Where Do Partners Come From? - by Theodore P. Seto

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Introduction

You are applying to law school. Your long-term ambition is to become a partner in a national law firm in a certain city. Which schools may increase your chances of realizing that ambition?

To date, no published study has attempted to answer the question: Which law schools produce the largest numbers of partners at national law firms? This article is intended to fill that gap. It reports the results of a study of the schools from which junior and mid-level partners (partners who graduated within the last 25 years) in the 100 largest U.S. firms (the NLJ 100) obtained their J.D. degrees. For hiring partners, the results may be relevant in deciding where to spend recruiting resources. For law school applicants interested in becoming big-firm partners, the study may be relevant in deciding where to enroll.
Before moving into law teaching 20 years ago, I was a hiring partner at a large Philadelphia law firm. We interviewed intermittently at Yale and Stanford. We tried interviewing at UCLA, but without success. Based on the results of the study reported in this article, I now understand why. In the past quarter century, UCLA has not produced a single graduate who is currently a partner in an NLJ 100 Philadelphia office; Stanford and Yale have each produced an average of one every dozen years—not a very encouraging yield.

As a professor, I often talk with applicants about how to realize their life goals. I recall one student in particular, who was  attempting to choose between Vanderbilt and the school at which I teach—Loyola Los Angeles. His ambition was to become a big-firm partner in Los Angeles. As students often do, he chose the higher U.S. News & World Report -ranked school. When he graduated from Vanderbilt, he was unable even to get an interview in Los Angeles. Had he attended Loyola, his paper credentials and performance at Vanderbilt suggest that he would have graduated near the top of his class. If he had, his chances of getting an offer from a large Los Angeles firm would  have been quite high. Again, based on the results of the study reported in this article, I can explain why. Hiring by national law firms is astonishingly local. There are very few truly national law schools. Vanderbilt is not an established LA feeder school. Loyola is.

Part I of this article describes the study, the resulting database, and the methods used to compute the numbers reported herein. Part II and Appendix A report overall results—which schools have produced the most NLJ 100 partners nationwide over the past quarter century and which have produced relatively few. Part III reports results separately for each of the country’s ten largest legal markets. Hiring and partnering by national law firms, it turns out, are predominantly local; national rank is much less important than location. Part IV, finally, identifies the few law schools that contribute significantly to more than one major legal market in more than one state. Harvard and Georgetown are standouts; Yale and Stanford are not.

Study and method

Between June, 2010, and June, 2011, ten research assistants searched the Martindale-Hubbell online law directory site for each of the 250 largest U.S. law firms—specifically, the firms comprising the 2009 NLJ 250. Each partner’s J.D. school, date of graduation or date of first bar admission and office or offices of practice were collected. Date of first bar admission was used as a proxy when date of graduation was not listed. Law firm websites were searched to fill in missing data. The result was a database of 48,103 partners  nationwide.

All entries were then rechecked against Martindale-Hubbell to ensure data quality. Ambiguous listings (e.g., “University of California”) were allocated among possible law schools in proportion to their unambiguous listings. Graduates of Indiana, Missouri, Rutgers and Arkansas generally did not list the campus they attended. Graduates of Indiana and Missouri were allocated arbitrarily 60 percent-40 percent between the two relevant campuses, with the larger number allocated to the U.S. News higher-ranked campus. Graduates of Rutgers were allocated 50 percent-50 percent between Newark and Camden, which are currently ranked equally by U.S. News, graduates of Arkansas 50
percent-50 percent between Fayetteville and Little Rock.

Only J.D. graduates of U.S. law schools were included in the study. Partners for which neither date of graduation nor date of first bar admission were available were omitted, as were partners who graduated in 1985 or earlier. The result was a database of 26,973 partners who had graduated within the last 25 years and were currently listed as partners, shareholders, principals or the equivalent in one of the NLJ 250 firms.

The NLJ 100 and the NLJ 250 were both analyzed. Of the 26,973 partners in the relevant age cohort in the NLJ 250, 16,799 were partners in the 100 largest U.S. firms. Because hiring by smaller firms (the NLJ 101-250) was even more focused on local law schools than that of larger firms, we decided to restrict the study to the 100 largest firms—those with a national focus. Except as noted, the results reported in this article are limited to those firms.

Nationwide results

Please see page 3 of the pdf format of the article for the results.

Readers may find some of these numbers surprising. Over the past 25 years, Chicago has graduated far more students who have gone on to become and remain NLJ 100 partners than Yale or Stanford, despite the fact that the three are of comparable size. Georgetown, less than 30 percent larger than Texas (with which it is ranked equally by U.S. News), has produced almost twice as many NLJ 100 partners as the latter. Indeed, Georgetown has achieved the second largest big-firm footprint of any law school in the country, second only to Harvard. St. John’s, a school only slightly larger than the U.S. average, outperforms its U.S. News ranking by an astonishing 53 places, Miami by 51 places, Villanova by 49, DePaul by 47, Catholic by 43, Loyola Chicago by 42.

What do these numbers mean? First, they tell us that not all schools produce national law firm partners at rates consistent with their
U.S. News rank, even controlling for size. Some produce more, some less. The data do not tell us why. It may be that students interested in becoming big-firm partners tend to be attracted to a particular school. Or perhaps a school’s admission practices favor such students. It may be that—because of the culture of the school—graduates who accept associate positions do so seriously, with the intention of trying to make partner, not just to “get some experience” before moving on. It may even be that some schools provide superior preparation for big-firm practice—that some schools teach law and/or practice skills more effectively than others. Whatever the reason, 25 years of data is probably enough to capture real differences, even if we cannot explain them.

