So You Want to Transfer Law Schools

With the first round of law school admissions having come and gone, there are inevitably going to be more dissatisfied applicants than successful ones. There are only so many spots available at the top law schools, and even students with strong LSAT scores and high GPAs may find themselves disappointed with their admissions results. Nevertheless, some still choose to attend law school. Such students may find themselves considering the transfer process, wherein students enter their 1L year at a lower-ranked school and hope to transfer to a higher-ranked school for the completion of their studies. If you count yourself as one of those applicants, you’re in the right place.

The best advice one can give to such an applicant can really be summed up in two words: start now.

Start Early – Earlier Than You Think

The key to a successful transfer application is, above all else, preparation. An aspiring transfer essentially consents to putting their entire 1L year on trial before the best law schools. It is therefore imperative that such a person makes the most of their first year of law school. If you’re going into your first year knowing that you intend to transfer, start preparing now. If you’re already in your 1L year and have just now made the decision, start preparing yesterday.

There are four components that go into a successful transfer application: 1L school, 1L grades, 1L recommendations, and the personal statements. The rest, such as an undergraduate GPA and LSAT score, sort of hem at the edges a bit, but are ultimately significantly less important than the first three. Of these four components, an aspiring transfer can begin working on two over the summer prior to their 1L year. The fourth will need to wait until somewhere in the second semester – for good reason, which we’ll explain shortly. 

School

The transfer process ideally begins before an applicant has even committed to their first school, or rather, the school out of which they want to transfer. It’s not a joke to say that the transfer process begins before the first day of school – in fact, it begins around April of the year beforeyou want to transfer. It’s around that time that applicants begin receiving rejection letters from their ideal schools and start getting acceptance letters from their safe schools. At this point, an eventual transfer applicant faces their first choice: where to begin.

When trying to get into a great school, it’s best to already be at a good school. It’s easier to get to the top if you’ve already completed 90% of the climb; logically, it follows that it’s easier to get into Yale from Cornell than Irvine, into Cornell from Irvine than Emory, and so on. Then, too, for whatever reason, some schools are more likely to accept applicants from the local region – of UCLA’s 31 transfers last year, 17 came from Southern California. Some schools might even have other preferences, such as aspirations towards public service or other types of programs.

The price of failure must also be considered. Ultimately, the transfer process is far from a sure bet, and many students who enroll in a lower-ranking law school with the intent to transfer do not succeed in ranking up. When considering the school at which to start the transfer process, a student should always consider that they might wind up staying there for good. If you hate cold weather, don’t go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison – you could be there for longer than the single year that you anticipate.

Grades

With the school component out of the way, the next step is to just get good grades. While your 1L GPA isn’t going to single-handedly make a transfer application, it is the component that can most easily break it. Simply and most bluntly put, students in the top 30% will find that they can transfer to better schools, and students outside of that number will not. The students in the bottom 70% can make a lateral transfer – perhaps they’re unsatisfied with their current school, or a pressing situation is calling them to another part of the country – but will very rarely succeed at significantly increasing their school rank.

Even in the top 30% though, placement is difficult, and students in the top 10% will obviously have an easier time transferring than students in the 11-30 range. Transferring is competitive; the top schools are most often only trying to fill the spots that they lost in their 1L class. Sometimes that number can be relatively high – UCLA took on 31 transfers last year – and sometimes low – Cornell accepted just seven, Yale 11. Looking at their numbers, however, the median GPA for transfers was high: for UCLA, a 3.6; Cornell a 3.4; Yale, a whopping 3.9.

All of this is to say that the GPA is an extremely important component of a successful transfer application. It is the baseline, the price of admission. Students aspiring to transfer should therefore do everything they can to maximize that GPA. Contrary to what might be their first instinct, however, execution of a proper transfer GPA does not begin on the first day of classes, but rather on the first day of summer. There are a number of optional summer preparatory classes available to help an aspiring transfer boost their GPA up to right level. Students that take these classes are much less likely to experience 1L shell-shock – that look that 1Ls get around halfway through their first semester when they realize how much studying law school takes. Even more significantly, students that go through prep classes are much more likely to be adequately prepared for their exams.

That said, while the 1L GPA is important, it’s not everything, and it won’t win you your transfer all by itself. Think of your GPA as being the absolute minimum that you need for your application, sort of a ticket to ride. Students with high GPAs are invited to play, but then have to compete against all of the other students with high GPAs. Only the applicants with the best overall applications will be able to successfully transfer. That’s where the other two aspects of your application come into the picture.

Recommendations

Transfer applicants are by now familiar with the letter of recommendation. They undoubtedly had several when they applied to law school the first time around. They’ve probably also sought a handful of others to apply for jobs or internships. The transfer letter of recommendation is, however, more important.

