Law School: Getting In | Interview

Law School Getting In InterviewI recently interviewed Thane Messinger, author of Law School: Getting In, Getting Good, Getting the Gold.

Our discussion follows.

1. What are your thoughts on the importance of law school rankings?

Law school rankings have become almost a hypnotic focus among both students and administrators. Curiously, it is of only indirect (but serious) interest within the profession. It might thus pay to also look at just how legal employers view rank.

The law is an intensely status-oriented profession. Much has been written, and much is said (and not said) in everyday conversations among lawyers and law students, each of whom is aware of—if not consciously promoting—a pecking order of legal status. Less is said on why this is so. First, let’s get a few points out the way.

Are rankings meaningful? Yes, they are.

So they describe real differences among law schools? Yes, they do.

Should they be used to decide which law school to attend? Well, in true lawyerly fashion: yes and no.

To treat law school rankings as unimportant—whether out of ignorance or indignation—is foolish. Rankings do reflect qualitative differences between and among law schools. On the other hand, looking only to rankings is equally foolish, and treating law schools with rankings within a half-dozen places of each other as hugely different is simply nonsense. Both extremes set up a bit of a straw man, as few take either approach.

Still, it’s important to keep the value of rankings firmly in mind, as a decision about attending one law school or another can make a big difference. Moreover, as to the last point, it is quite common to use rankings to highlight close difference—But this school is three points higher!—rather than treat them as they should be treated.

Rankings reflect gross, not fine, distinctions, based on both objective and (hugely) subjective criteria with wide margins of error. So, comparing #12 with #37 or #37 with #92 are fair comparisons worthy of consideration. Comparing #12 with #16 is seductively easy—and qualitatively incorrect. Within a half-dozen, other attributes are more important.

2. I’m glad you’re bringing the practitioners’ view into the discussion. So what are some of these qualitative differences?

Law school is not just some combination of buildings, faculty, students, and graduates. Instead, a twofold reality heightens the sensitivity of lawyers to status. The first is the highly competitive nature of law school. The second is the highly risk-averse nature of law practice. These two factors combine to create a system that is nearly a caste system in its orientation and effect.

Is this right? Wrong question. I happen to believe it is foolish. Many others decry it. But the reality is that it is. To hope that we can wish it away—without substantive changes in how our profession operates—is simply that, wishful thinking. For our purposes, wishful thinking is worse than silly. It will set you up for failure, as it’s easy to mistake the “wishful” part for something approaching reality.

There’s a paradox in this debate, and that is that law practice has elements of egalitarianism that are almost the opposite of all of the above. In litigation especially, it is the nature of persuasion and of winning, and of a consistent superiority at both, that marks the superior attorney. The paradox comes in that one’s pedigree is of little importance in the real world of the courtroom (and even, for a corporate lawyer, boardroom)—but of great importance in getting there.

Even more, the airs of a fancy law degree, or of a superiority complex, can work very much against us. Few jurors like being condescended to, and as a result, many top litigators look as if they just arrived to the courthouse via Trailways. Quite a few affect a less-than-holier-than-thou appearance, so as to connect to the individuals who will ultimately, if indirectly, decide their case (and earnings). Even in corporate offices, while senior executives expect a pedigreed counsel (and get it), they generally prefer down-to-earth, let’s-get-the-job-done consigliere, not snippy bluebloods.

3. I can certainly agree with that. Law students are very, very smart, and it’s good to hear this advice. How does this tie in with the “name brand” aspect of rankings?

There are two ways to approach this: the “egghead” answer and the just-the-facts-ma’am answer. Law schools are status-conscious because of professors, and because of lawyers. Together—along with a society that knows only brand-name schools—these support a self-reinforcing structure built on status.

So who sets these standards? Law professors are an obvious starting point. But, because their worlds are generally focused in, well, law school, there’s another group that heightens this already-strong orientation towards status. That is the world of lawyers and law practice. Firms are populated with individuals who have attended law school, of course. The better the firm, the more likely its inhabitants have attended the top schools. But, in most cases, the experience with law school begins (and ends) there. As a result, the practitioner takes a nearly-monochromatic view of the law school world: there’s “my” school…and then there’s everyone else’s.

The “law schools for everyone else” are clearly worse than my school…unless everyone else “knows” that such-and-so school is better. Drats. So, if one attends, say, a well-regarded regional law school, its graduates will relish the ego-boost of admiration from others, especially if practicing in that region. What happens when someone walks in from, say, Stanford? Well, sure, that’s an okay school too. And so it goes.

