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The Best and the Brightest: Some Reflections on Entry-Level Law Firm Hiring

Ed. note: This is the first in a new series, “Across the Desk,” from Bruce MacEwen and Janet Stanton of Adam Smith Esq. and JDMatch. “Across the Desk” will take a thoughtful look at recruiting, career paths, professional development, human capital and related issues. Some of these pieces will have previously appeared, in slightly different form, on AdamSmithEsq.com.

As noted in the American Lawyer recently, the lateral recruiting boom of recent years continues unabated. As the Am Law article points out, “At the same time [as they’re focused on hiring lateral partners], firms appear to be homing in on their poor performers. Nine out of 10 survey respondents said their firm has ‘unprofitable’ partners, and seven out of 10 said their firms have partners at risk of being deequitized or ‘put on performance plans.’ As one survey respondent put it: ‘There are too many partners without sufficient billable work.'”

Now, wouldn’t you think it would make sense — if firms are worried about underperformers — to pay some attention to associates as well as partners? After all, some of those associates should, speaking theoretically at least, be your future partners.

Yet there’s unrebutted evidence that firms look at the wrong criteria when hiring associates….

Earlier this year, the National Law Journal published a wealth of information, derived from NALP statistics, about which law schools send the greatest number of their graduates to NLJ 250 firms as first-year associates, and — this is the really fun part — how many graduates of those schools make partner at NLJ 250 firms (for symmetry, think of this as “first-year partners” by law school).

Because we love data, this provides an irresistible opportunity to examine some sacred cows.
As noted by Vivia Chen of The Careerist in Too Good for Big Law, graduates of Loyola – Chicago made partner at a much greater rate than University of Chicago grads, with their presumptively far superior pedigrees.

The always-insightful Professor Bill Henderson of Indiana/Maurer law school, who is a University of Chicago law grad himself, hypothesizes that despite — or because — it’s far harder for graduates of non-elite schools to get in the door of Biglaw to begin with, they don’t take the opportunity for granted, and are far more willing to put nose to the grindstone and strive, no matter the personal cost. Indeed, they may not even perceive it as having “a personal cost”; they consider themselves lucky to be where they are and will be d***’d if they’ll let it slip through their fingers.

Bill calculates, for a few name-brand schools, the ratio of new hires into the NLJ 250 to graduates from those same schools making partner in the NLJ 250.

Obviously, and before the dinging email bell starts clanging, no, it’s not technically accurate to use same-year data for both measures since there’s a lag of nearly a decade between “first-year associate” and “first-year partner,” but since it’s unclear that ignoring the lag skews the data favorably or unfavorably for any school or cohort of schools, we’re going to plunge ahead.

We did the analysis for all the schools where the NLJ published both first-year associate and first-year partner data, and here’s the answer in vivid form:

This shows the percentage of graduates from each school making partner as a share of all graduates from that school who started as first-year associates. (Again, this only includes schools where the NLJ reported both data series.)

Since it’s virtually impossible to read, here’s the data in tabular form:

I went to Stanford, which finishes first and worst in this sorting, so for the next year I expect a pass on being accused of self-interested bias.

The powerful message this data delivers is, to me and putting Stanford aside, how many elite schools perform really poorly on this critical measure.

In fact, the Top 14, “numero uno” elite schools almost, in and of themselves, constitute the 14 worst-performing schools. This is quite a coup on their part, I’d say. The only two schools of the Top 14 in the conventional rankings who are not in the Top 14 on the above Hall of Shame Washouts listing are UVA (#19) and Cornell (#21).

Now, is this data flawless? Hardly. You can criticize, among other things:

  • Pretending the 10-year time lag between first-year associate and first-year partner doesn’t matter.
  • Speculate on whether the Great Reset has made it harder than it ever was for non-elite school graduates to get into Biglaw to begin with, which would imply that the number of first-year “non-elite” associates is depressed at the moment, whereas the number of non-elite first-year partners is exaggerated because 10 years ago more people who could fog a mirror were being hired.
  • Point out that we’re dealing with pretty small numbers for a lot of these schools, so random year-to-year variations can drown out the signal with noise (parenthetically, this certainly feels like it’s true with respect to the University of Houston, our #1 winner on this scale, where a miraculous 104 percent of first-year associates made partner).
  • And I’m sure there’s more I’m missing.

But please, disorienting as it may be to your world-view, take at least 60 seconds to reflect on these numbers. They tell a shockingly consistent story about the performance in The Real World of graduates of our elite law schools.

I close with an excerpt from a review of David Halberstam’s 1972 book, The Best & The Brightest (affiliate link), his magisterial post mortem on the Vietnam War:

Unlike those of us who actually saw the jungles of Vietnam up close and personal, these men were neither ignorant, nor provincial (at least not in the ordinary use of that term), nor poorly informed; rather, they both considered themselves and were considered by others to be the most outstanding, capable, and effective members of the contemporary “Power Elite” i.e. the best of the then contemporary ivy League graduates Kennedy could lure from the bastions of the academic, business, and corporate world into the magic and presumptuous world of Camelot. In essence, these guys were seen as the best and the brightest of their generation. Just how their elite educations, presumptuous world-views, and de-facto actual ignorance and lack of what we would now refer to as “street-smarts” led them to conclude it was in the nation’s interests to fight what others have called “the wrong war in the wrong place with the wrong foes at the wrong time” is an epic tale of arrogance, insular thinking, and mutually sustained delusions.

Fortunately life and death aren’t at stake in obsessively recruiting only from “Tier 1″ schools. Just vast amounts of resources and plain old common sense.

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