An editor at AboveTheLaw suggested some months back that I do a piece on the US News & World Report law school rankings. For whatever reason, this stodgy old weekly news magazine – which someone must still read – has created a sideline business publishing rankings of schools, including law schools. I’m not sure what the criteria are, but at least in theory, it’s a big deal for lawyers when the list comes out each year.
The rankings seem designed to make official what everyone knows anyway, i.e., that there are “prestige” schools that are harder to get into. But like any good opinion piece, they throw in a few twists – familiar names in unexpected places. It boils down to dissing one of the big places, or unexpectedly anointing a second-rank outfit. That way everyone can get riled up over the respective rankings of my school versus your school.
It sounded kind of boring, so I filed the idea away.
Then it started to gnaw at me. The US News list seemed like a good example of the amazing lengths lawyers go to in order to distinguish themselves from one another. The entire profession splits hairs like this because the career path is so conservative there isn’t much to distinguish one attorney from another. Every lawyer lines up to take the LSAT, then get processed and distributed to law schools based on hairline distinctions. In class you sit through identical lectures, take identical exams, and head off – for the most part – to identical firms to do nearly identical work.
You end up arguing over the details.
The law school curriculum is pretty much the same thing wherever you go – it’s standardized. I doubt the property law lecture at a “top” law school is much different, let along superior, to a property law lecture at a less “prestigious” place.
But, of course the students are “better” at the more prestigious school – because they did better on their LSAT. How much better? Some tiny fraction of a percentage, probably, representing a few questions that they got right and someone else got wrong.
I worked with one lawyer who went to a “second-tier” law school in New York, but rose to the top of his class and made law review. He said he still faces resistance at top firms because of snobbery over where he went to school – even though he’s been out and working for eight years. Those Yale and Harvard lawyers at the big firms, he says, turn their noses up at his top of the class record at a “lesser” school – as well as his federal clerkship and the years of hard work that followed.
I’m currently working with a couple of young lawyers who find themselves in the odd position of trying to decide how to appraise the “value” of a “top school.” One woman was accepted at a “top” place, but offered a full scholarship at a “second-tier” institution. Is it worth $150k to go to the prestige school? The education itself will be nearly identical. Is the snob value worth it? According to one of my clients, half the kids at Columbia Law are struggling to find jobs right now, so it doesn’t sound like the “top “ places are pulling their weight. On the other hand, maybe it’s even worse coming out of a “second tier” joint. Crucially, though – with no debt, she wouldn’t be as desperate as everyone else. I see plenty of young lawyers emerging from “top schools” (and every other kind of school) with shaky job prospects, huge debt and – worst of all – the sense that going to law school was a mistake. The debt reduces them to indentured servitude, making it impossible to do anything else, at least until they’ve paid the piper.
How about the law firms themselves? Surely some are “better” than others?
I remember, during my first summer of law school, when I was interning at the ACLU, one of the staff attorneys sat me and another young attorney down to make a list of the top New York City firms, and explain the “facts of life.” Essentially, he ranked the firms into three tiers – top, middle and bottom. That was probably splitting hairs already. Many of those firms were essentially identical. But I dutifully memorized the list.
Later, when I got to the interview process, the firms all asked me why I was choosing their firm in particular. I rattled on with the standard answers about atmosphere, culture, practice areas, and so forth. I was making it all up – I had no idea what I was talking about. How could I? I was a law student.
In fact, most of those firms were interchangeable. Sure, you might work with one person instead of another, and that could make a difference. But once the grind set in, the attorneys I worked with at two different firms began to seem interchangeable. The practice area distinction itself didn’t even make much difference when you were a junior associate – it was just work.
I had a corporations professor at NYU who was a partner at Wachtell. He mused once during a lecture on whether “corporate lawyers were essentially fungible.” To my surprise, his answer was uncertain – he admitted they might be.
Does that surprise and outrage you? Would you be as upset if he’d suggested accountants or dentists were fungible? To some degree, even doctors are fungible, or ought to be, right? They should be able to do their jobs, and if you need your appendix removed, anyone who calls himself a general surgeon ought to be able to do a decent job removing it.
It could be the fear of being “fungible” that produces the harsh, hyper-critical atmosphere at so many law firms. Everyone’s a critic because they’re all afraid they might be more or less just like everyone else.
I took it for granted at Sullivan & Cromwell that the senior associates would treat me like something under their shoe, but it always surprised me when another junior associate would put me down in front of a senior, or obviously compete to prove he was “better” than me at my job. I suppose he wanted to make partner, and that meant proving that his mindless, endless grind of work was superior to my mindless, endless grind of work.
Now that I’m working with partners as clients, it amazes me to hear that the competition never stops. One partner at a big firm told me he felt more beat up after making partner than before, because once he’d made it to the big-time, the gloves came off. His fellow partners competed viciously to prove that they were the ones bringing in business – and had a claim to the biggest slice of the partnership pie.
Perhaps if everyone in law were enjoying themselves more – savoring the work and finding satisfaction in the field, they wouldn’t have to concentrate so much on drawing distinctions where no distinction exists. They could get on with what they’re doing, support and praise one another’s work – and stop paying attention to nonsense like the US News & World Report law school rankings.
[This piece is part of a series of columns created by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.]
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