I often write that the single most important question to answer in writing your application is, “Can I be successful at law school?” Most often, the way to answer that question is to show how you can succeed as an attorney, as the skills to succeed in one very often overlap with the other. In the case of the transfer, though, there is a faster and easier path to the answer that the admissions commission seeks: ask competent evaluators. There can be no more competent evaluator than law school professors who have taught an applicant, seen them fail, and seen them succeed. There is a significant difference here: the letters that an applicant submitted for their original application were speculative. The recommendations coming from law professors are concrete and therefore dispositive.

Again, the obvious approach to this issue is to begin when the law school opens its doors for the first day of classes. Again, the obvious approach is wrong – or at least, not as correct. While classes may be on break over the summer, professors certainly are not. More often than not, a law professor can be found in her or his office, working on the next piece that they intend to publish (what, you thought their main job was teaching?). An eager incoming 1L can take this opportunity to schedule a meeting with the professors that will be teaching their 1L classes, getting a one-up on the competition and, more importantly, beginning a relationship with the professors that will write those letters of recommendation. 

While the relationship should begin forming in the summer, actual letters should not be written until well into the Spring semester. Again, the point of the letter is to evaluate your performance and ability to succeed as a law student. If an applicant has not yet performed, then there is yet nothing to evaluate. Asking professors for their recommendations in January gives them both enough time to evaluate you and enough time to write the letter in anticipation of applications opening in May.

Personal Statement

If Spring is the right time for an applicant’s professors to evaluate him or her, it is also the time to begin self-evaluation. That brings us to the personal statement, for which there is really only one prompt: how I succeeded in law school. There may be several permutations: for instance, “what I changed in order to succeed in law school;” “how I reacted to problems in law school;” or “what I did not anticipate about law school and how I resolved the resulting problems;” but the underlining theme will always be the same.

Remember, the goal of an application is to answer the question, “Can this applicant succeed in law school?” Much like with letters of recommendation, an applicant’s original personal essay is speculative. It attempts to divine the response to a question that can really only be answered in the future. On the other hand, a transfer applicant’s essay is proven by history. An applicant does not need to draw parallels between their previous life and what they imagine law school will be, because a transfer applicant has already experienced law school and knows the answer.

If the prompt is easy, however, the actual essay is often tricky, and there are numerous pitfalls that can sink what would be an otherwise successful statement. Showing success while admitting to failures, being frank about the law school experience but not so frank as to turn off admissions committees, and knowing how to brag without bragging all represent so many plates of a balancing act. The actual penning of the personal statement should ideally begin sometime in March and end in April. Applications open in May – sometimes right after the last day of school – and it pays to be the first. At the same time, writing a personal essay while cramming for law school finals is inadvisable, at best. If a lull exists in the 1L year, that lull should be used to write out the personal statement.

The Bells and Whistles

Everything else – the LSAT, the undergraduate GPA, a TOEFL score (if necessary) – should all already be on the LSAC website. They matter significantly less this time around, however. Again, the LSAT is a tool for measuring the possibility of a future performance in law school, but a law school GPA measures a performance already done. The LSAT is speculative, a GPA conclusive.

Law school transfer windows open in early May. Harvard’s opened last year on May 1st, while other schools opened closer to the 15th. Regardless of the date, everything necessary for the application, with the notable exception of second semester grades, should be completed by 1 May. At that point, an applicant can send in their application incomplete, and follow-up later once grades are released.

In Summary

If you’ve read all the way down to here, I have to assume that you’re hoping to successfully transfer law schools. Of the four big factors in deciding a successful law school transfer application – school choice, GPA, recommendations, and the personal statement – you can and should start three in the next three months. Picking out a school should be done as soon as possible. Studying for the 1L year begins in the summer. Developing relationships with professors for recommendations is best commenced before school starts. And even as the personal statement should be written in March-April, thinking about what should go into it comes much sooner.

It really can’t be stressed enough: the most competitive students often turn to outside help, such as Stratus or other admissions consulting firms, for aid. I don’t say this to brag about our services or advertise – you’re already on our website and you’ve already read a lengthy article – but just to highlight a truth: transferring to a top law school is harder than gaining admission in the first round, and the best of the competition all has professional help. It’s certainly not impossible to go it alone, but it is quite a bit harder.

Time is of the essence. Get to it. And if you think you’re going to need help, set up an appointment for a free chat. We’re here to help.

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Author: James Suzano
As a member of Team Stratus, James specializes in working with our international and transfer clientele, with whom he helps translate either the international legal or the transfer experience into a cohesive law school application. Prior to joining our team, James worked as a human rights and immigration attorney in Washington, DC and Geneva, Switzerland, where he labored on behalf of disenfranchised and persecuted populations in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. He continues to take on human-rights related projects on a case-by-case basis, and advises several non-governmental organizations on international human rights and humanitarian law. In his evening hours, James also works as an adjunct professor of political science and law on US military bases in Germany. James lives in France with his wife and two dogs, and, when not working, is probably struggling to tame his back yard into something resembling a garden.
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