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Does Law School Rank Determine Success?

published February 07, 2005

( 1061 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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Does Law School Rank Determine Success?

"Yes and no. The higher the rank of your law school, the easier it is to be recruited by the larger firms. However, once you have a job in any firm, your success depends on how good a lawyer and person you are," said Larry B. Sitton of Smith Moore LLP, who graduated cum laude from Wake Forest University in the 60s. As the reputation of Wake Forest has improved over the years, he said it has benefited him. Mr. Sitton was named one of The Best Lawyers in America, 10 Consecutive Years, Antitrust Law, Business Litigation, among other achievements.

David J. Correira, a partner in the firm of Holland and Knight, agrees. Mr. Correira is a nationally recognized trusts and estates lawyer with nearly two decades of experience litigating estate, trust, conservatorship, and guardianship cases.

"A prestigious school and high class rank may land you a great career start in a large firm with a high salary, but it can also be the beginning of a disappointing path with little career fulfillment and inflexibility to grow and prosper as a lawyer because of organizational constraints," said Mr. Correira.

Mr. Correira is a graduate of New England School of Law in Boston, ranked as a fourth-tier law school according to 2005 rankings by U.S. News and World Report. Mr. Correira attributes his successful career to having specialized in an area of practice in demand, working hard for more than 15 years, and building a solid reputation through speaking and writing engagements, as well as serving in bar leadership capacities. He was recently named Top Lawyer in Rhode Island Monthly.

Most would agree that attending a top-tier law school can open many more doors. But once in the door, it's really up to the individual.

Scott Becker is a partner at McGuireWoods LLP and was recently named a "Leading Lawyer in Chicago." Mr. Becker, who graduated from Harvard Law School, serves as co-chairman of McGuireWoods' Health Care Department and practices in the health care regulatory and transactional area. As someone who hires for his own team, he follows a certain set of criteria.

"We look for indications of each intelligence, arguably as gauged by what school, and how well someone did there, law or undergrad, and indications of achievement orientation; did the person push themselves to graduate with high honors, was he or she a leader in other things, are there indications the person is really trying to make something of themselves, etc.," said Mr. Becker.

Paul E. Fisher, another partner at McGuireWoods and also named a "Leading Lawyer in Chicago," serves as the head of the Chicago office's Real Estate and Environmental Department and has more than 25 years' experience in commercial real estate transactions. Mr. Fisher believes students who graduate from a top law school have an advantage and cited his own training at the University of Michigan Law School, Ann Arbor, where he graduated cum laude, as "invaluable."

"The real correlation though is that the top schools will have the brightest students, and intelligence and success are closely linked," explained Mr. Fisher. "There are, though, many other factors that go into success in a law practice. Intellectual curiosity is important because staying informed and developing skills will attract business. The other key factors in success are the self-confidence to be assertive and the building of a business social network."

Adrian Pruetz, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges LLP and co-chair of Quinn Emanuel's intellectual property litigation practice, believes that a great law school and high rank do not necessarily predict an attorney's "willingness to work hard, quick thinking, or even writing talent and verbal ability." She agrees that those who graduate from a top-tier law school, especially with a high class rank, do have access to more career opportunities. However, she said that what an attorney does with these opportunities will determine their level of success.

"I went to a law school generally ranked in the third tier, so in terms of prestige, it did not contribute to my career success. However, I received an excellent legal education there, as well as opportunities for extracurricular activities, such as moot court and serving as a legal extern, that certainly provided me with the tools to achieve a successful career," said Ms. Pruetz, who graduated magna cum laude from Marquette University Law School. She has a long list of achievements, including being named "Top 50 Women Litigators," 2003 and 2004, by The Daily Journal and a "Super Lawyer" by Los Angeles Magazine. Representative clients include Genentech, Gap, Nike, Avery Dennison, Kaiser Permanente, and Mattel.

Richard E. Wiley heads Wiley, Rein and Fielding's 70-attorney communications practice, the largest in the nation. Among his extensive list of achievements, he was also included under "30 Washington attorneys who have attained national and even world-class status in their fields" by Washingtonian Magazine. Mr. Wiley, who graduated from Northwestern (J.D.) and Georgetown (LL.M.) Law Schools, said although he received an excellent education that has helped him throughout his career, it was other factors that played a more prominent role in his success. "In truth, I believe that other factors were more central to whatever success I may have achieved—in particular, my experience at the FCC as General Counsel, Commissioner, and Chairman—and, concomitantly, my ability to develop and serve communications clients."

The reputation of a school does indeed matter. It is not, however, the only factor in the equation to success. A great school and good grades can garner more opportunities, but talent and drive make the difference between a good and a top-notch lawyer.

"Graduating from a top law school with good grades gets you an audition for your first job and maybe with a few clients early in your career," said John Gartman, a trial lawyer and Managing Partner at Fish and Richardson's 55-lawyer San Diego office. Gartman is responsible for hiring the majority of partners in his firm.

"If you didn't go to a great law school, then you'd better have awesome grades to get your foot in the door. After that, it's talent, passion, personality, and drive," said Mr. Gartman, a graduate of the University of Texas, who was named one of the top 25 intellectual property attorneys in California by Daily Journal and as one of America's Leading Business Lawyers by Chambers USA. Gartman's representative clients include Intel, Microsoft, and Marconi.

Whether a law school is first or fourth tier, most would agree that beyond law school, the path to becoming a great lawyer and having that successful career depend largely on the individual.

"The bottom-line advice I would offer is this: go to the best school to which you are admitted and do as well as you can academically. All this will help in landing the first job. After that, it's what you individually can bring to the marketplace," said Mr. Wiley.

Please see the following articles for more information about law school, the bar exam and succeeding in your first year of practice:

published February 07, 2005

( 1061 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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