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Why Lawyers with School Pedigree Should Not Always Matter within Your Law Firm


Summary: Law school pedigree depends as much upon how successful a law firm is as it does the type of clientele the law firm has.

Why Lawyers with School Pedigree Should Not Always Matter within Your Law Firm
  • Law firms need to get away from hiring associates under the guise of law school pedigree.
  • The problem however is, depending upon the law firm’s clientele, dismissing law school pedigree may not so easy for more established law firms.
  • Keep reading to find out how pedigree matters but quite possibly not for the reasons you as a law firm manager may think.

There’s always been a sporting aspect to the notion of law…literally.

Strong lawyers, in a romantic sense, aren’t attractive because of their hard work and long hours in law school. They are drawn due to their pedigree, which in the world of prestigious Big Law firms, has much to do with where they went to law school.

Of course there are other aspects as well: If a certain lawyer’s father was a brilliant litigation, the art of argument and persuasiveness is bound to be passed down to the son; he too is expected to be a great persuader within the midst of an argument.

In much the same way a law school’s prestige and the grades he or she received while enrolled in law school are important components that can become axiomatic toward a lawyer’s success or failure. It’s a known fact that high marks get a lawyer placed in high-end law firms.

At the end of the day, this is all fine and good if your law firm services a specific type of client. For example, if the majority of a Big Law firm’s clients are backed up by old blue-blood family money, or are old and established companies (usually found on the East Coast), that client will understandably feel more comfortable with a straight A lawyer from top notch old law school such as Yale or Harvard.

But those also aren’t the only clients in the world who might one day need a lawyer. This is because just in the same way laws are accessible by all persons across the social spectrum, so must be lawyers.

To that extent, some clients may simply not feel comfortable with blue-blood elite-type attorneys. They may require someone a bit more down to earth, or at least down to their earth.
You went to what school where?

Too many law firms, left to their own devices, believe that prestigious law schools lead to prestigious lawyers, which to say the least is quite a blanket belief, no?

Sure, while the Ivy League schools as well as a handful of other exclusive legal institutions around the country maintain a penchant to produce outstanding lawyers, today’s clients (particularly those with money), don’t necessarily know, care, trust or even understand the perceived importance of lawyers with degrees from top-tier schools. Some clients, in fact, may be completely turned off by graduates of high-level law schools.

Of course, the law firms themselves have a say in this issue, which on one end of the argument, makes perfect sense.

In a U.S. News & World Report article, writer Ilana Kowarski reports in her article Why Big Law Firms Care About Which Law School You Attend that much of the decision for a law firm to recruit graduates from prestigious law firms reflects not just on the prestige of the law firm, but the actual size of the law firm.

As Kowarski notes, big law firms, or firms that employ at least 50 lawyers (and may employ hundreds or even thousands of lawyers), tend to be particular about which lawyers they hire. Experts argue about how many attorneys need to work at a law firm in order for it to qualify as a big law firm, with some saying that only the nation's largest law firms – those which have 500 attorneys or more – are truly big law firms. Big Law jobs are enticing to many young attorneys, partly because of the six-figure salaries commonly paid to first-year associates at large law firms.

Thus as firms grow in size and prestige, they find they need to be increasingly selective in who they recruit. With that, prestigious law schools therefore provide comfy landing pads for large law firms to pluck up the best of the new associate lawyer litter, but why?
  1. Better qualified associates graduate from prestigious law firms, which guarantees – or at least bolsters – the prestige of the law firm itself. This is important for not only a prestigious law firm’s image, but for the ease of mind of new and long-standing clientele. After all, in a 500-person world of Ivy league legal graduates on the 55th floor of a Manhattan law firm, a UC Davis law school graduate might seem out of place, and in that, cause unwanted suspicion within the firm’s clients that the firm is heading in an unfavorable direction. 
  2. The values, beliefs and practice areas of the non-prestigious lawyer may render that person as a fish completely out of water when it comes to those graduates of more known schools. The socio-economic level and importance may be difficult for the lesser-known law school graduate to understand, and more significantly, appreciate. In other words, the beauty of a strong lawyer-client relationship is the “relate” part of the relationship. Thus, the lawyer “gets” the client and in that, the client is comfortable with the lawyer. Why? Because both are cut from the same cloth. You’re less likely to find that sort of bonding with fifth generational old Hamptons money and Oregon State University law students who dress in frayed suede jackets and flip flops. 
  3. The personality of a law firm can dictate what type of associates it attracts. This is important to prestigious law firms who select from only prestigious schools simply from the point of view of manpower. In short, every graduated lawyer in the U.S. wants to work at a Big Law firm high above New York’s Avenue of the Americas or Hope Street in L.A. And while that’s ambitious and admirable for the newly graduated lawyer just as it’s flattering to the law firm, guidelines have to be made by the law firm to simply save its own human resources strength. In other words, if a law firm were not selective of where it recruited its lawyers, the place would be flooded with resumes from law school graduates located in every nook and cranny throughout the country.
Going against the grain of diversity, but for a reason

