Becoming a National Law Firm Partner: New Data, Contributed by Theodore Seto, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles

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By Theodore Seto, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles  

How can I maximize my chances of becoming a partner at a national law firm? Where should I attend law school? If I’m already a student, where can I expect to have my best shot at national law firm partnership?

For many years now, law students have been forced to rely on either the U.S. News rankings or anecdote and opinion to answer this kind of question. U.S. News tells us how selective schools are and what kinds of resources they provide (faculty/student ratios, expenditures/student, library books). But it tells us precious little about outcomes – about how students who attend this school or that ultimately do.

New data is now available with regard to an outcome important to at least some students: partnership in national law firms. An article entitled “Where Do Partners Come From?,” forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Education and available 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:

  • U.S. News rank does not reliably predict which schools produce lawyers who become NLJ 100 partners. Some schools significantly over-perform their U.S. News rank; others under-perform.

  • Partnering is remarkably local. More NLJ 100 partners come from local schools – even lower-ranked local schools – than from highly ranked schools in other regions.

  • There is only one truly national law school: Harvard. Georgetown emerges as Harvard’s closest rival for national status.


For current and prospective law students, the second finding is the most important. Local schools dominate the major legal markets:

  • NYU and Columbia in New York

  • Georgetown and George Washington in Washington, DC

  • Northwestern and Chicago in Chicago

  • UCLA and Loyola Los Angeles in LA

  • BC, BU, and Harvard in Boston

  • Texas and Houston in Houston

  • UC Hastings and UC Berkeley in San Francisco

  • Georgia and Emory in Atlanta

  • Texas and SMU in Dallas


Indeed, the study finds that location predicts partnering patterns far more reliably than U.S. News rank.

On lists of the top 10 feeder schools in each of the 10 largest U.S. legal markets, for example, Yale appears just twice: 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.

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 contributes significantly to NLJ 100 partner ranks in more than one of the ten largest U.S. legal markets.2 The top six:

Rank School Score Markets
1 Harvard 66 All ten
2 Georgetown 38 All except Atlanta and Dallas
3 Virginia 20 DC, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas
4 Columbia 16 NY, DC, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco
5 Michigan 15 DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, San Diego
6 Chicago 13 DC, Chicago, Dallas


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 and 14th in the other 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.

In sum, the study strongly suggests that, in general, students should attend law school where they ultimately hope to practice. There may be a few exceptions to this rule: Harvard, Georgetown, Virginia, Columbia, Michigan, and Chicago. For the most part, however, attending a highly ranked school in another region may not be as direct a route to national law firm partnership as U.S. News may tempt one to believe.

A student whose life goal is to become a national law firm partner in Los Angeles, for example, should probably choose a law school in Los Angeles. Students at schools in other regions should not be surprised to find access to national law firm offices in Los Angeles more difficult to obtain.

The importance of this conclusion cannot be overstated: location, location, location.

Nevertheless, the article does provide a list of the top 150 NLJ 100 partner feeder schools nationwide.3 The top 25:

Rank School 1986-2011 Partners in the NLJ 100
1 Harvard 946
2 Georgetown 729
3 NYU 543
4 Virginia 527
5 Columbia 516
6 George Washington 447
7 Michigan 444
8 Chicago 426
9 Texas 384
10 Northwestern 365
11 Pennsylvania 329
12 Boston University 317
13 Fordham 306
14 UC Berkeley 287
15 UCLA 257
16 Yale 253
17 Stanford 240
18 UC Hastings 233
19 Duke 219
20 Boston College 213
21 Cornell 204
22 Vanderbilt 186
23 Illinois 183
24 American 179
25 Loyola Los Angeles 162


What do these latter numbers mean?

These are aggregate numbers, not adjusted for class size. They measure the extent to which schools have established feeder relationships with the NLJ 100. That’s all.

They do not tell us whether a student is more likely to become an NLJ 100 partner if she attends one school rather than another. They do not imply, for example, that she should attend BU rather than Stanford. They do tell us, however, that BU does appear to have more established feeder relationships with the NLJ 100 than Stanford does.

All else being equal, feeder school status may be relevant – even if only as one factor among many.

A school that has placed larger numbers of partners in the NLJ 100 over the past 25 years is more likely to continue to attract NLJ 100 recruiters to its campus. Harvard, for example, attracts about 500 firms to its on-campus interviewing season each year; Yale only 125.

Hiring committees at such firms, in turn, are likely to assume that hiring from established feeder schools is normal and will likely be productive. All else being equal, students who aspire to join such firms may have more opportunities to do so if they attend schools with established feeder relationships.

It turns out that U.S. News rank is a very imperfect predictor of NLJ 100 feeder school status.

Chicago, for example, 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% larger than Texas (with which it is ranked equally by U.S. News), has produced almost twice as many NLJ 100 partners as the latter.

Down the list, production of NLJ 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.

Apart from geography and size, what explains such differences among schools? The answer is unclear.

It may be that a school’s admission practices – for example, taking prior work experience or challenges overcome into account, as opposed to admitting solely on LSATs and GPAs – 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.

The ABA has recently called on law schools to do more to make their graduates “practice-ready.” Until schools answer that call, students may want to consider law schools’ relative success in placing partners in national law firms in making their decisions. New data is now available to help them do so.

Theodore 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 Seto


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