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Why Annulkah Can’t Get a BigLaw Job: Everest-Climbing Super-Elite Grads Preferred

Posted Jan 13, 2011 8:54 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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“Annulkah” is a fictional job candidate who illustrates the BigLaw reality: If you didn’t go to a “super-elite” school and worked rather than, say, climbing Mount Everest, you aren’t all that interesting to hiring partners.

That’s the conclusion of Northwestern University professor Lauren Rivera, who interviewed hiring managers as part of a study into the hiring practices at top law firms, investment banks and management consulting firms. In all she interviewed 120 hiring managers, 40 from each type of institution, and created fictional job candidates with differing resumés to gauge reactions. Her study was published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.

Rivera decided to create Annulkah about halfway through her data collection after a surprising number of legal hiring managers said their firms lacked diversity because so few black law students had good grades. Annulkah attended a lower-tier undergrad institution and a lower-tier law school, like many minority law students. But she had near perfect grades at both schools, had directly relevant work experience as a paralegal, and was intensely involved in sports. She was an active member of her law school’s Black Students’ Alliance.

Annulkah didn’t fare well in an environment where BigLaw firms drew distinctions between four top “super-elite” law schools and the other top-tier schools. The super-elite, for law firms, consisted of these law schools: Yale, Harvard, Stanford and, to a lesser extent, Columbia.

Annulkah’s school was a problem for hiring managers who wondered why she didn't get into a better law school.

For hiring managers, Rivera says, the prestige of your school is an indicator of underlying intelligence. Schools that have a higher bar for admissions have a smarter student body, the thinking goes. Said one lawyer, “I’m looking for sponges.You know a kid from Harvard’s gonna pick stuff up fast.”

Hiring managers interviewed often believed, in the words of one Hispanic lawyer, that students typically “go to the best school they got into.” A student who chooses a lesser-known school is perceived to lack judgment or foresight. Even students who balk at pricier schools “should be smart enough to invest in their future,” observed one lawyer.

That could explain why one presenter at a seminar on applying to corporate law firms advised students at lower-tier schools to explain why they did so. “If you went to a school because you got a full scholarship, put ‘full scholarship’ upfront,” the presenter explained. “If you stayed close to home to help with a family business, include it.”

Students from top law schools were also believed likely to “be somebody” later in life. One hiring lawyer, for example, indicated he would select a fictional candidate, “Julia,” from Yale Law School even though he believed she would not enjoy the work and would probably quit in two years. Yale law grads, he said, are likely to succeed in life and Julia could potentially one day be a judge, a congresswoman, a client or a politician. And if she has a connection to the firm, it can help.

Another problem for Annulkah was her lack of interesting extracurricular activities, Rivera found. Candidates who worked often received points for work ethic, but they were penalized for lacking “interestingness,” sociability and “well-roundedness.”

Interviewers from all three types of institutions studied weren’t satisfied with run-of-the-mill outside activities. Interviewers, Rivera wrote, “differentiated being a varsity college athlete, preferably one that was also a national or Olympic champion, versus playing intramurals; having traveled the globe with a world-renowned orchestra as opposed to playing with a school chamber group; and having reached the summit of Everest or Kilimanjaro versus recreational hiking. The former activities were evidence of ‘true accomplishment’ and dedication, whereas the latter were described as things that ‘anyone could do.’ ”

The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the study. “The portrait that emerges is of a culture that’s insanely obsessed with pedigree,” the Chronicle says. Its story highlights this quote from a hiring manager at a top investment bank: If someone from Rutgers, for example, sends a resumé, “I’m just being really honest, it pretty much goes into a black hole.”

Hat tip to Slate, Above the Law and NeonTommy.

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