Brian Dalton

Brian is a graduate of Middlebury College and Fordham Law. He joined Breaking Media in October 2011 after spending seven years at Vault.com, most recently as Director of Research and Consulting. Before that, he was, among other things, an associate at a Manhattan law firm, a French teacher in Brooklyn, a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, and a security guard at a waterslide park in Albuquerque, NM.

Posts by Brian Dalton

There’s no Biglaw intercity rivalry which can match that of London’s venerable Magic Circle and New York’s elite white shoe firms. Both groups of firms are the clear alpha dogs in their markets, attracting the top talent and most lucrative clients. However, there are some significant differences between the two groups in how they operate. For example, U.K. firms tend to follow a lockstep (rather than “eat what you kill”) compensation model. Last month, friend of ATL Bruce MacEwen took a deep dive into the question of the relative performance over the last several years between the Magic Circle and their New York cousins. The piece is highly recommended: it’s chock-full of data and its findings suggest the groups are moving in different directions.

Using publicly reported data for the years 2008—2013, Bruce focused on such metrics as headcount, percentage of equity partners, PPP, RPL, and profit margin. The Magic Circle firms—Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, and Linklaters—are of course a well-defined group (Slaughter and May, the only member firm without a New York office, was excluded). For New York, these firms were selected as the comparison group on the basis of “historical roots, geographic footprints, and business models”:

Cleary Gottlieb
Davis Polk
Paul Weiss
Simpson Thacher
Sullivan & Cromwell, and
Weil Gotshal

One could query the absence of Cravath, Wachtell, Skadden, etc., and we refer you to Bruce’s piece for a fuller articulation of these choices. The U.S. market for the highest end legal services is much more fragmented and diffuse than its U.K. counterpart, and which precise group of firms is the closest equivalent to the Magic Circle is endlessly debatable. But for the purposes of this comparison this group will certainly serve.

So when we look at numbers, what do we find?

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A couple of months back, Jordan Weissmann of Slate and our own Joe Patrice got into an entertaining little dust-up over Weissmann’s assertion that “Now Is A Great Time To Apply To Law School.” The various arguments ranged over — among other things — the available data from the ABA and the BLS, the scholarship of Michael Simkovic and Brian Tamanaha, and the impenetrable mystery that is the “JD Advantage.” We’ll let readers determine who got the best of the debate. (Hint: Joe did.) But as pundits squabble over the value of a JD or the wisdom of the applying to law school in 2014, what are current would-be law students themselves thinking?

Recently, in collaboration with our friends at Blueprint Test Prep, we conducted a survey of 400 Blueprint students studying for the October 2014 LSAT. (We conducted an earlier, different 0L survey in conjunction with Blueprint back in 2012.) Our goal was to get a snapshot of these 0L’s perceptions of the legal education landscape: will it be harder or easier to get admitted? What are the most important factors in choosing a law school? What are law school admission officers looking for? What are employers really interested in?

Read on to see what we could glean from the 0L mind, including their thoughts on why fewer people are taking the LSAT and applying to law school, even as some — à la Weissmann — predict the demand for lawyers will outstrip supply the supply of law school graduates in 2016.

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Not since its pursuit was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence has “happiness” had a bigger cultural moment than now, and not just because of that “room without a roof” earworm. There is a new and rapidly growing science of happiness, a mash-up of economics and psychology sometimes called “hedonics,” which tells us that money can buy happiness, but only to a point. Meanwhile, in corporate America, we witness the emergence of a new C-suite character, the Chief Happiness Officer, who is responsible for employee contentment. Sort of like an HR director, but smiling and magical.

Recently, the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper, “Unhappy Cities,” reporting the findings of a major survey asking respondents about their satisfaction with life. The authors, academics from Harvard and the University of British Columbia, found that there are persistent differences in self-reported subjective well-being across U.S. cities and, unsurprisingly, residents of declining cities are less happy than other Americans. (Interestingly, the authors suggest that these unhappy, declining cities were also unhappy during their more prosperous pasts.)