Not everyone likes, agrees or subscribes to the hiring practice of law firms which select their incoming lawyers only from prestigious law schools, which can be a problem as much as it is a solution.

As hinted at earlier, one strong sign of a good lawyer-client relationship is that the lawyer is cut from the same cloth as the client. The attorney gets the person they represent, and in that, understands whatever legal issue may come up before them (the client).

And sure, while those who are less educated about the lawyer-client relationship may pull the diversity trigger on a firm that hand picks from only a certain type of law school, in the end, such an argument simply does not wash.

Just as a law graduate from a small state school in the middle of Northern California farm land might not understand the nuances of old mid-Atlantic money, the opposite can apply to a Princeton law school graduate who comes out west to represent a socio-economic class that they naturally would not understand or even associate with.

Of course, no one can argue against the fact that these days the resources to afford a high-end lawyer finds itself in many more hands than just the upper crust.

But at the same time, lawyers, law firms, and in particular, social justice warriors who like to jump on the lack of diversity bandwagon need to understand law firms have to first cater to their clients by way of the type of legal assistance they need.

It comes down to this…
  • A wealthy family in upstate New York who needs an estate attorney will more likely feel comfortable with an associate from an ivy league school… 
  • …While a wealthy West Coast rapper in the throes of a copyright battle will naturally gravitate to a USC law school graduate, where the law school specializes in violations of artistic copyrights in film and music.
In the end, it’s the clients who decide the “prestige”

A law firm’s prestige, as well as the prestige of the firm’s lawyers is, when it’s thought about deductively, depends upon the clientele the firm has in place. Very little of the prestige factor rests on the firm or the attorneys, especially as the laurels of law school wear off. In other words, after a period of time, the prestige accumulated from where an attorney has gone to law school is no longer relevant to the firm’s overall status.

Big, powerful and respected law firms understand that successful “wins” for its clientele is what truly brings the firm prestige. And to that end, success for any law firm can come from virtually any practice areas, not just the high-end litigation, class action suits, or criminal and corporate cases that make the evening news while netting a firm (and its clients) millions, if not billions of dollars.
Consistent legal success for clients is the real prestige
  • Employment/Labor
  • Agricultural
  • Intellectual property law
  • Family law
  • Arbitration
  • Banking and Finance law
  • Construction law
  • Energy and Infrastructure law
  • Environmental Law
  • Healthcare Law and Clinical Negligence
  • Human Rights law
  • Immigration law
  • Insurance law
  • Media law
  • Property law
  • Shipping and maritime law
  • Sports law
  • Tax law
  • Will, trust and probate law…

…may not have the immediate sexiness associated with prestige, but in many ways success itself, particularly day-to-day success, flies far under the jaw-dropped social captivation of cases such as O.J. Simpson, Bernie Madoff or the Exxon Valdez settlement.

To know that no matter how famous (or infamous) your law firm’s cases are, you nonetheless employ lawyers who tirelessly work for you and your firm’s clients to achieve “wins” is success and prestige in and of itself. And what fortifies that prestige is consistency; as in consistency of wins.

Simply put, no matter the practice area, within the overall practice of law, a law firm can’t have prestige without consistent success, which for any legal outlet should be the gold standard toward any law firm.

Remember, sooner or later, it will no longer be about the school, but how a lawyer in your law firm performs now that school has long since ended.

For more information, look into these articles:

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