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Does GPA Predict Law Firm Success?

Richard Sander -- no stranger to controversial empirical work -- has an interesting post on the Empirical Legal Studies Blog summarizing evidence that law school GPA correlates with success in large law firms. Specifically, Sander presents evidence that those with higher law school GPAs became partners at large law firms at a significantly higher rate than those with lower GPAs. Writes Sander, "this data shows clearly that GPA matters a lot to one's success and longevity in the world of big firms." I will be interested to see what others have to say about this analysis.

Low GPA (mail):
Some speculate that those with high GPA's are good at sussing out what their professors want to hear and giving it to them. In pratice, this skill translates to being able to ingratiate yourself with your superiors at large law firms.
6.5.2007 10:09am
A.C.:
Interesting article. Of course, it doesn't consider the possibility that the people most interested in working for big corporate firms might play the GPA game, for example by taking classes with easier curves. Or even just by putting in more study time, if we want to put a nice spin on it. People who want to go into public interest work or solo practice might tend to put that extra time into work experience and clinics.

Even so, did anyone ever doubt that BIG GPA differences measure something? I'm not sure what they measure in any particular case -- some combination of innate intelligence, ability to figure out a given situation, and willingness to work, probably with the exact balance among the factors changing from case to case. But I'm not sure I would put much faith in small differences in GPA. Small fluctuations might be due to individual course selection, or to who got the flu during finals. I mention this because I've seen law students get very, very strange about very small differences in GPA.
6.5.2007 10:25am
David Maquera (mail) (www):
What exactly defines "success" in a big law firm??? Is "success" in a big law firm making partner even though it might mean missing a lot of dinners with the wife and kids and the kids soccer games, etc.? Or is "success" in a big law firm being able to strike a balance between family and work responsibilities even though such a balance might not always result in making partner???
6.5.2007 10:31am
NaG (mail):
Maquera: Obviously, "success in large law firms" means what it says, and does not include "success in family and friends" or other areas. Note that the term does not preclude a balanced lifestyle.

Textualism can be your interpretive friend.

Considering what I've heard about big-firm politics and atmosphere, it does not surprise me that people who are hyper-attentive to GPA and other such things tend to succeed in that environment. (And I say this as a cum laude top-tier graduate.) Big firms tend to be less about positive results and more about looking good while doing your thing -- not that results (as far as the client is concerned) are not important, but just that big firms have additional, more preferred factors they consider. Like ability to bring in new clients, for example.
6.5.2007 10:42am
e:
While the interpretation of GPA as proxy for "capability" is true to some degree, I suspect the numbers are also a product of:

1. GPA showing a tolerance for enduring nonsense which doesn't or shouldn't matter to getting the basic job done, and

2. A feedback system where those making promotion decisions like to see things done a certain way, even if a more creative mix would be just as productive.

Of course it is a conservative profession even if populated by liberals, so my number one above also relates to the desires of clients and courts for formal "etiquette" which high GPA-ers might be more inclined to conform to.
6.5.2007 10:43am
Justin (mail):
More than anything, the skill that large law firms look for is meticulousness. Although the difference between a 4.0 and a 3.5 may be the type of genius that law firms don't care (as much) about, the difference between a 3.5 and a 3.0 signifies that meticulousness.

A meticulous associate will get better projects, meet clients quicker, and be promoted through the ranks.
6.5.2007 10:49am
ATRGeek:
Like everyone else who has commented, I suspect that law school GPA is a proxy not just for potential legal ability (meaning ability related to achieving good results for one's clients), but also for other attributes that may contribute to success in the law firm environment (eg, ambition in a material sense, competitiveness, ability to tailor work to your evaluators' preferences, and so on).

As a sidenote, every measure which is positively correlated with general intelligence (GPAs, standardized tests, and so on) tends to be positively correlated with outcomes where general intelligence is a contributing factor (eg, pretty much any intellectual or professional task), which of course is utterly unsurprising. In that sense, you could probably find correlations between LSAT scores or undergrad GPAs and law firm success, or for that matter SAT scores or high school GPAs and law firm success (or GRE scores and law firm success, or so on).

Accordingly, I think the real issue for those who care about predicting outcomes is the relative merits of these various measures, particularly in light of their costs. So, for example, one could ask how much additional marginal predictive ability law firms get out of law school GPAs, as opposed to looking at just something like LSATs and undergrad GPAs. Law firms could then compare the additional predictive ability associated with law school GPAs to the costs of getting that information (which in some sense include at least a portion of all the costs of law school, to the extent that law firms have to pay their associates more in order to make it worthwhile for those people to pay the costs of attending law school).
6.5.2007 11:09am
CEB:
I don't see what's controversial or even interesting about this--it seems pretty obvious. However, I would quarrel with the characterization that this has anything to do with "success." Sander seems to assume that everybody wants to be a partner at a large firm (with all of the attendant quality-of-life problems) and high GPA students are the ones who succeed. Personally, I think it takes a certain pathology and lack of balance to get a high GPA in law school and to make partner.

Full disclosure: I am a 3L with a very low GPA and a very happy life.
6.5.2007 11:10am
Stevethepatentguy (mail) (www):
As much as I hate to admit this, the folks who had better GPA's than me were either:

1) Harder working,
2) Smarter, or
3) Both 1 and 2.

Without getting into a debate about the definition of success, it seems obvious to me that people who are smarter and/or harder working will be more successful.

