Law Schools

Faced with dwindling admissions, some law schools seek out overachieving 1Ls

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George Washington University School of Law

George Washington University School of Law reported having more than 100 transfers in 2016—more than 50 from American University Washington College of Law. Roman Babakin /

Updated and corrected: Law schools are increasingly interested in taking transfer students to bring in more revenue, higher education consultants say, and it’s become a seller’s market for first-year students at the top of their class: They can easily move to a higher-ranked school, or stay put and get bigger tuition discounts.

There are a few incentives to keep or attract 1Ls with good grades—people who do well their first year generally pass bar exams on their first attempt, and transfer students traditionally pay full tuition. Nothing in the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools speak specifically to financial aid packages law schools offer to transfer or existing students as an inducement, says Barry Currier, managing director of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

The number of law students who transferred between 2015 and 2016 has actually dropped from 1,979 to 1,749, says Jerome Organ, a professor at Minneapolis’ University of St. Thomas School of Law whose work focuses on transparency in financial aspects of the decision to attend law school. Organ wrote about the development in a Legal Whiteboard post.

Organ says it’s hard to know how many law schools are offering deals to students to stay put because that information is not specifically reported in 509 reports.

“It is possible that with increases in the size and number of scholarships available to incoming students, the cost differential for transferring has grown and made it less attractive. It is possible that some schools are being more generous in offering scholarships to retain potential transfer students,” Organ explains. “We just don’t know because this information is not collected and published.”

Some deans complain that transfers hurt their bar passage rates, but it’s not likely that the council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar would create accreditation rules restricting transfers. Doing that could stand in the way of student opportunities, Organ says. In terms of ABA accreditation standards and transfer regulation, schools must disclose transfers in 509 reports, and there are some rules about accepting credits from other schools.

What could happen, Organ says, would be the addition of reporting requirements for an accredited law school’s graduating class, or more information about how transfer bar pass rates compare to graduates who started as first-year students.

“That is an area about which we know very little,” Organ says, “even though my guess is that those transferring to another school assume that they are likely to see comparable bar passage and employment outcomes as those reported for the graduating class as a whole, even though that may or may not be an accurate assumption.”

Traditionally, first-year law students interested in transferring would reach out on their own to schools. Now, when law schools deny admission or wait-list an applicant, they increasingly tell him or her to check back in after first-year grades, sometimes keeping up the communications throughout the applicant’s first year, says David Mulligan of Eduvantis, a higher education marketing and enrollment growth strategy firm.

“It’s fairly recent phenomena. Generally there’s been a more genteel approach to the law school transfer market,” says Mulligan, adding that the transfer market can be more lucrative than non-JD programs. Law school and non-JD programs have comparable tuition, but non-JD programs only run one year, while law schools get two years of money from transfer students.

George Washington University School of Law indicated that it had 106 transfer students on its 509 report for 2016. Fifty-one came from American University Washington College of Law.

“We need to dig deeper to find out why students feel the need to move. For us, this is a moment of self-reflection,” says Camille Nelson, who became American’s law school dean in July 2016, shortly after the students transferred.

Annual, full-time law school tuition at George Washington Law was reported as $56,244 in its 509 report. Out of its 2015 graduates, 64.7 percent had full-time, long-term jobs that require JDs, according to the school’s employment summary. American University’s employment summary information shows that 44 percent of its 2015 graduates had full-time, long-term positions practicing law. Annual, full-time tuition at the school was reported as $53,016 in its 509 report.

When asked if the school offers tuition discounts to students with transfer opportunities, Nelson responded that financial awards are available for high-performing first-years.

“When students come to speak to us [about transferring], we really try to counsel them about their options. If one option includes greater monetary support, that’s part of the conversation,” she says.

Michael Matta, who started law school at George Washington in 2015, last fall transferred to UCLA School of Law with a GPA that he thinks was in the top 35 percent of his class, and a LSAT score of 165.

Matta was previously wait-listed by the California school. Following the advice of another law student who transferred from George Washington to UCLA, last spring Matta asked the UCLA dean of admissions for a campus tour, and they met in person during the visit.

“You want to plant a little seed, in terms of your name,” he says.

Matta, a California resident, now pays in-state tuition, which at UCLA Law is $45,338, according to its 509 report. According to the school’s employment data, 73.7 percent of its 2015 graduates have full-time, long-term jobs that require JDs.

Transferring to a higher-ranked law school, Matta says, is easier than one might think.

“Even if it doesn’t end up panning out, it’s still totally worth it to try. It’s not really a huge time suck,” he says. “I think a lot of people would really kick themselves in the butt if they knew they could do it and didn’t.”

Updated April 21 to revise the headline and include additional comments from Jerome Organ; updated April 25 to correctly state the number of transfers to George Washington University School of Law.

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