Recruiting is a challenge.
Yields at highly ranked schools can be disappointing. Students from schools down the pecking order sometimes do well, sometimes not. Predicting which new hires will have what it takes to make partner―and will stick it out until partnership―is even harder. Mistakes are expensive.
Newly available data may be helpful in structuring more cost-effective recruiting strategies. An article entitled “Where Do Partners Come From?,” forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Education and available now on SSRN, reports the results of a year-long study of partners in the 100 largest U.S. law firms (the “NLJ 100”), focusing on those who received their JD degree within the past 25 years.1
The study reaches three major conclusions:
First, some overall results2 (a full list is available on SSRN):
These are aggregate data, deliberately not adjusted for class size. Whether it is worth mining a particular vein of resources depends on both the quality and size of the vein. A small vein, even of high quality, may not produce a commensurate return, particularly when others are competing to mine it as well. Law firm behavior reflects this reality. About 500 firms interview at Harvard each year, only about 125 at Yale.
Even after adjusting for class size, however, surprises emerge. Chicago is roughly the same size as Yale and Stanford. Nevertheless, over the past 25 years, Chicago has graduated far more students who have gone on to become NLJ 100 partners. Georgetown, less than 30 percent larger than Texas (with which it is ranked equally byU.S. News), has produced almost twice as many NLJ 100 partners as the latter.
Down the list, production of NJL 100 partners sometimes deviates even more dramatically from U.S. News rank. St. John’s, a school only slightly larger than the U.S. average, outperforms its U.S. News rank by an astonishing 53 places; Miami by 51 places; Villanova by 49; DePaul 47; Catholic 43; Loyola Chicago 42. The study even finds that several U.S. News “second tier” schools (roughly the bottom 50)―South Texas, Suffolk, and Widener among them―significantly outperform some of their “top 50” competitors.
Does this mean that every firm should now interview at St. John’s?
No. Once the data is sorted by legal market, a very different lesson emerges: Most successful recruiting is local.
Local schools dominate the major legal markets:
Yale appears just twice on lists of the top 10 feeder schools in each of the 10 largest U.S. legal markets: 10th in New York and 7th in Washington, DC. Stanford appears only on the California lists: 10th in Los Angeles, 8th in San Francisco, and 5th in San Diego. Stanford’s relatively poor performance in San Francisco is particular surprising.
Only one law school appears on all ten lists: Harvard.
The article computes a national impact score for each U.S. law school based on the extent to which it has contributed significantly to NLJ 100 partner ranks in more than one of the ten largest U.S. legal markets.3 The top six:
No other school makes the top 10 feeder school lists in more than two cities and more than one state.
Georgetown is the big surprise. Ranked only 14th by U.S. News, it makes the top 10 feeder school lists for eight of the ten largest U.S. legal markets. (It ranks 12th in Atlanta and 14th in Dallas, the remaining two.) NYU is a bit of a surprise in the opposite direction; its graduates are dominant only in New York. Yale and Stanford are not significant players in the national NLJ 100 partner market.
What do these numbers mean?
First and most obviously, they suggest that firms should focus their recruiting locally. Putting resources into identifying promising candidates from lower-ranked local schools may well be more cost-effective than interviewing at highly-ranked schools in other regions.
The data suggest a few exceptions to this general rule: Harvard, Georgetown, Virginia, Columbia, Michigan, and Chicago.
Apart from geography and size, what explains differences among schools? The data do not offer clear answers.
It may be that a school’s admission practices―for example, taking personal characteristics or prior work experience into account―help select for students more likely to succeed in practice.
It may be that because of the culture of the school, graduates who accept associate positions do so seriously, with the intention of really trying to make partner, not just to “get some experience” before moving on.
It may even be that some schools provide superior preparation―that some schools teach law and/or practice skills more effectively than others.
Whatever the reason, 25 years of data is probably enough to capture real differences, even if it cannot explain them.
Weil, Gotshal & Manges’ hiring chair, Robert Carangelo, was recently quoted as saying: “It used to be that a student from a top law school with good grades would get an offer. Today, that’s just the starting point. We look for well-rounded students who can interact with clients, have leadership skills, and are self-starters. We joke [that] we’re looking for law students who we can put up for partner.”4
The ABA’s House of Delegates has similarly called on law schools to do more to make their graduates “practice-ready.” Until schools answer that call, law firms may find it profitable to vote with their feet―to devote more recruiting resources to schools that actually produce partners in significant numbers.
Prof. Seto is Professor of Law and William M. Rains Fellow at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where he teaches tax, property law, and public finance. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, where he served as Executive Editor of the Harvard Law Review, a former Second Circuit clerk, and a former partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath, Philadelphia. He has taught at Cornell and the University of Paris X and published in the Yale Law Journal, the Tax Law Review, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, among others.
© 2011 Theodore P. Seto
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