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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

November 13, 2016
Question

Recruiters won’t work with me because their clients “only want candidates from Top 20 schools”. After 15 years of law practice, why does my law school still matter?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

Historically, the legal profession has embodied one of intellectual elitism. And one of the most common ways employers separated the classes was through the rank of one’s law school (and within those institutions, the academic rank of each student). Employers weren’t the only ones who used these measuring sticks to cast judgment. Most others did as well: professors, fellow students and lawyers, clients, lay people, friends and of course…family members.

So why were a lawyer’s academics so important?

Historically, it was typical for a new college grad to turn to law school as a path for career direction and purpose. So upon earning a JD, a freshly minted lawyer had little to no work experience as s/he headed into the practice of law. When evaluating potential employees, employers had to assess risk. And given the lack of life or professional experience, they looked to the prestige of law schools (and to an extent, undergraduate institutions) as a way to predict success, struggle and failure in the profession. The criteria passed through the newbie profile and were also applied to the more seasoned lawyers – as employers believed that great credentials correlated with other positive personal and professional attributes.

In today’s legal profession, academic credentials have diminished as a sole marker to determine a candidate’s viability. They are still a factor, but relevant work and industry experience, culture fit, presentation, quality of employer(s) and personal recommendations all play vital roles. So it is no longer the norm for creds to trump those with solid legal experience. With this said, there are still employers where academics pack a powerful punch and are a priority in the hiring process (law firms still hold this bias when hiring associates). In these select situations, it won’t matter how amazing you are in every way, if you don’t possess an Ivy League degree, you simply won’t make the cut.

Your question notes that it’s recruiters who have repeatedly rejected your candidacy based on their clients’ requirement for a Top 20 law school. So why would this be if the trend is moving away from the requirement of a gold plated degree? Below are a few possibilities:

  • When a company or law firm engages a recruiting firm to assist with filling a position, it agrees to pay a recruiting fee should the firm successfully place a candidate in the role. Recruiting fees can be high and an employer may believe that if it is going to pay big bucks, the candidate better be p.e.r.f.e.c.t. So the bulls-eye is small and expectations are high for the search partner to produce candidates who meet the tight criteria. However, if an employer conducts a search on its own without the use of a recruiter, the criteria might be a bit more relaxed and the hiring manager a tad more flexible on school rank.
  • There may actually be other reasons a recruiter may not think you are viable for a position. Perhaps it’s how you present yourself, perhaps it’s your experience, perhaps they don’t like you…perhaps it’s something else. Regardless of the reason, a recruiter may use the top law school excuse as an easy out that will enable you to go away quietly rather than argue, advocate and try and make your case.
  • Sometimes a client specifically instructs a recruiting firm to only send candidates from the “top” law schools. In this scenario, the search firm’s hands are pretty much tied. Assuming this is the case (recruiter or not), why would an employer still carry such a bias after so many years of practice? A few reasons include:

1. The hiring manager him/herself attended the finest schools and has a natural bias towards hiring from great schools “like they went to”. They feel more connected to and affiliated with their Top School brethren.

2. Belief that hiring a lawyer from a top school is a reflection of the hiring managers own excellence and competence.

3. Law firms who value prestige and use it as a market differentiator may seek a business development advantage if they can market a firm of stellar creds to current and prospective clients.

4. There is a belief that a correlation exists between people who attended premium schools and higher chance of success.

5. The hiring manager does not want to be blamed for any kind of failure (i.e. in high stakes patent or securities litigation). And hiring a team of “elites” serves as insurance against any finger pointing at them.

6. Hiring a team with stellar credentials may facilitate company funding.

While the messaging is undoubtedly frustrating, take solace in knowing that as the profession evolves the legal world is placing less and less emphasis on credential cache. So there will be plenty of opportunity for you to shine and make your case. For those employers who require top schools without exception, ignore them and move on – as this is something over which you have no control.

One final thought: If your academics are the overwhelming reason for receiving a rejection, take close inventory of other areas that might influence the decision makers: Is your resume effective? Are you polished in your personal presentation? Do you communicate clearly? Are you professionally courteous? How effective are you at selling You? If you determine that some improvement couldn’t hurt, take the necessary steps to lift your game…and see how your efforts serve to improve your candidate rank.

