It's the time of year when some people are making decisions they're not 100% happy about on what law school to attend. They might be consoling themselves with the thought that, "Well, if I do poorly, I'll just transfer up." Some people might be using this thought as a way of justifying going to a school with overall poor employment prospects, or as a way of keeping alive their hopes of [insert dream career outcome here]. Or maybe you're a 1L who's wondering if transferring is a good idea for you. Clearly there's a lot of interest: last year, 1,489 students transferred law schools. Let's look at some of the data and circumstances behind transferring to elite schools.
First, transferring in general is incredibly difficult and almost entirely driven by two things: 1L GPA and school rank. There are a lot of comments from 0Ls to the effect of, "Well, if I crush 1L, can't I just transfer into the T14/higher ranked school?" I won't reiterate what I've written about before on why you can never assume class rank or grades—read here if you're interested. Even if you do well in 1L, you've got to do ridiculously well to be competitive for transferring to the T14. Here's a chart showing each of the T14's transfer data from last year (except Virginia, which didn't have enough transfers to report data):
As you can see, the lowest median "transfer in" GPA is at Cornell Law School, which only enrolled 7 transfers. The weighted average GPA to transfer into a T14 is a 3.72. In law school terms that's ridiculous. A 3.72 class rank will vary depending on the school, but is almost invariably in the top 10% or higher. Wikipedia has a good, if somewhat outdated, list of law school curves that should give you some idea of how competitive reaching the mid 3.7s will be at most schools.
And if you want a T3 law school, I hope you're prepared to be disappointed. Stanford's median transfer GPA was a 4.0. That's gotta be a joke right? At least Harvard and Yale let you get an A- or two with 3.95 and 3.90 transfer GPAs respectively. And GPA isn't the only barrier. HYS are very selective about the ranking of schools they accept transfers from. The median source ranking for Harvard transfers was 34; Stanford was 47 (brought down a bit by enrolling 4 Hastings students); and Yale had a median transfer source ranking of 8.5.
This sort of pattern repeats throughout the T14 schools. If you look at the ABA data showing source schools for the rest of the T14, you know what you'll find? Lots of T1s, fewer T2s, very rarely T3 or unranked. It becomes harder and harder to transfer up the further away your schools ranking is from your target. When you first apply to law school, the undergrad institution you went to isn't very relevant. But when it comes to transferring between law schools, school rank is second only to GPA in importance.
It's not just the GPA and school rank that's daunting for potential transfers. The T14 only enrolled 375 transfer students last year (incidentally, that's almost exactly 25% of all transfer students). We don't know the number of applicants, but we can infer from the average GPAs they accepted that they didn't have trouble being picky, so we can assume it was significant. For reference, let's consider some numbers. There are about 33-34 thousand other 1Ls outside the T14 who are your potential competition... for 375-ish spots. Those are some long odds and a lot of potential rivals.
There's also the question of whether or not transferring is worth it. One of Mike Spivey’s earliest blog articles was on this, here.
The gist of the above post is that if you're a T1, or even a T2 student in the top 10% of your class (basically the requirement to be able to even realistically consider transferring) you're going to have the best options, career and outcome wise, of your class. Almost every T1 school has fantastic options available to its top graduates. Transferring means that you'll often (not always) be in the middle of the pack at your new school for outcomes. Is the median outcome from, say, Michigan, that much better than a top-10% outcome from George Washington? Honestly, probably not. You might even be better off graduating from George Washington in that case. That sort of consideration can be generalized to a lot of hypothetical transfer cases.
There's also the question of money. If you're receiving financial aid from your current school, it's unlikely that you'll get equivalent aid where you transfer. Law schools use transfer students as sources of revenue. They're not about to hand out buckets of cash to transfer applicants. That defeats half the purpose of accepting transfers. Two years of sticker debt still adds up pretty fast, as you can see on this chart.
Even if you're successful transferring up, you'll be paying a hefty price for that shiny name on your diploma. That should weigh on your considerations.
We're not saying transferring is always a bad idea, or that it's impossible. It's clearly not impossible; people do it every year. Here are some good articles if you are going for it:
And sometimes it can be a good choice. Maybe it's a necessary choice—family or personal situations can change your school needs quickly. Or perhaps you truly want elite outcomes and are willing to pay for the chance. But it's not something you can rely on at all, and shouldn't even be considered when you're making your final school choice. You probably have some really fantastic options. Go to a school you’re proud to be graduating from—otherwise, you should consider if attending that school is really the right choice for you. And if you're already in school, think long and hard about whether transferring is going to actually get you where you want, career-wise.
Written by Justin Kane and Mike Spivey