Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Partnership or death?

An invariable truth about legal academic life is what is known as the Wanker Principle: Any law school rating system designed by a law professor exists primarily for the purpose of trying to make that professor's current law school look good.

This truth is vindicated in a particularly amusing way by a new article just published by Loyola Los Angeles law professor Ted Seto, Where Do Partners Come From?  The article is a fairly brazen exercise in intellectual bad faith, starting with its claim that, "the purpose of the present study is not to supplant or critique existing rankings."  In fact the purpose of the study is to advertise in its first and most prominent table that Loyola Los Angeles is a top 25 law school in regard to producing big firm partners, and of those 25 schools it's the most "under-rated" relative to its U.S. News ranking, although Seto possesses just enough tact to avoid pointing this out directly:

Readers may find some of these numbers surprising . . .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.
Seto's study's definition of "performance" is, shall we say, not methodologically nuanced: he totals up how many big firm partners graduated from individual law schools, and then creates a chart of "Top 50 Feeder Schools" in regard to producing BigLaw partners.  This of course makes much of his "Top 50" list simply a proxy for a law school's size, since he doesn't control for this overwhelmingly important confounding variable.

Here's Seto's explanation for this methodological choice:

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.
This seems like a long-winded way of saying that all other things being equal an employer would rather interview at a big law school than a small one. But all other things aren't equal, and indeed in regard to the specific employment outcomes Seto's article is discussing, Yale's small size has exactly zero relevance to the analysis, since every single firm that's part of that analysis interviews at Yale.

Things then get even more confusing:

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.
I confess to being unable to make heads or tails of what Seto is arguing here.  What relevance does the (plausible) claim that graduate employment outcomes may be largely if not wholly a function of the initial quality of matriculants, rather than of any value added by law schools themselves, have to a claim that it's better to offer raw numbers in regard to employment outcomes rather than adjusting for law school size? As far as I can tell the two issues have nothing to do with each other. (Indeed if you don't adjust for law school size, the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law ranks ahead of Yale and Stanford in regard to how many of its graduates get jobs as lawyers. Etc.).

Anyway, in a footnote Seto points out that those so inclined can convert his raw numbers to per capita outcomes.  Doing so reveals that Seto's analysis is misleading to prospective law students -- who, let's face it, are the real target audience of this exercise -- in a way that goes far beyond the relatively trivial fact that he's managing to make his law school look comparatively good.

Seto assigned ten law students the task of looking up the graduating law schools of every partner at an NLJ 250 firm who graduated between 1986 and 2010.  He then limited his analysis of this data to the NLJ 100 (if you want to extrapolate the percentages below to the NLJ 250 you can increase them by roughly one-third).  Now obviously anyone who graduated after 2001 or so had not yet had a chance to make partner at these firms, so in what follows I'm going to exclude the classes of 2002 and following from the analysis.

Seto's researchers determined that 16,799 ABA law school graduates who graduated in 1986 or later were partners at NLJ 100 firms as of 2010.  In my view, an even more misleading aspect of Seto's analysis than his refusal to adjust for law school size is his failure to provide any baseline for readers in regard to what this number represents when compared to the overall cohort of law school graduates.  Fortunately, this omission is easy to correct:

Total JDs awarded by ABA-accredited law schools 1986-2001:  610,160

Total partners in NLJ firms in 2010 who graduated in 1986 or later:  16,799

Percentage of ABA-accredited law school graduates who graduated between 1986 and 2001 who were partners with NLJ 100 firms in 2010:  2.75%.

Note that Seto's article is framed as an exploration of an important factor prospective law students should keep in mind when comparing law schools (He begins with an anecdote about a potential Loyola law student whose career ambition was to become a big firm law partner in Los Angeles, who foolishly went to Vanderbilt instead).  But Seto goes out of his way to avoid discussing or even acknowledging that the odds of any prospective law student becoming a big firm partner are terrible, and indeed remain quite long even if the 0L should find him or herself ascending into the ranks of the Blessed 14.  

How terrible? Seto's analysis features a 25-year window.  If we assume the average age of law school graduates is 28, the average law school graduate has about a 5.6% chance of dying before his or her 25th-year law school class reunion.  In other words, the average law graduate's chances of failing to show up at that reunion on account of being dead are more than double than the odds the graduate will have the opportunity to attend while holding a partnership with a big firm.

