The Secret of My Success: How Status, Prestige and School Performance Shape Legal Careers

Richard Sander & Jane Yakowitz:

Rewards are distributed more unevenly within the legal profession than in virtually any other occupation. Most of those who study the careers of lawyers would agree that law school eliteness, law school grades, and social status each play a role in determining which lawyers capture the greatest rewards. But remarkably little effort has been made to directly compare these inputs in explaining career outcomes, to see which of the three matters most, and how they interact.
In this paper, we first examine general beliefs about the importance each of these three factors has upon lawyer careers – beliefs among academics as well as beliefs among the actual participants in the sorting process. We next present some specific findings about each of the three factors. Finally, we directly compare the three factors in regression models of career outcomes. The consistent theme we find throughout this analysis is that performance in law school – as measured by law school grades – is the most important predictor of career success. It is decisively more important than law school “eliteness.” Socioeconomic factors play a critical role in shaping the pool from which law students are drawn, but little or no discernible role in shaping post-graduate careers. Since the dominant conventional wisdom says that law school prestige is all-important, and since students who “trade-up” in school prestige generally take a hit to their school performance, we think prospective students are getting the wrong message.