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10 Things That Matter More Than Law School to Law Firms

published June 17, 2021

By Managing Director

( 15 votes, average: 4.9 out of 5)

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Many attorneys, especially young ones, believe that law school determines their success in their legal careers. While the top law schools can definitely bring you some opportunities, less prestigious ones can't. They are not the only factor or the most important one for determining your career as a legal professional. There are a few things more important than that.

10 things that are more important to law firms than a prestigious law school

  1. Previous training gained at work
  2. Your academic results in law school
  3. The practice area you work in
  4. The stability and length of your jobs
  5. The business you can generate
  6. Your reputation
  7. How interested and involved you are in your practice area
  8. How you look, present yourself, and your personality
  9. Your background
  10. How committed you are to practicing law

The first thing you should understand is that the longer you are out of school, the less your school credentials matter to your career. When you are fresh out of school, it is the only record law firms have about you and your skills, so school matters then. But once you have some experience from the real world, employers have much more to go from, and your school records don't matter that much anymore. Where you have been trained or what kind of a person you are is more important.
Going to an outstanding law school can even hurt you in the long run, especially if you get the attitude that you are special because you went there. Do not make that mistake. Otherwise, you will find out the hard way how it really works in the law industry. Once you've been out for more than five years, it fades into the background.

What does the law school you attend say about you?

Although the law school you went to isn't the most important thing employers look at, school matters for one reason. It can say that you succeeded in the law school application process. That you probably had good LSAT scores and worked hard in college. That is great, and being a good student can really help in a career as a lawyer. Just like students in school, attorneys spend long hours buried in papers analyzing everything. And smart attorneys are always better at taking on and winning complicated cases. So, if you were smart enough to get into an ivy league school, there is a big chance that you will be smart enough to handle big cases.
Also, getting into a top-tier school usually requires determination, commitment, motivation, hours spent studying and preparing, qualities the big law firms are looking for when hiring someone. You are also usually surrounded by the most accomplished and respected professors who have perfected their ability to explain complicated issues clearly. And that is something that you also need in the legal profession.
But just going to the best law school is not enough. School isn't going to matter forever. Here are the 10 things that matter more:

Your previous legal training on the job

Let's be honest - the quality of training can vary greatly from one firm to another. There are firms in every market known for having high expectations of their employees and preparing them well for their following legal careers. From teaching attention to detail and diligence to write impeccable convincing texts, these top companies known for great training will prepare their employees for everything. When other law firms see that you have been in such a firm, they automatically know they can count on you and your skills. With other firms, they do not have this sort of certainty. So, if you get a good job in one of the large firms known for this right after school, the tier of your school won't matter anymore.
However, the important thing is that you stay there for at least three years to show that you can keep up with the high demands of such a renowned law firm. And if you are trained by someone well-known with a great record, even better. Employers love to see that you have worked with exceptional people in your beginnings. That really shows that you have what it takes to work in other big firms. And no one will mind if you went to a lower-ranked school.
However, this does not apply only to big famous firms. If a great solo practitioner or a small firm specializing and is known for a practice area you want to work in, training with them can help. The important thing is that they are respected and considered an expert that can provide good training. You have to seek out such people and try to get training from them early in your career. Suppose it is your first job, even better. It can have a great impact on your future. The quality and reputation of your first employer are always going to be more important than where you went to law school.

Your academic results in law school

The next thing that is more important than where you went to law school is how you did there. If you did very well in law school, got good grades, were at the top of the class, the law school's prestige doesn't matter that much. Even if you went to a lower-ranked school but ended up among the best law students within your class, it took determination law firms are looking for. They want to see that you are better than the rest, so doing exceptionally well, even if your alma mater is not top tier, will tell them that.

The practice area you work in

Your practice area is also significant. The fewer people there are in your practice area, the better off you are and the more successful you can be. For instance, the litigation practice area is extremely overcrowded, especially in New York City. If you want to be a successful litigator, you need a lot of business. Otherwise, you can forget about your career.
Firms also don't like attorneys who switch their practice areas because it shows a lack of commitment. You should, therefore, really consider which direction you want to go in early in your career, possibly even while you attend law school, to avoid having to change your course in the middle of your legal career.
Every period of time has its own popular in-demand practice area that booms out of nowhere and then quickly dies down. It used to be environmental law when I graduated from law school, and now it is data privacy. Getting to such a practice area can be lucrative at that moment, but you never know when the point comes, and there will be no more work for you. However, a few areas are strong and niche enough not to be considered temporary, and firms value them. Here are a few practice areas you should consider:

Patent law

Before law schools, most attorneys study humanities, such as languages, politics, or anthropology. However, if you study STEM subjects, meaning science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, and then subsequently become a patent lawyer, you become a goldmine. There are very few expert patent lawyers, so you can be sure that you will find a great job with any major law firm if you become one.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act/Executive compensation

This is quite a niche area, so even senior attorneys without many businesses can succeed here and get jobs in this practice area. If you have enough experience with this, law firms will want you no matter whether you went to a prestigious law school or not.

