I'm a Top Tier Student at a Mid-Tier Law School

QI would like some advice from someone with real world advice (not someone from the fake world of academia).

Background: I am a 1L at a law school ranked in the 60s (the guy in “Living the Dream” went to my school). I have a wife and 2 babies and am going to school on student loans. I am in the top 10% of my class (maybe even top 5%) after my first semester grades, and I am going to do my best to keep that up. Should I transfer?

My reasons for transferring would be to get into either a higher-ranked or cheaper school (or both). If I stay at my current school for three years, I will be $200,000 in debt just from law school. I don’t care to stay in LA, but I could if the opportunity was right.

Reasons against transferring stem from advice given on this site as well as others. Often, people say that transferring is bad if you are in the top ten percent because you will likely get a good shot at BigLaw, you’ll be on law review, etc. They claim that giving up a top ten position in your current law school for a transfer to a better law school is not the right move.

I do have to say that I like my school. The atmosphere is pretty good and people seem to be happy. I wouldn’t be unhappy if I stayed. But financially, it is a heavy burden for a mediocre school.

What do you think?

AGreat question. The short answer: If you get into a top-15-ish school, do it.  If you don’t, it’s not worth the energy.

For example, if you get into Boalt, Stanford, or UCLA, you should do it. But no matter where you transfer, you’ll be interviewing for summer associate jobs based on your first-year performance at Loyola. In other words, the transcript they’ll be perusing will say “Loyola” at the top, irrespective of the school you actually attend in your second year.  Prospective employers will know where you began your legal education regardless of where you finish it.

And since the summer job you secure in your second year (which, as I previously stated, will be based almost exclusively on your Loyola grades) will likely inform where you wind up working upon graduation, transferring schools doesn’t matter as much as you think.

What I’m really saying is that the most important thing for you to do right now is get all A’s this semester.  A great first-year GPA means everything.  It’s the ticket to a more prestigious law school and a top-tier summer program.

But don’t freak out about any of this. It’s really not that critical of a decision. A swankier diploma will help on the margin, but that’s it. Just work hard and keep getting A’s, and you’ll be fine no matter what. In my book (and most top law firms’ books), top five at Loyola is the moral equivalent of top twenty at a top-fifteen-ish school—if you keep performing well, someone will undoubtedly let you in the proverbial door.

Whether or not you stay there—or thrive there—is up to you. That’s the thing most rankings-obsessed law students overlook: Once you graduate, success or failure is up to you. Not the school you attended. No one ever makes partner because he went to Yale, or doesn’t make partner because he went to Loyola. Fact.

Ex-Bitter originally provided this advice in 2009 and it is reposted here as our regular Thursday archive post. Have your own question for Ex-Bitter? Email us at editor@bitterlawyer.com. We welcome any and all questions but obviously cannot print or answer them all

  • Pub Defender

    I was in an almost identical position 10 years ago. Top 5% of my class at a mid tier school thinking about transferring. I agree with the advice that the best thing you can do right now is get your GPA as high as possible, that will give you the most important thing when it comes to transferring, OPTIONS. I chose to transfer from a mid tier law school on the East Coast to a T-15 school on the West Coast. The move changed my life, I met my wife (non-lawyer), love the weather, love the lifestyle and will NEVER go back to living on the East Coast.
    HOWEVER, it was a bad economic move at least for me. At my first school I was an in-state student living rent free at my parents house. Tuition was less than 10K, but would have been far cheaper because I received a public interest fellowship and the school gave me a scholarship after my first year. The school I transferred to was more expensive and I had to take out loans to pay for living expenses. I graduated with about 60K extra in loans that I would not have had if I stayed on the East Coast. Did it make a difference in terms of jobs and hiring?, yes but it’s hard to say how much. I’ve been working as a public defender for the last 7 years, I love what I do, but in public interest we generally don’t care that much about where you went to law school or how high you were ranked in your class. We care about commitment to serving the public and ability in court. I hear that in Biglaw where you went to law school is a much bigger deal. I think there are lots of things to consider when it comes to transferring in particular what kind of law you want to practice and do you want to move your family from one city to another. And just because you go to a T-15 lawschool doesn’t mean you are guaranteed a job at big law or anywhere else.

  • Annabelle Roggen

    Top-tiered schools are also superficially good for name recognition with potential clients who know nothing about the legal field, but if you end up working in government that won’t be much of an incentive.

    A top-tiered item on your resume is also handy if for some unforeseen reason you are forced to take a break from practicing, like god-forbid you suffer a serious injury or illness, which leaves you with a large gap on your resume. Getting back in the field may be a bit easier with that pedigree offering a gold seal that may balance out concerns a potential employer may have from the gap.

    Consider how much you realistically expect to earn when you graduate and the amount of loan payments you will have each month when you graduate and whether either school would improve that ratio. Having large monthly payments (proportionately to your paycheck) will take the joy out of life for a while and possibly derail you from adding to your life in other ways–house, toys, vacations, babies.

    • Annabelle Roggen

      Although, I do know firms, boutiques, that like to say that all of their attorneys were in the top ten percent of their class. So if you transfer and don’t hit the same heights, you will be foreclosed from those firms.