What this study doesn't take into account is that law firms are relationship businesses. A good firm takes a mix of smart, hard working and glad handling people. I think every successful firm that I seen has a balance of these three characteristics, with a few managerial types (the rarest character trait) thrown in. One problem with larger firms is that they screen for smarter/harder working in their associates and then rue the fact that they have few rainmaker and managerial partners down the road.
6.5.2007 11:15am
Opus:
As much as I hate to admit this, the folks who had better GPA's than me were either:

1) Harder working,
2) Smarter, or
3) Both 1 and 2.


And, furthermore, higher grades might result because someone actually likes to study -- and therefore will practice seriously -- the law.

I would be interested to see what sort of coefficient adjusts for school or program quality (e.g., UVa vs. Detroit College of Law; joint PhD/JD programs).
6.5.2007 11:41am
Observer (mail):
The founder of the Cravath firm once said that law students who were too smart didn't make good lawyers, or words to that effect. He apparently thought they were too theoretical. As the old saw goes, 'A' students become law professors, 'B' students become judges and 'C' students become millionaires.
6.5.2007 11:41am
Gunners are funner:
The folks who had better GPAs than me were - wait, there weren't any! Ha ha! I guess I am doomed to law firm partnership. Sorry family, you had a good run.
6.5.2007 11:52am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
As much as I hate to admit this, the folks who had better GPA's than me were either:

1) Harder working,
2) Smarter, or
3) Both 1 and 2.


That was certainly my experience undergrad where I was a chemistry major. In law school, I saw none of that. I graduated with decent grades (top 25%), wrote on to law review, but I can honestly say I never figured out what separated the truly extraordinary law students from the mediocre (except the ability of some to suck up). Sure there were some who were smarter (and I scored in the 96th percentile on the LSAT under the old scoring scheme) than me who did a lot better than me in law school. But then again there were some who were complete idiots and/or truly repulsive human beings who also did a lot better than me. There were also some very bright people who never quite got it and never rose above the middle of the pack.

As for "working hard". Anyone who thinks law school is hard work is a moron. Law school is a lot of work and consumes a lot of time, but it is not hard work by my definition. It is not intellectually challenging, and it is certainly not physically challenging. It ain't rocket science. Studying for one exam per class a semester is hardly "work". And if you aren't on law review the amount of written work required from a law student, considering you will supposedly spend the rest of your life producing documents, is truly pathetic. Law professors have to be the laziest people on the face of the earth. They barely have to grade anything and for the most part they don't even have to prepare lectures.
6.5.2007 12:07pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"One problem with larger firms is that they screen for smarter/harder working in their associates and then rue the fact that they have few rainmaker and managerial partners down the road."

It's not a necessary conclusion that the firms rue this--Fewer rainmakers to non-rainmakers (depending on the way equity in the firm is divided) usually means more profits per equity partner--indeed many firms depend on having a class of really smart lawyers who don't want to be or won't be promoted all the way up to an ownership stake but still do great legal work.
6.5.2007 12:09pm
Stevethepatentguy (mail) (www):
I think Gunner is exhibit A for why "[t]he founder of the Cravath firm once said that law students who were too smart didn't make good lawyers."
6.5.2007 12:10pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
I think Gunner is exhibit A for why "[t]he founder of the Cravath firm once said that law students who were too smart didn't make good lawyers."

Funny, I was going to point to him as an example of the "complete idiot and repulsive human being" at the top of the class I alluded to above.
6.5.2007 12:15pm
Random Commenter:
I agree with Justin, and it seems plausible to me that what drives this relationship, if it exists, is a negative association between characteristics of people with low grades and firm success. As was pointed out, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to excel in law school, but you do need be task-oriented, at least somewhat efficient, and at least somewhat smart about allocating your main resource (time). If you're a slacker or a muddler, you're likely not to have high grades. Too, these characteristics do not describe most of the people who make it as big firm partners.
6.5.2007 12:33pm
blindgambit:
I finished number 1 in my class at a top 20 school, but never felt that I'd do well at a law firm b/c I was much more into pondering how the law works as opposed to actual practice. So, in that sense, I always felt my skill-set was well developed for law school, and perhaps academia (I'm now pursuing a PhD since I decided I simply dislike practicing law) but was a horrible match for law firms. I'm very quiet, don't like socializing, but am meticulous and, overall, pretty nerdy.

So, this work comes as somewhat of a surprise to me (and, I'm sure, to my wife who'd rather have me making partner than sending us further into debt).
6.5.2007 12:46pm
Gunners are funner:
Aw, come on now, J.F. Having read three sentences by me hardly qualifies you to judge whether I'm either an idiot or a repulsive human being.

Of course, that you never figured out what separated the extraordinary law students from the rest might be related to your belief that law school is neither hard work nor intellectually challenging. Law school changed the way I think and my view of the world. I found (and still find) every subject I studied in law school to be fascinating. How likely is it that one who is not engaged in the subject will excel at that subject?
6.5.2007 12:49pm
Cornellian (mail):
I'm very quiet, don't like socializing, but am meticulous and, overall, pretty nerdy.

Then you have truly found your home on Volokh Conspiracy.
6.5.2007 1:03pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Aw, come on now, J.F. Having read three sentences by me hardly qualifies you to judge whether I'm either an idiot or a repulsive human being.

Boasting about being first in your law school class and reveling in the prospect of putting your career ahead of your family (even in a feeble attempt to be funny) certainly clues me in to your personality.

