When a law firm goes bankrupt and partners are forced to seek new jobs, the graduates of elite law schools, despite having earned their degrees decades earlier, are likelier to land on their feet at comparable or better firms. That’s according to a recent study published in the May/June issue of Organization Science.
“We typically expect everything to go well, but we rarely want to think about what’s going to happen if things go wrong,” says Chris Rider, assistant professor of strategy at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and co-author of the study, “Organizational Failure and Intraprofessional Status Loss.”
Of the more than 220 partners at a law firm that went out of business in 2003 and which the study tracked, 80 percent found jobs at “lower status” firms, while only a fifth upgraded or found similar-status jobs. (The study notes that lower status, or lower ranked firms, "produce, on average, lower profitability than more prestigious competitors.")
Rider and co-author Giacomo Negro, of Emory University, discovered that the 20 percent who fared better tended to have J.D. degrees from higher-ranked schools.
Rider thinks there would be similar results if leadership was responsible for the failure of another prominent firm. “Obviously we can’t say we found that with one firm, but I think it’s good reason to expect the hypotheses would be supported in a similar context,” he says.
If the study findings are correct, a J.D. from a prestigious school might not only pave the way through a difficult job market for lawyers, in which one study found that only 40 percent of 2010 law schools graduates are working in law firms, but it could also mitigate some of the difficulties that accompany unforseen job loss.
As is often the case, value judgments, however, determining what is a "prestigious" law firm is a matter of considerable dispute.
“I think the prestige metric is utterly misguided,” says Jon Garon, the dean of Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad Law Center,
Defining ‘top’ firms and schools
In the study, Rider and Negro focused exclusively on the San Francisco firm Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, which was founded in 1926 and was “widely regarded as one of the premier law firms for technology companies, employing more than 900 lawyers and more than 200 partners in 14 cities worldwide at its peak.” But despite being ranked 26th in the “Vault Guide to the Top 100 Law Firms” and having had $476 million in revenue in 2000, the firm went bankrupt in 2003 in a manner that “was surprising to many legal professionals,” the study states. That institutional failure made the firm a great test case for Rider and Negro's research.
In their study, Rider and Negro found that alumni of top 10 law schools enjoyed more career protection when their firm dissolved than those who graduated from top 20 schools. They defined ‘elite’ law schools based on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Law Schools rankings at the time, and they used official partner biographies and recruiter information to identify partners’ alma maters.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Rider and Negro are discouraging students from applying to law school at the universities where the two of them teach. (In the U.S. News rankings, neither Georgetown Law, No. 14, nor Emory Law, No. 19, scored in the top 10.)
The top 10 indicator was “just another way to test the hypothesis,” and not an indication that students shouldn't apply to the 11th ranked school, Rider explains. “You’re going to be better off at No. 11 than you would be at No. 22, in general.” (Georgetown Law didn’t respond to an interview request.)
Rider says his research finds that there are two reasons that graduates of a school ranked 11th are likely to fare better than those of one ranked 22nd: a perception that graduates of top law schools have higher character and are categorically better people due to their robust identity, and the professional networks that one develops at a top law school.
The latter, he says, could be developed even if one didn’t attend a top law school, but it will be difficult. “If I want to change firms, I’m likely to go work for a firm that employs people I know,” he says. “If I went to one of these lower tiered schools, I’m not going to know as many people [who work at elite firms], so I’m going to have fewer opportunities.”
A changing legal profession
When he scans the study findings, Phil Weiser, dean of the University of Colorado Law School, advises young lawyers to be skeptical, because the legal profession has evolved, and big, elite law firms aren’t hiring as they once did. “To think about the world through the lens that working at a large law firm is the gold standard is to set yourself up for an increasingly unlikely future,” he says.
When he addresses students in two weeks at orientation, Weiser plans to tell them, “You are all entrepreneurs in yourself. You are not in a world where you can go to a law firm and expect to be trained and made partner and be set for life.”
When he attended New York University Law School in the 1990s, the “myth” that one could spend one’s career at a major firm persisted, but “more and more people knew it was a lie,” Weiser says. Things improved slightly in the 2000s, but by 2010, “the lie was notorious, and the profession was in an existential moment of, ‘OK. What does it mean to be a lawyer? What is my professional security?’” he says.
