The Secret of My Success: How Status, Eliteness and School Performance Shape Legal Careers
Richard Sander and Jane Yakowitz
If we study the forty thousand law graduates who join the legal profes- sion each year, how well can we predict their future careers? How much of their future is predicted by their social class? The law school they attend? Their law school grades? This paper undertakes the first in-depth examination of these questions. Drawing on several large and recently-released datasets, we examine the role of class, school prestige and law school grades on the career earnings of lawyers and the success of big firm associates in becoming partners. We find that social class strongly conditions who goes to law school, but no longer predicts much about post-graduate outcomes. Law school prestige is important, but it is generally trumped by law school performance (as measured by law school grades). Law school grades reflect both personal characteristics not well captured by pre-law credentials, and one’s relative position in a law school class as measured by pre-law credentials. Our findings suggest that there is little empirical basis for the overwhelming importance students assign to “eliteness” in choosing a law school. [italics mine]
Here is part of Table 10, which displays the deduced impacts of law school eliteness and grade performance in law school on long term career success (earnings) from a large database of Chicago lawyers. In the 1994 survey grades had much larger impact than school prestige. (Click for larger version.)
The authors' comments on this table:
Of course, since there is significant error in the measurement of law school grades, these models almost certainly understate their full impor- tance.38 Moreover, since we are here considering long-term career outcomes – not short-term recruitment – the effect of law school performance is not simply a credentialing effect of high grades leading to attractive job offers. Something about doing well in law school is strongly associated with lasting career success, and proves to have more efficacy than law school eliteness.
The eliteness of one’s law school is, compared with grades, a relatively weak explanatory factor in the 1994 equation. 39 And while the grade coef- ficients are biased in a way that understates their actual influence, the law school coefficients are almost surely overstated. The Chicago Lawyers equations do not include measures of pre-law credentials, such as LSAT scores and undergraduate grades. Since these factors do predict income for broad cross-sections of lawyers, and since the tight hierarchy of law school admissions makes law school eliteness a close proxy for student credentials, an unknown but probably large part of what seems to be explained by school eliteness is actually just a measure of pre-law credentials.
Is it possible that there are two paths to high income legal careers: BigLaw (BL) and RegionalLaw (RL)? Perhaps LS prestige is a big factor for the former and less so for the latter, which draws from regional schools (i.e. state flagship campus). Top partners in RL might make almost as much as those in BL, so that grades (which predict both BL and RL success) have a higher income correlation than LS reputation alone, which only manifests in BL.
The utility of grades or class rank as predictors does not surprise me, as they measure a combination of ability, willingness to work hard, and motivation. See here for results on high school GPA and SAT as predictors of college GPA. However, some fields seem to have ability thresholds that can't be surmounted through hard work.