The decision whether to transfer law schools is a difficult choice for many students. Those transferring for reasons other than trying to transfer up the USNWRs fall outside the scope of this post.
First, what are your career goals?
When I thought about transferring, I thought about the doors that would be open to me if I transferred, and the doors that would remain shut if I stayed put. I didn't choose to attend law school so I could work for a big elite firm, but I decided (with mounting debt) that I would really like to have the option. Sure, the money would be nice, but the training would be good too. The prospect of working for such a firm coming from my previous law school seemed small, and I knew many people with decent grades who seemed to be having some difficulty finding jobs. Although my grades placed me at the top of the class, I worried about my employment situation. For many, this is a huge reason to transfer. I often heard while I was at my old law school that the law school you attend becomes increasingly insignificant the longer you are out of law school. While there might be some truth to this if you become a rainmaker, or do some amazing things with your career, the law school you attend will forever be enshrined on your resume, and it is one thing all future employers will see and consider. How they weight it, one can never be sure. I remember one of the most striking differences when I transferred last fall. I had started participating in fall recruitment at my old school just in case I didn't make the switch. When I started participating in my current law school's fall recruitment, the number of employers participating was more than six times the number of employers who participated in my old law school's fall recruitment. It was extremely eye-opening -- at my new school firms fought over us, took us to dinner and drinks during on-campus recruiting, while at my old law school we were lucky to get interviews with top firms. At the new school, employers sent us emails inviting us to events, and inviting us to apply to the firms, while at the old school I never heard from a single employer. The employment opportunities my new school afforded me immediately paid off my decision before classes even started. This is way I said to apply early in a previous post -- you want to make absolutely sure that you can take full advantage of your new law school's fall recruitment; otherwise what you gain in transferring decidedly diminishes.
Second, do you want to clerk?
Following up from the previous subject, because clerking is highly integrated with the first question, whether you want to clerk should be a big question to ask yourself. A prestigious clerkship with a well-known judge can catapult your career to unfathomable heights. This is something I didn't even know, and was never ever discussed at my previous law school. In fact, I didn't even really know what a clerkship was, or its implications at my old law school because nobody ever discussed it with us. Looking at the numbers from my previous school, less than 5% of the students clerk after graduation, which could explain why I was so in the dark. At my new school, the number of clerks is insanely high -- and students pursue very prestigious clerkships with Circuit Court Judges, and we have at least one Supreme Court Clerk this term. While I knew that my chances of becoming Supreme Court Clerk were insanely small even after choosing to transfer, I just liked the fact that hypothetically, this was an opportunity that I could potentially take advantage of at my new school. If I stayed put, this was yet another door that remained closed.
Third, do you want to go into academia?
This question also follows from the previous two. At my new school some students are able to become law professors immediately after graduation. If you get a fabulous clerkship, this can fast track you into academia as well. If you clerk and work for a prestigious law firm, again -- these are factors faculty look for when hiring a new law professor. Not to mention, the school you graduated from. Academia was another option I wanted to be able to consider, and I knew if I stayed put the best I could probably hope for was to eventually become a professor at the previous law school I attended. I didn't want to keep future teaching options limited, so this was another factor I considered. Of course most law professors graduated from Yale, Harvard, or Stanford, but they come from the rest of the top schools to varying degrees, and attending any school ranked higher than mine meant more opportunity.
Fourth, what will you give up if you leave your old law school?
For many students who are considering transferring, they may be leaving behind academic scholarships, Law Review membership, and the GPA insurance policy the first year grades afforded. When you transfer, you start completely over -- the GPA goes back down to 0.00, you have to claw your way onto Law Review at the new school (each law school's procedures differ on this), make new friends, and in many cases you will not receive scholarship money at the new school. These factors get even trickier if you are already at a school ranked in the middle of the Top Tier of the USNWRs. You have to ask, "is it better to be on Law Review at GW Law School, or will transferring to Penn and not being on Law Review be better?" For most of us who were at lower ranked schools, the answer is that we will probably be better off (when I say "better off" I mean that we will have more opportunities available to us) going to the top school without being on Law Review rather than sticking around our old school and doing the Law Review thing. Although Law Review is a golden key to the kingdom of the legal profession, so is going to a big-name, tippy top school. There are, frankly, opportunities you get by virtue of coming from certain schools rather than others, even if you are within the top 5% of your class. Certain judges have publicly said they do not hire clerks outside of top ten law schools, and many many law firms do not recruit at schools that rank below a certain level. Going to a top law school is a golden key unto itself. Ultimately, the question is, "will I have more career opportunities over the course of my career staying at my old law school, with all of the benefits I have already earned for myself, or giving up those benefits and starting fresh at a new higher ranked law school?" All of this said, if you went to law school to hang a shingle on Main Street of your home town, then transferring may not be in your best interest. But you still have to ask yourself, when the local people come to inquire about your services, are they going to be more likely to hire someone from the local law school, or from an Ivy League school? You will have to answer this question for yourself. You may also be concerned with leaving friendships behind, as well as leaving behind classmates you came to trust. I would be the first to say that friendships and people are important, but rest assured you will find those people to trust and confide in at your new school. You may not start off your 2L year knowing who they are, but you will likely have other transfer students you will meet at your new school, and those will be people you immediately bond with. They will be in the same position you are, starting fresh their second year, and looking to connect with people.
Fifth, be conscious of the hierarchy.
When I was at my old law school I was very conscious of the hierarchy this profession imposes on law students, and I would say that I am almost more conscious of it at my new school. Even though I can now say that I am a law student at top ten law school X, I am still aware that there are opportunities I don't necessarily have because I am not at Harvard, Stanford, or Yale. I think the top students here still have most of the same opportunities, but there are just benefits to being at the top of this profession-imposed hierarchy. The extreme optimist in me says, of course you can do anything you want coming from any school in the US, if you work hard enough and play your cards right. While this might be true to a small degree, life is just plain harder at the bottom of the hierarchy. I remember feeling like I had to fight for every opportunity at my old law school, and now I feel like many opportunities are just handed to me at my new one. I will be the first to say that the law school hierarchy imposed by both the profession and the USNWR sucks, but part of being in the legal profession is learning how to play the game and use things to your advantage.
There are many many many factors and reasons to transfer beyond those I touched on above. If you are unhappy at your law school, and you are looking to make a change (and you have great grades) then I would say take a chance on a new school. I cannot do my new school justice, but I definitely feel as though my new school is a much better fit for me than my old one. I know I was probably lucky in this respect, but my new school has been nothing but good to me, and I am grateful someone looked at my application and took a chance on me. I chose to attend my new school site-unseen -- the first day I spent on campus was for Journal Orientation before classes began, and my tuition check had already been signed and delivered. My new law school also happened to give me an academic scholarship, so all hope is not lost if you are leaving one behind. Granted, the amount afforded didn't come close to taking care of tuition, but it was something -- and it made me feel more wanted.
If I think of other things as transfer law school application season heats up this summer I'll post them, and as I see your comments I will respond. Good luck to everyone throwing their hats in the ring this year, and I hope to see some of you at my new law school in the fall.