How Employers See You

You need to remember that the largest, most prestigious and highest-paying law firms (with some exceptions), generally look for graduates from the "Top 15" or "Top 25" law schools. The annual edition of U.S. News & World Report, which ranks the nation's schools (though not necessarily a source admired by the American Bar Association), can help you determine the current ranking of your school if you do not already know it. However, the ranking of your law school is not always the most important factor taken into consideration. At any one time, our database usually contains more than 750 law firm opportunities in a market such as California, for instance. That information might imply that we could easily find jobs for the vast majority of candidates who approach us if we decided to work with them. Furthermore, not all of the 750+ law firm positions we may have at any one time require graduation from a top law school. Yet, we consistently choose to work with only a small universe of candidates. For that reason, the law school you attended might remain a rather important consideration to us when we decide whether or not we want to work with you.

Outstanding performance at a lesser law school can offset the fact that you didn't attend one of the "Top 25." If you were fortunate enough to land a job with a top national law firm upon graduating from a lesser law school, you may still be marketable. Furthermore, if you have experience in a highly desirable practice area, you may be marketable regardless of the law school you attended or the ranking of your current firm.

Overall, firms are asking one fundamental question: Do you have the training and motivation to be a good lawyer? Recruiters ask the same question. However, we try to learn even more about your skills and experience than the majority of the legal hiring organizations we serve.

Obviously, many firms carry their review of your credentials to different extremes. Some firms not only require graduation from a school like Stanford, Harvard, Chicago, Yale or Columbia, they also prefer Law Review and Order of the Coif graduates from those institutions. If you have successfully completed a federal clerkship (a federal appellate court clerkship is valued even more), your employment opportunities will be even brighter.

Does such elitism possibly work against many fine candidates who graduate from less prestigious institutions? It may indeed. Isn't it also true that many lawyers who achieve national stature graduated from less prestigious schools? That's absolutely true.

Are many potential candidates able to successfully work around this elitist system? Unfortunately, not very often, especially when approaching the largest and highest-paying firms. However, it has happened.

The following information is intended as a brief summary of some of the ways that a lawyer might try to try to overcome the elitist system.

What Can Give You an Edge?

Let's assume you didn't achieve high honors at a top school. Do you still have a chance? Yes. Some of America's top firms often come to us and simply ask, "Do you have anybody on file who can read or speak Japanese? Our Tokyo office is constantly sending us new material and we just lost our only Japanese-speaking lawyer." Others approach us with the following type of information and request. "We are doing a major restructuring in Poland. We need somebody familiar with Common Market Law and existing Polish statutes. Do you have anybody?" Another firm might ask us, "Do you have any patent attorneys who hold master's degrees in electrical engineering?"

Believe it or not, nothing makes us happier than placing a candidate that other recruiters have turned down. We are proud to say that we do that more often than you might think. In fact, we have done that on behalf of some of the most prominent lawyers in the United States.

What do we look for? First, we concentrate on finding potential candidates who have some of the special skills we just mentioned. If we find something in your background that may make you employable with one of the best law firms, we will put you in a special database. If and when a job requiring your special skills comes up, we'll contact you. Once we receive your approval, we'll do everything we can to get you that job.

We will now present a basic analytic tool to help you review your skills and credentials before providing any further advice about how you should proceed with your job search.

BCG Attorney Search's Candidate Analysis Tools

Please answer "Yes" or "No" to each of the following questions:

  • Are you a graduate of a Top 10 law school
  • Are you a graduate of a Top 25 law school?
  • Are you currently working for a top national law firm?
  • Did you receive any of the following honors? (Law Review/Order of the Coif, a federal clerkship, a state supreme court clerkship, a Rhodes or Marshall Scholarship (or another, similar high honor)?
  • Do you have any special legal work experience or language skills not generally offered by other candidates?
  • Can you offer a new employer a significant amount of portable business?

How to Analyze Your Responses to These Questions

Little explanation is needed since it should be rather easy to tell if you have the classical background that the largest, highest-paying firms and corporations are looking for when selecting new attorneys. If you do not have this background and you haven't distinguished yourself as an attorney in some remarkable way, you're going to have a tough (if not impossible) time securing employment with one of America's top law firms, boutiques or corporations.

We will now comment on one more situation that is frequently raised by individuals who contact us. If a lawyer didn't go to a top school but was on law review, in the top 5 percent of her class and held a federal clerkship, can she still be seriously considered for a job with any top employers? Our answer is "maybe."

In our experience, a federal clerkship often trumps attendance at a lesser school since there's a presumption that it was won in competition with hundreds of candidates who attended top schools. Being awarded a Rhodes or Marshall Scholarship, for instance, prior to attending a lesser law school can also sometimes help you remain a very marketable candidate. Just remember that we believe in the adage: "Never say never." However, we must keep in mind the employer's usual point of view. If an applicant does not have credentials from a top school, he will need some other rather remarkable achievements to offset that fact. For better or worse, that's how the system works.

by A. Harrison Barnes, Esq.

This article courtesy of BCG Attorney Search.