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Is it a mistake to hire lawyers only from the best schools?

|Written By Robert Todd

A Toronto sociologist is getting set to track a countrywide cohort of Canadian lawyers in a bid to duplicate a new study suggesting large U.S. firms are missing the mark by recruiting graduates exclusively from top-tier law schools.

In a study for the American Bar Association, the University of Toronto’s Ronit Dinovitzer has been working with Bryant Garth from Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles in following the careers of 5,000 U.S. lawyers who began practising in 2000. In this month’s edition of the American Lawyer, they reflect on findings from an earlier paper they wrote for the study.

They argue that large U.S. law firms are misguided in recruiting only graduates from top-tier law schools who as a whole find big-firm life less satisfying than their peers from lower-tier schools.

Dinovitzer and Garth point to data showing that among survey respondents working at firms with more than 100 lawyers, just 26 per cent of graduates from one of the country’s top 10 schools cited “extreme satisfaction” with being a lawyer. However, 49 per cent of those from fourth-tier schools reported that level of job satisfaction.

They also reported that 59 per cent of those from elite schools planned to leave their firm within two years, while just over a quarter of fourth-tier graduates intended to leave.

The researchers suggest a sense of mutual elitism could create higher job expectations among graduates from big-name schools who are familiar with the monetary rewards offered by careers in business consulting or investment banking.

“Thus, it may be that the lucrative salaries offered by the large law firms are no consolation for the hours that they have to work,” wrote Dinovitzer and Garth. “They know they have other options and they have friends who are getting even richer with those other options.”

Dinovitzer tells Law Times she hopes to begin a similar study on a nationwide cohort of Canadian law school graduates in about a year. While admitting it’s unclear whether her findings resonate north of the border, Dinovitzer says the study would benefit Canada’s legal community.

“It’s important to know who’s going where and why,” she says.

Her past research has shown that U of T Faculty of Law graduates are more likely to end up in large law firms than those from other law schools in the province. She notes as well that U of  T requires a higher LSAT score and grade-point average for admittance.

“So you begin to watch the funnelling of talent into particular practice settings,” she says. “You begin to recognize that the best and brightest of Ontario is serving corporate interests.

You begin to wonder where is all this talent going and what happens to the democratic ends of our legal profession if this is how it’s getting skewed. So that’s one of the pressing reasons [for this research]. Who’s serving corporate power, and why is it so skewed?”

It’s also useful to know how people build careers and for law firms to have some insight into personnel strategies, says Dinovitzer.

“If you’re worried about the cost of turnover as a large law firm, you might want to invest in people who want to invest in you in the long term,” she says.

As a sociologist, Dinovitzer says she is also generally interested in “which individuals get which rewards.”

“You have to worry as a sociologist [about] who’s getting all of the goodies. Is there an equal distribution of the goodies, and if there isn’t - which we know there isn’t - we have to begin to understand why,” she says.

Nevertheless, lawyers from top Canadian firms note that the structure of this country’s legal services industry is vastly different from that in the United States.

Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP co-chairman Clay Horner says his firm has a blend of lawyers from different backgrounds.

“We like to think that we’re recruiting the top tier of law students from each of the law schools we are recruiting from,” he says. “If we look at who comes [and] who stays, there wouldn’t be any kind of generalization you could make about what schools people come from.

And you certainly wouldn’t make any generalization about who would or wouldn’t be particularly successful. We have folks who we consider to be among our very strongest associates and partners that come from a very wide spectrum of schools.”

Norm Letalik, a partner and managing director of professional excellence at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, says law school culture in the United States differs greatly from Canada’s. While many U.S. firms won’t even look at applicants from outside a narrow list of top-tier schools, he’s not aware of any large Canadian firm that is similarly restrictive in its hiring practices.

“In Canada, the pecking order is not nearly as defined as it is in the U.S.,” he says. “In Canada, we’ve always been more open to a larger group of people, and I think that creates a bit of a different mentality at the firms. It’s not as if Canadian law firms are only opening doors to people from, shall we call it, ‘an elite little country club.’ That’s just not the case here.”

University of Western Ontario Faculty of Law dean Ian Holloway says it’s unclear whether the study’s findings are relevant here. But he does think big firms in Canada overemphasize grades in the recruitment process.

“They’re missing an awful lot of students who have good things to offer [but] who might just not be quite so good at writing law school examinations,” he says.

