The debate is raging about whether graduates of elite law schools are lagging behind their more humble colleagues in climbing the Big Law ladder. I sparked that discussion with my recent post about how graduates of lower-tier law schools are knocking out grads of top law schools in the partnership race ("Too Good for Big Law").
Of course, William Henderson, professor of law at Indiana University, dived immediately into the discussion. After all, he's the one who inspired my post in the first place when he told me about his tinkerings with The National Law Journal's job data. In The Legal Whiteboard, Henderson expounds on his theory about why elite grads lack the stuff to make it in Big Law. Here are some of them:
1. Law practice is really boring. "Does anyone really believe that the 75 percent of Stanford, Penn, or Harvard grads who start their careers in Big Law have a burning passion to do technical, oftentimes repetitive legal work for the Fortune 500?" Interpretation: If you went to a fancy undergraduate school (as most grads of top law schools do) and studied art and literature, how could you possibly find law practice fascinating?
2. They were born wealthier. Graduates of top law schools come from more affluent families, says Henderson: "When mom and dad are both lawyers, and grandpa owned a factory, maybe it's time to focus on art and travel." Again, exposure to finer things in life may make you unfit for lawyering.
3. LSATs hold too much sway. "Over the last 20 years, admissions committees have focused more and more on LSAT and UGPA; conversely, personal statements, letters of reference, and career histories hold very little sway." The result, he says, is that the pool of associates "are (excessively?) academic and lack significant brushes with real-world adversity—not ideal grooming for a high-stress professional service job."
So basically grads of top law schools are a bunch of spoiled dilettantes who score exceptionally well on standardized tests but don't want to do any heavy (document) lifting. Much wiser then to hire someone who worked through State U., majored in some dreadful subject like accounting (obviously more practical for practice than knowing ancient Greek), then managed to go to Gonzaga Law School and graduate in the top 5 percent. Talk about class warfare!
Yes, I'm exaggerating—as Henderson undoubtedly knows. (Henderson’s explanations are much more technical and nuanced than I let on. It's worth reading his more systematic treatment of the topic in his Legal Whiteboard post: Too Good for Big Law: The Statistician Edition.)
But I think we're basically on the same page. In fact, other commentators who have weighed in on the subject seem to come to the same conclusion—namely, that many elite grads don't really have the stuff for partnership. (Bruce MacEwen at Adam Smith Esq. offers a terrific, easy to read chart on this theory; Christopher Zorn at Empirical Legal Studies offers yet another chart and more theories; and David Lat at Above the Law gives his take on the subject—Lat, a former Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz associate, says he used to "hate the term 'Big Law washout,' which I viewed as an insult. But now I’m fine with it— because, well, there’s some truth to it.")
So does that mean that hiring partners will think twice about recruiting some spacey Yale Law student over a kid who's in the top of the class at the University of Buffalo Law School? Henderson seems hopeful: "Perhaps it is time we focused on the skills and attributes of successful law graduates rather than the name of the law school on their diplomas."
Do I believe that will happen? What are you smoking?
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