from Los Angeles Office Podcast
In this article, you will learn that although where you went to law school might open a few doors right after you graduate, far more important things will determine the course of your career. They include your work ethic, practice area specialty, personality, and reputation you build for yourself.
The law school you went to matters surprisingly little the longer you are out of school. In fact, better law schools are often a detriment to attorneys practicing law for an extended length of time. Many attorneys who went to great law schools think that they will get special treatment due to having attended one of them. They are quickly disabused of this notion after the cold, hard facts of practicing in the real world wear off. This is a competitive game and there are far more important things than top school credentials at stake. In fact, if you think your school matters and act like it around people higher up who went to lesser law schools, they will quickly crush you with poor reviews, no assignments, and so forth. Your school will quickly become something that leads to your demise and not something that helps you.
Do not get me wrong, the school you went to matters, but it does not matter forever. Law school is simply a way to distinguish you from the tens of thousands of people graduating from school each year. After that, no one cares for the most part.
There are far more important factors firms look at if you want to practice law for a long period of time with a good firm (actually, any firm!) than the school you went to. I cannot tell you how little school matters in the real world. Numerous things matter far more.
The point of this article is to give you some hard-hitting advice so that you can stay employed for an extended period of time in the largest and most prestigious law firm possible and get a job with the best firms even if you did not go to a top law school.
Law schools are important when you are in school applying for jobs because this is really the only basis the hiring firms have for comparison. The idea they have is that someone from Harvard is better than someone from a lower-ranked school such as the University of Kentucky. There is no other basis for comparison this early on in someone's legal career. As time passes, factors other than the school you went to become far more important.
What does the law school you went to show? Not much in the long run …
If you went to a top-tier law school, it generally shows that you are very smart and likely did quite well on the LSAT and had good grades, wherever you went to college. Those things are important, and being a good student is a very important component of being a good attorney. Attorneys sit behind desks all day and look at papers, analyze various matters, and are paid to reach conclusions.
But being a good student where? You could major in some unrelated discipline like advertising or fashion design at Florida State or wherever and do well on the LSAT and still get into an awesome school. Law schools care where you went to school, but when it comes down to it, you get into a good school based on how you did in college and your LSAT scores.
I have seen TONS of people go to a community college for a few years—get a 4.0—then transfer to a big state school and continue to get good grades taking various easy classes, ace the LSAT and go to HARVARD LAW SCHOOL! Congratulations. No extracurricular activities are needed! Just good grades and an LSAT score. You can do that with Michigan, Columbia, and a variety of law schools. You cracked the code. All you need to do is get the best grades possible and a good LSAT score.
In my experience, the smartest attorneys are generally the best at figuring out complex problems that win cases, get deals done, and so forth. That is why the LSAT tests your ability to do puzzles, for example. Fact pattern puzzles are an important part of practicing law and being an attorney. If you were smart enough to get into a good law school, the odds are pretty good that you have the ability to sift through information and figure stuff out.
Attorneys are also paid to read a lot of stuff. The LSAT makes a big deal out of reading because of that. And attorneys are also paid to figure out who is bullshitting and not bullshitting—and that is why the LSAT tests your ability to sort out arguments.So, the LSAT is important, maybe more so than your grades in an unrelated major.
If you went to a top-tier school and did well there, the odds are pretty good you have a serious aptitude for practicing law and can work very hard as well. You generally deserve to get a job in a good firm because the odds are you could do quite well there. That is why the best students from the top law schools get jobs with the best firms. Even if you went to a lousy school and were at the top of your class, this still shows a lot of aptitudes and you are likely to get a job with a very good firm—if you try hard enough.
- See Top 10 Ways Attorneys Can Move to a Better Law Firm and Get a Better Attorney Job for more information.
However, the best attorneys from the best law schools often are unemployable after several years out of law school. Just going to a good school is not enough to get and keep a job with a large law firm. Here are 10 factors far more important than where you went to law school:
1. Your Previous (On-the-Job) Training
Certain firms have the reputation for training people very well—and everyone knows that they have high expectations for the people there. If you get a good job right out of school or thereafter (with a major law firm), firms no longer really care about where you went to law school. CONGRATULATIONS! You are now part of the club.
