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John P.

Great topic! I'm on both sides of this issue, because I went to a big-name law school, but I work at a firm in a second-tier (or maybe even third-tier) city. I loved the law school, and I love (more and more as time goes by) my firm. I'm a sixth-year associate now, and I wouldn't trade my position for life at a big-name firm for anything. BUT I must admit that I do find summer associates from the better schools to be *generally* more talented. Not that they're necessarily more mature or harder workers than those from lower-tier schools. But, generally, my experience has been that they write better and know more law (which may be a function of having better professors or having classmates who don't hold back the pace at which their classes move through material). Admittedly, where one went to school is not the whole story, as you point out. One of the smartest associates here, whom I admire immensely, went to a bottom-tier school. And I've worked with summer associates from top-tier schools who were wastes of space. But by and large my sense is that there is *some* correlation between ability and where one went to law school.

David Giacalone

Hello, again, Sherry. You're raising a lots of good issues. As usual, it's difficult to address them in just a few sentences.

I'm not sure that the legal profession is any more "snobbish" than any other learned profession, or than most careers that require some form of higher education (including pro football and basketball, and symphonic musicians). Head-hunters, talent scouts and interviewers cannot search every possible source for new recruits, "Top" schools become filters -- rough, indeed, but efficient, so long as they produce enough people with the needed skills. Of course, off-brand schools have some excellent students, but looking for them is just too resource-intensive. So, if you want to be at the Prestige Pinnacle of the Profession, it helps a lot to attend one of the elite schools.

This elite school filtering is then compounded by the universal human trait of needing to feel better than others -- almost everyone has this sad need to feel that "my" school, neighborhood, sports team, law firm, religion, bottled water brand, etc., is better than others. As far as I'm concerned, pity is the correct response to any organizations or persons that need to feel superior to others in order to feel good about themselves.

I've worked in a firm that only interviewed at Harvard and Yale (and then added Virginia, at the insistence of an alumnus partner). I also worked at a firm where the head attorney never went to law school (he's only in his mid-50s and is very smart -- of course, he had to start his own firm). In between, I worked for years at a government agency reviewing the work of hundreds of attorneys from a broad array of backgrounds. Also, as a "law guardian" for children in Family Court, I got to be in the middle of cases with lots of "Main Street" general practitioners, almost all of whom attended the region's only law school. Are lawyers from the very top law schools noticeably "better" than those from lower-tier schools? It depends what you mean by better. If the admissions process has any validity, they probably have -- on average, in general -- higher IQs, and better issue-spotting and writing skills than colleagues who went to lesser-name schools. For some types of law (complex tax and bankruptcy matters, antitrust, highend appellate advocacy, etc.), those characteristics may be important. However, I believe that most members of the bar are more than intelligent enough to adequately handle most of the needs of most Americans. The problem is not brainpower, its caring and preparing.

It seems to me, therefore, that the best way to deal with snobbery is to ignore it. Unless your goal is to achieve maximum prestige, power and/or income, the fact that there's a lot of snobbery in the profession should invoke bemusement and not frustration. Let them play their little ego games. Be grateful that you don't have to see these people everyday and work with them -- with everyone having to keep up the facade of superiority, and visiting their shrinks weekly.

It saddens me, however, that so many human beings who just happened to have attended law school fall for the trap of believing that achieving prestige and the trappings of success are worthwhile goals for their lives -- even when that prestige comes with 70- to 80-hour work weeks and the resulting skewed lives and relationships. From the perspective of the wisest people who've ever lived on our planet, it's a shallow and unfulfilling goal. It's kind of like student counsel officers and politicians -- I'm glad there are people who want to do it, and I'm thrilled that I'm not one of them.

Of course, you and I started on this conversation by asking why so many lawyers fear innovation and resist giving consumers more options; then, we got on to the question of how debt might force a young lawyer into putting his or her own financial interests above the client's interest, and might force the lawyer to give up the hope of using law to serve the client and improve the world. It's all pretty complicated and intertwined. But, I don't see how snobbery comes into play, unless the young lawyer has the primary goal of achieving prestige-power-wealth. If you "merely" want to pursue an honorable profession while making a good living and helping people solve and avoid problems, the snobbery issue disappears. It's a matter of values, and maybe maturity -- discovering what is really important to a good life.

