Right at the outset, you should understand that getting into a good law school is a function of how hard and effectively you work (your grades) and your intelligence and aptitude for practicing law (your LSAT score). The law school an attorney goes to will follow them throughout their career. I talk to attorneys daily—even attorneys in their 60s will provide all manner of excuses and justifications for why they didn’t go to a top law school if it isn’t on their resume. If someone does not get into a top law school, this is really something to think about. Attorneys judge each other all the time and every time an attorney works with or against another attorney, they always research where that attorney went to law school (and what honors and so forth they received in law school) and use this as part of their calculus for judging that attorney. Regardless of the attorney’s competence, opposing counsel and others will make all sorts of assumptions about this attorney and their abilities.
When I started out practicing law, the majority of attorneys in my law firm went to Harvard Law School. My firm was growing like mad. One day I asked a partner why they hired so many people from Harvard and not schools nearby like UCLA and USC (which seemed perfectly good to me). I was told,
“We are more likely to get hired when we have attorneys from schools like Harvard and Yale because the clients know they are smarter and will work harder. If you were paying to hire a law firm, who would you hire: The smartest or an average attorney?”
And this is the crux of the matter at large law firms. The law school you went to is a mark of your intelligence for clients. They simply want to hire the smartest and best people. If you are not one of these people, a firm is less likely to want you because your credentials will not look good to their clients.
Why would you go into a profession if you are likely to be considered a second class citizen in the profession the rest of your career?
When a lawyer judges someone, would you believe that they are more likely to think higher of someone’s intellectual ability if they went to Brown University and did nothing after that than if they went to Brown University and then a fourth tier law school like Whittier Law School, for example. Going to a good law school is important in the legal profession.
Once you get into a top law school, there are all sorts of things that distinguish attorneys as students as well. Stellar law students are expected to do very well, get on law review, and get other honors. If an attorney is at the bottom of their class in most top law schools (I would choose as an exception to this maybe Yale Law School—which is at a whole different level from other American law schools in terms of its prestige) — they are going to have a very hard time getting hired by a large law firm.
If an attorney does not get into a top law school, they need to do exceptionally well at the school they do go to. Generally, that person is going to need to be in at least the top 5 to 10 percent of their class to stand any chance of getting a job with a large law firm. There are some exceptions to this, though. For example, if the person is an electrical engineer by training they may not need to do as well because patent attorneys are in demand. For the most part, if an attorney is not in the top five percent of their class at a second-, third-, or fourth-tier law school they are going to be completely shut out of top law firms for the rest of their career.
At the same time, even attorneys who graduate from top law schools are struggling to find work. I review the resumes of hundreds of unemployed new attorneys who graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, the University of Texas, Harvard Law School, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the University of Michigan and similar schools weekly. These attorneys simply cannot get jobs. For whatever reason, they end up working as contract attorneys and other things.
If the legal profession does not want them, why are they bothering? Reviewing documents year after year is not the best use of a mind that graduated Phi Beta Kappa from a good college and is smart enough to score in the 90th percentile on the LSAT.
My main office is in Los Angeles. Last year I looked in the database for one of my recruiting firms and realized that for that year, more than half of the class from UCLA Law School was looking for a job several months after graduating. This is a hard law school to get into – it’s in the top 15 ranked schools in the country. If that many students are looking for jobs, then something is wrong with the system out there.
Young attorneys who do get jobs with top law firms will be expected to work to the maximum extent their bodies and minds can tolerate and very few of these people will ever have a chance of getting too far ahead in their firms.
- After five or so years, if the attorney is not exceptional and does not have a lot of business, their billing rates will start approaching those of partners.
- Most will be gently (or forcibly) shown the door because partners are compensated more for the work that they do than the work they give others to do.
- A few will be put into a permanent purgatory of an of counsel-type position.
- A few may be made income partners – another form of purgatory that will also lead them to being shown the door if they do not have a significant amount of business after a few years there.
- A few may ultimately be made partners. In a starting class of, say, 60 attorneys in a top New York law firm, a general rule is that maybe one or two of these attorneys will get top jobs.
For the people who do not make it, some will get in-house jobs at corporations, some will get jobs with the government, and others will simply do things unrelated to the practice of law.
As someone in the legal recruitment industry, I can tell you that virtually all attorneys who get a job with a large law firm initially will also bounce around. They will bounce around because either they will lose their job and will be given time to look for a job; or, they will have to because their firm simply runs out of work.