Second, not surprisingly, large schools generally produce more NLJ 100 partners than small schools. From an employer’s perspective, size is relevant in deciding where to interview. How many Yale graduates are interested in practicing in Philadelphia each year? Precious few. How many Harvard graduates? The pool is broad and deep. Given scarce recruiting resources, where should a law firm look for new  associates? The answer is obvious. As a result, roughly 500 firms interview on-campus at Harvard each year, 250 to 300 at Georgetown, only about 125 at Yale. The fact that Harvard is an established feeder school for many more firms in all parts of the country may be of interest to an applicant whose career objective is to become a partner at one of those firms.

Many rankings—U.S. News, among others—compare schools predominantly on a “per capita” or “per student” basis. The premise is that schools whose average students (or professors) are better should be ranked higher. This may make sense if one’s goal is to establish a Platonic hierarchy. Theoretical  rankings, however, are often of only indirect relevance to real-world decisions. Economies of scale exist in law firm hiring, as elsewhere. If employers cared solely about per capita outcomes, they would all interview at Yale (ranked No. 1 by U.S. News). They don’t. For employers attempting to allocate scarce recruiting resources, aggregate numbers matter.

Whether and when per capita data should be relevant to applicants is a more complex question. The single most important determinant of how schools perform on most outcome measures (bar passage, hiring, big-firm partnership, etc.) is the quality of the students they attract. In significant part, therefore, per capita outcome measures are merely proxies for student quality. Unfortunately, applicants commonly misread such measures as reflecting the value added by attending one school rather than another. (“I am more likely to pass the bar if I go here rather than there, because the bar passage rate here is higher.”) Unless a measure controls for student quality, however, it says nothing about the value likely to be added to a particular student by a particular school. The fact that students at highly ranked schools almost always pass the bar is largely a function of the native ability of the students themselves. It does not necessarily mean that such schools do anything to prepare students for the bar—indeed, the fact that students at more selective schools are likely to pass the bar in any event may even reduce pressure on such schools to pay attention to bar preparation.

Analysis of the value added by particular schools with respect to particular output measures is a project beyond the scope of this  article. I have not attempted any such analysis here. What I do offer are the raw numbers—which I believe are less likely to mislead.
These aggregate data are not intended as, and should not be read as, measures of value added. They do, however, provide a plausible measure of feeder school status. A school that has placed large numbers of partners in the NLJ 100 over the last 25 years is likely to continue to attract NLJ 100 recruiters to its campus. Hiring committees in such firms, in turn, are likely to assume that hiring from that school is normal and will likely be productive. All else being equal, students who aspire to join such firms are more likely to have an opportunity to do so if they attend schools with established feeder relationships.

Results by city

Please see page 7 of the pdf format of the article for the results by city.

Local schools dominate the lists: NYU and Columbia in New York; Georgetown and George Washington in D.C.; Northwestern and Chicago in Chicago; UCLA and Loyola Los Angeles in LA; BC, BU and Harvard in Boston. The fact that a school places at or near the top of the
U.S. News rankings does not necessarily mean it is a strong feeder to law firms nationwide. Yale appears on just two lists, New York (tenth) and Washington (seventh); Stanford only on the California lists, Los Angeles (tenth), San Francisco (eighth) and San Diego (fifth). Stanford’s relatively poor showing in San Francisco is particularly surprising.
Adding the next 150 largest firms to the analysis—that is, using the full NLJ 250—generally accentuates this local hiring and partnering bias. In New York, Fordham passes Harvard to move into third place; Brooklyn and St. John’s pass the University of Pennsylvania. In Los Angeles, Southwestern passes Georgetown and Stanford passes Columbia. (But Harvard passes UC Berkeley.)

National Schools

Are there any schools that are significant feeders in all ten of the largest U.S. markets? Only one: Harvard. If we assign ten points for each first-place finish in one of the ten largest U.S. markets, one point for each tenth-place finish, and corresponding points in between, we can compute a national impact score for each school. The following table omits schools that make top ten lists in only one state and ranks the nine schools with the highest national impact scores.


Table 12: National Impact Scores


Score - Markets
1 Harvard 66 All ten
2 Georgetown 38 All except Atlanta and Dallas
3 Virginia 20 DC, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas
4 Columbia 16 NY, DC, Boston, LA, SF
5 Michigan 15 DC, Chicago, SF, Dallas, San Diego
6 Chicago 13 DC, Chicago, Dallas
7 Boston U. 11 NY, Boston
7 NYU 11 NY, Boston

7 Vanderbilt 11 Houston, Atlanta, Dallas
 

Georgetown is the big surprise. Ranked only fourteenth by U.S. News, it makes the top ten feeder school lists for eight of the ten largest U.S. legal markets, emerging as Harvard’s closest competitor for national status. NYU is a bit of a surprise in the opposite direction. Given its size and reputation, one might expect a more national footprint. Its graduates, however, are dominant only in New York. Finally, at least in the production of partners at national law firm offices in the ten largest U.S. legal markets, Yale and  Stanford perform in a manner inconsistent with their U.S. News rankings. The data do not tell us why.
 
 

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Conclusion

The purpose of the present study is not to supplant or critique existing rankings. It is rather to provide information not otherwise available that employers and law school applicants may find useful in making the practical choices they inevitably must make. Employers may find schools’ track records in producing graduates who ultimately become and remain partners relevant to devising cost-effective recruiting strategies. Applicants may find the data interesting as well. Not all students aim to become big-firm partners. Indeed, many other rewarding career paths can be pursued in the law. Nevertheless, much of the law school applicant pool is likely to view schools’ big-firm feeder-school status as material—one pertinent fact among many. The study’s most important conclusion is that hiring and partnering, even by national law firms, is remarkably local. U.S. News rank is often a poor predictor of partner placement records.