Corporate law

This area is not as stable as some others, but when the market is active, there is a lot of work for a good corporate lawyer. Moreover, law schools matter very little in this area, so if you didn't go to a top-tier law school, you could consider it.

Real estate law

Like a corporate attorney, when the real estate market is booming, being a real estate attorney can really pay off. If you have experience in this area, the school you went to doesn't matter.

The healthcare practice area

This practice area can also be great for attorneys. When it is active, law firms care very little about law schools and more about your skills and experience.

Immigration law

This is not a practice area that traditionally attracts people from the best law schools, so when big law firms need an immigration lawyer, they don't have many choices. If you choose this practice area and get experience, your law school doesn't matter very much.

Trusts and estates

This is another specialized practice area with very few good attorneys. If you have experience and good training, law firms don't care about law schools that much.
Some other areas where your law school isn't that important you can consider are family law, insurance defense, or personal injury.

The stability and length of your legal jobs

Hiring new employees is usually very expensive for firms because the recruitment process and training cost a lot of time, money, and effort. So, when they bring in new attorneys, they want them to stay for the long run. The best indicator of this is your previous stability of jobs and the length of your previous employments.
If you have only a few solid law firms on your record in which you stayed for a long time, law firms will think of it as proof of commitment and stability and want to hire you more than if you were jumping from one job to another. It will tell them that you won't leave the firm with the first signs of any problems.

The business you can generate

This may be one of the most important for law firms. Law firms are businesses like any other, and the amount of business their employees generate decides how well off they are as a firm. If you can generate enough business for a good rate, and you have been out of law school for several years, firms really don't care about your law school at all. They would be doing themselves a disservice if they rejected an attorney with a lot of business just because they didn't attend a higher-ranked law school.
If you can generate enough business and get big clients, you will be able to get positions even in large law firms despite not getting your law degree from a prestigious law school or graduating at the top of your class.

Your reputation in the practice area

If you build up a reputation in your practice area by working hard, becoming an expert and go-to person for many clients, and impressing other attorneys, law firms will care much more about that than if you attended a solid law school.
Word travels around very easily once you consistently work hard and are fair. If you are among the best in your practice area, the odds are that most major firms in your market have already heard about you and will gladly offer you a spot if you are looking for one. You will have a job waiting for you behind every corner.
I have had many experiences with BCG Attorney Search where I called a law firm to tell them about someone, and they have already heard about them because of their excellent reputation. Also, if you can impress your counterparty during a trial, they might remember you and offer you a position.
If you can build a name for yourself and have good credentials in your practice area, your law school really doesn't matter that much in the long run.

How interested and involved you are in your practice area

How interested you are in your practice area and how involved you are in the community is tied closely to your reputation. Many attorneys invest time in teaching classes at law schools in their area, organizing seminars, writing papers, or getting involved with their bar association. When you do this, people in the industry start to notice you, and you can become quite well-known among your peers and law firms as a result.
When you build your reputation around doing these extra things in your practice area and your community, no one will consider what law school you went to. People generally only define attorneys based on their law school when they don't have anything else to define them. If you get interested in other law-related activities, people will quickly forget about your law school and define you by everything else.
You want to be defined by your activities, business, reputation, and not by your law school. Law school is usually based on decisions you made in your early twenties, so it shouldn't be that important further down your career. That is why you have to get involved.
The best attorneys almost always have their resumes or LinkedIn profiles filled with links to the articles they have written and videos of the speeches they gave. If a law firm sees something like that, they see your commitment to the practice of law. It shows your passion and love for what you do, and it will tell them that you will not quit or change your professional course out of nowhere. And that is much more important for any employer than the rank of your law school. It separates you from the huge mass of law students that graduate from law school every year. Many of them float around in the world without any direction or goal when they graduate from law school. Still, when you fill your resume with activities related to your practice area, employers see your commitment to the work you do, and it makes you stand out.
And so when you look committed and show that you are there for the long haul, the law school you went to doesn't matter as much.

