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Best Law Schools in a Shaky Market

Vivia Chen

February 27, 2012

Legally_blonde_WikipediaLet's get to the point: The market for lawyers is still crummy. And if your dream is to make it in Big Law, you should do everything you can to get into Harvard Law School. Not that it's the greatest law school in the land, but because Harvard keeps popping up at the top of the lists for new hires and partnership.

First, the big picture: Law firms are doing better, and partners are raking in the dough again—but they're not sharing. One key indicator is that they're very tight on hiring even from the top law schools. Reports Karen Sloan for The National Law Journal:

 The 20 law schools most popular with hiring firms in 2007 sent a combined 55 percent of their graduates to NLJ 250 firms—the nation's largest by attorney head count. For the class of 2011, that percentage was 36.

Moreover, the NLJ says that "no single law school sent more than 57 percent of its graduates to NLJ 250 firms"—a marked contrast to 2007, when Columbia Law School sent 75 percent, and Northwestern University, NYU, and University of Chicago law schools sent about 70 percent of their graduates to big firms.

Though it's tougher all around to get those lucrative firm jobs, Harvard grads seem to fare better. Here's what the NLJ finds:

    1.  Harvard grads represented the highest number of new partners in 2011. (Followed by the University of Virginia, Georgetown, Columbia, University of Texas, NYU, Vanderbilt, University of Michigan, George Washington, and Fordham.)

    2. Big firms can't seem to get enough Harvard grads. In 2011, Skadden hired 28 Harvard grads; Latham, 16; Gibson, Dunn, 11; Sidley & Austin, ten.

    3. Harvard ranked fourth of all law schools for sending the highest percentage of grads to big firms. I would guess, though, that a sizable chunk of Harvard grads opted for clerkships. (Penn ranked first, followed by Northwestern and Columbia. Others in the top ten after Harvard are Stanford, Boalt, Chicago, Duke, NYU, and University of Virginia.)

So if you didn't get into Harvard Law, where should you go? Based on schools that landed on the top ten for both new hires and new partners, these are the next-best bets:

    1. Columbia Law School (it ranked fourth for new partners, and third for most hires among NLJ 250).

    2. University of Virginia Law School (second for new partners, tenth for most hires).

    3. NYU School of Law (sixth for new partners, ninth for most hires).

Of course, what's notable is the school that's missing from the top ten on these lists: Yale.

What can I say? Guess Yale is just too good for the crass materialism of Big Law.


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Dear Mr. Work is Work: I think Walken's statement -- if it is his -- is one of the dumbest, not the wisest, things I've ever heard. Just build a house, with no training at all? Sounds like a guaranteed way to have the roof come down on your head. Same with practicing law with no training -- and no, I don't consider that even the best of law schools provides vocational training. You get that training working under the guidance of experienced lawyers, Big Law or otherwise.

@ Timothy

I agree Michigan is a great school (I am an alum) - but the career development office is a joke. Completely disorganized, very few connections to firms around the country, not particularly helpful. I have several friends who are looking for work and their uniform response is "Check Craigslist." The school is very good, the "Career Professionals" are absolutely horrid.

Yale is half the size of Harvard so absolute numbers are not indicative of much. The 49% Harvard vs, 31% Yale figures are more illustrative. Yale has always provided institutional support for those folks wanting to do post-J.D. clerkships. It doesn't mean that these folks won't end up spending a couple of years in Big Law-- it's just not immediately after law school.

Hey, where is the University of Michigan in this list; great law school. I would think Big Law would be all over the Wolverine grads? No?

Prior articles--namely the one preceding this one--have given me some insight into the perspective I am about to espouse:

If you want to be a lawyer, just do it. Whether you are in Big Law, or are hanging-out your own shingle...

If you want to be a lawyer, just go to school, get your degree, pass the bar, and the state's personal character requirements, and... just be a lawyer.

Last I checked, being in a Big Law firm, doesn't make you a lawyer; and, NOT being in a Big Law firm, doesn't make you lose being a lawyer (that's disbarment).

So, the question stands, as it should, with the simple interrogatory:

Do you want to be a lawyer?

If so, practice... F*ck where you gotta do it at; and, forget what everyone else tells you about needing to be in Big Law to be happy.

And, to those who insist that, to not work in Big Law is a waste of one's Esq., check the definition of the word: the size of the firm that the individual practices in is interesting absent from the definition... Go figure!

It's like the Christopher Walken quote:

"If you want to learn how to build a house, build a house. Don't ask somebody how to do, it just build a house."

Wiser words, may never have been spoken (not even sure he really said that at all; but, it fits here!).

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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: [email protected]

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