“Grades are important. They measure intelligence, there’s no question about that. But raw intelligence, [while] it’s an important factor . . . it’s only one factor in determining whether someone’s going to be a good lawyer.”

Holloway suggests more importance should be placed on other traits, such as work ethic, personal drive, teamwork, a sense of honour and duty, and loyalty.

“Firms are doing themselves a disservice by not being more scientific in the way in which they approach hiring,” he says. “A healthy law firm, like any organization, has a blend of personality types.”

Studies similar to Dinovitzer’s have been conducted on a regional basis in Canada. Hers would be the first to delve into the issue on a nationwide basis.

“I’m just eager to do this in the Canadian context,” says Dinovitzer. “We do know a lot about Canadian lawyers, but this is one question that we haven’t looked at so much, especially in terms of understanding what law schools they came from and what’s the effect of their social background on where they end up.”

  • Polling for \"Top Tiered Schools\"

    Rob H.
    It has always been a pet peeve of mine that while we ask graduates to rate their school, we never ask those HIRING the graduates to rate their preferences regarding what schools THEY consider produce better lawyers. I made this point once in a letter to Canadian Lawyer magazine and received a very terse and defensive response that didn't address why my suggestion was a bad idea.

    Ask hiring firms to rank (excluding their own law school for obvious reasons) which schools they are most (and least) likely to hire from.

    THAT would be interesting
  • Apples/Oranges

    I am now pretty senior in this profession and one of the things I like about it is that it is very democratic in its distribution of talent. I've seen some people who barely made it through law school do very well in the profession and others fly through law school only to stumble in the real world. I suppose this is particularly so since I'm in litigation where there is always one winner and one loser and where 'people skills' and common sense are often more important than intellectual power.

    I don't suppose a Rumpole type would score very well in these sociology studies but I'd rather have him defend me in the Old Bailey than many a bright young thing!
  • keith a.
    I agree with Chris and Devee. Certainly a plethora of "elitist" assumptions here. I have yet to see any compelling evidence that there are significant differences in the quality of Canadian law schools. Also, there are some of us out there who deliberately chose not to do the big city big firm career path. I chose to return to my hometown and join a medium-sized firm there because that is where I wanted to live and still want to live. I wouldn't move Toronto for a million a year. I'm not saying Toronto or big money is bad (because I like both), but its just not where I want to work and live.
  • Chris
    Interesting survey. I think NRB has it right though. I have often wondered how intelligent all these "top tier students" and "top tier lawyers" were when their work was so all consuming that it destroyed all hope of happiness and a normal life for them. That kind of behaviour doesn't strike me as "intelligent" per se, but maybe I just want to enjoy life more than an "intelligent" person would.
  • Deevee
    I agree with NRB's comments. Such studies are hopelessly flawed because they assume first of all that top students will automatically go to the top ranked school (if that can even be objectively determined) and second that top ranked students will go to top tiered law firms. The study also assumes that money is the only factor that influences what job we choose.

    I don't think it makes any sense to say that because firms like to recruit from top tiered schools that somehow the 'best and the brightest are serving corporate interests' Many of the best and the brightest don't show up on the top tiered firms radar at all. They choose other careers in public interest; international; NGO; politics; government; etc.
  • nrb
    A couple of problems with the notion of this study and the study in the U.S. First, who determines which is a "top tier" v. "2nd tier" law school within Canada? There are not very many law schools in Canada, and no real objective way to judge which ones are better than others (other than the clear #1 being Queen's Law). Second, the notion that most top candidates will view monetary return as the primary factor in making a decision where to work apears to be quickly losing momentum within the so-called "millenial" generation. The proposed study will not adequately address the larger question of what factors really convince young lawyers whether to stay at the large firms or not. The U.S. study seems to imply that making the big bucks is a necessary motivator for top academic achievers and that they will only leave a large law firm for equal pay and less work hours elsewhere. The obvious point missing is that many top achievers may decide not to work the big firm hours and will go somewhere else to work less hours for less pay. No consideration is given to the more interesting question of why, generally, big firms won't consider working less hours in order to attract and retain young lawyers not to mention leading healthier and more fulfilling lives (admittedly the "fulfilling" part is subjective, there can be no debate about the "healthier" part). The focus here, rather, is on firms modifying hiring practices to better find people to work long hours. YAWN.
  • dwight
    Makes sense - sort of what we've been talking about - bc the top tier ppl go to the top tier firms
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