Mistake #2: Shangri-Law

See previous – Mistake #3: The Fight Club In You

Disclaimer: this relates to those seeking BigLaw and not government, clerkships, academic jobs or anything that is not BigLaw.

This could, and perhaps should, be about a few things. Law school itself is not exactly Shangri-La. Nor is trying to get into the best law school, and to go, at all costs. But you guys are preached about this over and over — in the media, on blogs, by faculty; Congress has even gotten in on the act (get it, act). I think the drumbeat, while certainly necessary, has begun to drown out some reason. If you want to go to law school and know the risks and environment — go. If you want to go for broke at the highest ranked school possible — do it. Just know the risks. This article is about a phenomenon I discovered while Dean of Career Services (technically my title was Assistant Dean of Career Services, Strategy, & Marketing) at Wash. U. It’s the part of admissions where I honestly can help my clients the most. And I am about to tell you not to do it. ...Okay, I am going to tell you think long and hard before you do it (and then if you still want to do it call me).

I am talking about transferring up in the rankings (the only few times I have seen people transfer “down” were 100% for personal reasons due to family/health, etc., so I won’t really be covering that other than to say also do not do that unless it’s absolutely necessary). To transfer up sounds like a great idea — right? I’m in the top 25th percentile at Stetson Law and I am getting tugs from UGA that suggest I can attend. Or, I’m at UGA and Duke is interested. Etc. Let’s go to a 100% real life example. I am at WUSTL and Harvard Law will take me. I love this example because (a) it happened, (b) it is HARVARD!, and (c) Harvard seemingly has mitigating factors that will cushion what I am about to say about striking out in OCI and that is they do not have a class rank system. So let’s look at this.

Student in top 10% (Harvard wouldn’t likely take them if they were not) transfers to Harvard Law… from the 19th ranked law school in the nation to the 2nd (at the time, I believe, and again now). Seems like a wonderful idea, particularly because, again, Harvard does not rank their class. So all of the overwhelming number of firms coming in will just rely on the fact that this student is at Harvard, will not have comparative data on class rank, and said student will be fine. Indeed, as the Dean of the CSO at Wash. U. in my first year, I thought this would happen. Student is outgoing, placed in top 10%, and now is at Harvard. I thought I would never hear from him again, and he would be set.

I was wrong. This person, along with many of the people who transferred "up" that year calls me distraught. No job offers, struck out at OCI, “can I help him?” The problem is none of us (I learned and never made this mistake again — indeed I had students henceforth always sit down and talk with me before transferring) thought like a firm. We thought like law students and law school administrator. In other words, we thought about the process from OUR perspective and not the perspective that matters.

The firms at Harvard, they had 500+ students to choose from. They were trying to initially count students OUT and not IN. So, the first thing they could do to “discredit” students was to view those without a Harvard 1L record as inferior. This was replicated over and over again for students who transferred up from Wash. U. to higher ranked schools. Worse, if the school had a class rank or released grades, the student who transferred to that school had zero comparative value and were absolutely stuck. I had a student call me in tears asking if she could transfer back. If, however, that student in the top 10% with an outgoing personality had stayed, statistics yielded that they almost assuredly were going to get “BigLaw.”

This has nothing to do with Wash. U., other than the fact I can relate it first hand. I am definitively NOT saying Wash. U. was special, though we placed especially well relative to schools ranked above us, or anything close to that. Indeed you can look at essentially a linear curve with rankings and placement. On paper (and during my first year as CSO Dean) it looked like a great idea to move up. Again though, the problem is you are thinking like a student/law school and not like a law firm when you do so.

Now, I imagine that Student at Harvard who struck out at OCI got a job — especially since I did not get a call from him after the initial panic. I also know that his resume from here on out says “Harvard” on it. That, of course, is meaningful. But he did not get a job at BigLaw, I suspect. But I know for a fact most of the students who transferred upward that year did not.

So let me be clear — this advice is not good for my business. I should be saying “transfer up everyone.” But I have seen year after year it hurt more people than it helps to the point I am compelled to write this. All I am really saying is just check your ego at the door. If you still want to transfer, go for it! But please know the risks. You do not want to be that person asking to transfer back because all your friends simply said “oh man, you gotta go there” (wherever there may be).

Up next (and last in our Top 10 Mistakes) — Mistake #1: You are too nice