When law school applicants size up their chances of getting into their choice schools, a vexing question often arises: If those applications are unsuccessful, should they reapply the next cycle and try to present stronger credentials, or settle for a less-desirable school?
At a time when the overall law school transfer market is generally shrinking, here’s some advice on how to approach a transfer.
How Does a Law School Transfer Work?
In most cases, students transfer from one law school to another after their first year of study. The application process happens very quickly between May and June with an admissions decision soon after.
Early decision transfer applications are typically due early to mid May, when spring term transcripts from the applicant’s current law school may not be available yet. Such applicants submit only fall semester grades. After transferring, full-time students typically go on to complete their J.D. degree in two years.
Over the past decade, the number of successful transfer applicants has declined, according to the American Bar Association, while law school enrollment has slightly increased or held steady. Law schools took in 1,231 transfer students in 2022, compared to 2,219 in 2013, according to the ABA’s required disclosure figures.
Some experts say fewer transfers doesn’t necessarily mean that transferring is getting harder.
Jerome Organ, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota and an authority on law school transfers, attributes the decline partly to an increase in enrollment and the growth in scholarship offers. In 2011, only about 50% of law students had scholarships, he says.
“Now – as of 2020 – nearly 80% of students have some type of scholarship and far fewer schools have conditional scholarship programs,” he wrote in an email.
The scholarship growth “has probably helped to depress the transfer market because the students are happy to stay where they are,” says Jacob Baska, a law school admissions consultant at 7Sage and former director of admissions and financial aid at the University of Notre Dame Law School in Indiana.
Law schools generally overenrolled the past few admissions cycles with a bump in 2021, which curtailed law schools’ drive to recruit transfer students, Baska adds.
Law school students who earn high grades during their first year or semester can overcome lackluster credentials in other areas, such as low LSAT scores, some law school admissions experts say.
“It is the GPA at the law school that counts the most,” says Brigitte Suhr, law school admissions consultant for Accepted. “Law schools typically want to see your LSAT, but it is less of a factor.”
Emma Shuck transferred from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law to Vanderbilt University Law School in Tennessee in 2022. Transferring was on her mind before she submitted her initial applications to law schools. She says she didn’t think she’d have a good shot at certain law schools because of her LSAT scores.
“I thought I would go to one of the lower-ranked schools and then I would do the best I could during the 1L year and then apply to transfer to a higher-ranked school,” she says. That way, she envisioned, she would have access to more opportunities to interview with top-tier law firms in New York City.
She earned a 3.5 GPA during both semesters at Chicago-Kent. She says she looked at ABA figures on transfer students and their median GPAs and then targeted law schools where the median GPA was similar to hers.
Law schools generally acknowledge weighing 1L law school grades most heavily when evaluating transfer applicants.
Joey Dormady, assistant dean of graduate programs and new education initiatives at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, says initial law school application materials such as LSAT scores and undergraduate transcripts are viewed as good indicators of success at law school.
“But the actual success at law school is the best indicator,” he says.
Factors When Weighing a Law School Transfer
It’s probably not a good idea to choose a law school with the intent of transferring to a better school later, experts say.
“I always caution people who are flippant about that,” Suhr says. “It is harder than you think to get the grades you need to transfer.”
Law school is a different ball game than undergraduate school and attracts higher-achieving transfer applicants with whom you’ll have to compete, she says. “And what if something happens, what if you are ill and you don’t perform well? The first semester is pretty unpredictable.”
The number of transfer students a law school accepts often is small, and experts note that the highest-ranking schools tend to accept transfers whose law school GPAs are in the range of 3.7 to 3.9.
In the 2021-2022 academic year, Vanderbilt Law School accepted 15 transfer students from various law schools, including American, Fordham and Ohio State, and the universities of Louisville, Pittsburgh and Miami. The Washington University in St. Louis School of Law accepted 10 transfers from various schools, including Seton Hall and Saint Louis universities and the universities of Missouri, Denver and South Dakota.
The 50th percentile GPA of those transfers was 3.54 at Vanderbilt and 3.39 at WashU.
Law schools generally grade on a curve, and “there are only so many transfer applicants with very high GPAs to go around,” Suhr says.
Students who transfer typically pay full price, as merit aid is often not forthcoming from the destination school, experts say. “Many more rising second-year students would be paying a price to transfer, particularly when schools taking transfers are not offering scholarships,” which is a deterrent to some potential transfer students, Organ says.
How to Prepare for a Law School Transfer
Applying to transfer law schools, like the initial application process, is not merely a numbers game. Admissions counselors and school administrators say it crucially matters why you want to switch schools.
“We gravitate towards people who are looking at ASU for a specific reason,” Dormady says. Successful applicants tend to be on target with the school’s forte, he says.
“People who say I am really interested in sports law or (intellectual property) law or international law, whatever the case may be,” he says. “They may say, ‘My school has been great, I won’t take anything back but they don’t have a program to get me to the finish line.’ That is someone, if performing well, we gravitate more towards instead of someone who is sending blanket applications to many higher-ranked law schools.”
Making the case for a transfer requires studying specific law schools’ programs, course offerings, types of law clinics available and strengths in the job market. such as which regional legal markets the graduates feed into, experts say.