My focus is on the needs of the average consumer and the lawyers most likely to serve them. The kind of clients that use the most elite law firms usually have the leverage and sophistication to protect their own interests vis a vis their lawyers (to assure competence, options, and fair price). Jane and Joe Client, however, usually do not have the knowledge or leverage needed to protect their interests. They have to rely on the competence, honesty, diligence and good will of their attorneys. My goal is to both arm the consumer with information about rights and options AND help assure that the lawyer lives up to his or her professional and obligations to the client. Where the lawyer went to school has no real bearing on those issues.

I had not planned to spend my day thinking about all these things, but I glad I did and that we've started corresponding.

A. Rickey

OK, I'll just throw in my two cents with what the first person who talked to me about LSATs said: "Law is a racket. Law school is a racket. Deal with it like that, and it makes sense--try to make it seem ethical or efficient, and it's just frustration."

The best article I've read about law school so far said, "Not since the days of Malibu Barbie will you be hanging around with people who judge so much on possession of such trivial things."

At the end of the day, I enjoy reading this blog because it's written by a lawyer who seems to like their life. That's rare (law has an amazingly low satisfaction rate amongst professionals in surveys), and it's valuable. Near as I can tell, and this is just a 1L talking, Law has the psychotic tendencies shown by an ancient man keeping alive a tenth-century guild system, with all its archaic standards and anachronistic restrictions, because it means his monthly paycheck is higher. It's just at the cost of his sanity.

This is why I think I'll be fine with the whole thing: I'm cynical going in. :)


David, the point I'm trying to make is that our profession, through a pervasive worship of credentials, makes it very hard to explore honestly (or even to consider) careers away from BIGLAW. People tell us that's where the "interesting work" is and imply, explicitly or implicitly, that "ordinary" legal work for small businesses or consumers is somehow beneath us if we have brains and decent legal writing skills. So asking young lawyers to make other choices is asking us to choose a path that has been deemed intellectually less worthwhile by most of those we look up to.


But if you base your decisions on "what people tell you," then you're ingoring the most important voice--your own. Sure, there are going to be snobs in law firms. But there are snobs everywhere--in business, in charities--it pervades our culture. You just have to blissfully ignore those people. You'll be much happier when you do.

Do work that is fulfilling to you, the rest be damned.

David Giacalone

Yes, Dave has it exactly right. It's too bad that most people graduate from law school before they're mature (experienced? confident?) enough to listen to that voice, or to even have a clear voice inside letting them know who they really are. Instead, they only hear a peer group and a society that puts prestige, power and profit above personal fulfillment -- or, actually thinks that those 3Ps will give you personal fulfillment.

That's all the better reason to live frugally while experienting with big-time law practice -- then, you won't have those golden manacles when you discover who you really want to be.

Carolyn Elefant

Hi Sherry:

You can thank Ernie the Attorney for sending me to your site and this interesting post. Here are several examples to throw back in someone's face if you find that you just can't ignore the snobbery (as David Giacalone wisely counsels)

Exhibit 1 - The Cochran Factor: If you were to ask a person on the street to name the most famous lawyer they could think of, chances are they'd identify Johnnie Cochran over the bigwig managing partner of an AmLaw 100 law firm any day of the week (even over a Supreme Court Justice for that matter!). If you search the Internet on Cochran, you'll see he's got his hands all over the law - not just the OJ case, but discrimination in the NFL, huge toxic case settlement in Alabama, a Sixth Circuit unfair name use case with Rosa Parks, etc...Whether you agree with Cochran or not and whatever you think of his intellect, he's going to leave a more far reaching mark on the law than a partner at a large law firm. Oh, by the way - happen to know where he went to law school? Loyola Marymount. And, he never worked at Skadden or Cravath or Wachtell, Lipton etc...you get the idea.