At how many law schools does the average graduate have a better chance of being a partner at a large law firm 25 years after graduation than of being dead?  The answer is, the T-14 plus four.

Harvard:         10.1%
Yale:                7.7%
Stanford:          8.2%
Columbia:        7.3%
Chicago:         13.4%
NYU:              7.1%
Michigan:         7.4%
Penn:               7.5%
UVA:               8.8%
Duke:               6.5%
Berkeley:          5.9%
Northwestern:   8.0%
Cornell:             6.5%
Georgetown:     7.1%
Texas:               6.2%
Vanderbilt:        5.8%
Boston U:         7.2%
Illinois:              5.9%

As for the two schools that, per Seto's analysis, supposedly outperform their U.S. News ranking by more than 50 slots, they actually have worse numbers than would be predicted by their U.S. News rank alone.

St. John's:       2.7%
Miami:            2.4%

As does, to choose another school at random, Loyola LA, which is currently ranked just below the top quarter by U.S. News, but which it turns out is a slightly worse than average law school in regard to producing big law firm partners (2.7%).

I have a few more things to say about Seto's article but I'll save them for another post.



  1. One flaw in Seto's analysis, is the retrospective nature of his study. The legal field has changed tremendously since 1986. It was once common for Biglaw to hire from strong regional and local schools. Much less so today.

    "HYS or bust" is sadly becoming a reality. If Seto were to re-run in his study in 10 years or 20 years, the results would be very different. He would find fewer NLJ100 partners from 2nd and 3rd tier schools.

    1. Yep. I imagine that if a Chicago office hires the following as its associate class:

      10 total from HLS, U of Chicago, Northwestern
      5 total from Michigan and other T-14s
      2 each from Notre Dame and U of I
      1 from Loyola-Chicago and DePaul

      that the Loyola and DePaul graduates face a more uphill battle in making partnership than the others because they're now seen almost as token minorities. Just an impression I get.

      Many of the "regional" offices of larger firms are remnants of smaller firms that were bought out 10-20 years ago, meaning a lot of people who would never get in the system today wound up partners because of the medium-sized firm they landed at in 1985 got swallowed.

      This kind of "analysis" from Seto is why so many of us find law professors "scholarship" a joke.

    2. This piece by the lying Seto is obviously a commercial solicitation dressed up as "scholarship".

      Were the ten students who wasted their time looking up tens of thousands of partners' biographies paid by their law school? I can't imagine undertaking that project as a labor of love. So now we have a new twist: hire your otherwise unemployable graduates to do dishonest marketing for the law school.

      Note that this Seto ass can't even write competently. Like Prof. Campos, I cannot make heads or tails of the last passage quoted above. Perhaps it was designed not to be read. Like so many articles in law reviews.

  2. So, size matters, but controlling for size matters more.

  3. Early death is another diverse thing one can do with a law degree. It's certainly "JD Advantage" in that there will be less dispute over your estate, and that the holy gatekeeper will have a much easier job determining your soul's destination.

    1. Early death looks like one of the most attractive options.

  4. Remember, Cooley is #2 in its Cooley rankings. It is only beat by Harvard.

    1. Kind of hilarious that these fake rankings couldn't even get the clear #1 school (Yale) correct.

  5. The problem here is that if you do not make partner and stay partner,you may have serious trouble staying employed in the legal profession.

    There are universal experience caps in law firms on jobs that do not require a book of business. These experience caps contribute to wide scale unemployment in the legal profession.

    There are just a very limited number of other jobs besides law firm partner in the private sector. In house does not offer all that many jobs. As a solo or in a tiny firm, it is very hard to make a living.

    The whole system does not work in a profession with an oversupply of 900,000 lawyers, many of whom came right out of the top 250 law firms and are now for all practical purposes unemployed. Only 500,000 lawyers have real legal jobs, with the rest as practically unemployed or underemployed solos. That 500,000 figure includes part-time and temps.

    To fix the legal profession -

    Up or out needs to be modified to allow lawyers the months or even years it takes to find a real legal job. That is how it used to be.

    Experience caps at law firms need to go altogether, so a lawyer is eligible for any job for which the lawyer meets the minimum experience level.

    Law schools need to graduate well under 20,000 lawyers a class.

