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The Brits are Still Snootier

Vivia Chen

July 29, 2010

Think those big American law firms are credentials-obsessed? They are paragons of open opportunity in comparison to the hiring practices of the Magic Circle firms.

U.K.'s Legal Week reports that 38 percent of recent law school grads training at the Magic Circle firms (Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Slaughter and May, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, and Linklaters) hailed from Oxford or Cambridge in the last two years. And at Slaughter and May, arguably the most elite of the elite in the U.K., "the figure rose to almost half (48%), with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer not far off at 44%."

Moreover, Legal Week finds that 65 percent of the Magic Circle recruits "attended an institution classified by The Times as a top 10 university." And that only 11.7 of the recruits attended schools below the 20th rank in the UK, and only about ten percent from overseas institutions.

Obviously, all of this is in stark contrast to true-blue American firms. I can't think of a top firm without a sizable pool of graduates from second tier schools, and even a sprinkling from schools further down the food chain. In fact, every big firm seems to have a favorite lower-tier school that's well-represented.

In New York, at least, you'd be hard pressed not to find a sizable representation from a place like Fordham Law School, which is ranked 34th in the nation. At Cravath, Swaine & Moore, for instance, I counted about 25 lawyers who are Fordham grads, including five partners.

Could that happen in the Magic Circle? Is there a Liverpool Law contingency out there? Oh, lord, no!

But what's really amusing to me is that Slaughter and May's executive partner Graham White insists that the firm is not exclusionary. Here's what he tells Legal Week: "We aim to recruit the best graduates on merit regardless of educational background and are committed to eliminating irrelevant barriers. As part of this we are working to make sure that no students feel they are excluded because of their schooling or university."

Legal Week rightfully questions how this continuing dominance by these two exclusive academic institutions will serve the goals of diversity:

It's an issue that tends to divide people into two opposing camps, both somewhat disconnected from reality. One school of thought says that university and school grades are a near-perfect barometer of merit, while the other camp fume it is all about privilege, usually before churning out a story about an Oxbridge lawyer they have met who is thick as a post.

Both positions taken to extremes are, of course, utter nonsense. University education is a strong indicator of intellectual ability, especially in careers like law that are based on structured learning. But privilege bestows huge educational advantages over the great unwashed, so social factors clearly have a considerable impact on ultimate academic achievement. Unfortunately that doesn't fit into a neat box or provide an easy solution (or villain for that matter).

So how top-drawer are those Magic Circle firms? And how do the unwashed Yanks measure up against those Oxbridge fellows?

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email The Careerist's chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected].

Photo: The Oxford University rugby union team, 1891.


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America's hiring practices are far from uber-egalitarian. Fordham Law, although a top tier (T1) school, due to its very strong regional (NYC) alumni network and stringent admission standards places more like a Top 14 (or just outside).

Using Fordham as an example to make your point is not exactly a fair comparison given its regional power.

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About The Careerist

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: [email protected]

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