I’ve never actually been involved in making hiring decisions for a law firm, so some of what have to say about it is educated guesswork.
As I’ve written before, I’ve interviewed in several different fields. In interviewing for computer programming positions, the employers are very interested in testing the job applicant’s programming knowledge. Now, I think this is done in an extremely inefficient manner, but at least the employer is motivated to make an independent determination of how well the job applicants might do their job.
When I interviewed for an entry-level management consulting position, the interview involved giving the job applicant a problem to solve. This problem tested whether the applicant might have learned something in his MBA program (my problem required a knowledge of managerial accounting), and there is a “g” correlated component in that the applicant has to reason out the correct solution or at least a solution which impresses the interviewer, and finally it tests how well the applicant can think in a high-pressure situation. I haven’t worked in management consulting so I can’t say for sure that this is truly the best way to determine how well people might perform as management consultants, but once again, at least the employer is trying to make an independent determination of how well job applicants might do their job.
This has never been the case in any law firm interviews I have been on. It’s really hard to tell what the point is of law firm first interviews. I strongly suspect that the first interview is meaningless, that they just interview a lot of applicants to give the law school placement office the impression that they are willing to consider a lot of their students, and then they invite for second interviews the people with the best resumes, resume quality being mostly a function of whether or not the applicant was on law review and the applicant’s grades. (More important than either would be how prestigious is the law student’s law school, but I assume that we are comparing students at the same school against each other. For example, it seemed to me that law firms in Phoenix had a predetermined plan to offer one or two jobs to someone who attended U of A or ASU to show that they had some hometown spirit, and then they would try to fill up the rest of their associate positions with people from more prestigious schools.)
At the second interview with a law firm, the applicant will talk to a bunch of people at the firm, including the partner he might be working for and some other people at both the associate and partner level. Once again, no one asks any questions to determine whether or not you know anything about the law or legal practice. My guess here is that the associate interviewers have little input and the partner interviewer hires the person he likes best based on God only know what arbitrary factors. There have been some commenters in my years of blogging who seem to think that law firms hire people with “alpha” personalities, but these people obviously don’t know a lot of lawyers. The big firm lawyers that I know tend to be pretty nerdy. The “alpha” lawyers are the guys who make money doing PI law.
In my first post about Paul Campos, I had some mild criticism of his approach. I wrote:
My only disagreement with Campos is that he seems to have a foolish idealistic notion that the purpose of law school is to teach stuff so that graduates know how to practice law. As far as I can tell, the purpose of law school is to grant its graduates enough prestige so they can get hired. I guess this is an area where I have more experience than Campos, because he doesn’t know what it’s like to interview for jobs with crappy credentials. People who hire lawyers only care about how prestigious the applicant’s credentials are. I have been on many interviews for entry-level jobs in law, and in not a single interview did anyone try to ascertain whether or not I actually learned anything in law school. Prestige is based primarily on the prestige of the job applicant’s law school, and secondarily on whether the student was on law review and had high grades. No one cares what classes you took or whether you learned anything in the classes. Law students and potential law students should be aware that maximizing their prestige is more important than anything else if they want to get a job when they graduate.
Campos now agrees with me in his most recent blog post where he writes:
90% of the law school game is as a practical matter played out even before students get to law school -- what counts, for the most part, is where you go to law school, not what you do once you're there. (This also helps explain why the legal elites have traditionally been almost completely indifferent to whether top law schools actually prepared students to practice law. "Everybody" -- meaning everybody who counted -- understood that wasn't really what law school was for).
Now this sorting function does have practical value. It's true that, all other things being equal, somebody with brilliant academic numbers is going to be a better bet to succeed in the practice of law than someone with more modest formal credentials. But, as so often is the case in the law school world, this generalization is given wildly undue weight by those who control the entry points to the legal elites. I have seen, briefly in legal practice, and extensively in legal academia, the truly bizarre emphasis that's given to whether job candidates went to a tiny handful of schools ….
When I have written about this before, my advice has always been to not bother going to law school unless you get into a T14 law school, because at anything less than a T14 school, your chances of finding worthwhile employment aren’t worth the time and expense of the legal education. Since 2008, people may have actually needed a T6 degree in order for law school to be worthwhile (that’s T3, Harvard, Yale, Stanford plus the next three which are Columbia, NYU and U of Chicago).
Making law review and getting top grades at a non-T14 school doesn’t make up for not going to Harvard Stanford or Yale, and furthermore law school grades are arbitrary enough so that there’s no guarantee that you will get high enough grades as a 1L to make law review even if your LSAT score is in the top 10% for that school and you study really hard. Furthermore, the trend among the very best schools is to not rank students or to even go beyond that to pass-fail grades, so that your option is studying your ass off at a low-ranked school and still not making law review (as happened to me at ASU), or coasting at a top school with easy pass-fail grades. The T14 schools will therefore also provide students a much better social atmosphere. At the mediocre school, the competition is cut throat for high grades and everyone is scared about their future, while at the T14 school the students are happily enjoying their legal education because they know that there will be high-quality employment waiting for them when they graduate.
Therefore, law school is only recommended for the following two classes of people:
(1) Those who get accepted to T14, and especially those who get accepted to T6 or T3.
(2) People with parents who will pay for the law school education.
Saying some more about category #2, I guess that a third of law students fall into this category, but they don’t wear t-shirts proclaiming that their parents are paying for their education, so you don’t know who they are. One thing I learned from attending an Ivy League school is that to the person who’s middle class or prole, the upper middle class and even the true upper class don’t stand out. It’s probably not that way in the other direction. As John T. Molloy pointed out, people have 20/20 vision looking down the class ladder but are blind looking up.
Is it fair for students in category #2 to have their parents pay for an education that might not be that useful? Well the thing is that a lot of parents who can afford to pay for their kids’ law school education really want to do so. I think it’s a pretty common attitude that a lot of wealthy people don’t want to spoil their children by just handing them a check for $200K, but they have no problems with paying $200K for education which they believe to be a good investment in their child’s future, and they would much rather tell their friends that their son is in law school then tell them that their son is unemployed.