    Only with these steps will the legal profession be able to move towards a realistic chance offering grads real careers, as opposed to an almost two thirds chance of long-term unemployment.

    1. Thank you for this comment. You should add this comment to every thread, particularly when it is completely irrelevant to the thread.

    2. @ 111:39 - hey, also ask 8:20 if s/he can also add in that important point about how law firms are "up or out". I really miss that phrase and want to see it repeated at least 3 times for any post having 4 or more paragraphs.

  6. Wow - this is asinine whining by lawprof today. Honestly, is there anyone out there suggesting that making partner at a NLJ 100 firm is a typical outcome for law students? While Seto's methodology and conclusions are definitely suspect, I don't think he's trying to say, as LawProf suggests, that if you go to School X, you have a good chance of making partner. I think he's saying here's information about which schools have produced the most NLJ 100 partners.

    1. And that piece of $cholar$hip is useful in what way? I mean apart from misleading 0Ls.

    2. Seto is trying to lure people into his toilet of a law school. His pitch is aimed at people who have already set their minds on attending law school. They can be swayed by bogus claims that his dump offers the best shot at partnership.

    3. What else would be the point of this study other than to promote this unknown school?

    4. Seto's analysis provides almost useless information, but with just the slight adjustment made by Law Prof (correcting for per capita results), it provides useful information. I don't know how this could be "whining."

      Indeed, I loved this post because it made me feel much more comfortable with my decision not to pursue partnership in my career. I went to a T-14 school and had a decent shot at it leaving school, and I'm genuinely glad to know exactly what percentage of graduates from my school succeed. In contrast, Seto's data would have been nearly meaningless to me.

  7. Early death is another diverse thing one can do with a law degree. It's certainly "JD Advantage" in that there will be less dispute over your estate, and that the holy gatekeeper will have a much easier job determining your soul's destination.


    What estates? Many lawyers are saddled with insurmountable debt and near or completely without assets. They're just hiding it out of shame.

    As for immortal souls, everyone knows lawyers don't have them.

    1. Thank you for explaining the post for those who couldn't figure it out on their own.

  8. I wonder how many of those 10 law students that served as Seto's research assistants felt disappointed about their career prospects after they were done.

  9. Hmm..8:26, I don't agree. You must have a vested interest in the status quo. I don't agree that LawProf is representing that Seto is stating that if you go to School X, you have a good chance of making partner. What LawProf is objecting to the inference that Loyola and schools like it offer a decent shot at making partner, when in fact no law school offers this opportunity in any statistically promising way. Because the odds are so low (and you can bet that the odds are much lower today for students from lower tier schools than they ever have been), Seto's points are a virtual irrelevancy in terms of making a decision whether to go to law school. In other words, Seto has chosen a subject to which it does not matter if he is correct (which, given the changes in profession the last 25 years, I do not think that he is, at least in terms of relying on his views for today's decisions).

    I have posted here before. I was a summa cum laude/law review editor at a top 10 school in the 80's. I did so with frankly minimal effort, although I did attend class. Law was a questionable value proposition back then (people who can perform at the level I did in law school have plenty of other life options and skills), but it still was plausible, especially since I finished with no debt. What was a questionable value 25 years ago is now highly, highly suspect for all but a handful in terms of value. So few students today understand finance, economics and business, particularly given their undergraduate backgrounds where indoctrination prevails over critical economic thinking. (And you don't need to major in economics or finance or business, you have to have a head for the real world and understand and buy-in to notions of scarcity and distribution). So with disastrous federal government loan policies at their backs, students for the last 10-15 years have subsidized the rent seeking law school academic complex, all the while not really understanding concepts of value. Law school is simply a bad trade. Cut the number of law schools by over half, reduce tuition by 50%, restrict law school to one year (wherein it can be argued the theoretical grounding is helpful), and it might begin to resemble something like a good value. As it stands, law school is light years away from being a good value for almost everyone. And your problem is that LawProf is whining? Really? There is massive, massive marketplace dysfunction, with most all of the pain being borne by relatively recent grads who may not see the middle class, ever.

    1. The pain is also being borne by top grads of top schools who are not recent grads and who cannot make a living. The promise by top law schools of $160,000 jobs when the reality for many older grads of these top law schools is unemployment and temporary work is horrible. It is a fraud by the top law schools, because first year employment outcomes are so much better than long-term employment outcomes for so many grads, even at the top law schools.

