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Transferring From the Law School Where You Had Been Admitted

published January 25, 2013

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Come summer, you may find that you have been rejected by all of the law programs from which you had most hoped to hear positive feedback. Although this is hardly an ideal situation to be in, there are still several paths—other than waiting to reapply for entry into the first-year program—by which the determined applicant can reach her goal: to benefit from the resources of a top program.

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Each year, the top law programs' admissions offices receive applications from law students wishing to transfer to their institutions. Some of these students have discovered that they are unhappy with their current program—for reasons including unsatisfactory curricula, career services, or location—or have simply realized that their ultimate goals have changed. Most, however, are simply hoping to attend a school with a more impressive reputation than the one at which they first enrolled.

Evaluating Transfer Applicants

Schools examine one or more of the following when evaluating transfer applicants:
  • First-year law school grades
  • Quality of the law school
  • LSAT score(s)
  • Undergraduate performance
  • Rationale for transferring:
  1. —Professional/academic
  2. —Personal
All schools consider first-year law school grades (better stated as your rank in class) to be the single most important criterion when evaluating transfer applicants. Some, in fact, consider nothing but this one item. Some consider the quality of the law school at which you earn those grades, but others, remarkably, do not.

Other schools will evaluate your reasons for wishing to transfer. Some demand that you have a professional or academic reason for doing so. For instance, you may have decided that you want to practice international tax law but your current school offers no courses in this, whereas your target school offers several. Other schools care little about such professional interests and require instead that you have personal reasons for wishing to transfer. One such reason would be that your spouse will attend the medical school of your target law school's university, thus requiring that she move to its location.

Choosing the School You Will Transfer From

If you intend to go to law school only if you get into a top school, you may wish to avoid over-committing to law at this stage. If you have (or can obtain) a fine job, consider attending law school part time. This will allow you to continue to make money, bolster your nonacademic resume even as you are attending classes, and even to out-work your classmates for top grades (given that few attending part-time programs will be particularly concerned about maximizing their GPAs). If you decide that law is not for you, or if you do not fare well enough in GPA terms to transfer into a top program, you can walk away from the field without having suffered unduly. After all, your career will not have been on hold and you will have sharpened your reasoning, writing, and research skills while developing some substantive knowledge of law.

If your situation lends itself only to a full-time program, you are faced with a difficult choice. On the one hand, you can select a much lesser school in the knowledge that it will be easier to rank in the top 10 percent of a weak class than of a strong class. This will make it easier to get into schools that consider rank in class of paramount importance. The problem with this is that you risk being saddled with the weak school on your resume if you fail to transfer to a stronger school. On the other hand, you can opt for the best school you have gotten into. In this case, your chances of finding your way to the top of the class will be diminished, but your resume will not be a disaster if you end up graduating from this school.

In general, if you feel that you are good enough to merit acceptance at the top schools, you should be able to get top grades at any (lesser) school. Thus, you are likely to favor attending the strongest school to accept you.

Begin a Degree Abroad

If you are not accepted at a top program of your choice, rather than attend an American law school, you could study law abroad for a year (or more). This could be done in a Commonwealth country, such as England, which enjoys a common law heritage similar to that of the U.S. Or you could study in a very different legal system such as the civil code system of Western Europe and Latin America. (The American system is slowly shifting to incorporate more of the civil code system, just as the civil code systems are incorporating more of the common law approach. Although the two systems are coming closer together, the differences remain marked.)

Studying law abroad offers you the chance to show that you are definitely interested in law. It also gives American schools a set of highly relevant grades to examine to determine whether you are academically up to snuff. In addition, you can add to your admissions profile by learning about a foreign legal system and culture.

As the study of law becomes more and more global, American law schools have placed a higher value on foreign legal study. This can work to your advantage in the admissions game. Note, however, that there is tension between the goal of maximizing your admissions opportunities and getting credit for prior work done.

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If you choose to study in a common law system, you will have more limited uniqueness value when it comes time to apply to American programs. (For example, a not insubstantial number of Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, Rotary, and other scholarship winners go to England to study law and then enroll in American law schools.) Yet at the same time, it is fairly easy to receive credit for up to one year of course work done abroad due to English (and Commonwealth) common law's similarity to American law.

On the other hand, if you choose to study in another system, such as a civil code system, you will have more uniqueness value when you apply to American programs because such study is less common. (It generally involves studying in a language other than English, making it difficult for many potential applicants to pursue.) The result is that you will improve your admissions chances substantially, but risk not getting credit for as many courses as you might have had you studied in a common law setting.

Studying abroad will appeal most to those who are likely to have a substantial international aspect to their practice. The list of practices involving such an international dimension continues to increase. No longer do just a few people at New York or Washington firms, or working for the State Department need (or wish) to understand foreign law. Even in family law, formerly a true backwater, are considering practicing primarily (or exclusively) in the foreign country, are likely to profit from this.

An Alternative Approach

Some foreign law schools permit their students to do a year abroad (and receive full credit for it). This opens up the possibility of doing two years abroad, then a third year in an American JD program—and then an LLM degree at this or another American law school. Doing two years in an American program will basically eliminate the problem of being taken seriously by leading American employers. (Many serious observers of the American legal scene believe that law school need not be more than two years, anyway.) As a result, this approach should appeal to a substantial segment of those intending to become well-versed in international law or hoping to have a practice that focuses on more than one country or region.

Participate In an Exchange Program

Each year a small number of law students study for one or two semesters at an institution other than their own. The courses they take are credited towards the degree they will receive at their "home" institution. This can be done in one of two ways; as an exchange student or as a "third-year matriculant." A number of schools have established official exchange programs with each other (the Harvard-Berkeley Exchange is one notable example), thereby allowing students at one to take courses at the partner school. The other option is to become a third-year matriculant at a leading school. Most of the top schools permit a handful of third-year matriculants.

Use another Law School's Career Placement Office

Nearly every ABA-approved law school in the country allows law students from other programs to use its career services facilities (but not to take part in the on-campus recruiting of its students). The practice, referred to by Career Services Directors as "reciprocity," can be useful—especially for those students attending lower-tier schools.

Each school's policy differs slightly from the next. The more rigid policies adhere to a quid pro quo, one-to-one basis. In order for a student at Wisconsin to use the Career Placement office at Harvard, for instance, there must be a Harvard student with a desire to use Wisconsin's. This seems to be a rule that is honored more in the breach than in the observance, however, at least as long as the number of students requesting such service at the given school remains small.

The majority of top law programs are quite generous in granting reciprocity. Many of them, officially or unofficially, have "open-arm" policies. They may state that you will not be allowed to use certain tools, such as the job bank database—but in practice this is often unenforced.

Factors to be aware of:
  • Some schools grant reciprocity only to law school graduates, not to current law students. This presents a problem, of course, if you are in your first year at School X and are dying to access the career placement office at School Y in order to get a summer job.
  • Some schools will not grant reciprocity during the busy months of their on-campus interviewing program.
  • A general rule is that students cannot use services of a school within the same area as the one they are currently attending. A George Washington student, therefore, will not be permitted to use Georgetown's career placement office.

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