Exhibit 2: Look at the plaintiffs lawyers who beat the big firms hands down in tobacco litigation. Ha, ha - where did Dick Scruggs go to law school (Ole Miss)? (I should add that I personally did not agree with the outcome of the tobacco litigation or the excessive fees awarded to lawyers but this is just a great example).

Exhibit 3: The case of David Boies. No doubt, David Boies has stellar, Ivy League credentials and worked at Cravath, but he was never a "household" name until he started his own firm. It's at that point, AFTER he left a big firm, that he took on Microsoft and argued Bush v. Gore and a achieved his notoriety.

I went to Cornell Law, Class of 1988 where I ran an underground publication called The Dissent (that was in the pre-blog days) railed against the hierarchy, elitism, superficiality of the profession, etc...So I know where you're coming from. Reading your remarks fifteen years later, (which could have been mine but for the clarity of your writing and absence of typos) seems like nothing, except my own perspective has changed. What I've realized and come to appreciate over all this time is that a law degree from anywhere is the most amazing ticket you can ever purchase because you never know where it will take you. On the down side, look at the partners from Vinson and Elkins (big firm) who are now being sued in the Enron scandal or the partners at Brobeck which went bust - like obedient children, they must have followed the rules yet look at how they've wound up. And on the other side of the coin, look at someone like Donna Newman (there's a link to her story at my blog, www.myshingle.com - just search the site) a solo who practiced in obscurity until one day, purely by chance, she was assigned to represent Jose Padilla (the alleged terrorist who has never been charged with a crime) and now she's been catapulted into the spotlight, making law on war crimes, the Sxith Amendment right to counsel and other sexy issues. The bottom line is that it's what you do with that ticket and where it takes you that matters, not where you bought it or what you paid for it. So start enjoying the ride!


To Dave,
It's not unreasonable for young lawyers to listen to what people tell them about the profession, especially when trying to make a decision about BEGINNING their profession. Heck, we'll take it with a grain of salt, maybe, but when everyone's saying the same thing about a profession we've not yet begun and can have no instinct for, "trust yourself" is a platitude that doesn't mean a whole lot.
That said, I've been happiest when I have ignored the snobs. So I keep trying, and am pretty pleased about it so far. But it still rankles and makes me wonder whether they're right about something.
Thanks for writing....


I'm in the same boat as you (as a young lawyer). Choices are choices, no matter what your age or experience. You simply weigh the plusses versus the minuses and then ignore those and go with your gut.

I figured out (by talking with a lot of people that worked in those environments) that working for a "big firm" wasn't for me--even though a big firm is what the conventional wisdom says is the place to be. I knew that I really enjoyed the counseling aspect of being a lawyer, and I figured that being at a small firm would allow me to deal more directly with clients. Luckily I was right.

Jack Cliente

Just some homespun thoughts: (1)From the time we are little kids, our parents and our society put too much stress on who is the "smartest" (maybe because they think it can be measured). But emotional intelligence (EQ) is far more important in almost all situations than IQ -- for getting things done right in every part of life and work.

(2) So, maybe law students and newbies are "looking up" to the wrong people, if they are suggesting that you should be looking for the most intellectually challenging kind of legal job rather than the kind that fullfills all your many facets.

(3) Even the idea that the work done by the Big Firms is more intellectually challenging than helping plain folks solve and prevent legal problems -- which really are life, societal, personal, institutional problems -- seems amazingly smallminded (myopic, too), plus just plain wrong. (e.g.,Imagine working on some small facet of a giant M&A at a major firm. Most of the time, the biggest intellectual challenge is staying awake.) Big firms might be where the Big Action is, but they have no monopoly on challenging work. That should be clear just from your reaction to the subject matter in various law school classes.

Finally, (4) Twenty or thirty yeas ago, there were few if any books about the dissatisfaction of a large percentage of lawyers with their careers. For more than a decade, there has been a whole shelf-full of such books, with more all the time. Some states now give CLE credits for seminars on finding new careers outside of law or outside the big-firm trap. Any law school that is not helping students figure out long before they graduate just what kind of person they are and want to be, so that they can better choose a career path, is committing academic and counseling malpractice, and doing the legal profession and their students a big disservice.