Of course, that you never figured out what separated the extraordinary law students from the rest might be related to your belief that law school is neither hard work nor intellectually challenging. Law school changed the way I think and my view of the world. I found (and still find) every subject I studied in law school to be fascinating.

My point exactly. That you apparently found law school to be hard work and intellectually challenging and that you believe it changed the way you think demonstrates that before you went to law school you had never done hard work, been intellectually challenged, or learned how to think properly. Otherwise you would have realized what a massive waste of time law school was.

How were your grades in calculus and differential equations? That is where you learn to think, not civil procedure.
6.5.2007 1:05pm
NYU 2L:
I wonder if this correlation exists for the subgroup of students who see through the game, find law school an utter waste of time, but are motivated to work hard for their firms?

If you're working your tail off 2L and 3L year, then you either want to be a law professor or have seriously misplaced priorities.
6.5.2007 1:42pm
Random.:
Perhaps the better question is whether "success at a large law firm" is roughly equatable with "success in the profession." For instance, many professors spend little (if any) time in a large law firms, but I believe many of us would hesitate to suggest those professors are unsuccessful lawyers.

Further, if we're going to take wealth as a proxy for success (which is implicit in the "eat-what-you-kill" large law firm billing structure), the piercing exception is that the most highly compensated lawyers are generally solo practitioners or in quite small plaintiff-side firms.

And to take the problem out another level, many scholars of the legal profession note that it is the solo that bears the ethical load for lawyers in general--yet we hold up the large law firm as the model of the practice of law at the highest level.

In most fields of human endeavor, we count on the young to display courage, conviction, leadership, independent thinking, and initiative. Those are, amusingly, distinctly American qualities as well. Yet in our legal profession we encourage the newest members to huddle together, like storm-tossed refugees, in huge, impersonal, machine-like organizations, where they learn deference and risk-avoidance, and where conformity is at a premium.
6.5.2007 1:46pm
Gunners are funner:
Ah hah. Now I see where the arrogance, superiority, and condecending tone comes from. You're one of those engineers who went to law school to become a patent attorney and resented that even though you may excel in calculus and differential equations, you just didn't get it. All your life people told you how smart you were because you're good at math, and when it turned out that skill in math didn't translate to success in law school, you faced a dillemma. Maybe you weren't as smart as you think you are. To solve the dillema, you assured yourself that you're still smart, it's law school that's stupid.
6.5.2007 1:56pm
Ted Frank (www):
Sander presented that data at AEI a few months ago. I found it persuasive then, and still do.

The amount of written work required varies from school to school. When I was there, Chicago Law had some classes that involved fairly intensive writing.
6.5.2007 1:57pm
Kelvin McCabe:
Wait a minute - am i to believe that large firms hire people who dont have high GPA's, and that these low GPA' ers are less likely to make partner?

Thats weird. I graduated from law school in Chicago, home to many large firms, and their job postings are rather, shall we say, limited. For example, "must be in top 10% of class, must have law review or moot court, etc.."

If the large firms only take applications from people who are already high on the GPA curve (top 10%) arent we really splitting hairs between the 3.97 and the 3.99 GPA's? I mean, that could easily be, as someone upthread noted, one person being sick on the day of one class's final while the other was healthy, everything else being equal. To say this trivial distinction means the person who was randomly sick and got the lower GPA is somehow less likely to be partner at a large firm is, to me, pure speculation.

Likewise, a top 10% student at univ of chicago, might not be the same as a top 10% at northwestern. The curriculum's are different, the choice of classes, testing methods, etc...all might be different and might lend to some form of bias. That is, one top 10%er might be brilliant because his school's curriculum is more difficult - (i.e, its harder to consistently get A's) than the other's. Or, one school's student body may be smarter than the others, so the inter-class competetion greater. That is, a top 10% student at one school might only be a top 33%er at another.

Basically, with some many variables, how can GPA alone really matter?

And since top firms ONLY take people with high GPA's as a prerequisite, arent we really only coming to the conclusion that at least some associates (all of whom have high gpa's or they wouldnt be associates in the first place) at large firms will become partner? It took a study to figure that out?
6.5.2007 2:01pm
A.C.:
Now, now... If you are not working much in your 3L year, then you haven't figured out that it's the time to do the things you really wanted to do back when you were stuck in Contracts. Get into court, write that paper about the topic that's been on your mind for three semesters, or whatever. There's work that people have to do (1L classes) and work that you only get the chance to do after you slog through the first category. And I don't know about the rest of you, but that stuff that I really wanted to get to did not include securities regulation.

If you're only in law school for the payoff and not to learn as much as possible during a brief interval with no boss to eat up your time, then you can ignore this advice once you get your job offer. But the rest of us will shake our heads and do that "what's the matter with kids today" thing.
6.5.2007 2:06pm
BigBen (mail):
Disclosure: I'm a rising 2L, (as in I just finished my 1L year) I'm not at the very top of my class, but I have good reason to expect I'll make law review when they send out the invitations in a week or two.


I don't have any experience at a "big" firm, but from my experience clerking at a 4 lawyer firm, and at a solo practitioner, it seems to me that there's more truth to the negative association theory that someone stated above, rather than to a positive association.

I see absolutely no reason why a person with a mediocre GPA couldn't make a good lawyer, or a great lawyer.

But I think at the same time, everyone would admit that becoming a "Great" lawyer, requires work and dedication, or at least, rarely would anyone fall into it. Whether it's at a big firm or a small firm.

