Guest Post by Lisa McElroy: When Should Law Students Consider Transferring?

Lisa's back with another post about legal education.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Wake Forest Law first-year student who started a blog about her desire to transfer to Yale.  She has been criticized, not for her ambition, but for her unapologetic and public display of it on the Internet.
But there’s no doubt that Tammy Hsu is one of many first-year law students who aspire to transfer to another (often “higher-ranked”) law school.  In fact, according to a recent article in the Journal of Legal Education by Jeffrey Rensberger of South Texas School of Law, 5% of second-year law students in any given year have transferred from another institution. 
Back in the early 90s, I made the difficult decision to transfer from the University of Texas to Harvard Law School.  Since then, I’ve had a number of students ask for advice about the transfer process.  In this post, I’ll share my thoughts, but I’m very interested in hearing from readers, as well.  As law professors, most of us encounter the “transfer or stay put” dilemma each year, often with our top students. 
·        Strive to remember why you chose your current law school.  Reading about Ms. Hsu’s blog (because she has taken the blog down, I was unable to read it firsthand), what surprised me most was not that she wanted to transfer to #1-ranked Yale, but that she set that goal for herself before she even started her 1L year at the top-tier Wake Forest Law.  When talking to some of my own students about Hsu’s point of view, however, they told me that many law school admissions “guidebooks” recommend to students with lower LSATs that they matriculate to a lower-ranked school, then enter the higher-ranked school through the “back door” of transferring, at which point LSAT scores will not matter as much, if at all.
This advice made me sad.  Why?  Well, first, because law school is law school – you’re going to learn the same basic stuff no matter where you go to school (although certain schools may have excellent specialized programs).  In fact, as I’ve often told students who are thinking about transferring, I strongly believe that I got a better legal education at Texas than I did at Harvard:  my professors were more available to meet with students, and they seemed more interested in teaching.  (NB:  That is not to say that my professors at UT were not scholars of the highest order; by some stroke of luck, my section had the all-star line-up of Con Law with Charles Alan Wright, Torts with Bill Powers, Civ Pro with Linda Mullenix, Property with Michael Sturley, and Criminal Law with Michael Tigar, among others). 
The goal to transfer from day one may also prevent first-year students from forming important relationships with their faculty and student colleagues at their current law school.  Face it, if your goal is to move on, why invest in your current situation?  And if you make that goal known (as Hsu did), why would others choose to invest in you?
·        Be sure you are transferring to something, not from something.  I’ll admit it, I did find it disconcerting to watch the 1992 election returns with the other, well, eight or so Democrats in my first-year section.  And by transferring law schools, I hoped to find a broader political discourse than I experienced among my student colleagues at UT at the time.  But so often I hear from students that their 1L year has been difficult and – face it – not that much fun.  When I hear that sentiment, I remind them that law school is law school; most new law students find the first year rigorous, challenging, and, yes, incredibly stressful at times, even at (perhaps largely at) top law schools.
In my view, transferring should be about finding opportunities at the new law school that the current one does not offer.  As Professor Rensberger comments,
One type of student who transfers does so to be nearer family or because of a job relocation. Others may have an interest in a particular practice area and seek to transfer to a school that offers a noted program in that field. For example, a student might transfer from Michigan to UCLA because he or she wants to practice entertainment law. What these two types of transfers have in common is that they are blind to the overall reputation of the school to which the student is transferring. Other transfers are what one might call “trophy wife” transfers: The student’s goal is to increase his diploma’s status and his subsequent career opportunities by graduating from a school with a better reputation.
My decision to transfer hinged on two considerations:  I wanted to teach law, and I wanted to settle in the Northeast regardless of what career path I took.  I was more likely to realize both of those life goals if I went to Harvard than if I stayed at Texas.  Logically, these kinds of criteria – not the U.S. News rankings, not the prospect of a better social life, not a disenchantment with the current law school – should be the basis for a transfer decision. 
·        Take into account the costs of transferring as well as the benefits.  Professor Rensberger notes that students who transfer may find themselves small fish in the big pond of excellent students at the new law school.  But the costs can be greater than that, and more subtle.  For example, transfer students may not have the opportunity to work on journals or participate in the moot court program because tryouts for those activities usually occur in the summer between 1L and 2L year.  It may be challenging to make friends and find study partners at the new school because so many bonds are forged in first-year sections.  As most schools transfer credits but do not calculate grades from another law school into a students’ GPA, it may be harder to earn Latin honors.   And, although Rensberger finds that transfers slightly increase the cost of legal education for those transferring,” a student who transfers from a top state school to a top private school (as I did) may find her tuition costs double or triple. 
·        Realize that your chances of employment may or may not increase.  In today’s legal job market, many students believe that they will have more job opportunities if they attend a higher-ranked law school.  In some ways and for some types of jobs, that may be true; a colleague who teaches at a law school ranked at the bottom of the top 10, for example, has told me that he often counsels students who want to go into academia to consider transferring to Harvard or Yale.   But for the vast majority of students who are interested in law practice, transferring to another law school may not help at all, even given the fact that more legal employers may recruit there.  Why?  Because, as I discussed above, a top student at a mid-ranked law school may find herself in the middle of the class at a higher-ranked school.  Without law review credentials, she may find it difficult to distinguish herself from other average candidates at her new school.  Had she remained at her original institution, however, she would likely have ranked very high in the class, with a law review board position and letters of recommendation from top professors to bolster her applications. 
·        Consider the timing.  Many aspiring transfers do not consider one of the most difficult aspects of transferring:  the June application deadlines.  Applying to transfer essentially involves taking on the whole law school application process all over again, but now when a student is in the midst of journal write-on competitions, a summer job, and post-exam fatigue.  
·        Keep the odds in mind.  Transferring is tough stuff; the top schools often only fill empty slots, and at a school like Yale, those spots will be coveted by excellent students at law schools across the country. Be realistic:  If you do not have top grades, your chances of successfully moving to a significantly higher-ranked (notice I do not say “better”) school are close to zero. The likelihood, plain and simply, is that a student will finish law school where she started.  Because she chose that law school to start with, it will (hopefully) be a good fit for her and not just a consolation prize.