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Comments

Fifteen years into your career, it should be OK not to even remember where you went to school. If your resume credentials are a disadvantage, replace a resume with something more advantageous, like work samples. Demonstrate that you can do the job. Credentials-based evaluation begs for conscious and subconscious bias. In one notable experiment, two identical resumes were submitted to hiring companies. One had a stereotypical African-American-sounding first name, and the other had a stereotypical Caucasian-sounding first name. The Caucasian name got 50% more interview offers than did the other, identical, resume. In another, symphony orchestras were puzzled that, statistically, women were meaningfully underrepresented. Nobody believed that women were less interested in music. Those conducting auditions denied any bias. Someone came up with the idea of having a screen between the performer and evaluators, masking gender and other identity factors, leaving only the actual performance. Immediately, the number of women selected came into line with statistical norms. In his book, "The Rare Find," George Anders indicts credentials-based hiring pretty convincingly. "Hiring norms in recent decades keep leaving less room for individual perspectives. In big organizations especially, the notion of hunting for talent in quirky ways evokes shudders. Formulaic conformity feels safer. In the rearranged world, hiring becomes a labored exercise in not making mistakes, rather than an ambitious hunt for greatness." "Hiring becomes driven by a mechanical emphasis on credentials, formulas, and prior work history. Payrolls become filled with unobjectionable souls that are consistently a little above average. There’s no room for transformative geniuses who can breathe new life into a place." No less an authority than Laszlo Bock, Google's VP of People Operations, declares resumes a "poor information source." He regards them as virtually useless, and often counterproductive. He favors work samples as a reliable indicator of capability. Also, why communicate with recruiters or HR people? They aren't the buyers of your skills. No salesperson would begin his or her approach with a recommender. Approach those who are living with the problem you solve; their motivation is to hire someone to solve that problem. Recruiters and HR are motivated to honor the arbitrary criteria established by a hiring official whose head is firmly up his or her butt. Step 1: Identify your highest-impact, highest-demand skill, i.e., the one that makes a difference with the highest-impact business problem that your best engagements solve for your clients. Step 2: Reason out who in a law firm has the greatest stake in acquiring that kind of talent. Is it a big rainmaker who needs someone reliable to keep the trains running on time for her clients? Is it a practice group leader who's spending too much time trying to bring inexperienced lawyers up to speed, and needs someone who can fulfill client expectations independently? This is the person who wants to screen you in, not out. Step 3: Look at firms' websites and collect names and contact info for such people. Step 4: Contact those people directly. Don't send a resume. Send an email positing a conclusion you've drawn about the basis for demand for your skills, and request a brief phone conversation to solicit that person's views to inform an article you're writing or a speech you're preparing. Example: "It seems like practice group leaders struggle to balance the need for experience against clients' increasing demands for lower cost. I'm researching an article on this issue. Might I impose on you for a brief telephone chat to hear your candid views?" Step 5: During your peer-level call, explore the topic in a way that facilitates the other person proving the need for someone with your skills, and allows you to decide if this seems like someone with whom you might like to work. At the end, ask him who among his contacts might be willing to offer informed opinion about this. Manufacture a network of people who are obligated to care about your greatest value. Step 6: With those who seem most promising, share interesting things you learn from subsequent discussions. Step 7: Explore working with them. "Thanks, again, for your help. By introducing me to [name], you started a long chain of introductions and conversation that has informed my article/speech in ways I couldn't have anticipated. All this has also caused me to reflect our discussion with increasing frequency, to the point where I keep entertaining the possibility of working with you. Might it make sense for us to have a conversation about that?" If you do this consistently, within a couple of months you'll have at least a few good prospects to pursue. BTW, there's no way to improve your resume enough to make a difference. Studies show that the typical in-house recruiter spends an average of six seconds scanning a resume. Never, ever respond to a posted job listing. By doing so, you're accepting the disadvantageous hiring process. Even if a firm has an opening, never acknowledge knowing about it. The moment you do, you go into "the system."

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