Further, I think most would admit that there's at least a rough correlation between the amount of work you put in and how good your GPA is, sure there are outliers, the genius that gets it without putting in any time other than class and the guy who just doesn't quite get it no matter how much time he puts in, but for the majority, more time put in generally results in better grades. Or, at the very least, less time put in equals worse grades.


So, when big firms come to do on campus interviews, if we at least assume they want the hardest working candidates, they only have a few measures they can go by, and GPA is one of those. They're probably safe in assuming those with better GPA's are likely to work harder.

The same is then probably true at higher levels. The person who is dedicating their life to it (quality of life concerns aside) will probably gather more attention and subsequent success than someone who just does the minimum to get by.
6.5.2007 2:19pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
You're one of those engineers who went to law school to become a patent attorney and resented that even though you may excel in calculus and differential equations, you just didn't get it.

Like I said I was a chemistry major undergrad, not an engineer. And I had no interest in being a patent attorney. I found that to be excruciatingly dull. Like I said, I did okay at law school. I wrote on to law review and it is not only that people who I thought who were dumber than me did well but some people who I thought were smarter (and not just people with technical backgrounds) did worse.

I laid out all this in my previous post yet you couldn't follow my argument. You mischaracterized my undergraduate degree. Implied I was only competent in math (although my degree was in chemistry, not math) and that I was told by others I was smart only because I was good in math (even though I clearly stated I scored in the 96th percentile on the LSAT). BTW, I scored in the 98th percentile on both the SAT and ACT and 95th on the GRE.

Yet you claim law school taught you how to think. With each post you confirm my initial impression of you and illustrate the point I was making in my initial post.

You didn't answer my question. How did you do in calculus and differential equations? Don't you consider competence in math important? Is it only for people who aren't as smart as they think they are?
6.5.2007 2:37pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
The amount of written work required varies from school to school. When I was there, Chicago Law had some classes that involved fairly intensive writing.

Some classes involved fairly intensive writing? WTF? When I went to law school I was absolutely astonished that every class didn't involve extremely intensive writing. There shouldn't be a class in law school where written work (e.g., major research or analytical papers) isn't a major portion of the grade. What kind of nonsense is it that for most classes your entire grade depends on one two or three hour exam at the end of the semester?
6.5.2007 2:47pm
BigBen (mail):

What kind of nonsense is it that for most classes your entire grade depends on one two or three hour exam at the end of the semester?


We always get fed the same line about it preparing us for the bar exam.

I'm sure that's true, but it does seem a bit odd that the only way to prepare you for practicing is to prepare you to take the test.

That said, they recently did a big revamp of the curriculum here, putting a lot more focus (than previously at least) into the LRW program and seminar classes that are designated "skills clasess." Most of which don't have exams, but rather papers as the majority of the grade.
6.5.2007 2:54pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
We always get fed the same line about it preparing us for the bar exam.

We were just told, like teaching through the socratic method, it was because that is how it has always been.
6.5.2007 3:02pm
RigelDog (mail):
I have to agree with the proposition that those who are dedicated to putting their nose to the grindstone day after day for three years of law school will likely have the higher GPA's---and these qualities are also valued by big firms. Me? Superb LSAT; excellent college GPA, and lowish law school GPA. I wasn't used to having to put the hours in to study, and wasn't captivated by the law either. I'd be a terrible match with a big firm! Fortunately, halfway through law school I did an internship with the district attorney's office and the doors swung open, the sun shone and the angels sang. Twenty years later and I'm happy as a clam to do the work I was born to do.
6.5.2007 3:06pm
Really, you aren't even a little ashamed?:
Gunner and J.F.:

How do you guys think you are doing concerning "avoid-[ing] rants, invective, substantial and repeated exaggeration, and radical departures from the topic of the thread."?
I am a bright-eyed 0L salivating over the prospect of law school. Please disclose that you are both just turning 13 and were arguing over Mary Jenkins on the playground yesterday and this is what is at the heart of your otherwise fruitless diatribes. I need this disclosure. I hear a lot that older generations look to mine to solve the myriad problems of this century. If this is the kind of conduct that passes for civil discourse, I can see that my generation has a good amount of ground to cover concerning how respect ought to be afforded to one another. Maybe its the anonymitiy, but I should like to believe professionals behave a little more like professionals, no?
6.5.2007 3:17pm
Spartacus (www):
Wow, J.F., you sure sound bitter.

I say that as someone who finished law school in the top third (but no better) and have 2 math degrees, with honors (B+ UG, A Grad GPAs). Haven't made partner yet, don't think I will, not sure where my law career may go (in public service right now). But at least I'm not bitter. And I genuinely enjoyed both law school and the study of math.
6.5.2007 3:18pm
Spartacus (www):
p.s.: I was a gunner.
6.5.2007 3:19pm
Gunners are funner:
So it's bad for me to brag about being first in my law school class, but okay for you to brag about your scores on the LSAT, ACT, and SAT (which you took when you were 16 for chrissakes)?

My point has been, in answer to your mystification that some people you consider dumber than you nevertheless did better than you did in law school, that success in law school (and success in anything else) is determined as much by one's interest in the subject as it is by innate ability. I was fascinated by law school, I enjoyed it, I found it challenging, and I did exceptionally well.

I didn't take calculus &differential equations, and no, I do not consider those classes to be important for a lawyer. In fact, if you are a lawyer how can you possibly say those classes (which have zero to do with anything lawyer other than a patent attorney does) are important while law school was a waste of time?
6.5.2007 3:25pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Wow, J.F., you sure sound bitter.

