Published: November 2023
Written by: Marc Hernandez
Have you applied for a legal job and been asked where you went to law school? By itself, the question is relevant and harmless, but the question also may reflect or lead to biases that prevent consideration of the applicant as an individual.
Presumably, most lawyers are proud of our alma maters—whether they be Florida public or private universities, out-of-state universities, HBCUs, universities with a religious affiliation, and of course, Ivy League universities. We worked hard to get into our institutions, to earn our degrees, and to form long-lasting ties with our alumni networks.
For better or worse, all law schools have a reputation, including for academic rigor, utilization of a particular teaching method, emphasis of either practical skills or theory, association with a jurisprudential school of thought, and success of their graduates in passing the bar and practicing as lawyers. However, reputation does not always match reality.
Many law schools invest significant resources to obtain a high ranking from publications like U.S. News & World Report. But recently at least 16 law schools—public and private institutions ranked between #1 and #49—voluntarily withdrew themselves from the ranking system. Deans of these institutions—with their names deliberately omitted—have expressed the following concerns:
- “Overall, the [S. News ranking] methodology creates incentives that work against schools’ interest in attracting and retaining classes of students with a broadly diverse set of qualities and experiences, and in supporting the widest possible array of career choices for their graduates…”
- “They create the wrong incentives by rewarding schools for the amount they spend, regardless of whether this money is spent directly on the student experience, rather than prioritizing outcomes that really matter to students, such as the long-term employment of graduates.”
- “[L]aw schools to a greater or lesser degree sometimes are forced to consider the effect of any changes in their programs on their rank. . . . While [our law school] has consistently resisted the pressure to take actions that are contrary to our mission, the demands of the S. News algorithm always lurk in the background.”
- “Rankings can provide helpful guidance, and S. News has long aggregated data about law schools. . . . That said, overreliance on a single source can distort decision-making, and any given ranking is only as useful as the relevance and accuracy of the comparative information on which it is based.”
These concerns complement my own observations, which have been that a graduate from a “lower-tier” law school can be smarter, more successful, and a better overall advocate than one who graduated from a “top” school.
None of this means it is inherently wrong to ask lawyers where they went to law school. If you have been on a hiring committee, the question is often well-intentioned when asked in a manner designed to connect with the applicant, or to get a brief sense of his or her background. However, overreliance on the question—just like overreliance on law school rankings—can be problematic if we form preconceived notions about the applicant that cause us to ignore other data points showing an applicant from a “less prestigious” school is more qualified than an applicant from our “preferred” school.
Fortunately, a recent trend of employers considering more than an applicant’s law school pedigree is emerging. Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have traditionally selected their law clerks from the most elite law schools, but Justice Clarence Thomas—himself a graduate of Yale Law School—has disagreed with this approach. Believing that other justices are biased against lower-tier law schools and have created a “new or faux nobility” among lawyers, Justice Thomas has been critical:
“Isn’t that the antithesis of what this country is supposed to be about? Isn’t that the bias that we fought about on racial terms, or on terms of sex, or on terms of religion, et cetera? My new bias, which I now embrace, is that I don’t eliminate the Ivies in hiring, but I intentionally prefer kids from regular backgrounds and regular students. . . . I never look at those rankings. . . . There are smart kids every place.”
Although this way of thinking used to be isolated, other justices have come around to Justice Thomas’s approach. Members of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2023 clerkship class graduated from 13 different law schools, a historically high number. The Court’s newest justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, has hired three non-Ivy League law clerks in a little over one year, and going forward, Justice Jackson has committed to a transparent hiring process that is open to all.
This is not to say that every lawyer deserves to be hired for an elite position like a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship. Rather, this article merely calls for a recognition that lawyers of all educational backgrounds excel at prestigious jobs. As a result, lawyers of all educational backgrounds should be considered when hiring for them.
Marc Hernandez is a board-certified appellate attorney at Lytal, Reiter, Smith, Ivey & Fronrath.