Want to Transfer Law Schools? Think Twice.

It is getting close to that magical time of year for first-year law students–your first round of finals.

For some students, the pressure is even more intense if they want to transfer law schools after their 1L year. If transferring is on your radar, make sure you examine the pros and cons.

Why do you want to transfer?

Just because Old Country Buffet is all you can eat, do you always stuff your face? Probably not. Law schools aren’t like a buffet, but transferring just because you have the option is shallow thinking.

Many attorneys who have been practicing for years will tell you “always go to the highest ranked school, no matter what.” In a vacuum, that is probably right. But on an individual level, the answer is different for everyone. Especially after spending a year at another school, where you may have developed strong relationships with professors, you may have a scholarship, and you may have created a network of friends that will carryover after law school.

Newsflash: student loan debt just surpassed $1 trillion dollars

Student loan debt is now more than consumer credit debt. More than one of my friends has a second mortgage in the form of student loan debt. Carrying $100-$150 grand in debt can drastically alter your employment options. If you always wanted to work as public defender or start your own practice, those jobs might not provide the income to sustain your loan payment.

Many transfer students go from smaller local schools to bigger name schools, attracted by the Top 20-25 ranking. Many of those same students, however, also walk away from nice scholarships and have to start paying full tuition. The difference can be measured in tens of thousands of dollars and for some people, it does not add up.

For some people, that allows them to get a job at a prestigious firm that otherwise would not have been an option. Or maybe it opens national, rather than just local, job opportunities. In other words, for some people the higher cost leads to a higher paying job. For others, however, they may end up with the same salary they could have earned with a diploma from the smaller school.

It’s easy to get goo-goo eyes over the big-name school, but be sure to take a look at the financial impact.

You will lose your big fish status if you transfer

If you are a rockstar at your current school, that does not automatically carryover to your new school. If you are well-known for your academic prowess, your professors are trying to set you up with a job, or if the administration thinks highly of you, that stays at your old law school. You will have to start from scratch at your new school.

For some students, this should be a dealbreaker. Networking and creating relationships in law school are critical and can help you get a job after school. If your stellar grades are making you stand out as the chosen one, do not take that lightly.

If you are building strong relationships with your professors, do not take those for granted. When you move onto your new school, they will already have a chosen few, and professors will already have their favorites. You can certainly make a name for yourself at the new place, but you have to start from scratch.

Your friends do not transfer with you

Perhaps the best part about 1L year is the strong friendships you develop. Your study group, however, will not transfer with you. If you are transferring to a higher ranked school, the competition is likely more intense–which can be daunting without having some moral support.

In addition, because everyone already has developed cliques during first year, you might find yourself studying alone a lot at your new school (at least until you make some new friends). Should this be a deal breaker? No, but it is not something most transfer students consider. Big picture, it could be problematic after you graduate, because you will not have developed as many strong friendships during law school.

On the upside, it does allow you to focus more on studying because you are not as distracted by the high-school-like atmosphere of law school. For me, I transferred schools within the same city, so I still saw my old law school buddies. In addition, I found it much easier to focus on my classes, because my personal life became 100% distinct from law school.

Bottom line: make the best decision for you

Everybody you ask about transferring will tell you what’s best for you. But like everything else in life, only you know what is best.

For me, transferring from a well-regarded local school to a well-known top 25 school in the same city was the right move. I worked twice as hard at my new school, which led to networking opportunities that eventually led to my first legal job. For me, the added challenge motivated me to excel.

I also know some students that regretted the decision to transfer. Take some time, consider your options, and make the best decision for you.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock/6216677689/)

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  • Lawrence Brenner

    I agree. Transferring depends upon the individual and their circumstances. For me, transferring law schools was the best thing that I could have ever done. There were things that I didn’t consider when choosing a school that I realized were important after: (1) if you want to work in certain location, go to a school in that location and not in a bordering location because the school will not have the inroads to help you as much; (2) when you go to a young school there aren’t as much alumni out there as an older school; (3) location of the school is important for internship opportunities that lead to jobs – it’s much easier to intern for a DA’s office or a judge if they are down the street; and (4) networking starts in law school so going to a better school may lead to better contacts later on.

    • All very good points. I am assuming that transferring helped you land your first job?

      • Lawrence Brenner

        Yes. I ended doing even better grade wise at my second school, interned for a prestigious judge in close vicinity to my school which improved my resume, and as alumni of the same school I had something in common with my first employer which put me at ease to have a better interview.

  • Great points, all.

    Additional considerations:
    (1) Before deciding to transfer, consider your personality and how you react among strangers. Transferring is not for the faint of heart, not is it for Genetic Wallflowers. Everyone at your new school will already know a lot of people, so if you are afraid to talk to strangers and uncomfortable in settings where you might be invisible, think twice.
    (2) If you are transferring to go “up the food chain” to interview, understand that for your 2L fall, you will be interviewing based on your first school’s grades and on your first school’s relationships with the employers participating in your new school’s OCI. This is a relatively easy move if you were a very top student, but if you were not at the tippy top and you are moving from a regional school to a national school, you may not have the OCI success that you might have had at your old school.

    On the other hand, there are years when schools take large groups of transfer students (ten or more), and if you and your new classmates are smart, you will bond with one another and benefit from your bond.

    Good luck!

  • Kimberly

    I’m a first year student that is attending a private law school that borders tier 1 and tier 2, depending on the year. I am actually considering transferring to a slightly lower ranked school in tier 2 that would offer me in state tuition, which is half of what I am paying now. All the articles I see are about trading up. Any advice for me?

    I am doing ok at my school so far, but I doubt I’ll make the top 30%. Since I am paying for everything on loans, I have a lot of concerns that my private law school isn’t financially worth it.

    • Unless you plan to graduate at the top of your class from a top 20 (at least) law school, I think spending as little money as possible on law school is usually the best course.

    • Everyone always says transfer up. Everyone also says you have to do law review and you have to work at a work big firm.

      If both schools provide the same employment prospects, that should help make your decision easier. But I would not underestimate the other factors listed above.

      I think you should start by talking to professors at both schools—the good ones will give you solid insight into transferring.

    • Lawrence Brenner

      Going on the limited information that you have provided I would transfer. The legal economy is in shambles and will be that way for a long time so less debt the better. But don’t jump to any decisions until you know the full picture. You have to weigh some of the factors we have mentioned above and know where you fall out in your class. Your grades may go up a lot from your first semester. If your grades fall in where you predicted, the schools are of almost equal rank, and both have good geography and alumni, I would consider transferring. In addition to talking to professor at both schools, you should try to talk with upper classmen and recent graduates. They should be able to give you some insight into how the firms are perceiving the two schools and how helpful the career services centers are.