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.