The Pedigree Problem: Are Law School Ties Choking the Profession?
Posted Jun 29, 2012 4:53 PM CDT
By William D. Henderson and Rachel M. Zahorsky
John, a senior associate at a regional law firm, read the recruiter’s email a second time, still in disbelief.
An experienced litigator, John (who asked not to be identified out of concern for future job prospects) graduated in the top 10 percent of his law school class in 2006 with a resumé that boasted the brass rings of law review and moot court, where he won numerous awards. His undergraduate GPA was equally stellar, and in the past six years he’d run numerous litigation matters. His annual billed hours remained in the top 5 percent of his firm.
Yet, according to the message, his legal career hinged on a single factor: the name of his second-tier law school.
“We don’t typically recruit from [school X],” the recruiter wrote, noting that John’s pre-law-school professional background would be the sole reason the firm might reconsider in the future. “We’ll pass.”
John’s experience is far from isolated. Decades after graduation, elite law school degrees continue to open doors closed to graduates of less-favored schools. Prestige drives a huge proportion of law firm hiring, judicial clerkships, and coveted positions at the U.S. Department of Justice and within the legal academy.
In contrast, law degrees from lower-ranked schools can create enormous uphill struggles for even the most talented and determined lawyers. A student from a nonelite law school may still get a foot in the door with high marks, but very few opportunities go to law students just because their schools more effectively develop core skills and knowledge or adopt innovative curricula or teaching methods.
“There was such a panic among my classmates regarding the ranking of our school and how it would impact job prospects,” says Niko Marneris, who transferred to Chicago-Kent College of Law after ranking in the top of his class at John Marshall College of Law in Chicago as a 1L. “The move 100 percent came down to fear of having a diploma from a lower-ranked versus a higher-ranked school.”
Marneris gave up opportunities for law review and a 3.9 GPA when he made the switch.
“I thought that for the rest of my career I’d have this black mark, despite the great reputation of graduates from my school among local judges and lawyers,” he says. “Being in practice now as a solo, I could not have been more wrong.”
Click here to read the rest of "The Pedigree Problem" from the July issue of the ABA Journal.