Damn right, I'm bitter. I enjoyed my first year of law school. By the middle of my third semester, not so much. Then there was an incident in law review in my fourth semester that was handled very unprofessionally by the law school and especially the faculty adviser that really embittered me. I should have never finished. I did however, and practiced for a year, which confirmed the bad experiences and things I discovered about legal ethics in law school (although the lawyers I practiced with--at a federal government agency--were a fantastic bunch of people). The whole experience left me an emotional wreck and ended up destroying my marriage.

The last time my law school called me for money I told them as far as I am concerned they owe me money for all the psychiatrist bills incurred because of law school. Haven't heard from them since.

I am a bright-eyed 0L salivating over the prospect of law school.

Really, the sooner you realize you are going to run into arrogant pricks like gunner and cynical, bitter, jaded farts like me in law school, the better off you will be. A word of advice though. Make sure you can distinguish between the two. And although people like you may bum you out, they will be your best friends and will do anything to help you out and never betray you. People like Gunner will stab you in the back the first chance they get. Don't trust them.
6.5.2007 3:44pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
I didn't take calculus &differential equations, and no, I do not consider those classes to be important for a lawyer. In fact, if you are a lawyer how can you possibly say those classes (which have zero to do with anything lawyer other than a patent attorney does) are important while law school was a waste of time?

I consider law school a waste of time because it is poorly taught. You learn practically everything you need for the bar in your first three semesters (heck, even your job prospects are pretty much determined by the grades you get in your first year). What you do learn is pretty poor preparation for what you actually do in practice. Things that are really useful for practice, (e.g., how to present a case effectively, how to research) are deemphasized in classwork. Is it any wonder that participation in law review or moot court are practically prerequisites for getting interviews with many law firms. Those are the places you learn the skills that are truly useful to the practice of law.

As for math. Call me a snob, but no one should be allowed to graduate from college without having learned calculus. I don't care who you are, math is important. It teaches you how to think rationally and logically. An ability that all too many lawyers lack.
6.5.2007 3:55pm
Spartacus (www):
Damn right, I'm bitter. (etc.)

Hey, life's a bitch. Sorry it workled out that way for you. Hope you're happier now. But don't try to generalize your law school, and apparently practice (although you say the people you worked with were great) to everyone. As noted, some of us actually enjoyed law school, and some enjoy the practice of law as well.

bright-eyed 0L

Yes, you need to listen to JF and realize there are people like him and gunner. But don't assume that self proclaimed "bitter cynical, jaded farts" will necessarily be your best freinds, or that people who are actually
fascinated and challanged by law school will necessarily stab you in the back the first chance they get. That ism of course, just one "cynical bitter jaded fart's" experience. Just go in there and go for it, damn all the crybabies and blowhards.
6.5.2007 3:57pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
And although people like you may bum you out

that should be "people like me"
6.5.2007 3:57pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
or that people who are actually
fascinated and challanged by law school will necessarily stab you in the back the first chance they get.


Of course I didn't say that. I got on Gunner because he boasts about his class rank, is willing to put his career ahead of his family (or at least attempts a lame joke about it), deliberately mischaracterizes what I write (or can't comprehend a simple paragraph) and denigrates people who are good at math and thinks math is not part of a well-rounded education.

I've got nothing against people who enjoy studying the law and are at the top of their class. Our Valedictorian (did we actually use that term?) was a former Episcopal priest. He was one of the kindest, most ethical, brilliant, nicest guys I ever met.
6.5.2007 4:07pm
Stevethepatentguy (mail) (www):
To "Bright-eyed 0L": Law school can be a great experience, you can learn a new way of thinking, meet smart wonderful people, and participate in experiences you would never have otherwise. Law schools have cranks and jerks in about the same proportion as the general population. One thing you will learn in law school is how to identify these folks and avoid them.

Now, your assignment for the rest of the summer. Get a six-pack and One L by Scott Turow. Sit by the pool and enjoy your summer. Law school will start soon enough. (Advice I have given before).
6.5.2007 4:15pm
Gunners are funner:
J.F.,

I'm sorry you had such a negative experience, but I hope you realize that your perception of law school is colored by that experience. For some of us, law school was what (apparently) calculus was for you, a life-changing experience that didn't end in bitter cynical fartism. While we're at it: You are a snob. An english, art, art history, history, russian literature, sociology, philosophy, antropology (etc.) major simply does not need calculus.

Zero-L,

My advice to you is to love law school, and if you should discover that you don't really love it, think seriously about finding what you do love.
6.5.2007 4:15pm
A.C.:
J.F. (and everyone following this exchange) --

Sorry to hear about your experience in law school. I was also traumatized by things that happened in school, so much so that I considered quitting the profession before I even got into it. There's a reason lawyer jokes involve sharks, vultures, and snakes. You do meet those people. I find that the "shower test" is useful. If certain people make you want to go take a long shower every time you encounter them, don't let them get between you and the door.

But I haven't noticed a correlation between shark/vulture/snake attributes and high grades, being a gunner, or even wanting to work in corporate transactions. There were good people on law review, although there were also a few whose behavior made me physically ill. Some of my friends even went into big law firms, although most had too many other interests (families, complex hobbies etc.) to be willing to put in the time required.