How many law schools can most non-lawyers (or even lawyers) mention? Hmm. There’s Harvard, of course. And, oh yes, Yale, Stanford. Columbia and NYU, for those on the East Coast. And the Universities of [insert nearest states here]. See where this goes? Chances are most of us can name the top dozen or so schools. We could probably come up with another dozen, and if someone named a few others, we’d get those too. But two hundred? No way. Only one group knows even a substantial fraction of that total: those about to apply to law school. Even law school deans focus only on schools near and above them.

So, what that means is that the entire population relies on “name brand” and on “me-and-better” to decide status (above the general status of being a law graduate). This is one reason law schools have begun to spend serious money in branding—to improve name recognition among those who might apply (and, ahem, among those who might be asked by U.S. News and World Report.)

In short, there’s a very real emotional pressure to believe one’s own school is better than it is—and to help others to believe so too—and so there’s constant pressure to connect with those schools higher above. This, in turn, heightens the value of schools—geometrically if not exponentially—the higher they are. Winner take all.

It’s an academic version of what happens in locker rooms from junior high on. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it’s hardly likely that we’ll change this little aspect of our psychology. More to the point, what this means is that the law practice world—which accounts for the vast majority of lawyers—feeds the weight given to objective measures, which in turn are driven by standards such as how many books are in the library (and you thought measurements would stop), how much money is spent on faculty (of obvious interest to law professors), and professors’ own views of their world.

Professors deal with the same human emotion: the school they went to is best, while the others range from dreck to okay. And it doesn’t matter who you’re talking with. If they attended the University of Virginia, their many glories are front and center, and only schools clearly better than UVA are in The Club (i.e., the Ivy League.) In this sense, it’s like looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars: everything around what you’re looking at is squished to nothingness.

An important point: the less secure one is, the more important status is. I’ve seen lawyers almost visibly sizing each other up by their law schools. This happens more often among younger lawyers; this is a no-no among older and better lawyers. Indeed, after working with excellent lawyers from “lesser” schools—and poor lawyers from top ones—few senior attorneys get hung up on pedigree. Among law students, it’s often a one-upmanship about their LSAT or undergraduate school or, amazingly, prep school. I remember one attorney in particular who it seemed was thinking for a split second how to respond when hearing that a more-junior associate attended a better school. It was actually far better, and both were playing games with the other in terms of one-upmanship. It was a game both lost, by the way. Why a focus on this? Why can’t we just say “law school is law school” and be done with it?

Well, for one thing, it’s not true. For another, there’s that human element again. Once one has graduated, there’s a natural inclination to live in the reflected glory of that school. This can be for practical reasons (getting a job), or for ego-driven ones. (You went there!?) But still…why? Because our sense of self-worth, particularly for lawyers, is tied up with how we perceive ourselves as smart, and how much we depend upon others seeing us as smart. If we can reflect in academic glory, we feel the warm glow of that self-worth.

4. Another question I get asked a lot is related to whether there is a difference between the quality of material actually taught in different law schools.

Yes, indeed. The “Don’t Top Law Schools Teach Law Better?” question.

The answer? Nope. This used to be a common refrain among (you guessed it) graduates of the top schools. The accusation and assumption was that good law schools taught theory—the ability to “think like a lawyer”—while lesser schools taught mere mechanics of black letter law, like a trade school. This was often said (and written) with a proverbial sneer: a “real” law school taught manly law (i.e., theory), while piddling law schools taught sissy law (i.e., how to go to court).

Although this might have been true at one time, it is no longer. All law schools now teach the same law, the same way. The bulk of law professors come from the same background: Top 5 law school, top clerkship, a year or two at a top firm, and then on to an assistant professorship. Even the lowest-ranked law schools can get, with today’s job market, the same caliber of astonishingly pedigreed new professor. They have all sipped from the same well, and even “local schools” that have an interest to focus on the laws of that state now focus as well on exactly the same doctrines that the “big boys” do. And even if all their professors didn’t come from a Top 5 school, they all want to have come from one…so they’ll be even more sensitive to teaching “theory,” just like the big boys.

This prejudice carries forward in odd ways. One book states that “top J.D. programs require a lot of work.” Um, all J.D. programs require a lot of work. It’s just that they don’t require as much work as everyone seems to believe—and they certainly don’t require makework. Top or otherwise. So, if you’re going to go to one school over another, don’t let it be for this reason.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic reading, and a welcome breath of fresh air and sense of humility about the profession and the assumptions that go along with it.