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Too Good for Big Law

Vivia Chen

March 8, 2012

ColumbiamanCheck out the first-year associates at your firm. Can you guess who will eventually make partner—those grads from the tippy-top law schools, or the ones from the local-yokel schools?

If you want to make a safe bet, eliminate those wunderkinds who went to the University of Chicago Law School. Instead, put your money on the hardworking stiffs from that other law school in Chicago—Loyola.

Believe it or not, that's the way the numbers work out, according to William Henderson, a law professor at the University of Indiana. Using the job data from the The National Law Journal, Henderson calculates that Loyola grads are six times more likely to make partner at a big firm than University of Chicago grads.

Here's the math: Henderson finds that the ratio of first-year hires to new partners was 0.85 for Loyola (it had 11 first-year associates and 13 new partners in the NLJ 250 firms this year), and 5.12 for Chicago (87 first-year associates and 17 new partners). According to this calculation, every Loyola grad hired by Big Law will make partner, while only one out of five University of Chicago grad will reach that pinnacle.

Yes, there is "a time lag" in comparing first-year hires and new partners, says Henderson, a University of Chicago Law School grad. "But the data can still be interpreted as a reasonable approximation of associate to partner odds [at a given school]."

Think Chicago's partnership stats are bad? They're actually far better than those from Stanford Law School, where the new-hire-to-new-partner ratio for grads is 10.5! Here are the ratios for some of the top law schools, according to Henderson:

Yale                 6.0

Harvard         4.49

Stanford        10.5

Columbia       7.11

NYU                6.43

Penn               8.13

Boalt               8.38

So which schools have a good ratio of hires to partners in Big Law? Well, more "local" schools like University of Houston (1.0 ratio); University of Illinois (1.54 ratio); University of Minnesota (2.0 ratio)—although schools with national reputations like University of Texas (1.84 ratio) and Vanderbilt (1.76) are also in the mix. (TaxProfBlog has a nice chart listing schools most favored by the NLJ 250, plus the schools' ranking.)

Of course, it's a lot tougher for grads of lower-ranked schools to get into the doors of Big Law. But those who make it in are less likely to take the opportunity for granted, says Henderson. "The strivers tend to be more concentrated in the regional law schools," he says.  "Face it, being a lawyer is a service job—it's cleaning up other people's problems, and a lot of people who go to elite schools don't want to do that."

So what exactly are those graduates of those elite law schools doing? "I don't know what happens to them but in our study, they're not becoming partners at major law firms, nor are they going in- house," says Henderson. "They must have a better Plan B than the rest of us."


Illustration: 1902 Columbia University poster, Wikipedia.

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So the Loyola grads are bullies angry about the U of C grads superior intellect, so are able to push them out of the way and take the partnerships that are really deserved by the U of C grads. This is laughable. The simple fact is that performance on the LSAT and family connections that may get one into an elite school have nothing to do with being successful practicing law. In my 20+ years in biglaw, for every excellent lawyer I've seen from so-called elite law school I've seen 2 who didn't have a clue how to move beyond spitting back what the prof told them to be able to solve client problems. So they aren't capable of becoming partners, or as others have suggested they don't want to become partners because they are "too good" for law firms. The only mystery is why law firms who invest so much money in new law school graduates haven't figured out that they are being used to pay off student loans by law graduates who have no ability or intention of becoming partners. BTW I didn't go to either UofC or Loyola. And to Stu, I think the numbers don't bear out your theory. The "prestige schools" had more grads hire 10 years ago than Loyola did - they just aren't making partner.

To Anne Barschall:
Your comment is intriguing. However, it is also troubling.
Are you suggesting that the top classroom performers "deserve" the law partnerships, but get elbowed out by pushier grads of lower-ranked schools? This is only one possible interpretation. I would like to make the following points:
-Professional life is not a classroom. It may well be that doing better in school does not mean successfully representing clients.
-The Top 14 grads are not necessarily the most intellectually gifted. Getting into the right law school is largely a function of LSATs. That is a hit-or-miss proposition, based on one's performance on a single day. By contrast, law school GPA is the result of three (or four) years of sustained hard work in addition to talent. The top 10% at a second-tier school are easily as smart, and definitely more hard-working, than the majority of T14 grads.

