Don’t Go to That Law School — It’s Too High-Ranked!

My colleagues Prof. Rick Sander and Prof. Jane Yakowitz have a fascinating new article called The Secret of My Success: How Status, Prestige and School Performance Shape Legal Careers (click on the link to read the entire draft), and they kindly agreed to let me post a quick summary of some of their most interesting findings. The remainder of this post is by them.

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One of the most enduring shibboleths in the legal world is that would-be lawyers should go to the most elite law school they can get into. That’s why LSAT prep courses and US News rankings generate so much abiding interest, and it’s why so many applicants apply to more than ten schools and move thousands of miles to matriculate at the “best” school that will have them.

There have long been grounds for skepticism about this view. In the work one of us did on law school affirmative action, lots of data suggested that black law school applicants were being harmed, not helped, by being enticed to attend more elite schools where their credentials were below those of their classmates. Grades mattered a lot in determining who passed the bar, and being “mismatched” in law school had devastating effects on grades.

Over the past two years we have gathered evidence from several different datasets to look at these questions more broadly — taking a longer view to examine long-term career outcomes and considering everyone, not just people targeted by affirmative action. Our recently-posted draft has become the subject of intense online discussion, some of it muddled, so we accepted Eugene’s offer to discuss the work here. Today we’re going to summarize what we think are the main points of our article, and in a few days we’ll respond to reader comments.

We have five key findings:

  1. Law school performance (as measured by law school grades) heavily dominates law school eliteness in predicting career outcomes. This is true whether we consider the earnings of lawyers a few years out of law school, or long-term earnings over lawyer careers. It holds true in predicting which law students are hired by big firms, and which associates at those firms eventually become partner. Going to an elite school is positively associated with all these things, too, but the positive effect of higher grades (and the negative effect of lower grades) is much stronger.
  2. Law school grades seem to be partly measuring character traits that are valuable in legal practice -– self-discipline, effort, clarity of expression -– and these are likely to shine through in a student’s performance regardless of where she attends law school. But there’s also a definite tradeoff between grades and how weak one’s credentials are relative to other students at one’s law school. Over a broad range, higher relative credentials translate into higher grades. The data show that in general, when law students bypass their most elite law school option and choose to enroll at a less elite school, the drop in prestige is more than made up for by the increases in law school performance.
  3. It’s important to keep in mind that grades are important in more respects than merely their transcript value. While it’s true that employers give a lot of weight to law school transcripts in filling entry-level jobs, grades matter even when no one is looking. We find that law graduates with good grades dramatically outperform their peers even in career environments where nobody is paying attention to transcripts. Among several thousand Michigan graduates working as associates at big firms, for example, the associates with high law school GPAs were several times more likely to be promoted to partnership at their firms than their peers with lower GPAs, even though every partner we’ve asked says that firms do not look at grades when they make partnership decisions about associates who started at the firm. This is as close to a “blind taste test” as one’s likely to find in real world data.
  4. We think prospective law students should be cautious about translating these findings into practice. Certainly our advice is not to go to the worst school one gets into; these relative tradeoffs are most convincing among schools within, say, twenty or thirty places of one another in the US News rankings. However, applicants should be considering where they are likely to perform their best, and should be wary of attending a school where their credentials (LSAT scores and UGPA) will be below average. We hope the group most influenced by our findings, however, are legal educators, who to date have tended to underestimate and trivialize the learning that occurs in law school and its significance for later career success. We hope that academics will stop repeating the mantra of “eliteness = success” and start studying real learning outcomes [or maybe “real advances to human capital” or something like that?].
  5. Our paper also studied the effect of socioeconomic status (as measured by parental education and occupation) on lawyer outcomes. We found (a) law students predominantly come from high-SES backgrounds (largely regardless of their race), and this has changed little over the past fifty years; but (b) whereas high-SES used to matter a lot in opening doors to law graduates and lawyers, its effect declined from the 1960s to the 1980s and these days has no discernible effect on career outcomes for lawyers.

Let us know your thoughts, and we’ll respond to some of them next week.