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Lowered Expectations Make Grads of Less Elite Schools Happier in BigLaw

Posted Sep 4, 2009 9:38 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Graduates of elite law schools are less satisfied with their jobs at large law firms than graduates of less selective schools, according two researchers for the American Bar Foundation.

Researchers Ronit Dinovitzer and Bryant Garth offer a solution to the unhappy lawyer problem: BigLaw should try hiring more graduates from outside the elite law schools. “Because of their backgrounds, they will be hungrier and more willing to make the sacrifices necessary to gain access to partnerships,” Dinovitzer and Garth write in an article for the American Lawyer.

“Why are associates so unhappy?” their article asks. “The answer may lie not in the nature of their jobs, but in the associates themselves.”

The study finds that associates working in law firms of more than 250 lawyers are more unhappy than their small-firm counterparts, and graduates of the most elite law schools are most dissatisfied with their jobs in BigLaw. Their conclusions are based on a study, After the JD, that follows 5,000 law graduates who began practice in 2000.

“Why are elite law graduates dissatisfied with these jobs? Part of the answer is that graduates of elite law schools are groomed to expect success,” they write. “As Robert Granfield found in his 1992 study of Harvard law students, this group of law students is inculcated with a sense of mutual eliteness that he called ‘collective eminence.’ The AJD data shows that graduates of elite law schools come to the job market with different career expectations than graduates of nonelite schools. Among other things, they are more likely to have considered careers in business consulting or investment banking. Thus it may be that the lucrative salaries offered by the large law firms are no consolation for the hours that they have to work. They know they have other options, and they have friends who are getting even richer with those other options.”

Interviews with these elite law school graduates reveal they don’t want to work the long hours or to wait for 10 years for the partnership prize, the article says. “For them, the corporate law firm apprenticeship is something to put on a resumé and move on.”

Students from less selective schools, on the other hand, “realize that their options are more limited. … Thus, for a segment of students from the lower echelons of the law school hierarchy, the large corporate law firm job is a coveted reward for hard work and is not to be squandered.”

While law firms should consider hiring more graduates from less elite schools, they should consider another option, even if it means lowering associate pay, the authors say. “More fundamentally, law firms may have to rethink the structure that depends on making life relatively miserable for all associates.”

The Wall Street Journal Law Blog and the Am Law Daily both noted the story.

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