Study Tells Us Law School Reputation Matters for Job Prospects: We Already Knew That, so Some Decide to Make It a Moral Issue

Robert Morse of U.S. News recently decried the “absolutely incorrect” use of U.S. News’ law school rankings.  The comment was met with derision in the blogosphere, which generally characterized it as self-serving.  Although Morse’s full comment was not only inoffensive but in substance correct—he recommended that rankings be used by prospective law students in conjunction with other, more detailed research—it’s true that he begged the question in the true sense of begging; what, exactly should prospective students use the rankings for and how much weight should they give them?

One answer is provided by a study by Northwestern University professor Lauren Rivera, who interviewed hiring managers as part of a study into the hiring practices at top law firms, investment banks and management consulting firms and concluded that hiring personnel prefer students from elite institutions.

We didn’t really need a study to tell us that.  And what it means for the use of rankings is that law school applicants and students should care about rankings because employers do.  And care a lot because employers care a lot.  That’s the proper reason why law school applicants should strongly weight rankings—not to the exclusion of all other factors, but if you care about your future after law school (and you should, because you’re likely to have a lot of debt to pay off) the bottom line is that rankings matter.

That’s not to say that you should inevitably choose the fifth-ranked school over the sixth-ranked school.  It is to say that, absent some compelling special circumstances, you pretty much should choose the fifth-ranked school over the 25th-ranked school.  Because (again, absent unique factors) employers will pretty much universally choose similarly- (or even not-so-similarly-) class-ranked candidates from number 5 before number 25.  A classmate of mine at Yale Law told me that the advice she received from a law firm partner where she previously worked as a paralegal was simple:  you should go to Yale because that degree will mean that, somewhere down the line, you’ll get a job you probably shouldn’t (for the record, she hasn’t).

Now, that’s not really U.S. News’ fault and it’s not really the fault of hiring firms, although The Chronicle of Higher Education was in turbo-charged holier-than-everyone-else form when it pronounced that the study shows that “gatekeepers at our nation’s most prestigious firms are pathetically shallow, outrageously parochial, and insufferably snobbish.”  Surprised they missed “sniveling.”  Such is the easy moralism of those with no stake in any outcome.

Although it’s asking a lot to suggest that the Chronicle consider that perhaps this more a practical than moral issue, even if they’re right, so what—how does that help prospective law students?  Rankings matter because most participants in the legal employment market believe they matter, for whatever reason (and we’re not talking about war crimes here but the relative reputations of schools that make a lot of money from law students).  A high-toned but aloof piece like the Chronicle’s is particularly unhelpful now, right when many law school applicants are deciding between law schools.  What matters is what those whose futures are at stake should do.

In addition, the Chronicle isn’t right.  Its clichéd righteous blather notwithstanding, the fact is that employers’ use of, even sometime dependence on, rankings (whether U.S. News’ or others’) is more an expression of the nature of bureaucracy than anything else.

To be sure, there are some well-respected firms part of whose marketing strategy—to the public and clients alike—is to say that they only hire from super-elite law schools.  But for the most part, law school pedigree operates as an efficiency device and a shielding device.

An efficiency device.  Law firms, like law schools (especially now) receive a lot more applications than they have open slots.  Unlike law schools, they generally don’t have a large staff most of whose job it is to make initial offer decisions.  So in the same way that law schools use hard data of LSAT scores and GPAs to jettison a large cadre of applicants, legal employers use law school pedigree and class rank to do the same thing.  They don’t have the staff to do an in-depth analysis of every applicant (and I’m guessing that articles submitted to the Chronicle by a day laborer wouldn’t get much of a hearing, either).  If a firm’s experience with Harvard Law School graduates ranked in the top 10%, 15% or 20% of the class has been good, then those applicants will get extra attention (and it’s why even Harvard couldn’t change its grading policies substantively in a recession); if they don’t have experience with graduates of the 65th-ranked school, such a graduate either won’t get attention or had better have characteristics that are so impressive as to make a reviewer be willing to make his or her job much harder.  In a mass society, a lot of judgments are made on the basis of reputation and prior experience; they’re relatively reliable.  No one expects them to be perfect but high degrees of predictable outcomes with minimal time expenditure are a productive (read profitable) combination.

A protective device.  No one expects such judgments to be perfect.  Most people want to avoid making decisions that don’t work out well.  Recognizing that they will inevitably make such decisions, people operating in bureaucracies want the next best thing—to avoid being blamed for their decisions whose outcomes are, well, not so good.  (There’s a special irony to the judgmental outrage of the Chronicle, a representative of arguably America’s most risk-averse profession, the academy.)

How do you avoid personal responsibility for bad decisions?  You make your decisions based on tried-and-true formulae.  That way, if a decision goes bad, it’s just the statistical fluke of the formula.  On the other hand, if a hirer picks the middle-of-the-pack person from the middling law school when she or he could have picked someone from a better law school, well, that’s that individual’s fault.  No formulaic backstop to lean on and blame.  Just the person who stuck his or her neck out to take the risk.  And most people don’t want to be blamed, so they don’t take the risk very often.

Law firms lean on rankings because they pre-certify an applicant’s quality, in part, and because if that certification turns out to be in error, well, it’s the fault of the school or it’s just a statistical fluke (and if it turns out badly often enough, the formula gets adjusted).  That’s the same thing that law schools do when they lean on hard data, and there’s less at risk for a law school simply because of the number of admissions it makes.  Moreover, the protective function’s power is accentuated where, as in most legal hiring, the potential hire has to go through several levels of review.  It’s almost inevitable that, in the end, no risk will be taken unless the candidate has a stunningly persuasive and committed advocate who is willing not only to take the flak if the decision turns out badly, but is willing to fight the battle all the way through the bureaucratic tangle.

The use of rankings—whether public, as in the US News rankings, or business-specific—is inevitable.  And though its effects are almost by definition not perfectly meritocratic, it’s not because the rankers or the employers are bad, immoral people.  It’s just what bureaucracies do and, in a mass society with thousands of applicants for any job, our society can’t do what it needs to do without bureaucracies.  Yes, it would be nice if law schools or law firms were businesses that could make truly individualized decisions, see each person in their fullness and take a risk.  That’s what niche businesses can do.  But law schools and firms won’t do that because they also know that niche businesses often take bad risks and go out of business—and that is not what anyone at law firms or law schools wants to do.

Anyone deciding between law schools should disregard shallow moralism and certainly not try to make a personal point by disregarding the rankings (unless the moralizers are willing to pay you for your lost income opportunities).  You should weight rankings heavily—and guiltlessly—for the simple reason that, a few years from now, your choice will matter a great deal to those you hope will be paying you.  They’re not (to give the folks at the Chronicle a few more adjectives to play with) miserable, ignorant, pond-sucking scum  because they rely on reputation—they’re just trying to make the best decision they can within the constraints of time and organization.  If you’re a prospective applicant, the best thing you can do over the next few years is put yourself in a position that helps them make their decision to offer you a job an easy one.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on January 18, 2011.

2 Responses to “Study Tells Us Law School Reputation Matters for Job Prospects: We Already Knew That, so Some Decide to Make It a Moral Issue”

  1. […] exchange dovetailed nicely with my post earlier this week, “Study Tells Us Law School Reputation Matters for Job Prospects: We Already Knew That, so Some Decide….”  The conclusion of that blog was simple—law school rankings should matter to applying law […]

  2. […] After I posted “More Thoughts on Law School Rankings,” Arthur, who practiced law for about 30 years, sent me an e-mail that added to what I’d said there (and in one other blogpost). […]

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