Seth Godin posted something yesterday I've been chewing on. His point is that elite colleges are a marketing creation and something of a scam. I think the same thing, slightly altered, is true of law schools. Good law schools make for bad legal marketing.
First of all, I know what I'm talking about. I did my undergraduate work at Swarthmore, which is consistently ranked in the top three liberal-arts colleges in the country. I then went to law school at the University of Pennsylvania, which is consistently in the top ten law schools in the country.
Godin writes that graduates of elite colleges do not do any better in life than anyone else. They're not happier, wealthier, healthier -- nothing. After spending a fortune, and working their tails off, they basically receive nothing -- nothing tangible anyway.
Law school is a little different. Top firms, the ones who pay $160,000 a year in salary, recruit like crazy at the top schools, and a J.D. from Yale or Stanford is an almost solid guarantee of a high-paying job at a big firm. That's when the problems start.
A kid who gets into, and out of, a place like Penn has made it to the top of the pile in an VERY structured, ancient system. Law school is all about grades. Period. Elite undergraduate schools tend to go for well-roundedness along with grades, which allegedly was a tactic created in the 1920s to limit the number of Jews at Ivy League schools. But I digress.
Success in law school is all about powering through your courses. At a place like Penn, you are competing with the absolute best of the best. Every kid who is president of Student Council, valedictorian, and was reading Sanskrit in the crib is there, and they're all gunning for the top, against you. For those of you who are reading this and aren't lawyers, law students are ranked. In other words, whether you get and "A" or a "B" depends on how you do competing with someone who may end up a clerk on the Supreme Court. It's relentless, and extremely tough, and really competitive. By the time you make it through, you have not only done well in some very tough courses, but you have also absorbed the idea that you are one of the elite, and you expect the world to recognize this, and reward it, as law school did. You have made it through a very long, complex maze.
Which is where the trouble starts. When these students are ejected out into big firms, first of all, they often have no idea how the "soft" part of a career functions -- interpersonal relationships, strategy, networking, etc. They're not used to being treated as cogs in a much bigger machine. And finally, they have absolutely no idea of how to market themselves, or, fatally, why it matters.
They've always done well. They've always made it to the next step through sheer performance. But as I've written many times, the real world, the marketplace in which they function, is not that way at all. It's chaotic, and requires skills -- like selling, and networking -- that they've never needed. The result can be trouble.
So, Seth's observation about the questionable value of a college degree sort of applies to law schools, and sort of doesn't. On the one hand, if you go to a hot school, you will get a much better job out of the gate, if "better" means big firm, big city, high salary. However, you will also have a harder time, I think, learning to market yourself.
In response to this, Penn, like several other schools, is putting together a course on what's loosely called "Professionalism." It's intended to be an introduction to the nonlegal aspects of practicing law, and I'm going to be lecturing on business development, along with a classmate, Wendy Beetlestone. A good time should be had by all, as well as maybe helping baby lawyers be better marketers.