Paul L. Caron

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Top 14 Law School Grads: Too Good for BigLaw?

The Careerist, Too Good for BigLaw, by Vivia Chen:

Check out the first-year associates at your firm. Can you guess who will eventually make partner—those grads from the tippy-top law schools, or the ones from the local-yokel schools?

If you want to make a safe bet, eliminate those wunderkinds who went to the University of Chicago Law School. Instead, put your money on the hardworking stiffs from that other law school in Chicago—Loyola.

Believe it or not, that's the way the numbers work out, according to William Henderson, a law professor at the University of Indiana. Using the job data from the The National Law Journal, Henderson calculates that Loyola grads are six times more likely to make partner at a big firm than University of Chicago grads.

Here's the math: Henderson finds that the ratio of first-year hires to new partners was 0.85 for Loyola (it had 11 first-year associates and 13 new partners in the NLJ 250 firms this year), and 5.12 for Chicago (87 first-year associates and 17 new partners). According to this calculation, every Loyola grad hired by Big Law will make partner, while only one out of five University of Chicago grad will reach that pinnacle.

Think Chicago's partnership stats are bad? They're actually far better than those from Stanford Law School, where the new-hire-to-new-partner ratio for grads is 10.5! Here are the ratios for some of the top law schools, according to Henderson:

  • Yale              6.0
  • Harvard       4.5
  • Stanford    10.5
  • Columbia    7.1
  • NYU             6.4
  • Penn            8.1
  • Boalt            8.4

So which schools have a good ratio of hires to partners in Big Law? Well, more "local" schools like Houston (1.0 ratio); Illinois (1.5); Minnesota (2.0)—although schools with national reputations like Texas (1.8) and Vanderbilt (1.8) are also in the mix. (TaxProfBlog has a nice chart listing schools most favored by the NLJ 250, plus the schools' ranking.)

The Legal Whiteboard, Too Good for BigLaw: The Statistician Edition, by William Henderson (Indiana):

In the case 2012 NLJ 250 data, we lack a reasonable basis for making strong school-specific claims. So, to be crystal clear, we cannot draw the inference that Chicago-Loyola is a better partnership bet that University of Chicago.  To draw stronger, more reliable inferences, we would need to average across multiple years. That said, if you doubt the accuracy of Vivia's regional versus elite law school metaphor, see Ted Seto, Where Do Partners Come From? (2011).

Although it is improper to make (literal) school-specific claims from the 2012 data, it is possible to make stronger, more reliable inferences by pooling these data on observable school-level attributes, such as elite versus non-elite status based on U.S. News ranking.  This is appropriate because the school-level variability is, for the most part, random (good and bad years cancel each other out); and what is non-random (e.g., a economic recession) tends to apply to all law schools. 

Consider the following statistics on 2011 hiring and promotions of graduates of Top 14 versus non-Top 14 law schools (why T14? because these schools have played musical chairs in the U.S. News since the dawn of the rankings):

  • Associates hired: 1,769 (T14), 1,525 (non-T14), or 53.7% to 46.3%
  • Promotions:  326 (T14), 781 (non-T14), or 29.4% to 70.6%

Using the Associate hired/Partner Promoted ratio statistics referred to by Vivia, the ratio of associates hired to partners promoted is 5.43 for T14 versus 1.95 for the non-T14.  The ratio for all schools is 2.98.  So, there is a very large skew working against the elite law school grads.  The takeaway from these numbers is very straightforward.  There is a very big pipeline between T14 and BigLaw, but at some point before partnership, T14 associates tend to get off the train in disproportionately high numbers. ...

So Why Aren't the T14 Grads Dominating the BigLaw Partnership Ranks? Good question. Based on admissions criteria, these folks tend to have significantly higher test scores. And God knows, they enjoy a huge presumption of ability during law school recruiting--law firm hiring partners are incredibly brand-conscious. If partnership were the NCAA tournament, the T14 crowd would consistently be the number 1 and 2 seeds. I have been thinking about this topic for several years. Here are a few plausible theories, all of which can work in concert with one another. Some are statistical, others are sociological: ...

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In my experience around yrs 5-7 the T14 attorneys start moving in house or, as they get closer to year 8-9, choose to become of counsel (guaranteed salary, better hours, no need to bring in clients). The quality of life at a BigLaw firm does not really improve as you get closer to or achieve partnership, and may actually get worse. Most of the T14 attorneys I've met don't WANT to become partner - they want to pay off their loans, get experience, then move on to greener pastures. Are those non T14-ers that stick around really smarter?

Posted by: M | Mar 14, 2012 12:02:11 PM

Is something missing? It says "here are the reasons", but it doesn't show them.

