Question: I'm just starting to look for a job with a law firm. How much emphasis really is placed on grades and which law school I attend?
Bill and Chet: Attorneys are credentials conscious. They always have been. It is in their nature to scrutinize each other's pedigree.
A "top twenty" law school is a frequent hiring standard and may have much to do with the path of your legal career. Though each firm has a different hiring requirement, studying a firm's Martindale-Hubbell listing will give you an idea of what law schools it deems "acceptable."
Initial screening in some firms is based on credentials alone. Although you may feel your law school education was sound, and even though you performed well and demonstrated true talent for the profession, some prospective employers may not deem that sufficient if your alma mater is not on their list.
The largest law firms in the country are consistent. Their members will almost all be graduates of the top fifteen or twenty law schools in the land. We say "almost all" because in any given geographic area there are law schools whose reputations are regarded highly in the region but which have not gained national prominence. These schools are represented in their regions by graduates who work alongside alums of the best known law schools.
Medium and smaller firms are less predictable in their credential make up. Some hire like large firms. Others show preferences for certain schools almost as if they were a fraternity.
You should be aware that in some instances the prejudices are absolute. Graduates of unaccredited law schools, for example, have virtually no chance of gaining an interview at the top national firms. That's harsh, but it's a fact. Unless you have a contact within a firm, the first level of screening is often an individual whose power to reject is based on academics.
These standards are, to a certain degree, changing. This is partly for the fact that firms are becoming aware of the restrictions of such tunnel vision. Also, as a firm's hiring needs increase, they will often have no choice but to broaden the horizons of their search. This is especially true at the lateral level where there is more to go on in evaluating a recruit. As such, you should be aggressive in your job search while understanding that some firms will still adhere to a very narrow doctrine.