Friday, May 12, 2006

Should You Transfer Law Schools?

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.

Other thoughts...

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.


Coxless Pair said...

I recently was accepted as a transfer to a Top-25 law school coming from a T4 program.

I've read on the Yahoo Transfer Apps page and other law discussion forums that transfer students typically do as well in thier "upgraded" law school as they did in their previous one. I've heard several anctedotal accounts of students actually doing better at the higher ranked program upon transfering

CoxlessPair said...

Sorry about that previous (and incomplete) comment, I'm new to this.

Anyway, can you weigh in on the matter of transfer students excelling in their new environment?

I'm already a bit nervous as to how I will do when I start 2L.

Thanks for all the posts, they are fantastic.

DroitFemme said...

Sure thing. From what I gather from all of the other transfers at my school, both 2Ls and 3Ls, everybody seems to be doing just as well as they did prior to transferring. I remember taking my first exam at my new school, and I expected to see something really insane, and I remember thinking, "this is it? This is easy..."

Personally, my grades took a bit of a dip, but I was going through some personal stuff in the fall. From what I gather reading other transfer students' blogs, some people do take a bit of a hit grade-wise in their first semester at a new school, but I think as long as you do everything you did before you should be fine.

I was able to get back to what I was doing before and my grades swung back to where they were before this semester (at least I feel like they have -- so far I only have one grade posted, but it is a very good one).

During fall recruitment my new law school even went so far as to give employers a handout on transfer law students which said that we were more likely to graduate with honors, and likely to do just as well if not better than we did before we transferred. If my law school is willing to hang its hat on us, you shouldn't worry about yourself. You should do great, and be fine. In fact, I think it really is highly likely that you will do better because you might be in an environment that is more conducive to allowing you to use your talents. I have always felt that I need to be challenged in order to do well, and if a program is not challenging enough I tend to get bored. Moving on up the latter should present you with this challenege, but you will handle it well because you already succeeded before.

Congrats on your acceptance!



Anonymous said...

It looks as though my only opportunity to attend law school will be a 4th tier law school away from home. I have worked for a criminal defense/ civil litigator in Ct for the past 5 years. I know what I’m in for. Nevertheless, after doing much reading the prospect of attending a 4th tier law school seems akin to stepping into the batters box with at least one strike against you. Are the prospects of transferring into a 2nd tier or 1st tier legitimate?

Anonymous said...

There's some great stuff written here. Great job!

I'll be blunt to anonymous attending a 4th tier school. Don't. Prospects legitimate? No. A top 14 school? Probably no chance in heck unless you are *literally* #1 in your class. People have been known to transfer in the past, so it does happen, but definitely, definitely, definitely, do not count on it. Law school is really hard, and higher ranked schools are suspcious of the 4th tier.
In your class there's always gonna be some dude, who comes from a school you've never heard of, with a background that's totally unrelated, he never talks and when he does he never has the right answer, you think he's a dumbass, and then he's at the top of your class and transferring to another school.

Don't go to a 4th tier. You'll thank me later.

Anonymous said...

I'll be blunt to anonymous blindly trying to persuade someone not to attend a "4th tier" law school. You have a very parochial view of things to say the very least. People like you, who make the USNWR their Bible, would be completely lost without their precious rankings. Such adherences arise out of the genuine fear and insecurity of one’s own abilities. But I say to you that glorifying such arbitrariness is an infantile disease that should NOT be spread. Twenty years ago, there were NO rankings and it really made no differences that I attended a school that is now unexplicably categorized as tier 2. Perhaps, if you are too worried that without attending a top law school will keep you from being a good lawyer, THEN you shouldn’t attempt to become one. It is not for you.
USNWR should be ashamed of themselves for changing the legal profession for the worse and those who listen these sirens should punch themselves in the face to sober up to reality. A pox on all their houses!

Anonymous said...

I stumbled on this site and will add the perspective of someone who has practiced for over 30 years. I attended a tier 1 school, but not a top 14. I have worked in firms from 3-80 lawyers doing business, real estate and entertainment work. Over the years I have interviewed and hired many young lawyers. In general, firms doing sophisticated business work will not interview or hire anyone from a tier 4 school. Which doesn't mean that you won't get a job, but you have to be realistic about what jobs you will be considered for. Business firms are highly selective. Personal injury, criminal, employment, and divorce firms are not as selective, especially if they handle plaintiffs work. Also, a very small firm will in general be less selective. You will have a much better chance coming from a tier 4 school if you plan to practice in the area where the school is located. There are lawyers in big firms who attended tier 4 schools, but they didn't start at those firms. They built a book of business first and brought that business to the firm.