If you worked at a major firm for three or four years, you have proven yourself enough that whatever school you went to is relatively unimportant and no longer matters. If someone is working at Latham & Watkins, Skadden Arps, and so forth, they become more defined by that than the school they went to.
While working in a major law firm is important, being trained by someone well-known is also very important. If you are trained by an attorney with good qualifications who also had major law firm training, this is also seen as a very positive thing by firms. I have placed numerous attorneys from small firms, even those trained by solo practitioners, who were well-trained and had a good experience. The training you get is important. Even training outside a law firm is often highly valued:
- Clerkships with federal judges are a form of training and thought of highly by firms.
- Work in the patent and trademark office is a form of training and thought of highly by firms.
- Work in a prosecutor's office, working for a US attorney's office, and so forth is often very highly valued.
2. How You Did in Law School
Do law school rankings matter? If you did well in school—was at the top of your class—the actual school prestige where you went generally starts to matter very little after you have been out a while. Going to a low-ranked school matters less. People see you were one of the few top students in your graduating class and your excellence is assumed.
- See Law School Grades and Your Career for more information.
Does it matter what school you go to? If you did well in school, within reason, firms do not care as much about where you went to law school.
3. Your Practice Area
I spoke with an attorney from Cravath Swaine & Moore the other day who went to a top school and has been practicing corporate law for three years. This attorney is not interested in being a corporate attorney anymore. According to him, being a corporate attorney is "like being a glorified clerk. It is not interesting, is a bunch of busywork, and completely unenjoyable."
He wants to switch to litigation and believes that will be more interesting.
- See Choosing Between Corporate and Litigation Practice Areas: Which is the Better Choice for Your Legal Career? for more information.
Unfortunately, this sort of thing does not go over well, especially in New York. This attorney's odds of getting a job in litigation with a large law firm are essentially zero.
Firms are not interested in people who want to switch practice areas. This lack of commitment is generally the first stop on an attorney's choice to ultimately leave the practice of law. What firm wants to experiment with that?
- See The #1 Attorney Career Killer that Attorneys Are Never Taught for more information.
The practice you are in matters a great deal. There are certain practice areas in which you cannot have a long-term future unless you have a lot of business. Litigation is one of them. When litigators without a lot of business become senior there is not much they can do to stay employed in a large law firm. It is very, very difficult. The corporate attorney from Cravath could get a job anywhere, just not in litigation.
There are litigators everywhere. Litigators are essentially coming out of the walls. There are so many litigators that firms, recruiters, and others are literally overwhelmed with them every time there is an opening. More than the school the attorney goes to, the practice area matters. Here is some information about various practice areas that are strong enough that firms do not care that much about where you went to law school:
- Anything Related to Patent Law: Most attorneys go to school and major in English, political science, anthropology, and other majors that have very little use and certainly do not tax the mind that much. Very few major in difficult sciences such as physics, computer science, electrical engineering, chemistry, and so forth. Patent attorneys, therefore, are quite rare, and firms will almost always look at them, regardless of where they went to law school.
- ERISA/Executive Compensation: Attorneys in these practice areas are also quite rare. There are just not a lot of them. Even senior attorneys without a business can get jobs in this practice area. If an attorney has solid experience in this, firms are really not all that concerned about where the person went to school.
- Corporate: When the market is very active, corporate attorneys can get tons of jobs, as there is a huge demand for them. However, the market can also dry up and close very quickly. In this case, the corporate is not a very hot practice area and is a huge detriment. School matters very little in this practice area.
- Real Estate: This practice area, when active, can also be an extremely good practice area to be in. When the market is strong for real estate attorneys, firms care very little about schools.
- Healthcare: This market also heats up from time to time and can be a very good market for attorneys. When this market is active, firms care very little about your law school.
- Immigration: There are very few good immigration attorneys out there. Most of them get their start in small firms and do not come from the best law schools. When a large law firm needs immigration attorneys, it frequently draws from this pool of people. It needs to because it is the only option. The school matters very little for immigration attorneys.
- Trusts and Estates: This is a practice area that is also very specialized, so firms care very little about the school you went to. If you have good experience and training, this is generally enough.
- See the BCG Attorney Search Reference Guide to Legal Practice Areas for more information
4. How Long You Stay in Your Legal Jobs and Stability
Firms want people who are likely to stay employed with them for a long period of time. Some people come into organizations and get along fabulously and are always happy and productive, while others join firms and have the opposite experience.
