Today's Wall Street Journal Law Blog has a piece on the value, or lack thereof, of the US News and World Report ranking of law schools. The ranking is an absolutely brilliant marketing strategy, but as almost everyone agrees, it does a real disservice to lawyers, who, I contend, are often toddlers when it comes to thinking straight about marketing.
As I've blogged about before, I have a J.D. from the Law School of the University of Pennsylvania. it's arguably the oldest law school in the country, in the Ivy Leage, ranked in the Top Five by US News, and is extraordinarily difficult to get into. It's ruinously expense, too. In the world of law, it's a powerhouse brand -- the legal world's Nike, or Apple.
However, this year I'm serving on my class's reunion committee, and in the process, have gotten a look at what some of my classmates have done with their careers -- a look behind the brand, as it were. And it's eye-opening.
Because of the school's ranking, you would think that everyone would go straight to Wachtell, Lipton, make partner, rake in the money and rule the world. Not quite.
- A lot of them aren't even practicing law anymore. Like, say,me.
- Those that are are doing all kinds of different lawyering --working in the D.A.'s office, working in-house for corporations, running their own little firms. Partners at megafirms are a distinct minority.
I have always believed that law was the most romantic profession, in the sense that lawyers often believe things about their profession that are manifestly untrue, but very appealing. As a former litigator, I can tell you that actually standing up in court, saying "May it please the Court" and arguing before a judge is an intensely romantic experience.
My point: the legal profession, I think, is comprised of people who, within their own professions, are surprisingly susceptible to the effect of a brand. Lawyers care a LOT about reputation, image and appearance. If you went to Harvard Law, you have a certain, powerful cachet that makes a real difference, even if you spent the entire three years holed up in the Cantab Lounge drinking and listening to Little Joe Cook and The Thrillers (don't ask me how I know so much about this). When people hear that some lawyer is a partner at, say, Skadden, they take a step back. The US News rankings are branding tools.
I make my living helping lawyers market themselves. Building a law practice takes time and work. My clients often need to be taught this fact. Which frequently means helping them deconstruct all the branding they've inadvertently absorbed. You cannot bring in clients simply by running ads. Business development is complex, tricky, and subtle. Because they have no training in it, and because the world of law is so brand/reputation-based, lawyers tend to think about marketing in big, primary-color brand-driven concepts. This often makes it much harder for them to understand what it really takes to market their own practices, and for that reason, as a legal marketer, I think the U.S. News rankings do a disservice both to students and practitioners by making a difficult situation worse.
If you're a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, great. You've got a mighty brand behind you. But if you're not, and you're trying to build your practice, then you need to think about your business in more nuanced, realistic ways, and things like law school rankings don't help you do that.