move made absolutely no sense to me. I met him during the summer at Brooklyn Law School (the school he transferred to) and he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer and this was evident by more than just his school change.
The point of this story is that you should only change schools if the jump you are going to make is going to put you in a substantially better place than you are. I could have easily transferred to Fordham law school (which is ranked in the 30s) from Brooklyn (ranked in the 60s) but I did not even apply because the move was not worth it.
The key if you decide to transfer is to make sure that the jump is significant. As a general guide, you should jump at least 35 points in the rankings and higher if you can. Also, the move should move you from one tier to another or from a first tier school to a top 5 school. I know students who moved from Brooklyn Law School to schools ranked from 20-30 and they had a tough time during the on campus interview process and did not substantially benefit from the transfer. Make your jump count!
Are There Disadvantages Associated With Transferring?
The short answer is yes and this is especially the case if you are making a small jump. While rankings are important, these disadvantages might outweigh any benefit. They are summarized below.
1. You Will Lose Many Of The Important Connections You Made In 1st Year
When you start law school, you will be assigned to a section along with around 80 other students. Everyone in your section will have the same classes and you will get to know them quite well. You will all be going through the exact same experience and as a result you will form quite strong bonds and networks. These bonds and networks may result in lifelong friendships, business contacts and even marriage. Do not underestimate the importance of these connections. There is a substantial risk that if you transfer you will lose some or all of the important connections that you will make in your first year. This includes both students and professors. Moreover, strong bonds have already been formed at the school you will go to and it may be hard to establish similar connections.
2. You May Be Considered An Outsider At Your New School
As a transfer student, you will always be considered one step below the people that started at that school from the beginning. This is particularly the case if you come from a lower ranked school.
For example, one day after class, a Professor at Harvard took some students for drinks. When he found out I was a transfer student and that I came from Brooklyn Law School (ranked in the 60s), he asked me if the other transfer students looked down on me because I came from a second tier school. (Most of the transfer students came from other first tier schools ranked between 15 and 30). If he thought that other transfer students would look down on me, you can imagine what he thought (or what some other students at Harvard thought/think) about transfers. This is not a reason not to transfer but it is something to consider. I became accustomed to the facial expressions of other students and professors when I told them I transferred. In fact, after my second year, I intentionally did not mention I was a transfer student unless explicitly asked.
3. Your Grades May Fall & You May Not Be Eligible For Latin Honor Awards
People who get admitted to top schools know how to take exams very well. As such, you will find that the ability to get great grades when you transfer is more difficult. This of course depends on which school you are coming from, as there is also stiff competition in many top tier schools. Generally speaking, if you transfer your grades will decrease and you will not be at the top of the class. This is especially the case if you are transferring from a second tier school. Do not get me wrong, it is quite possible to do very well at the new school and some end up in the top 10% or top 30%. That being said, most transfer students were in the top 1-5% of their class in the school they transferred from and some were ranked number one. As such, I am not talking about a significant drop in grades but a moderate drop. For some, this is a big deal and you should consider whether it is important to you to be at the top of the pack or within the top 20%. Do not be fooled into thinking that because you were a superstar at your old school, you will be one at the school you transfer to.
You should also investigate whether or not you will be eligible for Latin Awards when you graduate and exactly how any class ranking will apply to you. Some schools do not permit transfer students to be eligible for Latin and other awards because they did not spend all three years at the Law School. Moreover, very few schools, if any, will permit the high grades that you obtained at your first Law School to count in any calculation. Depending on the law school, the Latin awards or class ranking will be very important and it may not be obvious to employers that you were ineligible. Instead, all that they will see is that you were not in the top 40% and did not receive any awards.
4. You May Move To Being A Small Fish In A Big Pond If You Transfer
Depending on the size of your school, as a top student you really stand out. For example, after my first semester when I scored over a 4.0 GPA, the Dean of Student Affairs at Brooklyn Law School called me into her office to discuss my progress. She was very pleasant and told me that she would do everything in her power to assist me including recommendations for clerkships. Also, as a top student, I was offered a scholarship in my second year and it was very clear to me that the eyes of the administration were focused on me.
When I transferred to Harvard, I was one of a class of 550 (plus another 100 LLM students) and I was clearly an outsider. I had moved from a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in an ocean.
While none of the above mentioned items should stop you from transferring, you should consider them to assess whether a transfer is right for you.
What Makes You Eligible To Transfer To Another Law School?
In order to transfer to a top school, you will need top grades. Harvard accepts around 25 transfer students a year and boasts that many transfer students could have been admitted if they applied there for their first year or are students that were waitlisted when they applied to Harvard in their first year. You may know, Harvard’s entering class has a GPA very close to an A average and a LSAT score in the top 2%. Yale only admits around 10 transfer students and the competition is very stiff. In fact, many of the transfer students that were admitted to Harvard the year I was accepted were not accepted as transfer students to Yale. (I did not apply to Yale so I will never know)
As a rough guide, you should be in the top 10% of your class if applying to a top school. This is by no means a cut-off and the number could change if you have some other compelling characteristics or you are transferring from a high or low ranked school. The higher the ranking of your school, the lower your grades can be. For example, if you are transferring from Columbia to Harvard, you could likely get away with an A- average (top 30%). If you are transferring from Brooklyn Law School (ranked in the sixties), you will generally have to be in the top 5% of your class.
In addition to top grades, most of the transfer students at Harvard had a second Masters or Doctoral degrees or some other significant accomplishment. The more significant the accomplishments the better.
The bottom line is that if you get great grades in your first year of law school, you could be eligible to transfer to Harvard, Yale or another top school and this is an option you should keep in mind as your first year comes to an end. Your dream of attending an Ivy League school could be well within reach even if you do not have a 175 LSAT and straight A college average. I am living proof! The school you want to transfer to will base their decision primarily on your grades and other achievement in your first year of law school and your LSAT score and College grades will generally not matter. While a transfer may be beneficial to you, make sure your jump in rankings is significant and pay particular attention to the disadvantages outlined above.