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by Vault Law Editors | March 10, 2009

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Browse through the recruiting literature of most of the top law firms. Chances are, you won't see much at all written about the issue of law school pedigree. Instead, you are more likely to see numerous statistics offered to prove the diversity of academic backgrounds represented by the firms' lawyers. For instance, New York's Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett notes that its lawyers represent more than 40 law schools, while the ultra-prestigious Cravath, Swaine & Moore reports that its attorneys hail from no less than 52 law schools.

Such numbers, however, seem to conflict with insider perspectives on the importance of law school pedigree in getting hired. At Cravath, one attorney flatly states that "law students from certain schools - Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and NYU - have a better chance of getting offers. Most associates have gone to top-tier schools."

If pedigree still matters, the examples below suggest that the extent of its importance in the hiring process will vary dramatically by firm, geography, and market conditions.

East Coast: Blue blood and Crimson

Not surprisingly, many top East Coast firms have their roots planted deeply into Ivy League soil. Take, for example, Boston's Ropes & Gray. An extremely well-respected firm, Ropes, according to insiders, "is heavily weighted towards Harvard Law School graduates." Explains one associate: "They hire lots of Harvard Law School grads, roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of each class - 15 of 40 my year - and maintain a very tight connection to HLS." One associate points out that "they endowed a chaired professorship for Alvin Warren, the HLS tax god, in the Fall of 1998 and were on the million dollar club for the recent HLS library renovation." This "huge draw from Harvard" includes those who donned Crimson for either "law school or undergraduate." One associate even feels it necessary to point out that that the "firm is making big strides in recruiting from nationwide top schools like Michigan, Stanford, Columbia, and Georgetown." ~

And of course, there's always the Big Apple. At New York's Sullivan & Cromwell, associates indicate that the firm considers a broad variety of schools, but pedigree remains important. Says one: "At a school at the next level, like Georgetown, you would definitely need to be in the top 10 percent or there's no way you'd get a call back. The only way that would happen is if you interviewed with a partner who absolutely loved you." A litigator says simply that candidates must be in the "Top 10 percent at a top school, top 1 percent at other schools."

Not all New York firms, however, concentrate so heavily on hiring candidates from the "top schools." For example, associates at New York's Weil, Gotshal & Manges, consistently acknowledge the firm's willingness to ignore pedigree. Says one: "Weil, Gotshal is far more egalitarian in its hiring than many similarly situated firms. Our hallways are replete with graduates from many 'lower tier' New York law schools." Another agrees: "Weil is more willing to consider top candidates from a variety of law schools. It is looking more for someone with the right capabilities and who will have the right exuberance for the work, than someone in a certain percentile."

Chicago: Pedigree-free?

No one can deny the prestige of Chicago's Winston & Strawn. One of the Windy City's oldest firms, Winston resides comfortably in the Vault.com Top 50. However, although W&S "looks at academic credentials strongly," the firm isn't too hung up on what school you attended. "We're a Chicago firm, not an East Coast firm, so you don't need an Ivy League school on your resume," an insider says. So along with the Midwestern prestige schools of Chicago, Northwestern, and Michigan, the firm gets associates from all over the Midwest: Notre Dame, Illinois, Loyola, Iowa, DePaul, and Kent, to name a few. ~

Fellow Chicagoan Jenner & Block also seems to shun pedigree. For recruiting purposes, J&B targets big names: Boalt, University of Chicago, Columbia, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, etc. Yet, one insider explains that "Jenner is very selective in its hiring decisions, but does not get caught up in law school elitism. The firm recruits top students from a variety of schools, and the mix of associates' backgrounds and life experiences is quite rich." An ERISA contact agrees, noting that "anyone can have a good resume, but personality and the ability to interact is very important."

Welcome aboard! Now get to work.

Finally, note that when business is booming, issues of pedigree tend to fade into the background. No where is this clearer than in high tech. At Palo Alto's Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, one insider notes that the firm's "desire for top-notch candidates must be tempered against the extraordinary need for warm bodies." A colleague phrases the situation more dramatically, telling Vault.com that "if you'll do securities work, so long as you have a pulse, you're hired.

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