As for partners in big law firms being smarter than everybody else... I spend a lot of time reading their pleadings. They put more words on a page and attach more exhibits than other people. I haven't noticed that their logic is any better than average, though.
6.5.2007 4:16pm
Gunners are funner:
And calculus isn't the same as math. There is very little that is useful to most people beyond algebra.
6.5.2007 4:18pm
NYU 2L:

Now, now... If you are not working much in your 3L year, then you haven't figured out that it's the time to do the things you really wanted to do back when you were stuck in Contracts. Get into court, write that paper about the topic that's been on your mind for three semesters, or whatever. There's work that people have to do (1L classes) and work that you only get the chance to do after you slog through the first category. And I don't know about the rest of you, but that stuff that I really wanted to get to did not include securities regulation.


Not sure if you're responding to me, A.C., but if so--agreed. I'm talking about people who are concerned about their grades during 2L and 3L year, not people who work hard at something they enjoy. That's why half my 3rd year credits will be filled with an extensive litigation clinic. But yes: After you finish the interview process during Fall 2L, your grades no longer matter. Use the time to actually learn how to practice law, or write scholarly legal articles, depending on your career interests.
6.5.2007 4:37pm
Observer (mail):
I was first in my class in law school a thousand years ago and all that tells you is that I was pretty good at spotting issues and making arguments. Of course, those are valuable skills in law practice, as is the ability to stay focused on terribly boring minute details for hour upon hour.

What's interesting, if you ever have the chance to read law student exams or papers, is how they sort out: a few students really get it, and spot all the issues and all the arguments, a few miss the boat completely, and most muddle through, getting a few issues, side-swiping a few more, missing another bunch. Even at the most elite law schools the same pattern prevails, although the top band is a little wider and the bottom band a little narrower.
6.5.2007 4:40pm
Jim FSU 1L (mail):
That sounds like a very narrow way of measuring success.

And from what I gather, most people that leave the big firms don't leave because they lack the ability, they are just tired of their life being dominated by the work-eat-sleep cycle year after year.

The happiest lawyers I have met were working for small firms or as in-house counsels pulling 40 hours a week and 1-200k salaries. If low 6 figures takes care of all your earthly needs with room to spare, why work an extra 40 hours a week?
6.5.2007 5:28pm
Bryan DB:
I think the survey is erroneous in at least two ways:
1) It too narrowly defines "success" (big-firm partnership). In our graduating class, many of the lower-GPA students had no desire to work at big firms and their lower GPAs were a direct result of the fact that they had already secured jobs at their desired firm (and had families) before they started law school, thus rendering GPA irrelevant. Perhaps as a way to flatter myself, I could define "success" to mean: didn't have to kill myself in law school because I locked up a solid position and salary BEFORE law school. It is just as relevant as that used in the study.

2) It assumes that being at a big firm 15 years out is synonymous with longevity at the firm. In fact, the person at the big firm 15 years out may have been a very successful solo or small firm lawyer who was gobbled up by the big firm for one reason or another.
6.5.2007 5:33pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
What's interesting, if you ever have the chance to read law student exams or papers, is how they sort out: a few students really get it, and spot all the issues and all the arguments, a few miss the boat completely, and most muddle through, getting a few issues, side-swiping a few more, missing another bunch.

But even then, it selects that group of people who can identify the issues in the extremely artificial and ridiculous constraints of one exam at the end of the semester (since the number of classes where a paper is a major part of the grading is small). It is also dependent on the professor. My two highest grades in law school came from the same professor (obviously my favorite). I had one professor from whom I took three classes and got the exact same grade (an 83) on all three exams. I amazed my classmates in the third class when I predicted my grade. My lowest grade was in a class where I completely missed the statute of frauds issue on the exam. When I went and talked to the professor he told me, "its a pity these exams are graded anonymously (we were given a number to put on our exams instead of our names), I know you know this stuff." I always did very well on papers and my law review paper was selected for publication (although I withdrew because I was too depressed to work on it).
6.5.2007 5:57pm
David Maquera (mail) (www):
NaG, textualism is appropriate for interpreting contracts (including the U.S. Constitution) but is deficient for determining a phrase pregnant with numerous outcomes such as "success in large law firms." BTW, you're a model of humility.
6.5.2007 6:20pm
4.0 GPA (mail):
As much as I hate to admit this, the folks who had better GPA's than me were:

1) Harder working,
2) Smarter,


3) Better looking, and
4) More successful with the ladies.
6.5.2007 6:22pm
Phil (mail):
To relate this post to the discussion of law school selection based upon USNWR: I enjoyed law school, but that may have been because I picked a law school where I thought I would be happy. I still enjoy being a lawyer some days, my outlook is colored by the fact that right out of law school I had two fantastic positions (a fellowship and then an appellate clerkship). The Justice I clerked for did care about grades, but not GPA. Specifically, he wanted clerks who had done decently overall and had received As in the things likely to come before the Court, e.g. Evidence.
I am not sure what way any of this cuts as I am a relatively happy government lawyer.
(I think the gpa/law firm success study is probably correct. I find it hard to care.)
6.5.2007 6:29pm
ATRGeek:
It may be useful to keep in mind the distinction between a positive correlation and a perfect correlation. The data does not support a perfect correlation between GPA and law firm success, and of course that makes sense. It does support a positive correlation, but keep in mind that a positive but not perfect correlation is logically consistent with all sorts of exceptions.

Incidentally, I don't think the claim was ever that success as a lawyer, or life in general, was being measured by the available data. Rather, it was specifically limited to success in large law firms, and simply inapplicable to those who do not opt for that path (of course, even then one could quibble, in that I am sure some people go to large law firms with no intention of trying to become partner, and so for these people not making partner does not necessarily have anything to do with success in the firm, but that just becomes a semantic issue).