Sorry to be pessimistic, but law has become very competitive and there is a glut of laid off lawyers from big firms and top 14 schools who will get the available jobs when firms start hiring again. The days of guaranteed employment and high salaries are over.

Anonymous said...

In response to the first Anonymous comment. I attended a 4th tier school for my first year and was accepted to a 2d tier school for next year. I would agree with other posters that it will be exceptionally difficult to move up to a first tier. However, the student ranked number 1 in my class will be attending a top ten law school in the fall. As someone who worked really hard to transfer, I have to say that the opportunity does exist. And if you use transferring as your motivation to do well, you will go far. Best of luck!

Also, I want you to know that 4th tier schools aren't terrible. There might be some job options unavailable to you, especially in a city with a top-ten school. However, my time spent at a 4th tier school was wonderful. My professors amazed me (almost all were Harvard and Yale grads) and it was a challenging and fulfilling year.

Work hard and good luck.

Anonymous said...

USNWR changed their approach for rankings. The first 100 schools are "Tier 1" and everything that follows is "Tier 3" or "Tier 4." Evidently that whole 2d tier thing doesn't happen anymore.

Transferring2L said...

I just wanted to let you know that it is possible to transfer from a very low "Tier 2" school to a Top-20 school. I was recently accepted into a law school that ranks (although I have the USNWR rankings) that is 80 (schools/numbers/whatever you want to call them) higher than my current law school. I was only in the top 15% in my currently law school, however if you play your cards right, it can be done! Although I am uncertain if I will attend, I have to say that even though it will cost a lot more in loans, it may be worth it.

So, if you are like me and didn't do well on the LSAT (I was in the 33rd percentile), just get into the highest rank school, work your ass off, and try to transfer your second year.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible for a part-time law student to transfer from a 4th tier law school to a higher ranked full-time law school? I recognize that there will be some units that have not been acquired due to being a part-time student, but rest assured they should be by the end of the summer session. However, despite that, what are the chances that part-time students will be accepted to a higher tier law school? Thanks! - j

Anonymous said...

Transferring can pay huge dividends. I transferred from a "no-name" T4 school to a top-40 school. Shortly thereafter, I made Law Review through the Fall write-on competition. During the On-campus interview process, I landed an awesome (and high-paying) summer job.

Anything is possible, but transferring to a better known law school helps things along. Transferring was not only worth the frustration, but was the best decision I've ever made. Do it.

Anonymous said...

Thoughts on transferring from an unranked school to a top 40 school? At the unranked school I have a 75% scholarship, and I am sure I can use my recent acceptance to leverage that number up to 75%. However, the unranked school is in the city I hope to work in. Do I chose location and no debt or large debt, more prestige, and not directly in the city (but an hour away) from where I want to be?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant leverage up to 100%!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I cant find any post to address my situation. I am in the top 3% (rank 4) at a tier 4 law school. There is also a tier 2 law school in this city that I am applying to, but I am curious if I should apply to Tier 1 schools elsewhere. I have a internship with the Department of Justice this fall and I am curious if this is worth giving up for a tier 1 school (rather than transferring to the tier 2 in the city).

Anonymous said...

You should definitely apply to Tier 1 schools elsewhere. Depending on what you want to do post-graduation, employers are not going to care less that you interned with the Department of Justice while you were in law school. Of course, that helps if you remain at the Tier 4 or the Tier 2, but if you can get to a Tier 1 top 14, that would definitely trump a Tier 2 with an internship any day of the week. Get out of Tier 4 as fast as you can, and only move out of the area if you get into the top 14 of Tier 1. Outside of that, I don't think there is much of a difference between mid- to low- Tier 1 and Tier 2. Might as well stay at the Tier 2 with the DOJ internship at that point.

Anonymous said...

Let's say I apply to transfer to a law school in a different state, but am not accepted. What are the downsides at my current school?