Posted by: Sheila Hard | Mar 12, 2012 7:15:31 PM

I am glad to see some numerical proof of what has been anecdotally obvious for decades. When I was an associate at one of the whitest of white shoe firms in the early '90s, all of the Ivy law grads were cocky, arrogant, apple polishers who, when you scratched their surface, had completed no real law school courses like Federal Courts, Corporations, and Securities Law, but who had a ton of "Marxist Legal Theory," "Feminist Legal Theory," and "Legal Clinics for Representing Crackheads" courses under their belt, and who unapologetically confessed that they were just doing "stints" en route to the Kennedy School of Government and other liberal-elite training grounds. I often wondered why on earth they were ever hired. As I advanced, I found that lawyers trained at Harvard and Yale would be uniformly the worst legal researchers and writers in any given group of lawyers. I have yet to meet a single Ivy law graduate in the first eight years of practice who knows how to read a reported legal decision and accurately assess its strengths and weaknesses for a client's case.

Posted by: Sleepy Watchdog | Mar 12, 2012 11:55:53 AM

I think this makes quite a bit of intuitive sense. Firms necessarily pick up lots of folks like me -- a middle of the pack graduate at a Top14 school -- who went to law school by default but got into a great school because of stellar LSATs and great undergraduate work. So while I enjoyed law school, I never gave much serious thought about whether Big Law was for me but muddled through at three AmLaw 100 firms over the course of about 8 years of practice. I eventually steered off into solo work and later start-up work, which is infinitely more interesting, but I had no reason to think that I was ever cut out to be a partner at a big law shop. Folks who do very well at well-regarded, but regional schools, are not going to be folks that muddled through, but the serious gunners who fought their way to the top of the pile at a Minnesota or a UC Hastings or George Mason.

Posted by: Someguy | Mar 12, 2012 8:42:42 AM

That's not a useful data point. Better data point would be how many Loyola grads were hired by biglaw in the 3-year period from 99-01 and how many made partner in the 3-year period from 09-11.

I expect that you would get similar results, but still. There is no correlation between the number of grads hired TODAY and those making partner TODAY.

Posted by: JG | Mar 12, 2012 8:31:14 AM

Is this really comparing the number of first-years hired in the current year with the number of promoted to partner this year? Those aren't even the same people.

Posted by: the real anon | Mar 12, 2012 8:16:18 AM

Biglaw tends to only interview the top 1% (or even less--top two or three in the class at some of the most prestigious firms) from non-T14 schools, so the pool of non-T14 grads at Biglaw tends to be a selected bunch, where the pool of T14 grads is perhaps less qualified. The non-T14 associates are the editors of the Law Review and the folks with the straight A-pluses. Is the study controlled for grade point average?

I suspect that, while it may be true that non-T14 grads do better in Biglaw than T14 grads in general, it would not necessarily follow that if you were about to enter law school and had the choice between Loyola and Chicago that you choose Loyola.

Posted by: Doodad Pro | Mar 12, 2012 7:19:05 AM

Where do top law grads go? To government where they can do real damage!

Posted by: Claude Hopper | Mar 12, 2012 6:42:37 AM

Find out who makes more "rain" then associate the rainmaking with partnership and see what happens. I bet when you find a top tier student who makes rain, he/she makes partner.

Posted by: Mark | Mar 12, 2012 6:40:46 AM

I wonder if there's not a bit of an "entitlement" effect: the T14 grads expect to make partner and be set for life just because they went to a T14 school, so they don't work as hard as the kids from the "lesser" law schools; while the kids from the "lesser" law schools work harder and appreciate that they have to make it on talent and dedication.

Posted by: MPM (UC Law '89) | Mar 12, 2012 6:14:48 AM

Loyola had 11 first-year associates and 13 new partners, while U. Chicago had 87 first-year associates and 17 new partners. If ones assumes (big assumption) that the class sizes in both law schools were and are about equal, then one can conclude that more Chicago grads (17) make partner than Loyola grads (13), and that the law firms are less willing to hire Loyola grads (11) compared with Chicago grads (87). Effectively, the firms are not willing to hire from Loyola except for those exceptional Loyola grads who are likely to make partner. The law firms dip deeper into the Chicago pool than the Loyola pool of candidates when making their initial hiring decisions. What would be far more helpful than knowing the number of associates hired from each school would be knowing the pool of candidates (grads) from each school. Then one could compare partners to grads and see the likelihood that someone attending a particular law school would ultimately become an AmLaw 250 partner.

Posted by: Mike Z | Mar 12, 2012 5:52:34 AM

I don't know much about the law business, but in accounting, making partner isn't the only measure of success. As accountants stay at the big firms, they get more and more job offers from other businesses. Many of them go on to be CEOs (or CFOs) of other corporations.

It may be that the T14 Grads are going on to leadership positions in corporate America or government. It'd be interesting to see those statistics.

Posted by: Ed | Mar 12, 2012 5:30:05 AM