With all this in mind, the result in question is utterly unsurprising. It also is not all that informative (as I noted above, the more interesting information would be how law school GPA compared to other possibilities as a predictor of law firm success in the relevant sense).
6.5.2007 6:36pm
R_S (mail):
NYU 2L wrote:


But yes: After you finish the interview process during Fall 2L, your grades no longer matter.


That's true, until you start practicing, and then decide you want to lateral to another firm. Unless you have a significant book of business, your grades follow you throughout your career. And sometimes, even if you DO have a book of business your grades can still foreclose some passibilities...

The problem with your 2L and 3L grades is that they really don't matter until several years after you graduate and want to change jobs, at which point it is far, far too late to do anything about it...
6.5.2007 6:44pm
e:
Skimming through the rest of the thread, I'm surprised of little mention of the irrelevance of short timed writing to practice, and the use of such writing for most graded classes. Though my arguments are destroyed when I realize that partner decisions are based on performance rather than law school exams.
6.5.2007 6:58pm
Sarah (mail) (www):
I'm really not surprised that law firms, which are out to make money from those they hire, not only hire for top GPAs, but also reward those people who behaved in their early to mid 20s in ways that would get them those top GPAs.

If people with really high GPAs (who were willing to go for law firm jobs at all -- plenty of people don't) made lousy law firm members, the only people asking for really high GPAs would be those interested in limiting the total number of lawyers (or some other not-making-the-firm-money purpose.) We'd see a pamphlet from the ABA every few months, telling us all how horrible it is that the industry fails to take high GPAs into account enough.

(I'm also ambivalent about law school admissions focusing on LSAT score, when it appears that bar passage rates are positively correlated with high lSAT scores -- law schools ought to want lots of graduates who actively pursue lucrative careers and feel grateful to their law schools; if the LSAT were correlated with nothing useful, they wouldn't bother using it. But, I got a pretty good LSAT score, so. Ask me about undergraduate GPA standards, on the other hand, and I can deliver a mighty sermon on how index numbers never take into account the quality of the school, the average grades of fellow students in those same classes, grade inflation at large, etc.)
6.5.2007 7:45pm
wooga:
I'm going to second pretty much all of JFs points (my scores/grades/lawreview stuff is very similar). I already had a couple years of Calculus under my belt before I graduated high school. In college, I bored of higher level math, and majored in philosophy and ancient religious texts.

Law school taught me nothing about 'how to think.' In fact, it significantly retarded my intellectual growth, as it trained me to 'dumb down' my logical arguments. My early law school grades were good, but not great. It wasn't until I realized that the 'A' in IRAC did not actually stand for 'analysis', but rather 'a pleasing transition sentence between Rule and Conclusion' that I started to actually finish my exams and score at the top of my class.

I found success in big firms mirrors this very closely. It's all about form, impressions and pleasing presentation. Paste a gloss over a superficial grasp of the law, use a few big words, and your clients will think you are worth their money. Nobody cares about really insightful analysis, and such analysis makes for very poor billing anyway.

Luckily, I now have a firm with 'smarter' clients (many are lawyers themselves) who actually appreciate the in depth analysis I provide.
6.5.2007 9:58pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Correlation is not everything.

I became an aerospace power and control engineer with a GPA of around 0 (I flunked out of college).

School is not everything.
6.5.2007 10:24pm
NaG (mail):
Maquera: The "pregnancy" is in your imagination. Just read for content. As for my humility, I am what I am. I could have thrown in my lot with the big firms but I chose not to. Why? Because big firms turn out overworked desk jockeys who have very little exposure to the essential lawyer arts, like oral argument, cross-examination, trial strategy, and negotiation. Big-firm lawyers I've dealt with have been exceedingly good at overbilling their clients (which makes settlement more difficult) and flooding the courts with silly motions, and were generally bad at getting good results for their clients -- at least in a litigation context. Big firms are good at handling the regulatory morass, but give me a small/medium firm in court any day.
6.5.2007 10:41pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
I became an aerospace power and control engineer with a GPA of around 0 (I flunked out of college).

Tell me, how did you get your PE without a college degree in engineering?
6.5.2007 11:32pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
J.F. Thomas:

"How were your grades in calculus and differential equations? That is where you learn to think, not civil procedure."

Exactly correct. How about group theory versus evidence? In the natural sciences, it's you against nature. In law it's you against another lawyer.
6.6.2007 12:10am
Jim FSU 1L (mail):

Law school taught me nothing about 'how to think.' In fact, it significantly retarded my intellectual growth, as it trained me to 'dumb down' my logical arguments. My early law school grades were good, but not great. It wasn't until I realized that the 'A' in IRAC did not actually stand for 'analysis', but rather 'a pleasing transition sentence between Rule and Conclusion' that I started to actually finish my exams and score at the top of my class.


I also figured this out the hard way.
6.6.2007 1:11am
Gullyborg (www):
I graduated last year at the top of the bottom half of my class. I never took the bar exam and have never worked at a law firm. I currently work in state government, where I am underpaid but feel like I am doing something that matters.

My undergrad experiences are long, mixed, and different from most. Multiple colleges and universities, intermixed with time in the USAF and blue collar work. Ended up with two bachelors, one technical, one liberal arts. If you take my undergrad in two stages, the first was a miserable failure, the second was a 4.0 GPA. My LSAT score was 95%, and so were my SATs and ACT. I aced calculus (and physics).

