Biglaw, Law Schools, Rankings, U.S. News, Vault rankings

Against Prestige

This is the time of year, every year, where most of us pause and reflect a bit on the past year, the year ahead, and what really matters anyway (see, e.g., this guy). And with the horror and pain of last week still fresh, this need for reflection is bound to be more pronounced.

Many thoughtful people are urging serious reflection on the part of the legal industry about how to address its basic structural problems. Not to put too fine a point on it, but does anybody disbelieve that the industry — both its educational and professional wings — is facing a sort of existential crisis? As has been endlessly rehearsed here and elsewhere, the cost of legal education is, for most, completely, utterly out of whack with the potential ROI. And longstanding assumptions underlying the business model of law firms are being challenged by technological advances, commoditization, and the growth of LPOs.

One concept threading through any discussion of the legal industry is this nebulous thing called “prestige.” Generally speaking, lawyers as a group dislike uncertainty, and “prestige” serves as a sort of organizing principle, letting everyone know where they stand. For instance, the U.S. News “T14” shows no sign of ever being shaken up. And the Biglaw hive mind consistently orders firms in precise ways. The Vault rankings are remarkably stable from year to year, to such a degree unlikely to be attributable to some self-reinforcing cycle caused by the rankings themselves. An arbitrary and typical example: Schulte Roth, which came in at #77 overall in 2010, ranked 80, 77, 76, and 82 over the previous four years. Another: Alston & Bird, which came in at #55, ranked 57, 61, 59, and 57 over the same period.

But apart from its role as a social validator or organizer, this idea of “prestige” can be used as a dubious metric in driving some truly momentous decisions. Law students make hugely important career choices based on little else but the Vault and U.S. News rankings. Some law schools lie in order to game the U.S. News rankings. It is at least partially underlying Dewey & Leboeuf’s push to join the more rarefied ranks of the S&C’s and Cravath’s. (Meanwhile, the ATL commentariat goes beserk at the slightest whiff of “TTT” anywhere within its sights.)

After the jump, let’s hear from a couple disparate sources about the baleful effects of prestige-obsession on the legal industry, and then let’s have the Harvard guy defend it….

Here is Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law Professor Bill Henderson writing in the ABA Journal about how the profession has a serious “pedigree problem”:

Snobbism and elitism are the last socially acceptable prejudices. If law school rankings accurately foretold lawyer success, there’d be good reason for thousands of law graduates to be demoralized. But statistics have shown decidedly that they don’t. Instead, the preference toward the so-called elite is largely rooted in vanity and identity. …

This near obsession with pedigree is not only paralyzing to the career prospects of individual lawyers; it is damaging to the entire profession. Legal educators, engulfed in turmoil over skyrocketing tuition rates and dwindling job prospects for graduates, have little incentive to change when opportunities for their students are determined largely through letters of admission rather than the substance and quality of the education provided.

Yet the legal profession is in dire need of fresh ideas and broader skills for lawyers to effectively adapt to the changes brought on by technology, economic duress and globalization. …

As firms face economic stagnation and fight over market share, hiring Ivy Leaguers without a passion for corporate law or BigLaw becomes an economic tax.

In fact, Bruce MacEwen has suggested here that law school prestige and success in Biglaw — defined as making partner — might even be negatively correlated, concluding, “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.”

Via the brilliant Maria Popova at Brainpickings, here are some excerpts from Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham’s excellent 2006 article, How to Do What You Love. It’s not specifically aimed at law students or lawyers, but it has something to say to all of us:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. …

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like. …

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious. [emphasis added]

Finally, does everyone know the etymology of the word “prestige”? Check it out:

prestige (n.)
1650s, “trick,” from Fr. prestige (16c.) “deceit, imposture, illusion” (in Modern French, “illusion, magic, glamor”), from L. praestigium “delusion, illusion” (see prestigious). Derogatory until 19c.; sense of “dazzling influence” first applied 1815, to Napoleon.

So it was derogatory (“imposture”!) until Napoleon came along. Somehow this still feels relevant.

Never one to be slowed by the meaning of words, Elie is up next….

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