Expensive prestige

Lat here. Tomorrow is a big day. First, April 15 is Tax Day; we hope that you’ve filed your return — and that you haven’t been taken advantage of. Second, it’s the deposit deadline at various law schools. We hope that you’ve made up your mind — and that you haven’t been taken advantage of.

Just kidding. Here at Above the Law, where we are sometimes critical of the value proposition of legal education, I’m the designated defender of law schools. I write stories with titles like In Defense Of Going To Law School and Go To Law School: What Else Are You Going To Do With Yourself? I also compile and disseminate law school success stories. We are not uniformly opposed to law school here at ATL; we just want people to make informed decisions.

Helping people make informed decisions is the goal of our popular column called The Decision. We field queries from prospective law students choosing between different schools, offer them advice, and ask ATL readers to weigh in as well.

Now, on to today’s scenarios. We’ve titled them “Jersey Boys” and “The Book of Mormon,” for reasons that will soon become apparent….

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Today, April 15, is Tax Day. But it’s an important day for another reason as well: it happens to be the day that some law schools want to hear back from applicants — and collect their deposit checks, of course.

Let’s close out our series of posts soliciting advice on picking a law school with three fact patterns. All of them involve at least two members of the so-called “T14,” the nation’s 14 leading law schools according to the U.S. News rankings….

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We like to talk a lot about prestige around here, but at Cravath, associates are learning that you can’t spend “prestige points” on your student debt repayments.

Branding is a little easier to take to the bank. It’s something that firm managers and leaders work hard to develop and maintain that can directly lead to business opportunities. As we mentioned in Morning Docket, Am Law Daily published an Acritas report on firm branding. The results will surprise the prestige conscious among you.

This list of firms with a stronger brand than the erstwhile bonus setters at CSM is astounding….

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Several prominent judges, like Richard Posner (left) and Alex Kozinski (right), hire 'off-plan.'

Over the weekend, we mentioned a very interesting New York Times article on the chaotic state of the clerkship application process, and said we’d have more to say about it later. Well, now is later, quite a bit later — so let’s discuss.

The piece — by Catherine Rampell, who has written about the legal world before — paints a depressing picture of a dysfunctional system. Rampell reports that the clerkship process “has become a frenzied free-for-all, with the arbiters of justice undermining each other at every turn to snatch up the best talent.”

Let’s look at the reasons behind this, and discuss whether the process can be fixed….

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Many prominent people, including Chief Justice John Roberts and Judge Harry Edwards, have raised their voices about the increasing irrelevance of academic writing to practicing lawyers and judges. Yet, despite railing at the academy, those judges — and law firms, and sophisticated purchasers of legal services — all rely on the academics to identify talented lawyers. Law schools brand the beef, and purchasers buy based on the brand. What do I mean, and why is that process natural and appropriate?

Let’s start with an example for people coming right out of law school: How should judges pick law clerks? One way — perhaps even the “fair” way — would be for judges to assume that each of the 45,000 people graduating from law school is equally likely to make a fine clerk. Judges would solicit applications from all 45,000 and then start the process of sorting the good from the bad.

That cannot work, of course. Judges don’t have the resources (or, necessarily, the ability) to study transcripts, read writing samples, conduct interviews, and do the other spadework needed to assess all of those candidates comprehensively. And judges can’t externalize the cost of the screening process; there’s no person or institution that would play that role for an acceptable price.

What are judges to do? They rely on law schools to brand the beef.

Rant as they may about scholars producing unhelpful scholarship, most judges rely essentially unthinkingly on those same scholars to have separated the potentially gifted lawyers from the crowd. Judges assume that the best students went to the best law schools; that, after arriving, the more talented law students outperformed the less talented ones; and thus that the best performers at the best law schools will make the best clerks. Judges typically pick their clerks from among the top graduates of the elite schools. Judges may think that professors are insane when they’re selecting topics for their scholarship and then devoting months to researching and writing on those subjects, but those same judges rely on the same professors to brand the beef astutely. Whatever criteria law schools are using within the asylum to rank their students, the outside world seems quite happy with it.

Is that fair?

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This is what you see in the law firm world. Law firms try to keep up with Cravath, but it might not be financially prudent. You try to keep up with Cravath, and then two or three years later you go bankrupt.

– Dean Frank H. Wu of UC Hastings Law, discussing the legal profession’s (perhaps unhealthy) status obsession, in an interesting panel about diversity and federal clerkships at the annual education conference of the Association for Legal Career Professionals (aka NALP).

Prestige has a price. Former Greenberg Traurig partner Mark McCombs found a sucker to foot the bill for him. As we reported earlier this month, he was the village attorney to Calumet Park, Illinois. He was charged with bilking the village of over one million dollars — money he allegedly sought not for personal gain, but to impress his Chicago partners with his book of business.

Greenberg Traurig has reviewed his overbilling and discovered that it was actually in the multi-millions. The Southtown Star reports that the firm has reviewed McCombs’s billing of Calumet Park dating back to 2002, when he joined the firm, and will be returning $3.2 million to the village of Calumet Park. That takes a chunk out of Greenberg’s PPP this year.

Village records show McCombs billed the village for tens of thousands of dollars each month for work that apparently never was done. He helped himself to property tax revenue that flowed into accounts of Calumet Park’s five tax increment financing districts.

After the jump, Greenberg Traurig managing shareholder Paul Fox says there is an upside to all this, and we have an UPDATE from the firm…

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