Though I hate to agree with him, Justice Thomas had it right when he spoke of a "faux nobility" within the legal profession. I have eaten Ivy lawyers for lunch during my career, and I will acknowledge that some were better than me. But the legal profession's inordinate fixation on the "upper class" is ludicrous, and while this study is flawed, similar conclusions were reached by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association when they did a similar study. It also astounds me that the same law firms and corporations that shriek about diversity at the top of their lungs don't take into consideration the impact of this professional elitism on that issue.

Does anyone else see the problem with the data?

1. Just because you hire a Loyola graduate today doesn't necessarily mean they'll be there in 5 years. Notice that Loyola's number is smaller than one - that means that some partners didn't join biglaw until later in their careers. There's also no indication that the ones who were hired into biglaw were the ones that stayed.

Chicago has more hires than partners, therefore, there must be some attrition. Loyola has more partners than hires - that doesn't mean there was no attrition. X causes Y does not mean not X causes not Y.

2. It measures first-year *hires* of big law firms to big law firms partners. To get to be the first factor, you'd have to be hired in the first place.

How many graduates of Loyola Chicago are hired as first-year associates? Maybe the top 5-10%, at NLJ 250 firms (I'm guessing some wind up at mid-sized or small firms). How many graduates of UChicago are hired as first-year associates? 59% in 2011. This should explain at least part of the ratio.

I'm not going to speculate without further data, but let's look at the facts. I know we'd all like good news, especially about lower-tiered schools, but jumping to poorly-reasoned conclusions isn't going to help anyone in the long run.

Prof. Henderson says that those grads of top law schools who didn't become partners "must have a better Plan B than the rest of us." (The great TV show The Practice should have trademarked that phrase!) I'm not sure how he includes himself in the "rest of us," since he is a professor at a fine law school!

The simple fact is graduates of the top schools have more options throughout their careers--more Plans B, to use Careerist's phrase--so end up doing more, often better things: government, academia, big in-house jobs, writing,whatever. This is a consequence of their networks and perceived prestige as much as any superior education or ability.

Stu is right.

I would add that UChi and Loyola students entering BigLaw are a subset of students at their respective schools. The subset at UChi is 1) much larger, and 2) draws from the very bottom of the class to the top. And many of the "top" students there pursue academia or other opportunities available to them. The subset at Loyola is much smaller and made up almost exclusively of the very top, hungriest, and most connected students at that school.

Did you measure how many of them went off to government? Not uncommon to make their student loan money back working for Biglaw, then transfer into a "safe" government job (eg US attorney, DOJ, SEC) then start leaping to bigger and better govt jobs for all eternity...making the rest of us who have to live under the regs they write miserable...the typical Loyola grad isn't going to get the job interviews at DOJ the way someone from U of C will...

Stu nailed it. Dont know if it's a full explanation, but it almost certainly affects the results.

In fact, in all businesses, the people who get to the top have a certain combination of aggressiveness and social skills. Entry to top schools is determined predominantly by academic performance.

There is a huge, jealousy-induced, societal prejudice against people who are intelligent and did well in school. This starts in school, with bullying of kids who are intelligent and successful, and continues throughout life. I have seen bumper stickers in my neighborhood that say "My kid can beat up your honors student." When my kids were in school, the head of the bus company thought other students could be excused from bullying my child, because he was gifted. I had to threaten to sue the school district to get this problem fixed.

In an evolutionary context, we think of leaders stereotypically as alpha males. We are biologically programmed to follow these people. Yet, there is every reason to suppose that this type of person is a source of many problems in our society. They tend to regard issues in terms of defining and protecting their own territories and gathering wealth and power to themselves.

This type of thinking leads to conflict in both the international arena and within a business. It can block communication and cooperation. In general, a more cooperative, communication and information-based approach is likely to be most effective in running an organization.

The beta males and the women are disadvantaged in a biological context which values alpha males.

I am not surprised that graduates of Loyola do better than graduates of the University of Chicago, but is that good?

I think there's a perfectly reasonable alternative explanation for this. Everybody knows that law firms have significantly lowered hiring in the past few years, and lower ranked schools have felt most of that. If loyola had not great, but significantly better employment outcomes (say, 60 grads a year at nlj firms) several years ago, that ratio would be nowhere near where it is today. So what's more likely--that more people than get into big law from loyola are eventually made partner, or that the legal market has really gotten precipitously crappier for Graduates of non-prestige 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: [email protected]

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