Law Schools and Law Firms 2: Do Top Law Schools Really Breed

by Vault Education Editors | April 13, 2010

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As a follow-up to yesterday's post, "Law Schools and Law Firms: Change is Coming," I'd like to post some more excerpts from Anu Rao's excellent article, "Do top law schools really breed top lawyers?", posted on Vault's Law Blog. Rao focuses on the student--and associate--qualities that predict future success. Since law firms know the predictive "soft skills," why not stress them when recruiting first-year associates?

An October 2008 study of a top 25 law firm questions if these factors are really the best predictors of future success. Researchers compiled a list of 200 different attributes, attempting to identify which qualities were shared by the firm's highest performers. The results indicate that the type of law schools the lawyers attended was less significant than were other factors--e.g., whether someone had been a college athlete, performed well in specific law school classes, or enjoyed "group hobbies." Other factors, such as fluency in a foreign language, were inversely correlated with career success (though, as globalization accelerates, this finding could well be turned on its head).

HLS Classroom from HLS WebsiteNow, we can safely assume that the adjective "dim-witted" does not apply to the vast majority of people in the nation's top-rated law schools. "Slothful" is not an apt descriptor either. But law is not moot court. It's not getting an A on an eight-page, one-inch-margined, double-spaced paper on a topic of your choice.

Studying law is intellectually engaging, difficult, rewarding, inspiring, enlightening. Practicing law is work. It's long, hard, oft-boring work. One of the "soft skills" that law firms claim they are looking for: an acceptance of not just doing long, hard, boring work for many years in a row, but real comprehension that there will be points in associates' early careers where they hate their job.

Law firms are correlating students' academic success to certain "desirable traits" (not the least of which is a willingness to bill lots of hours). Law firms are not correlating academic success with "will be happy in this career." The fact is, firms don't want every associate to be happy in the job. In their not-so-secret hearts, law firms want and need large portions of associates to walk away. While firms need significant numbers of lower levels to do the grunt work, mid-tier and senior associates are expensive, and they don't want more than they need.

According to NALP stats published in 2007, 80 percent of large law firm associates left their positions within five years. In 2008, however, the picture is dramatically altered. Take White & Case: one of the reasons White and Case gave for its layoffs was unexpectedly low attrition rates. Bucking tradition, associates were hanging onto their jobs.

Increased associate retention and nervous law students unsure about their prospects (remember the manifesto Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession emailed to AmLaw100 hiring partners back in 2007? What's the news on that, guys?) means that the recruiting arena is for the first time in years a buyer's market. Now that there is both a chance and a financial necessity for firms to scale back on their recruiting budgets, will law firms rethink their hiring metrics in response? It won't cost them as much to experiment.

Filed Under: Education

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