How you look, present yourself, and your personality

This might seem shallow, but how you and present yourself matters when looking for a job. Your personality is also important.
Each day, I talk to many attorneys on the phone. It's funny, but sometimes after talking with them, I know they will do well in interviews. How? Some know how to present themselves, know how to connect with people, and help a lot. You should present yourself in a positive light and appear enthusiastic.
And I understand that this kind of stuff can be offensive to some people, but when you're hired by a firm, they're hiring you because they need work done. However, they're also hiring you because they want people to represent them in the marketplace with a certain personality type.
In my years of working with attorneys and law firms, I noticed some things. If an attorney went to a lower-ranked law school and works in a big prestigious firm, they are usually quite good-looking and know how to present themselves. It is a generalization but based on years of experience, and it also makes sense - firms are hiring lawyers based on their skills and ability to work. Still, they also want their employees to represent their company well.
So, if you were lucky and are naturally attractive, it can help you. Taking good care of yourself, appearing healthy, knowing how to dress to enhance your good features, and fitting in with the people you are talking to are important for your success with major law firms.
I once helped a woman with her job search and didn't expect that much of it, as she wasn't someone with an exceptional record. She went to a mediocre law school, and she was out of it for more than 15 years, working in an average firm without a ton of business. Still, she was invited to interviews a bit more than qualified attorneys. She suspected it was because of how she looked. It might seem unfair, but that's just how the world works.
But looks aren't everything. Many attractive attorneys aren't able to get jobs just because of their personality. They are unlikeable, self-centered, or judgmental, and even good looks cannot outweigh these qualities. When you want to work somewhere, you need to want to connect with people around you.
If you have both the personality and looks (and some skills, of course), law firms will want to hire you despite not attending the top law school.
Here are some universal facts I observed in the legal industry that might be uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean they are less true:
  • Young people have a higher chance of getting hired than older people.
  • Thin and tall people are more likely to get hired than short or fat people.
  • Introverted or socially awkward people are less likely to be hired than social talkative types.
  • Attractive people have a higher chance of getting hired than not attractive ones.
  • People who dress smart and sharp have a higher chance of getting hired.  
Personality really matters; the firm believes that you will fit in with the team, the company culture, and the best representation in front of clients. Many attorneys went to top schools, such as Harvard or Yale, who cannot find work because they are not liable and cannot form relationships with people from the industry or clients.
When I worked in a big New York City firm, a colleague talked about the importance of knowing how to dress. He correctly pointed out that if you are billing a ton of money an hour to a client, you better look your best. Law firms also want to see that in their prospective attorneys. So, if you want the firm to look past the law school you attended, take good care of yourself, and learn how to impress people around you with your personality.

Your background

Although society is evolving and we are all trying to be more politically correct, the truth is, there is still discrimination (and reverse discrimination) in law firms. And your social and racial background can either help or hurt you and can even be more important than the law school you went to.
Firms where most people are Catholic will likely hire another Catholic over a person of a different religion. Only black women in a law firm will likely hire another black woman over a male or someone white. A company composed of Hispanic males will likely hire another Hispanic male over a black male. Firms are also more likely to hire attorneys from local schools because of their history with the area. People are just more likely to hire people with a similar background to them.
I am not trying to say whether this is right or wrong; it's just how it is. If you are from a certain type of group and didn't go to great law schools, you probably have a much better chance of getting hired by groups that are similar to you than other groups.
I also don't think that this is intentional discrimination by the firms. It's just human nature to surround ourselves with similar people, feel comfortable around, and fit in with the rest. That often means someone with the same social or racial background.
It doesn't mean that you don't have a chance when you are, for instance, trying to get into a white male-dominated firm as a black woman. But it can make the recruiting process easier, and it can also help overcome things like lower-ranked law schools or working in an average law firm after graduating.
Some stereotypes I have seen in my years of experience are:
  • Asian men have higher chances of getting hired than white men, while white men are more likely to get hired than black men.
  • Indian and Middle Eastern women have higher chances of getting hired than white women.
  • Attorneys with handicaps are less likely to get hired than those without handicaps.
  • Attorneys who were athletes in college have higher chances of getting hired than those who weren't.

How committed you are to practicing law

The final thing that law firms consider more important than law school rankings is your commitment to practice law in a law firm. If you take personal leave, quit your practice to start a business, and then want to go back, or if you go in-house, it all suggests that you are not committed enough to "stick it out" and stay with the law firm through everything. It might make them think that you will leave them the second you find something better.
If you want the large law firm to ignore what law school you attended and where you got your legal education, they must see that you are fully committed to practicing law in a big firm. Any break or indication that you are interested in other ventures might make them suspicious about your commitment.

The race of the legal career

You should take away from this because being a lawyer in a big law firm is a race and, if you want to join it, you want to stay there for the long run. There are far more important factors than where you attended a law school that decide whether you can join or not.
Many current law students think that just because they go into a certain law school, they are special and will automatically get better offers. But in the real world, school is not such a big deal as we think it is when we are in there. Most law schools can give you the knowledge you need. The rest depends on more important things, like your commitment, work ethic, personality, ability to generate business. Law school is not the only thing.
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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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