I might be the only person commenting here who has actually split the atom. On purpose!

Law school wasn't so good. Because I am not bright? Hardly. Because I don't like hard work? Not at all. Because I realized early on that law school was NOT the be all end all of my life, and instead of spending 8 hours a day reading case law, I spent time with my wife, working on political campaigns, and generally focusing on hobbies. My home life came first. Law school came in more like fifth or sixth.

What did I get out of law school?

A) Some credibility. When you work in government, and your work involves creating laws, it helps to have "J.D." after your name.

B) Some knowledge. What I learned about legal research and writing is invaluable in my work. And general knowledge of the law certainly helps when, at any moment, you may have to explain what a law means to your boss.

C) Some connections. I see former classmates at work often. My current boss: I went to work for her as a 2L intern.

D) Some personal satisfaction. I graduated from law school. I can do anything.

What didn't I get? Well, I sure as hell didn't learn how to think. But then, I didn't learn how to think in calculus, either. I learned to think by reading the Great Books, and learning timeless lessons taught by Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. You all could learn a thing or two from them.

Why am I telling you this?

Simple: I don't have good grades from law school. I will never be a successful partner at a large law firm. The two are certainly connected. If making partner were an ambition of mine, I would have put far more effort into law school, earned better grades, and would be on a different career path now.

I can certainly understand why grades and career success correlate, and think anyone trying to argue otherwise is probably in denial.
6.6.2007 1:14am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
My theory starts from the premise that the clients of the really big firms mostly are looking for the appearance of competence. The appearnce that they have hired the best. And, in some cases, this is defensive - esp. if facing some big legal threats - they have to be able to say to the stockholders that they had hired the best. Indeed, when I was in corporate practice, I was shocked to see what we were paying for outside counsel. It made sense though when it was pointed out that it wasn't for the firms' competence, but their appearance of competence.

As has been noted above, there are plenty of instances where the biggest firms don't produce the best product. For example, in litigation, they often don't have that good of track records, esp. when faced with professional litigators. In my case, as a patent attorney, you can usually pick out a big firm patent from a mile away - twice the disclosure that you need, but fairly weak and narrow claims. You often get the feeling that the patent attorneys writing the cases didn't quite understand the invention well enough to claim it, so they just kept on writing. And billing. The product looked good, and that was what was important.

So, what does it take to have top grades in law school? I woudl suggest being reasonably smart, working hard, and knowing how to look good. And this is the same thing that the big law firms are selling - the sizzle.

Let me add though that another thing that big firms provide is thoroughness. Of course, we all try for that. But for most in the practice of law, and for most clients, corners must be cut. But there are clients who need every avenue to be researched, every rock overturned, etc. And are willing to pay for it. This is one of the things that the biggest firms provide. And that is one of the things that the top grads are probably more likely to provide. That meticulousness that got them top grades turns into thoroughness when given a significant budget in a big law firm.
6.6.2007 2:38am
Brian G (mail) (www):
My law firm never asked for my GPA. Many of my law school classmates with great GPAs and law review couldn't actually litigate a case but they can sure make the proper cite to a law repealed in the 19th century.

Disclosure: I had a 3.26, and might have done better if I wasn't out working cases instead of checking cites from scholars who should have gotten them right in the first place.
6.6.2007 2:46am
DJR:

Let me add though that another thing that big firms provide is thoroughness.


That reminds me of the old joke that lawyers are willing to leave no stone unturned, provided they get to charge by the stone.
6.6.2007 8:57am
Jim FSU 1L (mail):
Thanks Bruce, that is the best explanation yet for what law school exams are testing for.
6.6.2007 3:34pm
keypusher (mail):
A few things, based on comments in the thread.

1. I don't think Richard Sander identifies "success" with being a success at a big law firm. After all, he is a law school professor, not a law firm partner.

2. Sander wrote a paper, "The Racial Paradox of the Corporate Law Firm" which noted that large corporate law firms aggressively recruit and hire minority law students with much lower GPAs than their non-minority hires. The minority hires have a much higher attrition rate than white hires, and few of them make partner. Sander's paper suggested that one reason the minority hires don't do as well is that their GPAs are lower.

3. One of the responses Sander's "Racial Paradox" article was to argue that law school grades had very little to do with making partner at a big firm. See this new york times story, which Sander alludes to in his blog post: Good Luck Making Partner

4. To refute this particular criticism, Sander looked at the success rate of white Michigan law school alums at big firms, and found that high GPAs were positively correlated with being at a big firm 15 years out. (Sander made the reasonable assumption that, if you're at a big firm 15 years out, the chances are good you are a partner.)

5. Students with higher GPAs were more likely to go to a big firm, but the rate at which people went to big firms right out of law school didn't vary greatly among the top half of the class. But the correlation between being at a big firm 15 years out and GPA was quite high.

5. A number of commenters believe that you can only go to a big firm if you have a very high GPA to begin with. The answer to that is, as anyone who has practiced law for a while knows, big firms differ. Some are less choosy than others. (Also, Sander defines big firm as any firm with more than 100 lawyers, which isn't so big nowadays.) As Sander's data shows, quite a few people from the bottom half of the class DO go to big firms, at least as he defines them.
6.6.2007 5:02pm
Massive Underachiever:
Jim - FSU

I always thought the A in IRAC stood for Application, not Analysis, or even "pleasant transition sentence". Maybe THAT'S why I'm a bottom dweller.

By the way Jim, what happened to the Noles in the CWS regionals?
6.6.2007 10:01pm