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Movin' Out:
Reputation & Transfer Potential

It's 2011, and all the traditional rules about transfer potential are changing. Nonetheless, I'll try to explain those traditional rules, how and why they've changed, and what my crystal ball foresees, hoping a small something is better than nothing.

The difference between this section on transfer potential and the ABA transfer data over here is that ABA transfer data shows whether a school is taking transfers in general; it is statistical. This section is intended to help you determine whether a school taking transfers will take you.

Generally, when an admissions officer reviews transfer applications, she's looking for five things:

  1. Are you capable of functioning, academically and socially, at that school?
  2. Will you find a job easily?
  3. Why do you want or need to transfer?
  4. Will you add to the diversity of the law school?
  5. Will you meet any other institutional goals?

1. The need to choose applicants who will thrive in their new environment is of primary importance.

  • The tendency to require higher grades from lower-ranked schools reflects this interest. A student from a "peer" school (e.g., from Fordham to Illinois) will need grades in the top half to top third. A student from a a less competitive school (e.g. from Touro to Illinois) will need to be in the top 5% to 10%.
  • Another component of the ability to succeed is the change in environment. City folks and country folks have a hard time adjusting to a radically new environment.

2. Employability has always been a consideration, but in the economic downturn of 2010 and 2011, it has become much more important.

  • In 2010 and 2011, a number of admissions officers told me that they are reluctant to take applicants with little or no work experience, since employers are looking for lawyers who can adapt to the routine of the working world quickly.
  • Applicants who have a high likelihood of success in the job market may be admitted with lower grades than the school typically accepts. I have seen this with both an electrical engineer and with an Olympic athlete. Good job connections can be valuable in a transferee.

3. Why do you want to transfer?

  • Most schools say that they don't like admitting transfers whose only goal is to attend a more prestigious school; I call this the "what goes around comes around" theory of file evaluation. Admissions officers have to attend many of the same functions throughout the year, so you can't afford to make too many enemies or you'll dine alone.
  • Some public schools give preference to applicants who were forced to leave the state for law school, because the file wasn't competitive enough for a 1L admit. If the student does well elsewhere and wants the benefit of resident tuition, the school may try to accommodate.
  • In some states, however, the number of resident transfer applicants is too many to admit; in those instances a need to be home for reasons other than financial (often family financial or health matters) strengthens the transfer file.

4. Will you add to the diversity of the law school?

  • In the race to keep USNews rankings high, many schools are admitting fewer minorities into the 1L class than they used to, or are offering less scholarship money, precluding minorities from accepting the offer. They MAY use the transfer applicants to compensate for a lack of diversity, especially if they see employers seeking that diversity.
    • I do not know of any school that admits doing this; I hypothesize. I would hint at data, but it will only help the anti-diversity demons.

5. Will you meet any other institutional goals?

  • Transfer admissions are a good way to compensate for other failings in 1L admissions: the legislator's son who just wasn't admissible as a 1L may have proved himself, or the candidate's son may now be the Senator's son. (No, I have no one in mind, so don't go scrambling around making up theories like people did with Carly Simon's "You're So Vain.")
  • Since high LSAT scores tend to favor men,law schools may look for more women, who tend to have higher grades, in their transfer pool.
  • When the 1L applicant pool is weak, schools may admit fewer 1Ls to keep their median LSAT high, and admit a commensurate number of transfers to maintain revenue.

So What's Happening Now?

Right now, the tight job market makes employability the most important factor in transfers. To the extent that employability is seen to include grades or diversity, they will also be valued.

As the job market improves, institutional goals and social fit will earn a greater portion of the transfer decision's weight.

When will that happen? My crystal ball says to look for a different answer around 2015.

What Will Happen Then?

When your ability to succeed academically becomes important, look at the USNews "Peer" (academic) reputation. This is the easiest measure of a school's competitiveness. Generally, a "National" school will give greater consideration to a school with a peer ranking of 3.5 or so — perhaps even as low as 3.3.

A "Regional Crossover" school will give additional weight to a school with a peer assessment of 2.8 to 3.3, depending on how well the transfer school knows the history of students from the transferring school.

If you have a job connection guaranteed, that will always be more important than your school's reputation, as long as your grades aren't so low as to make your graduation questionable.

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