So there are unhappy cities; there are also unhappy (and relatively happier) law schools. When ATL’s own Staci Zaretsky learned that Springfield, Massachusetts — home of her alma mater, the Western New England University School of Law — made the list of unhappiest cities, it came as no surprise: “It’s hard to tell where the local misery ends and that of the law school begins.” Prompted by Staci’s observation, we wondered whether unhappy cities make for unhappy local law students. Or is the law school experience so intense and self-contained that one’s surroundings have little impact? What are law students in the happiest (and unhappiest) cities in the country telling us about their own personal satisfaction?

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Earlier this month, we launched the ATL Law Firm Reputation Survey, asking those of you working in Biglaw to rate your peers and competitors. (Take five minutes and take our survey here.)

For our purposes, we split “reputation” into two distinct aspects: 1) the reputed strength and quality of a firm’s practice, and 2) the perceived desirability of the firm as a potential employer. For some, these factors will be functionally equivalent. For others, these are less overlapping considerations.

To date, we’ve received not quite a thousand survey responses and today we share some preliminary findings. What are you telling us thus far about which firms have the strongest practices? Which firms are some of the most coveted Biglaw employers in major markets?

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For about three years now, we have been conducting the ATL Insider Survey through which our audience members share their insights and experiences regarding their own employers and schools (or alma maters). From the data we’ve collected, we have created a slew of content, including our Law Firm and Law School Directories. Many thanks to the approximately 17,000 (and counting!) of you who have responded.

Today, we launch a different sort of survey, one where we ask you to look outside your own organization and share your opinions about other law firms. Who do you respect? Who do you fear? Who are you secretly happy to see on the other side of the table?

The ATL Law Firm Reputation Survey asks those of you working in law firms to rate your peers and competitors. We look at “reputation” as having two distinct aspects: 1) the reputed strength and quality of a firm’s practice, and 2) the desirability of the firm as a potential employer. Of course, these two aspects may or may not be closely connected, depending on an individual’s perspective. Does “culture” matter or is it all about “prestige”? You tell us.

Our survey will present you with a couple of (short, randomized) lists of firms for you to rate on both these points, tailored for your geographic location.

Take five minutes and take our survey here. Thanks!

‘Out of balance’ is a type of balance, when you think about it.

ATL reader opinion was sharply divided over that recent law firm partner “Hang in There Baby/This Too Shall Pass” email. You’ll recall that the partner was seeking to reassure her younger colleagues who face the challenge of balancing the demands of the Biglaw grind against those of motherhood. Her message: eventually things will be better.

Only a few years ago, when the author was a new mother, she found herself “in the fetal position (ed. note: see what she did there?) on the kitchen floor so completely spent that honest to God I did know how I could get through another day.” Things improved; now the partner can promise her younger counterparts that “one day in the future,” when the kids1 can talk and brush their own teeth, “you will bake a pie and wear clean pants.” In between all-nighters prepping for trial, of course. While some found solace in this message, others found it to be cold comfort at best.

Let’s put aside whether one thinks the partner’s advice is uplifting or risible. For the sake of argument, if the legal profession — specifically law firms — is truly trying to foster the advancement of women attorneys, we can all stipulate that the effort is thus far a failure. What is going on when a fit of despair on the kitchen floor is such a “relatable” thing?

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Promising answers to questions nobody is asking, the Buzzfeed-style personality quiz is the most virulent force in social media. Which Ryan Gosling Character Is Your Soulmate? What Type Of Chicken Tender Is Right For You? Are You Turning Into Your Mom? The silly online personality quizzes are sort of the idiot stepchildren of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, that test designed to distill human personality into abstract terms. (For some background on Myers-Briggs, see here.)

The MBTI and its progeny have long been used by government agencies and educational institutions, but it truly has a foothold in corporate America. The MBTI supposedly helps employers to identify potentially successful employees and job candidates to identify their strengths. From the employer’s perspective, these tools offer a chance to identify potential successful hires based on something more objective than hiring managers’ hunches and first impressions.

