Is the hot job market finally forcing law firms to look beyond the pedigree?
The legal profession is experiencing the hottest job market in years. After putting a temporary hiring freeze on lawyers at the onset of the pandemic, law firms are trying to catch up. Business is booming and, to fill the pent-up demand, AmLaw 200 firm associate hiring in 2021 is up 24% over the previous three-year average.
And there’s an appetite for more.
As a result, there’s an associate supply chain problem. There simply are not enough lawyers with the elite pedigree that firms traditionally demanded to fill seats, so the alternatives are to either relax the requirement or go short-handed.
Despite a stubborn history of hiring only top-ranked graduates from the T-14 law schools, a handful of the most elite institutions, even the snobbiest law firms have found it necessary to hire attorneys who graduated lower in their classes from the top law schools, or high in their classes from lower-ranked law schools, or from smaller law firm competitors, or from firms in secondary markets. Few, if any, of those candidates would have received consideration in less desperate times.
In “Kicking an ‘Addiction’ to the T-14” by Zack Needles and published in AmLaw, July 19, 2021, Kimberly Mutcherson, co-dean of Rutgers Law School said, "Every single law school will churn out stars. I think it’s incredibly exciting to see people who graduated from schools outside of the T-14 get an opportunity to shine”.
Pedigree not the best predictor
Letting go of the traditional limitations on associate hiring should not have a negative impact on the quality of legal service provided. Historically, the legal industry talent war centered around the elite few, but studies show that law school pedigree and GPA actually don’t correlate with lawyer performance.
In 2006, Bill Henderson, Professor of Law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and legal market scholar, began promoting the idea of using the Moneyball analysis for law firm hiring. This data-driven approach employed by Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, revolutionized the methods sports teams used to select and develop their players. Beane’s key insight was that the biases of scouts and coaches caused baseball teams to misidentify and misprice talent. Bill Henderson proposed that law firms could benefit from a similar approach to talent acquisition.
In his August 30, 2021 essay, “Moneyball for law firm associates: a 15-year retrospective,” Henderson wrote:
“At the time I did not fully appreciate the practical difficulty of changing a century-old business model. When a strategy has worked for several generations, the relationship between corporate law firms and elite law school grads becomes part of the natural order of how an industry operates—something that can[‘t] be safely ignored, like air, water, or the law of gravity.
“But even more importantly, I overlooked the possibility that elite identity may, at the margins, be more important to law firm partners than higher profits or better service to clients.”
Several other studies, including one by Kerma Partners and Redwood Thinktank as reported in the Oct 2008 ABA Journal, confirmed Henderson’s Moneyball conclusion that law school rank and grade point average aren’t the best predictors of success at large law firms. And, in his 2008 paper, “Are We Selling Results or Résumés?,” Henderson predicted the current dilemma where the demand for elite law school graduates would outstrip the supply and that, eventually, some proportion of large firms would need to change their traditional approaches to recruiting.
Silver lining: Increased diversity
On top of the overall associate squeeze, diverse candidates are at a premium in the current job market. They are but a subset of the already-too-small candidate pool produced by the elite law schools. The silver lining to the associate pipeline shortage caused by the pandemic may be an increase in diversity hiring by Biglaw by virtue of their recruiting from a wider variety of law schools.
AccessLex Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable legal education, used data from the National Student Clearinghouse and the American Bar Association to examine the educational pathways taken by the students who attended law school during the 2017–18 academic year. Results showed that most students of color, those with non-traditional backgrounds, and first-generation students who overcame obstacles to get a J.D. and pass the bar did not attend T-14 law schools. Therefore, employers serious about diversifying their ranks need to look beyond their traditional hunting grounds.
COVID protocols also made it easier to expand the hiring pool outside the few historically favored schools, given the recent success of remote on-campus recruiting. Firms can visit more law schools virtually in less time and at lower cost than during traditional on-campus recruiting, removing any logistics-based excuses firms might previously have had for focusing only on a handful of campuses. Even if law firms were not deliberately limiting the diversity of their lawyer ranks, returning to the same schools each year with the same hiring criteria led to the homogeneity currently found at most firms. By default, by broadening their recruiting to include more schools that graduate diverse lawyers, AmLaw200 law firms should increase diverse representation in their ranks.
The current intense competition for talent finally forced some firms to think more creatively and beyond the usual historical pedigree for lawyer hiring—even if they are doing so reluctantly. The question is, will it last?