John J. Olson

Up to now, I had thought that the public hates lawyers because lawyers are legal bullies who claim in theory to secure their clients' rights but in practice monopolize access to those rights. Now the previous few posts imply that lawyers are snobs, too, who not only disdain their fellow citizens who are legal laymen but feel the need to maintain a pecking order in their profession. But, if the latter is true, why is legal discipline so feeble? Are the lawyers at the top of that professional pecking order so busy trying to ace each other out for tiny increments of prestige that they overlook the drunks, incompetents and outright thieves at the bottom?

I damn near devoted an entire First Year-of-Law School's worth of blogging material on the pervasive snobbery of the legal profession and have momentarily given up hope on ever finding an answer. I now blog about deposition-mining and digital photography.

The snobbery, I've observed, is an amalgam of a variety of factors, but largely incubated in the legal academy. I learned so much more about what exactly is wrong with legal profession in just my first year of law school than I did in two years of paper-pushing for BIGLAW.


Very cool entry detailing your experience with a very real phenomenon. It's not isolated to the realm of law, however, so it's a bit provincial to think that it is.

I went to an undergraduate school with a few real dolts who ended up in great firms by virtue of connections and slick interviewing. It's amazing how much lost ground that a simple firm name has allowed them to recapture. We'll be at the H-Y game every November and folks who would have never given the time of day to soandso are suddenly all over him simply because he managed to land an offer at McKinsey or weasle his way into Wharton (or both).

That's life.

But to turn the question around: if people are not going to use undergrad school, law school and firm name as quick, easy shortcuts for determining your worth within a short conversational window, how else are they to do it? We're all limited for time, and most of us aren't particularly astute at using casual conversation to suss out whether someone's a bomb or the bomb professionally. So what else are we to use when making those judgements?

When we judge someone we just met to have vast intelligence and a bright future based on the fact that we know he went to Columbia Law and works at Skadden, we're simply saying, "I trust the judgement of those two firms. Generally, they're good at finding brilliant, motivated people."

That's not so bad, is it?


Back when I attended Southern Maine (right across Brighton Ave from UMaine Law), I thought that one day I might be going there. In fact, I even helped people at USM get in by proofing their essays and stuff. I worked with Maine law students at the local VLP, too.

But I'm glad I transferred undergrad schools... and I'm even gladder to be where I am now. (But yes, I am still pissed Penn turned me down; however, I've gotten over it... mostly.)

I'm happy where I am, which is more than I could have ever said in Maine. :-)

Paul Gowder

Totally true -- and truly sad. My personal story -- I turned down a very valuable scholarship to a "lower ranked" school to incur debt in the high five figures at a "higher ranked" school -- then went off to work at legal aid, then (temporarily?) quit that to go off and get involved in the music industry for next to no money. You don't even want to see my credit rating. Now granted, much student loan debt is deferable, etc., but it's still basically a prison sentence for many.

-Paul (who found your blog via a classmates)

Duncan Rann

Thank you for your interesting article. It always raises a wry smile when I see this aspect of our profession in practice. I am a Solicitor in practice in England but at the start of my practising career I went to a top 10 U.S. Law School, qualified at the New York Bar and practised at a large firm in Philadelphia and New York. That was nearly 17 years ago and what I have learned in that time is that it really does not matter where you went to Law School. It only matters what you have picked up along and how well you can apply it in situations where you are the frontline person responsible for giving the advice. I can assure you that when your indemnity insurance is on the line where you went to Law School is not very much comfort. I have also seen many situations where the so-called superior lawyer was put on his arse by his so-called inferior. I suspect that it far less pallatable when this happens if you have built yourself up into something you are not.




