Law School Grades More Important to Career than Elite School, Researchers Say
Posted Aug 3, 2010 6:00 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss
Law school grades are the important predictor of a lawyer’s career success—in fact they are “decisively more important” than the eliteness of the school attended, according to two law professors who have studied the issue.
University of California, Los Angeles law professor Richard Sander and Brooklyn Law School visiting professor Jane Yakowitz analyzed data from four studies and concluded that the standard advice—go to the best law school that will take you—doesn’t necessarily hold true, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports.
“Since the dominant conventional wisdom says that law school prestige is all‐important, and since students who ‘trade‐up’ in school prestige generally take a hit to their school performance, we think prospective students are getting the wrong message,” they write in a new paper (PDF posted by Law Blog).
Sander told the Wall Street Journal he doesn’t know why grades are so important, but he was willing to speculate. “It could have to do with psychological factors, a level of confidence you gain from doing well that serves you well not only in school but afterward,” he said.
Sander and Yakowitz studied data from more than 40 public law schools across the country, and found that applicants tend to go to the most elite law school that will have them. But is that a good idea?
Not according to data collected in the American Bar Foundation’s After the JD study of lawyers who entered the bar in 2000, they write. It indicates that the salary boost for achieving high grades more than makes up for the salary depreciation associated with attending a lower‐ranked school. The study also found that lawyers who left law school with the lowest grades felt the least secure about their jobs.
Two other studies of lawyers practicing in Chicago in the mid-1970s and mid-1990s found that law school eliteness was associated with higher incomes in the 1970s, but that had changed in the 1990s, when class rank more accurately predicted earning power.
Two other findings: In two of the studies, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews all appear to have a salary edge over nonbelievers and the unaffiliated, creating “an interesting issue for further exploration,” according to Sander and Yakowitz. And while law students tend to come from upper-middle and upper class backgrounds, social status now appears to not have a role in shaping grads' careers.
Sander’s analysis is part of his efforts to study affirmative action in law schools. He has argued that minorities will often be better served by attending a less competitive school where they will earn higher grades.