Being an “entrepreneur in yourself” means developing a portfolio of work, a network of contacts, and a skill set that lawyers will take with them throughout their careers. “Then it’s not the end of the world when the law firm that you’re currently working for says, ‘We don’t need you anymore,’ because you’re like, ‘OK. I have more opportunities,’” Weiser says. “But if your mindset is, ‘I need this law firm, because it’s my only ticket’ then you are in a tough situation.”
With studies finding that lawyers today change careers, let alone jobs, many times throughout their professional lives, Weiser says young lawyers need to balance being loyal and committed to their colleagues and current employer with the knowledge that they are likely to move, for example, from practicing law to business to government. Those with “soft skills” and “emotional intelligence” will better navigate those transitions, he says.
Garon, the Nova Southeastern dean, offers a different interpretation of the study findings. Instead of focusing on the 80 percent of partners settling for lower-status firms, Garon recommends viewing them as having learned their lesson and decided to seek a better fit, while the other 20 percent maintained the status quo.
“The people who left that firm that imploded, many of them learned their lesson about going back to the same kind of firm," he says. "Eighty percent of them weren’t stupid enough to go back to the exact same kind of thing that they had been doing, and many of them decided to get more balance in their life and a little bit more sanity in what they were doing. Only the ones who were so driven as to have to go to the most prestigious school were the ones that, in fact, don’t have the self-awareness to stop harming themselves in that way.”
The recruiting perspective
Over the course of his four years as law school career counselor and director of public service programs at North Carolina Central University School of Law and his subsequent experience as an independent career counselor for lawyers, Phil Guzman has seen good reason to value degrees from highly ranked law schools.
“In my view, lower-tier law schools are non-starters,” says Guzman, who ran a private practice in Washington, D.C., for more than 15 years. “Why bother to invest that kind of money if you are going to a lower-tiered school where nothing is guaranteed? For my money, if you can’t get into a top-tiered school, don’t go to law school. Sad but true.”
The “insurance” that can accompany a degree from a prestigious law school has to do with the placement of fellow alumni, according to Guzman. “Nothing can compare to, for example, Georgetown’s or Duke’s alumni base,” he says. “They are anywhere and everywhere — in top places, for the most part. (They are) willing to lend a hand and assist in lateral career moves when a career may take an unexpected turn.”
K.C. Victor, who has worked with more than 2,000 lawyers as a recruiter in the past 30 years, the last eight as principal of the Los Angeles-based Victor Legal Solutions, agrees that the study findings ring true.
“If you want to know if schools matter, they matter forever. So do grades,” she says. “And if you went to a less-than-stellar school and were not on law review or graduating with honors, certain roads are closed to you forever.”
Victor very recently was asked to provide a transcript from a 2009 J.D. graduate to a “well-regarded firm.” Sometimes, she says, law firms care about law school grades, and sometimes they don’t.
And some two decades ago, when she still lived in New York, Victor was asked by a “very fancy firm” to see the law school transcript of a partner with substantial business. “At this point, he was already out of law school 20 years,” she says. “I called him up. He said, ‘I’ve never seen my law school transcript.’” When she told the client, the client insisted that the lawyer track down the transcript and send it. “He went to Yale Law School and he did very well,” Victor says. “He just didn’t bother to look at his transcript.”
When it comes to law firms’ views of law degrees, there’s a wide range of perspectives. “There are some schools that are just death to ever getting into big law, and I don’t want to name them,” she says. “There are some schools that firms will never interview even if you graduated No. 1. There are many firms where if you graduated at the bottom half of the class, as long as it wasn’t the bottom 10 percent — unless you were in the bottom 10 percent of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford — you will get a good job.”
But asked if it’s ever an advantage to have attended a law school that isn’t highly ranked, Victor says, “Advantage? It’s never an advantage. The question is whether it’s a harm.”
Menachem Wecker is an art critic and religion and education reporter in Washington, D.C. His book, "Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education," was recently published by Cascade Books.