A recent New York Times Magazine piece detailed an ongoing movement to “revolutionize the human capital resource allocation market” through Moneyball-style, Big Data empiricism. Apparently, employers are becoming more cautious and deliberate in their interviewing processes (the average length of the interviewing period had doubled over the past five years), while at the same time employing work-force-analytics software that can make the process cheaper and more efficient. All in all, around 80% of the Fortune 500 companies practice data-driven assessment in their hiring processes.

Which brings us to the legal industry, an outlier in this “revolutionary,” data-driven recruitment landscape…

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Since we released the ATL Top 50 Law Schools last week, we’ve received a fair amount of feedback and criticism regarding our approach to ranking schools. As noted (again and again), our methodology considers “outcomes” only — the idea being that, in this dismal legal job market, that’s all that truly matters. Our rankings formula weighs six outcomes; these three below were the most disputed:

Supreme Court Clerks. This is simply the number of SCOTUS clerks produced by the school over the last five years, adjusted for the schools’ size. By far, this is the most heavily criticized aspect of our methodology. “Preposterous!” “Irrelevant!” “Reflective of some weird fetish on the part of one of your editors!” And so on. To which we say, sure, SCOTUS clerkships are irrelevant in assessing the vast majority of schools. Properly considered, this component is a sort of “extra credit question” that helps make fine distinctions among a few top schools.

Federal Judgeships. The number of sitting Article III judges who are alumni of the school, adjusted for size. Some complain that this is a lagging indicator that tells us something about graduates from 25 years ago but little about today’s students’ prospects. Besides, aren’t these appointments just a function of the appointees’ connections? True enough, but this is certainly an indicator of the enduring strength and scope of a school’s graduate network — surely a worthwhile consideration. Connections matter.

Quality Jobs Score. The percentage of students securing jobs at the nation’s largest law firms combined with those landing federal clerkships. The principal criticism with this metric is that it fails to include some categories of desirable job outcomes, including so-called “JD Advantage” jobs and certain public interest/government positions. However, parsing out the “good” jobs from the rest is the problem. Whenever we could, we used the most straightforward, obtainable, and well-defined data points, with the goal of a “quality jobs score” as a reasonable proxy for quality jobs generally.

Read on for a look at which schools rated best in each of the above categories, as well as on Employment Score and Lowest Cost. We’ll also look at some of the biggest gainers and losers in the ATL 50, plus significant differences between our rankings and U.S. News….

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ATL Law School Rankings 2014Before taking on the massive commitment and expense of a law school education, prospective students need to do some serious homework. But let’s face it: not everyone will. The prospect of analyzing the available data is sufficiently great that many won’t bother.

In spite of concerns that rankings “facilitate laziness” or “pervert incentives,” we can agree that rankings aren’t going to disappear any time soon. People will still demand guidance, preferably in the form of easy-to-understand lists. For our part, ATL will continue to produce our own version of law school rankings. (We are releasing the 2014 rankings next Tuesday. You can register to see a live broadcast here.)

Last week we surveyed our readers for their views on what would be the most relevant elements of a law school rankings methodology. What did the readers have to say?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Law School Rankings Metrics? It’s All About Jobs”

Non-lawyers are often surprised to learn of the lockstep salary schemes of large law firms and the near-perfect information we have about them. (Recall Kevin Drum’s befuddlement at the bi-modal distribution of law graduate salaries and the “weird cultural collusion” it suggested.) Even annual bonuses are frequently spelled out in what amounts to public memoranda and are typically some variation of the “market” dictated by our Cravath overlords. Of course, there are some “black box” firms and a few gilded outliers such as Wachtell Lipton or Boies Schiller, but generally speaking, the world of large firms practices a degree of relative transparency around compensation that is unsurpassed outside the public sector.

In order to distinguish among firms, we have to look to the margins. For example, law firms vary quite a bit when it comes to paying for the bar and living expenses of incoming associates. Some firms may reimburse for covered expenses after the fact; others may pay some expenses directly to the provider. Some may give a stipend to cover living expenses, whereas others may offer the ability to take out an advance on salary.

Greater transparency (or, at least, aggregated information) on these questions might make one firm’s offer more attractive than another’s, or perhaps even give an offeree some basis for negotiating a package upgrade (but of course tread very lightly there)….

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