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10 Factors That Matter More Than Where You Went to Law School
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Summary: Top legal recruiter Harrison Barnes shares the 10 things that matter to law firms more than an attorney’s educational background.

While people in the legal community care about law school rankings like this year’s U.S. News and World Report’s Best Law School list, the pedigree of one’s school has a lesser effect on success the longer he or she is out in the real world. Essentially, one’s legal education may help get a foot in the door at the beginning of one’s career, but other things actually attract law firm interest over time.

  
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Leading legal recruiter Harrison Barnes of BCG Attorney Search has worked with thousands of attorneys from all walks of legal life; and with his years of experience, he has found that there are ten factors that ultimately matter more to big firms than where you went to school. In a recent article, he explains in detail what those factors are and how lawyers can use the knowledge to snag or keep law firm jobs, no matter where they went to get their J.D.

Barnes states, “If you went to a top tier school and did well there, the odds are pretty good you have a serious aptitude for practicing law and can work very hard as well. You generally deserve to get a job in a good firm because the odds are you could do quite well there… However, the best attorneys from the best law schools often are unemployable after several years out of law school. Just going to a good law school is not enough to get and keep a job with a large law firm.”

So in the long haul, what matters more than what school you went to? Barnes breaks it down to these ten factors.

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  1. Your Previous (On the Job) Training

Working at a major firm for years matters more to other firms than what school you went to. While this kind of training is important, you can also obtain good training by working for a well-respected lawyer at a smaller firm, a prosecutor or District Attorney’s office, in a patent or trademark office or doing a judicial clerkship.

  1. How You Did in Law School

The idea is that cream rises, no matter where you went. Barnes writes that regardless of your school’s ranking, “People see you were one of the top few students in your graduating class and your excellence is assumed.”

  1. Your Practice Area

Barnes notes that your practice area and your commitment to that practice matter a great deal. He writes that litigators often want to switch areas because litigation is one of the toughest practice areas to stay in long term unless an attorney has a ton of business. However, attorneys working in areas such as patent law, ERISA/Executive compensation, corporate, real estate, healthcare, immigration, and trusts and estates are valuable to large law firms; and with good training, large law firms don’t mind what school these lawyers came from. (For updated examples of lateral attorney moves and what practice areas they are in, check out this report from BCG.)

  1. How Long You Stay in Your Legal Jobs and Stability

Showing stability in law is desirable to large law firms. They want to know that whoever they hire will stay a while, so they look for attorneys who stuck around at their previous firms for years.

  1. The Amount of Business You Have

Barnes writes, “When you get five or six years out of law school, if you get enough business at a high enough billing rate, your law school becomes unimportant again.”

  1. Your Reputation

“Your reputation becomes hugely important the longer you are out of school,” Barnes states. “If you work hard, are fair and are considered a formidable opponent in all that you do, then your law school will matter less and less and not even be part of the conversation. The best attorneys respect and want to work with other strong attorneys.” Because reputation matters so much as a lawyer, Barnes has also provided advice on how to protect it.

  1. Your Interest in Your Practice Area and Involvement in the Community

Being active, i.e. teaching classes or speaking at seminars, shows a commitment to your practice area and to your legal career; and it gets your name out there, adding to your reputation. The longer lawyers build their reputation, the less where they went to school matters.

  1. Your Looks, Dress, and Personality

If people were to get completely honest, they would agree that an attractive lawyer with a great personality will excel over a frumpy, socially awkward attorney with an Ivy League degree. Since Barnes has accrued extensive experience recruiting, he has seen firsthand what an impressive-looking person with a dynamic personality can achieve, no matter what school they went to.

  1. Your Racial and Social Background

Barnes has witnessed discrimination and reverse-discrimination when it comes to hiring; and although most firms are not trying to intentionally discriminate, people hire who they are most comfortable with, and that tends to be someone with a similar background.

  1. Your Commitment to Working in a Law Firm

“Anything that suggests a lack of commitment to law firm life is not welcome in the law firm world,” Barnes writes. That means someone who has taken time off or went in-house will not be welcomed back into a large law firm. Because a legal career is about commitment, any attorney has exhibited commitment will be desired by law firms, no matter what school they came from.

To read the entire article, see: 10 Factors That Matter to Big Firms More Than Where You Went to Law School: Why the Law School You Went to Ultimately Does Not Matter as Much as You Think It Does to Major Law Firms



 

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