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Right Resume, Wrong Attitude

Vivia Chen

March 19, 2012

Snit©Rados&#322Updated: 8:00, March 20, 2012.

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?

For a counterview, see post ("Northwestern empirists weigh in") by Northwestern law professor Dan Rodriguez. Henderson also has a response to that: "A Reply to the Empirists at NWU".

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Comments

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@Justin - you are confusing good lawyering with making BigLaw partner. The article says the State student is beating out the Ivy student for partnership. It makes no comment on the quality of the attorneys. It could be that State is a better lawyer, or it could be that Ivy is the better lawyer and thereby, BigLaw partners aren't the best lawyers and that the best get out of BigLaw for the various reasons surmised in the article.

Maybe the focus should be on why clients are willing to pay for legal work done by a Yale grad instead of a Buffalo grad who is a better lawyer.

Great people are great and all, but clients don't necessarily pay for great people. At least, that's the only way I can explain it. Lawyers are supposed to be able to make pretty rational choices, and if firms are turning down the Buffalo valedictorian for a mediocre top 14 grad despite empirical evidence (that they have to have) that the Buffalo kid is likely to be better, there has to be a reason. And I'd expect the reason to involve money somehow.

I recruited lawyers in NYC from 1985 - 1998. There was one extremely high level NYC firm that had a policy I believe they still have. They would interview anyone who was first or second in the class from any accredited law school. This firm often hired these people and some made partner. In my opinion they got some great people with little competition.

On the other hand, I cannot count the number of firms who say "never" to interviewing graduates of certain schools, even when those people got full scholarships and turned down more prestigious schools.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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