The article begins with this anecdote:
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.A couple notes about this:
*Notice the subtle conflation in this account between getting an entry-level associate offer and becoming a partner. Only a tiny percentage of Loyola grads -- about one out of every 70, i.e., less than a half dozen per graduating class -- who graduated from the school between 1986 and 2001 were partners with big Los Angeles firms in 2010. (This is the case even though the large majority of Loyola grads -- 111 of 162 -- who were partners with big firms were partners in Los Angeles firms). And there's reason to suspect that these odds are growing worse, given the massive changes in big firm culture over the past 25 years. It would be interesting to compare, for example, the outcomes for people who graduated from non-national law schools in the late 1990s to those of graduates from the late 1980s in regard to making partner at national firms. Unfortunately Seto doesn't differentiate the data within his cohort by year of graduation, and he has refused at least one request to share that data.
*The assumption that someone who is admitted to a high-ranked school can be predicted, on the basis of "paper credentials," to finish near the top of his class at a lower-ranked school is actually contradicted elsewhere in the paper:
The only universal measure of student quality is entering LSAT scores. Undergraduate GPAs vary quite widely among undergraduate schools. GPAs at public schools are systematically lower than at private schools. Schools also differ in the amount of grade inflation they are willing to tolerate. A law school’s entering GPAs will depend in part on the mix of schools from which it recruits. Lower entering GPAs may merely mean that a school recruits more heavily from rigorous or public undergraduate institutions. But LSAT scores themselves only account for a small portion of the variance in first-year law school grades. (emphasis added)Seto does add that the student's "performance at Vanderbilt" also suggests he would have finished near the top of the class at Loyola, but if this is meant as an argument for the proposition that someone who finishes near the top of the class at a semi-elite school such as Vanderbilt will have worse odds of securing either an associate position with or a partnership in a large Los Angeles firm than someone near the top of the class at Loyola, that argument needs to be backed by far more evidence than is provided by the tiny percentage of Loyola grads who become partners with big Los Angeles firms. Obviously there's a huge self-selection bias at work in any analysis of this type: my guess is that median number of people in any Loyola class who would list becoming partners with big Los Angeles firms as a prime career objective runs into the dozens, while the same figure for the typical Vanderbilt class is likely to be very close to zero.
Seto's paper is already being seized upon by law schools looking to hornswoggle impressionable 0Ls with preposterous statistics. My favorite example so far is from California Western's web site:
In the most recent issue of Journal of Legal Education, Loyola Law School professor Theodore P. Seto provides the first-ever review of which law schools produce the most partners at the nation's top 100 law firms, listing the top firms nationally and in the country's top 10 cities, including San Diego.All this is based entirely on the fact that a grand total of thirteen of the approximately 4550 people who graduated from California Western between 1986 and 2001 were partners with San Diego-based NLJ 100 firms in 2010. And those thirteen graduates represent exactly half of all California Western graduates from those years who were big firm partners anywhere in the United States in 2010. That is, your odds of becoming a big firm partner if you graduated from Cal Western from the mid-1980s through the 1990s were about 200 to 1, although those are probably a lot better odds than those available to current graduates, see supra.
California Western School of Law outperforms most other Southern California schools, ranking third among all law schools in educating partners at the city's biggest firms. This underscores Seto's finding that hiring and partner selection by national law firms is largely local, with location trumping national ranking in the selection of law firm leaders. Of the top 10 schools graduating San Diego's big firm partners, only three are outside California (Harvard-5, Georgetown-8, Michigan-9).
Seto's goal in producing this research is to assist prospective law students seeking to make practical choices in where to study law. This goal aligns with California Western's approach, encouraging students to consider not only why they want to study law, but where. More than half of California Western alumni practice in Southern California. California Western's physical proximity to leading law firms, courts, and government offices makes it an ideal place to study, with many students walking to and from internships, clerkships, and pro bono work. Students often joke that you can pick out a third-year students downtown because they are wearing a suit and a backpack.
I suspect we'll see many similar deployments of Prof. Seto's contribution to the literature, as law schools stare down the barrel of collapsing applications and suddenly shrinking tuition pools.