Predictions of a “New Hierarchy” in Law Schools, Part One: The Difference between the Headline and the Data for Current Entering Law Students

Indiana University law professor Bill Henderson suggests that there is an emerging “new hierarchy” among law schools “that will be based on educational quality and connection to the legal profession rather than student academic credentials.” Whether that would be a “new” hierarchy is an open question; it appears to rely on a presupposition that the current hierarchy is arranged from top to bottom on the basis of “academic credentials” that “are not a reliable basis for hiring decisions in an environment where law firms are competing for market share.”

It doesn’t impugn Henderson’s conclusion that his new firm, Lawyer Metrics, advises law firms on their hiring decisions. Nor is his basic conclusion in doubt—that success in law firms (and elsewhere in the legal market) relies on more than IQ or, as Henderson says, “Sure, lawyers need to be smart. But in this more competitive environment, they also need to be personable, collaborative, entrepreneurial, service oriented, and interested in contributing to the collective welfare of the law firm.” And I don’t have a view on whether higher-ranked law schools are actually better schools or whether their graduates are smarter or better-prepared for the practice of law.

All of that is a little different that saying that there’s a new law school hierarchy in the offing.  To the extent that what Prof. Henderson means is that there are tremors that may have future implications—and that certain data bear close watching, that sounds right.  But my interest at Advise-In Solutions is focused on law students and pre-law students making decisions now.  And to the extent that the headline might imply that such students don’t need to take the current hierarchy seriously, there is potential for mischief.  I can see some law schools pulling out the headline as evidence that its ranking doesn’t matter.  And I can see some prospective law students taking the headline to mean that it doesn’t really matter that much where you attend law school. And if either of those constituencies draw from the headline the inference that top law schools are exclusively concerned with the hard data matrix of GPA and LSAT score, i.e., that their admissions decisions are that mechanical, that’s potentially destructive  to those students’ admissions and financial aid prospects.

It’s important to be clear about what the data say and don’t say.  Let’s look at a few points (today, the data that the ABA Journal reported; part two will reiterate the importance of law school application “soft data”). The ABA Journal article notes that “Henderson says there is little empirical evidence that hiring lawyers with marginally higher test scores puts law firms at a competitive advantage. He cites his own research to illustrate.”

Here’s some of the key illustrative data: “In 2007 and 2008, 46 percent of all new associates in the nation’s 100 largest law firms came from a top 14 law school. But during the same period, only 39 percent of lawyers promoted to partner came from one of the top 14.” The translation to “competitive advantage” isn’t clear but let’s leave that aside.

When I see “only” in a sentence, I expect to see a drop larger than from 46% to 39%. That still means that 4 in 10 partners made in 2007 and 2008 came from the top 14 schools (instead of 4.5 in 10 new hires).  Again, to the extent that this is data that bears watching, I’m on board.  But 4 in 10 is a lot, and that’s the data that those considering applying to law schools now should focus on.

Let’s add to that a few additional pieces of data: in 2009, the 14 top-ranked schools admitted, according to the ABA, 4,574 first-year students. All law schools admitted 51,646 such students. So, from only 8.86% of total admissions (less than 1 in 10), those schools contribute 4 in 10 partners in the nation’s largest law firms and 4.5 in 10 new associate hires.

Whether this portends a new hierarchy 10 years down the line, I’m not sure.  But the current hierarchy, right now, seems well in place.

There’s also, apparently, an assumption to the argument that I have doubts about, namely that top law schools make their admit decisions solely on the basis of test scores and GPA and not at all on other qualities that Henderson believes—rightly, in my view—are important to many employers. Second, there’s a converse assumption that lower-ranked law schools explicitly account for those qualities. For what it’s worth, a month or so ago, I talked with a law professor at a mid-tier school; his view was that his school makes admissions decisions pretty much solely on the basis of the “hard” LSAT and GPA data. I’ve never heard anyone from a top 15 school say that, and many tell you the opposite.

It’s important to clarify that Prof. Henderson doesn’t say this (and probably doesn’t believe it).  What I take him to be saying is that the “current hierarchy” more or less works out law school prestige according to academic credentials.  And if you graph it out, that’s largely true.  What’s important to recognize is what that doesn’t mean.  It doesn’t mean that every (or for that matter, any) law school is making its admission and financial aid decisions solely on the basis of those factors.  And that’s the salient point for prospective law students.

Third, Henderson’s argument assumes that the inducements to remain at a large firm are equivalent for graduates of law schools up and down the “current” hierarchy.  I understand why he’s making that assumption; his role is to advise law firms.  That’s the part of the market that he’s focused on, and for that focus, his assumption is sensible.

It’s less meaningful if you’re a prospective law student.  The fact is that graduates of top-ranked schools have fewer inducements to remains at a  large (or for that matter, any) law firm.  That’s a large part of why those graduates went to those schools.  A degree from an elite law school is also an investment in career flexibility, not just initial salary and opportunity. Many of my Yale classmates (unlike me) didn’t want a law firm job but wanted to pursue other avenues both in and outside of legal practice. That flexibility is more available to graduates of higher-ranked schools than it is to graduates of lower-ranked schools.

For people considering law school, a headline like “new hierarchy,” without significant qualification (both is scope and time) could lead entering law students to conclude that you don’t get a significant leg up in career opportunities and options by attending highly-ranked law schools. I don’t think (although I don’t know) that that’s what Prof. Henderson means, at least not right now.  My fear is that the impression left by buzz phrases like “new hierarchy” is likely to end up costing some prospective students a lot of money and frustration. That’s especially true because the cost of attending law schools of whatever rank will be similarly high, as data on the Advise-In website show.

Yes, there are exceptions, and I’ve talked a lot on this blog about variations in opportunity and how much that should concern people based on who they are and what they want (here’s a link to one of those posts). And I spend a lot of time talking about these issues on our free webinars and, on a much more concentrated and individual basis, with my clients. But differentiation and individualization shouldn’t obscure the starting-point.  The starting-point is: for the typical law student, the higher the rank of your law school, the better your prospects, especially in the short term.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on December 1, 2010.

One Response to “Predictions of a “New Hierarchy” in Law Schools, Part One: The Difference between the Headline and the Data for Current Entering Law Students”

  1. […] this week, I talked about one law professor’s much-publicized prediction of a “new hierarchy” among law schools.  The data cited in support of the implicit claim that the grip of […]

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