- See Builders and Destroyers for more information.
If you consistently go into a position and stay there a long time, this is thought of highly and means that you are likely to stay in your next job as well. Firms like this, and showing stability is valuable if other factors (practice area, training, etc.) fall into place. People who stay in jobs a long time are generally thought of as those who are likely to go into their next job and stay there as well.
- See In Defense of Long-Term Employment with a Single Employer for more information.
5. The Amount of Business You Have
When you get five or six years out of law school, if you get enough business at a high enough billing rate, your school becomes unimportant again.
- See Why Attorneys with 5+ Years of Law Firm Experience Are in Serious Trouble (and Seven Steps They Need to Take to Save Their Legal Careers) for more information.
While the point of this article is not to reinforce how important business is, it is far more important than your school after a few years out.
6. Your Reputation
If you work hard and have a good reputation in your practice area and other attorneys around town know you are very smart, willing to work hard, and are committed to what you do, then your school matters less and less.
I have had numerous instances where I called a law firm about someone and it said something like the following: "Our partners are already familiar with her and would love to meet with her about joining us." This has happened with the very best firms and with people from poorly ranked law schools applying to super prestigious firms. If you do good work and have an excellent reputation, you practically can have a job waiting when you get out.
I once knew an attorney who came out of a lousy school who was hired by an attorney from a major law firm right after they opposed each other in a trial. The partner was so impressed with his performance that he offered him a job right after the trial.
Your reputation becomes hugely important the longer you are out of school. If you work hard, are fair, and are considered a formidable opponent in all that you do, then your school will matter less and less and not even be part of the conversation. The best attorneys respect and want to work with other strong attorneys.See the following articles for more information:
- Protecting Your Reputation at All Costs
- The Importance of Endorsements, References, and Getting Others to Cheer for You
7. Your Interest in Your Practice Area and Involvement in the Community
Related to your reputation are your interest in your practice area and the community involvement you have after you have been practicing for some time. Many attorneys will try to get involved with their bar association, teach classes, speak at seminars, write papers, and do other things. If you do enough of this, you can start to become relatively well-known among other attorneys, and this will help you a great deal. At the same time, it will start to make school not really part of the equation anymore.
The resumes of many of the best attorneys are littered with various papers, speeches, and other things that they have done that help them a great deal if they want to look for a new job at a more prestigious firm. If you were hiring an attorney, who would you want: one who is constantly out there and very active in his practice area or one who is not?
Your involvement in the community and interest in your practice area are both things that show your COMMITMENT to practicing law. This shows that you are not likely to go anywhere else and are likely to stick with it. This separates you from the variety of flakes who are part of the mass of graduates coming out of top law schools who have no idea what they are interested in doing in the long term or think they are above practicing law in a law firm. The worldwide is full of people who do not know what they want to do, and anything that shows you do know what you want to do is highly valued.
- See Cheap Beer, Overpriced Chocolate, and Being Visible and Approachable for more information.
8. Your Looks, Dress, and Personality
If I see an attorney who went to a lower-ranking law school, especially women, practicing at a major law firm, I almost always know the person is going to be quite/extremely attractive and have a great personality even before seeing what they look like. Is this always the case? No. But more often than not it is.
Am I bad for saying this? I have been a legal recruiter for just about my entire career and simply cannot deny that there is a strong correlation. I am an observer of this and not the cause. There is an undeniable correlation, and I see it daily.
Am I saying that firms are hiring people without regard to whether they can do the work? Of course not. But taking care of your appearance and having some natural good looks certainly help with getting a job with major firms. I know it does because I have seen this happen far too many times. The "batting average" (interviews to offers) is simply much, much greater for attractive women and men (with a good personality) than it is for people without a good personality.
I had a woman 15+ years out of school in a relatively dull practice area get several job offers in the South recently. I did not know what she looked like before I began marketing her (I was more concerned with the quality of her resume and experience)."Is it OK to take off my wedding ring and not talk about my husband and family in the interviews?" she asked me after she had started to get interviews, each of which I was not expecting. Her school was not great, she was at an average firm, she had no business, and her practice area was busy, but not hot enough that I expected so many interviews.