As we approach the season of thin white envelopes, we at Stratus often get the question, “What do I do if I don’t get into my top-choice law schools?” The answer to that question is very simple: calm down and wait for your results. However, that answer does little to assuage the anxieties of our clients, who are stuck in the purgatory between application and acceptance. For those who are checking the mailbox every three hours, it helps to have a fallback option in case the worst happens. Those who fail to gain admission to the law school of their dreams have two options: postpone or transfer.
The first option is obvious: try again next year. This strategy is not unwise, especially for first-time applicants, as they can learn from the mistakes in their first application. For instance, students who tested poorly on the LSAT can redouble their efforts toward test preparation, and (and not to toot our own horn too much) those who struggled with the more personal aspects of their application, such as the personal statement, may consider seeking outside help. These students are well-advised to try again—and indeed, many of Stratus’s most successful applicants are on their second go.
The other path, however, is less evident and is virtually unknown among law school hopefuls. The road less taken is to apply to and obtain admission to a lower-ranked school with the goal of transferring after the first year.
How the Law School Transfer Process Works
The transfer process itself is fairly straightforward. First, the applicant gains admission to, commits to, and attends a law school with a lower rank than they originally desired. Second, the student excels in their 1L class. Third, they go through the application process all over again, this time hopefully succeeding in obtaining admission to their law school(s) of choice. The student would then spend the remaining two years in a different law school, and their degree and resume would reflect that they graduated from the second school with no mention of the first.
This process is not without its pitfalls or risks, but at the end, law students who successfully navigate the 1L transfer can graduate with the name of a top-25 school on their diploma.
Who Should Consider Changing Law Schools?
To be fair, transferring law schools is the road less traveled for a reason. This option is not for everyone, and it works best for a few specific types of people—primarily those who feel pressure to attend law school this year. For these students, gaining admission to law school—any law school—is their primary goal, and transferring after the first year is merely a perk or an option. These students explore the transfer market because they don’t mind the idea of graduating from a lower-ranking law school, but they appreciate having the option to transfer.
The second category of applicants who may do well to explore the transfer option consists of those who often perform well in the classroom but for whatever reason do not excel at standardized tests. Let’s face it—the LSAT is not for everyone, and even students with perfect GPAs have difficulty posting top tenth-percentile scores. Because the transfer process places more emphasis on other criteria than it does the LSAT (more on that later), these students enter the transfer process hoping that their academic prowess will outweigh whatever shortfalls their LSAT score may present.
The final major category of applicants who may benefit from a law school transfer are those who need to change their location. Perhaps they started law school in one city and their spouse’s employment situation moved them to another, or maybe they need to take care of a sick relative. Regardless of the circumstances, changing law schools may be necessary in such situations.
The Law School Transfer Process in Detail
For those who decide to transfer, the process will resemble their first go-around with law school applications—with some notable differences. In form, the process is the same: there is a grades component, letters of recommendation are necessary, applicants write a personal statement, and they must submit an LSAT score. The difference is in the relative importance of these application components, as the transfer application places more importance on grades and letters of recommendation and less on the LSAT score.
The first step in the transfer process is obvious. To transfer law schools, an applicant must first gain admission to and attend a lower-ranking law school. The choice of school does matter; it is logically easier to get into a higher-ranking school when one already attends a high-ranking school. For example, it is easier to get into Yale when starting at Georgetown rather than North Carolina, and extremely difficult to get into Yale from anywhere outside the top 20. Location matters, too. Of the 39 students who transferred to UCLA last year, 20 came from California schools. Applicants who are keen on transferring should keep a law school’s rankings and locations in mind when making a commitment.
The next step is the hardest: do well. 1Ls who grade in the top 10% of their class are more likely to transfer than those in the top 20%, while students who are outside the top 30% have virtually no chance. Obtaining such marks is no easy task, as 1L studies are notoriously more difficult than anything most students have encountered at the undergraduate level. Then, too, the competition can be fierce—especially given the rewards for ranking in the top 10% (though The Paper Chase examples are perhaps exaggerated).
However, students who successfully navigate their first year have an advantage in the transfer application process. Because other application components have greater importance, the LSAT matters less during the 1L transfer process, which is more focused on your demonstrated capacity to succeed in law school. The LSAT is a strong predictor of how you will perform in your first year, but your 1L grades are even better at predicting your 2L performance.
Nothing matters more than your grades—and your LSAT score can even play third fiddle to the recommendations from your 1L professors. Therefore, students with weaker LSAT scores can use the transfer process to “game the system,” stacking the odds in their favor by placing greater emphasis on the area where they excel: the classroom. In effect, such applicants gamble on themselves. They know that they have reached the limits of where the standard application process may bring them, and they commit to a lower-ranking law school knowing that they can score grades in the classroom that will overcome their deficiencies on the LSAT.
Beyond grades, aspiring transfer students must also be able to develop and cultivate relationships with their 1L professors, as letters of recommendation are doubly important in transfer applications. Although law schools care about the opinions of your undergraduate professors, those professors are often not lawyers and are certainly not teaching law school. The opinions of your law school professors, however, matter more. They know exactly whether or not you have what it takes to succeed in law school, and their opinions can be trusted. What’s more, many professors at lower-ranking schools have attended a top-20 law school, and in some cases they may even be able to write you a recommendation for the specific school they themselves attended.
Whatever the reasons, the fairest thing to say is that transferring law schools is not an easy process. Effectively, applicants stretch out the normal week-long application process into an entire school year, putting their first year on trial before the better schools. It’s not an easy undertaking, and the fact remains that the best method for most people will remain the traditional application process. However, for a certain type of student—most notably, one who performs poorly on standardized tests—the transfer market remains an alternative path to the best law schools.
Whether you’re a transfer or traditional applicant, we at Stratus want to help you get into the law school of your dreams. Click here to see what we offer!