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At what point in a lawyer's career does experience outweigh grades and class rank?
Answer Grades play a part in a great many hiring decisions. However, the weight they are given depends on the particular firm involved and whether you are (A) a junior attorney or law student, (B) a mid level to senior associate or (C) a partner. At each stage of your career the importance of grades will diminish.
When you are considering a lateral move, there are certain firms that will never look at you unless your grades meet their standards. The most prestigious firms such as Latham & Watkins, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, Wachtel Lipton Rosen & Katz, Munger Tolles & Olsen and others will almost never interview or hire you unless your academic performance falls within a very high cutoff set by the firm, regardless the stage of your career.
However, it is also worth noting that the most prestigious firms are often willing to look at individuals who are stellar performers who did not go to Top 10, or even Top 25, law schools. The most prestigious firms are looking for excellence; excellence in their minds begins when you receive your first grades in law school, even if it is on the second or third tier.
There are many reasons that several top firms are so aggressive about grade cut-offs. The main reason is because it provides their clients assurances that the best lawyers possible are doing the work. It also increases the "aura" of a firm if they are widely known for being highly selective. In addition, these firms can afford to be so selective because they are places where many want to work. If you want to move into the very highest rungs of law firm practice (which is often defined by prestige) your grades will be significant throughout your career.
The Importance of Grades for Junior Attorneys and Law Students
As any attorney who has ever participated in on-campus recruiting is no doubt aware, grades are an extremely important criterion that firms use in the hiring of junior attorneys. Grades are far more important for law students than junior attorneys. Indeed, at no other point in your career will your grades be more important than when you are a law student.
One of the main reasons that grades are emphasized so much for law students is that firms have very little else to go on when they are making hiring decisions. Firms can look at your college and your performance there. Firms can look at what activities you participated in during law school. Firms can also decide how much they like you. But in terms of judging how serious you are about law school, and how much aptitude you show for the practice of law, grades are generally the most important criterion that firms use in the hiring of law students.
In many respects, this is somewhat understandable and there is support for firms taking law students' grades so seriously. For example, several studies have been conducted showing that your LSAT score, not your undergraduate grade point average, is the best predictor of your academic performance in your first year of law school. Similarly, there have been studies done that show that your performance in your first year of law school (and not during your second and third years) is the best predictor of whether you will pass your state's bar exam on the first attempt.
The largest and most prestigious firms typically have the most serious grade cutoffs for law students. In addition, the firms that do on campus recruiting at your law school also tend to place a great deal of emphasis on grades since they can compare the transcripts of many students at one time. There are many large national firms that will only consider graduates in the top 5% from top national law schools and others that will dip below this to the upper 50% in the hiring of law students from top national law schools. The importance of your grades will generally increase as you go down the law school ranking ladder. For example, if you attended Yale Law School, your grades will be less important to most law firms than they would be if you attended a fourth tier law school.
Nevertheless, law students from most law schools can find positions in most cases, regardless of their grades. If you are interviewing with firms that typically do not do a lot of on-campus recruiting at your school, the odds are that grades will be emphasized less than they otherwise might be. In addition, many smaller firms may emphasize grades a great deal less than top national law firms because they may be more than happy to get a student from your school. Finally, there are certain specialties (such as patent law) where your academic performance in law school may be emphasized even less than your undergraduate performance by some firms.
As recruiters, we have been amazed by the fact that grades are not always emphasized as much as some attorneys might think. We have seen attorneys from fourth-tier law schools at the bottom of their class get positions during law school with top national law firms, for example. In general, there is some predictability to where people end up based on their grades, but there are always exceptions to this rule. The fact that the exceptions do occur with regularity should clearly demonstrate that there are forces at work beyond grades in hiring decisions made by many firms.
Associates with 1 to 3 years of experience considering a lateral move are typically worried about how their academic performance might affect their move because they have been so recently conditioned about the importance of grades during law school. As you progress in your career, grades recede in importance. Many attorneys are able to move to firms they might not have been able to get jobs in while they were in law school when they move laterally as junior associates.
The largest explanation for why grades will recede in importance when you have 1-3 years of experience is due to the law of supply and demand. If you think about it, the law of supply and demand is something that is important throughout your legal career. As a law student, you competed with many associates who are indistinguishable based on not much more than the law school they attended and how well they did there. The best jobs generally go to the best students from the best schools. As a practicing attorney moving laterally, the best jobs generally go to the attorneys who are most in demand. In this case, more often than not, it means the attorneys from the best firms, with the level of experience and the demonstrated expertise that the firms need. As set off below, due to the law of supply and demand, as a lateral attorney moving you will be competing with fewer attorneys for the same positions and firms will not be able to be as selective in terms of your grades:
First, when you are one to three years out of law school, you have presumably begun to specialize in some branch of law. The more unusual that branch of law is, the fewer attorneys you will be competing with for your position. Accordingly, firms desiring someone with your skills will be more likely to overlook a less-than-stellar academic performance to get someone with your skills. As you are no doubt aware, firms are forced to "write off" a great deal of an attorney's time during their first year of practice because attorneys are not the most productive their first year. As you get more skills and experience, your value to firms increases because they do not have to write off as much of your time. The value of this training increases exponentially depending on how few attorneys practice in the same branch of law as you do.
