etymology

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….

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