    2. 8:26 is a troll law professor. The entire purpose of Seto's laughable "scholarship" is to give naive kids the false impression that they can go to a school below the T14, or T6, or T3, and have a realistic shot of making partner at a top law firm, when in fact, here in reality, that's going to be an outcome for almost none of them. Almost none of these kids enrolled at Loyola LA -- a school so elite it shares a name with other regional schools -- are going to be partners at "elite firms."
      One other thing, for any potential OLs reading this...just read Seto's entire article. Realize, that is a Harvard law grad writing that. A law review editor, elite clerkship, law partner...and he can't make a coherent case for going to law school. If he could make it, he would state it directly, in clear language, instead of whatever the fuck it is that he has written instead. He can't do it, but he's gotta try, because he sure as hell doesn't want to go back to being a partner in a law firm and having to work 800% as many hours as he does as a professor.

    3. 9:21. Great post.

  10. Thank you for catching onto this article. I was first drawn to it a couple of days ago when my local Tier 4 alma mater advertised in its website how well it had performed in the latest batch of rankings, making "Top 3" for producing Big Firm Partners in the locality.

    The law schools really need to leave PR to the professionals.

    Inside the law school bubble the professors operate in a halo - "geniuses" who can do no wrong. Outside, with few exceptions, their academic value is close to zero as is shown by this article.

  11. In other words, some dynamo lawyer(s) may have come from school X, but 99% of its graduates do traffic tickets.

    Did any of us really go to law school to represent people in traffic court?

  12. Very amusing, Prof. Campos. But aren't you double-counting those who both make partner and die before age 53? I wonder how many partners die young.

  13. Note too that Seto was told that his methodology is wrong. He nonetheless proceeded, although he did throw in some self-serving CYA shit.

  14. Roderick Wentworth Breckinridge IVDecember 18, 2012 at 10:54 AM

    "Yale or fail."

  15. Note that this piece was published by the Journal of Legal Education, one of the few law journals that's peer reviewed ("subject to double-blind peer review").

    1. So, guys (Kyle, Derek, and/or Patrick as the case may be), why would JLE's reviewing peers let something slide with such methodological flaws?

    2. It's Kyle in this case (actually, always -- they never reply under LST).

      Great question. Sliding scale between incompetence and self-interest or confirmation bias. I know nothing of the process, but somebody should look into it. (Not it!)

      I've considered publishing our work in this journal in the past and will never consider it again.

    3. Thanks. Note though that "never" is a long time, and inasmuch as the other journals (Mich.L.Reform included) are not peer reviewed, I'm not sure there's a huge difference just because JLE looks to have failed in its stated goal of being peer reviewed.

    4. "Manuscripts submitted to the Journal must not be under consideration by another publication ..."

      It just doesn't seem worth it to give up on other opportunities in exchange for peer review when the peer review is a joke.

      You are right, though. Never is a long time and an overstatement.

    5. Thanks Kyle - I wasn't aware of the restrictive/exclusive requirement by JLE.

  16. http://witnesseth.typepad.com/blog/2012/12/where-partners-really-come-from.html

    Anderson at Pepperdine has run through Seto's numbers and announces that Brian Leiter produces more BigLaw partners than any other Philosopher LawPrawf.

    (Only partly tongue-in-cheek. UChi is way ahead of all comers in the partner race)

  17. So the kid was better off going to Vanderbilt.

  18. Lexis Lexis Solar PlexusDecember 22, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    This crap reminds me of the other study that supposedly showed you had a much better chance of making partner from Loyola Chicago than from UChi that used the asinine method of comparing the current # of associates from the schools to the current # of partners from the schools....so like right now there are 150 Loyola associates and 150 Loyola partners, which is a better ratio than the 1,500 UChi associates and the 500 UChi partners (or whatever)....therefore clearly Loyola alums are better at making partner.

    It ignores the most obvious explanation for these numbers: big firms stopped hiring as many (or really any) Loyola grads in recent years. That is the reason the number of current associates and current partners is so close. The big firms have not stopped hiring from UChi. If they really want to show there is a difference, they need to follow one cohort throughout time.

    Instead they are speculating about why Loyola alums are supposedly better equipped to make partner....perhaps they are grittier, blah, blah....LOL

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