Friday, March 9, 2012
My good friend and provocateur Vivia Chen has posted a stir-the-pot column on the recent NLJ 250 Law School Hiring Survey. The title of the column, "Too Good for BigLaw," is classic Vivia, speaking to our fragile egos as people and lawyers. Reviewing the data on associates hired and partners promoted by law school, Vivia notes a significant shortfall in the number of elite law schools who become BigLaw partners. One theory, suggested by Vivia, is that elite law school grads must have better options. Regardless, the hierarchical nature of the legal profession may not be so neatly ordered after all.
I am confident that Vivia's column will create a wellspring of indignation among several thousand people who want to believe that getting into a fancy law school makes them permanently special. And if they aren't special, the ruler must be broken. I am the original source of the numbers, so I feel an obligation--albeit not a very big one--to reduce the anxiety level. So below I wrote out a more dispassionate explanation of the numbers. This is the Statistician Edition of "Too Good for BigLaw."
The first point of clarification is that "Too Good for BigLaw" is one interpretation of the data -- one that is plausible, but others are plausible and perhaps more likely. The virtue of Vivia's spin is that is gets your attention so she can make a simple, accurate point: elite law school admission does not translate into Big Law partnership. But one line is pure metaphor: "If you want to make a safe bet ... put your money on the hardworking stiffs from ... Chicago—Loyola [rather than the 'wunderkids' from U of Chicago]." If you are fixated on the literal, let me assure you that lots of other factors tend to intervene on the journey from law school to partner. Hang on. Don't panic.
Limitations of the Data.
The NLJ 250 Law School Hiring Survey is what is called a "cross-sectional" sample. Think of a cross-sectional sample as a photo snapshot. And, as life teaches us, snapshots can be misleading. For example, if I said I was handsome in my 20s, ten photographs (one per year randomly drawn) would be more persuasive than a single phone. (Given my druthers, I would prefer you look at the photo from my sister's wedding, where I was wearing a tuxedo and had a nice summer tan.) Because snapshots are subject to random variability, the inferences to be drawn have to be properly cabined and qualified.
In the case 2012 NLJ 250 data, we lack a reasonable basis for making strong school-specific claims. So, to be crystal clear, we cannot draw the inference that Chicago-Loyola is a better partnership bet that University of Chicago. To draw stronger, more reliable inferences, we would need to average across multiple years. That said, if you doubt the accuracy of Vivia's regional-versus-elite law school metaphor, see Ted Seto, Where Do Partners Come From? (2011).
But What We Can Say?
Although it is improper to make (literal) school-specific claims from the 2012 data, it is possible to make stronger, more reliable inferences by pooling these data on observable school-level attributes, such as elite versus non-elite status based on U.S. News ranking. This is appropriate because the school-level variability is, for the most part, random (good and bad years cancel each other out); and what is non-random (e.g., a economic recession) tends to apply to all law schools.
Consider the following statistics on 2011 hiring and promotions of graduates of Top 14 versus non-Top 14 law schools (why T14? because these schools have played musical chairs in the U.S. News since the dawn of the rankings):
- Associates hired: 1,769 (T14), 1,525 (non-T14), or 53.7% to 46.3%
- Promotions: 326 (T14), 781 (non-T14), or 29.4% to 70.6%
Using the Associate hired/Partner Promoted ratio statistics referred to by Vivia, the ratio of associates hired to partners promoted is 5.43 for T14 versus 1.95 for the non-T14. The ratio for all schools is 2.98. So, there is a very large skew working against the elite law school grads. The takeaway from these numbers is very straightforward. There is a very big pipeline between T14 and BigLaw, but at some point before partnership, T14 associates tend to get off the train in disproportionately high numbers.
(A few readers may cling to the idea that one year's worth of data is not enough to draw the above inferences. Maybe 2011 was a Black Swan, but please don't place any bets on it. I analyzed this same data four years ago and got essentially the same results.)
So Why Aren't the T14 Grads Dominating the BigLaw Partnership Ranks?
Good question. Based on admissions criteria, these folks tend to have significantly higher test scores. And God knows, they enjoy a huge presumption of ability during law school recruiting--law firm hiring partners are incredibly brand-conscious. If partnership were the NCAA tournament, the T14 crowd would consistently be the number 1 and 2 seeds.
I have been thinking about this topic for several years. Here are a few plausible theories, all of which can work in concert with one another. Some are statistical, others are sociological:
1. Selection effects. There are enormous selections effects at work. In effect, we are pitting the #1 to 20 persons at Chicago-Loyola against anyone at U of Chicago. It is unlikely that factors such as personality and motivation are identical in these two populations. Another enormous selection effect is intrinsic interest in corporate law -- does anyone really believe that the 75% of Stanford, Penn or Harvard grads who start their careers in BigLaw have a burning passion to do technical, often times repetitive legal work for the Fortune 500?
2. First jobs. Elite graduates, whenever given the choice, tend to start at the most elite firms possible. And, no surprise, these shops are the most highly leveraged and have the highest wash-out rates. See Zaring & Henderson, Young Associates in Trouble (2008). But here is the big surprise: the next stop on the train is not somewhere else in the NLJ 250. These folks are not moving down; they are moving out.
3. Inter-generational privilege. The After the JD study has documented that elite law school graduates tend to hail from more affluent families. They also evince less interest in corporate law. See Dinovitzer & Garth, Not that Into You, Am. Law. (Sept 2009). When mom and dad are both lawyers, and grandpa owned a factory, maybe it's time to focus on art and travel. In effect, one's inheritance becomes one's safety net.
4. Influence of admissions criteria. Over the last 20 years, admissions committees have focused more and more on LSAT and UGPA; conversely, personal statements, letters of reference, and career histories hold very little sway. This has fundamentally altered the BigLaw pipeline with students who are (excessively?) academic and lack significant brushes with real world adversity--not ideal grooming for a high stress professional service job. I think these "supply chain" dynamics are uniformly overlooked by employers--big mistake. Michigan Law circa 1982 is not Michigan Law circa 2012.
5. "A Better Plan B." I know a lot of people in the law world will cling to the notion that elite law school graduates are running government agencies, leaving the law for Wall Street, and generally living very charmed lives. I am sure there is something to this theory. But I doubt it is carrying the load on the BigLaw associate/partner attrition puzzle. My own class at U of Chicago (Class of 2001) has a broad assortment of legal careers -- but nothing too markedly different than many of the alumni of Indiana Law, where I teach. Ten years out, lawyers from decent law schools tend to be having interesting careers -- with "interesting" being the core commonality.
Perhaps it is time we focused on the skills and attributes of successful law graduates rather than the name of the law school on their diplomas. Law professors as a group are more alike than different. Does anyone really believe that classes at an elite law school are much different -- let alone better -- than the instruction received at 100 regional law schools taught by professors from elite law schools?
I think law schools can have a huge impact on the lives of students, but that is a strategy that remains largely untapped. And a topic for a future post.
[Posted by Bill Henderson]