*sigh* I found this message while reading an old post from Ernie the Attorney. I've also read Alex Wellen's book—and have struck up a friendly correspondence with him as well. Living in D.C., I have access to law schools from every tier. Even though I don't plan on leaving the D.C. area for another 20 years (as this is where we want to raise our kids), and I don't want to work at a "big firm," there's a part of me that still wants to be accepted at the "tier 1" school in town, even though I would probably be well served by almost any of the law schools in the D.C. area. So, I guess it's infected me too.


Fascinating replies here. I have seen snobbery in the legal profession. It usually comes from people who have to work 12-hour days or more in return for their feelings of superiority. The elite law firms have a formality and bureaucratic structure that would never work for me. I have a different plan for my life than billing 3000 hours a year, and anyone who wants to make a negative judgment about that can do so.


One more thing: when I have cases with the big firms, I find that the partners, who have been there a long time, are less likely to drop attitude on me. They are more secure in their achievements and have been around long enough to know that our cases will be influenced (and money made) more by elbow grease than pedigree. Like everyone, once you get to know people some will drop their guard and become friends. I enjoy working with a lot of people from the "snob" firms.


"Not since the days of the Tonka backhoe and Malibu Skipper will you have so lunged for stuff in which you have no real interest, just because everyone else is lunging."
Dahlia Lithwick. More good advice here.


I am one of the "privileged," who got in to a top-tier school (Georgetown), and went on to a well-known firm. You didn't miss shit!

I've been out for four years now. While in law school, there were possibly 10-15 people in my entire school (600 people per class) that actually impressed me. Another 50 or so had my respect. The rest were either dipshits or were smart, but complete retards. In the interest of full disclosure, I was probably the "anchorman" in my class, but I am not sure.

I went on to a large firm, but that firm did not generally hire from the top schools. It was very heavily tilted to the Univ. of Miami, but had a general smattering of so-called second tier to fourth tier schools represented. I found that I was quite impressed with the work ethic, creativity, and sociability of the graduates of the Hofstras, the FSU's, the Nova Southeasterns, etc.

As a relatively new lawyer, you look for role models. Of the more-experienced lawyers that I have met, I have NEVER met anyone who graduated from one of the "top 15" that I admire or aspire to be like.

On the other hand, I have certainly met great attorneys from schools that wouldnt get them past the door at Greenberg Traurig, Hale & Door, etc.

One great example is a guy I know who attended New England School of Law. Yes, THAT place. The Northeast's lowest-ranked school. Know what? He's an ethical, personable, professional attorney. Know what else? He works in a two-person practice in a small suburb. His clients love him, he does general practice, he works three days a week and earns $175K a year, and he just turned 40.

The snobbery of law has benefitted me. That Georgetown diploma has opened doors. But, I walked away from the "everyone knows that place" firm to work for a 5-man firm, and I could not be happier.

Truly, if I had it to do over again, I'd have attended a state school. And, for one, I respect someone who attended UMaine a lot more than I respect someone who attended Georgetown.


this is such a great discussion - and so helpful for me, as a 1L enrolled at a school in a city that is home to one of the BIG three. i probably could have gotten into a non-top-5, but top-15 school had i applied, but spouse and i didn't want to move. we have a child, and a house, and as a second career for me it didn't seem wise to uproot at this time. reading this helps to assure me that we made the right decision.


I would have to agree with the individual who made comments on Ivy league and top tier law school students as being retards and dipshits. I went to a tier 3 school and I work with several Ivy leaguers who have no personality, no people skills and no common sense to speak of. They are bereft of creativity or independent thinking. The whole god-damned industry is a sham and a farce and I say fuck the U.S. News and World Report and their perpetuation of the truly absurd



It's funny, I was just having an argument over at JDJIVE.Com with this guy about a California Performance test, and he eventually pulled out the "I went to a top law school" argument. I was kind of embarrassed for him. Law school snobbery...good idea?

ON another note, I have to defend the tier one grads. My friend graduate from Harvard more than ten years ago. We tried to keep in touch but I was kind of jealous of him. The last time I talked to him he came through town and wanted to meet at the country club. I was embarrassed of myself, and said no. I never heard from him again.

Don't let your jealousy ever put something in between a friend of yours. He was a good guy.

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