Second, many attorneys leave the practice of law entirely during their first three years of practicing law. Accordingly, those that continue to practice law are competing with fewer people for the same positions. Because there are fewer people you are competing with, firms do not feel the need to be as selective with whom they hire based on grades.
Third, you will be benefited by the fact that you have proven that you are dedicated to the geographic location you are in. The benefit of being part of the legal community and having stability in the region is something that is very important to law firms.
Fourth, the law of supply and demand is also governed by the fact that many attorneys disqualify themselves from big firm practice very early in their careers by accepting jobs with firms that are not conducive to moving laterally to a grade conscious firm at a later date. For example, many attorneys accept positions with insurance defense firms, or smaller unknown firms that do unsophisticated work. While there is nothing wrong with this decision, the fact of the matter is that most firms that care about grades want to hire attorneys they perceive as having the training it takes to practice law in a big firm environment. Because the substantial majority of law graduates go to firms that grade conscious firms perceive as not providing a high-level of training, the fact of the matter is that most grade conscious firms cannot afford to be overly grade conscious when hiring laterals. In fact, the quality of the firm you are coming from is most often more important than your grades when you are moving as a lateral with 1-3 years of experience.
If there was ever a better illustration of the points discussed above in action, it is the hiring of corporate attorneys on both coasts in 1998 through most of 2000 which took place at a dizzying place. Many of the most prestigious national law firms were hiring corporate attorneys out of small law firms without ever seeing so much as a transcript. This pattern emerged because the firms had more work than they could handle. While most of the best-known names in the legal profession were inflexible with lowering their standards, a great many firms did budge on their standards and hired everyone they could get. In this circumstance, the importance of grades virtually vanished.
None of this is to say that grades completely recede in importance. If you think about the law of supply and demand, you will quickly realize that it can also make grades important later in your career. In the example above, there was a tremendous demand for corporate associates on both coasts for a three-year period. In 2002 this trend has reversed itself. With numerous corporate attorneys from top national law firms competing for the same positions, grades can certainly become something of importance in distinguishing between candidates.
Mid Level to Senior Associates
In the mid-level to senior associate realm, the same prejudices that the largest firms have about grades are still present. The largest and very most prestigious firms still are generally quite interested in your grades. Nevertheless, as recruiters we have noticed a greater willingness of firms to "look the other way" or not take grades as seriously as they definitely would for law students and to a lesser extent would for junior associates.
The Midlevel Associate
As a midlevel associate, firms are generally most concerned about your legal skills and the potential you show. If you are coming from a firm with some stature, then law firms will assume you have the training that they need. Midlevel associates are typically quite profitable for firms because they can efficiently do the work at rates that clients will not balk at. As a midlevel associate, most firms will look at your grades. Nevertheless, firms' largest concern will be with your ability to do the work and the potential you show for growth within the firm.
The same illustrations outlined above regarding (1) your specialization, (2) the number of attorneys still practicing, (3) your geographic commitment, and (4) the firms that have given you high-level training become even more important for midlevel associates than they are for junior associates.
The Senior Associate
After several years of practice, the same four factors identified above become increasingly important in firms' evaluation of your relative strengths. In addition, firms become more concerned with your potential to make partner and your business generation abilities. At this level, these other concerns far outweigh grades at 99% of firms.
At the partner level, grades have almost no importance. Concerns about your business-generation ability and other factors assume an importance far beyond your grades. In fact, we would estimate that in 7 out of 10 partner placements we make the firms hire our candidates without ever requesting to see their grades. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. In fact, there are some super prestigious national firms that will continue considering your grades to be of paramount importance throughout your career. On some occasions, we have seen partners who were national figures in their practice area with multi-million dollar books of business not get interviews because of their law school grades. Nevertheless, this occurs quite infrequently.
Grades are most important for law students. At the junior associate level they become less important and become even more so throughout your career. While law school is three short years, your legal career can span over 30 years. Accordingly, it goes without saying that your law school performance is by no means the most important indicator of the success you will have in the practice of law. Nevertheless, there are some American law firms where your grades will prevent you from getting a position throughout your career. However, with all the opportunities available in the market, one's law school grades 10, 5 or even 1 year after law school are not something that will hold you back with most firms if you have managed other aspects of your career correctly.
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