Where You Went To School Does Matter in Solo Practice…As Does Everything Else

I love the blog The Practice, written by three practicing solos, Jon Stein, Shane Jimison and Barry Kaufman.  And generally, I generally agree with most of the advice that the trifecta dispenses.  But I part company with Jon’s recent post that the value of a top law school is overrated for those who want to be solos.  Jon points out that most clients never ask lawyers where they went to school, which is true enough, but it’s only one side of the equation.  The reason that I feel compelled to devote a post to respond to Jon is that his view, which I believe is shared by most in the “how-to-start-a-practice” field, is not just inaccurate, but is probably one of the greatest deterrents to biglaw associates and top law grads who are thinking about starting a law firm.

Lest you all attack me for being a “school snob,” let me start with the caveat that I believe that solo practice is one of the greatest equalizers in out otherwise strategied legal profession.  A last place graduate from the lowest ranked law school in the country can succeed just as big in solo practice as a top grad from from an Ivy League law school.  And in fact, I am certain that there are dozens of examples of lawyers from lower tiered schools with successful solo or small firm practices who out-earn their upper tiered peers ten times over.

At the same time, the fact that lower tiered graduates are successful in solo practice doesn’t mean that a degree from a top law school (which I’m going to define as Top 25 or First Tier) doesn’t matter.  Here are some reasons why a degree from a great law school can provide you a ticket to success in small firm practice.

1.  A degree from a top school gives other lawyers, particularly biglaw attorneys, comfort in using your service.
Biglaw attorneys have a need for legal services like anyone else.  Large firm attorneys may need to hire a lawyer to handle a personal matter for them or for law firm staff.  Large firm attorneys might also need to refer matters that are too small for the firm to handle or outside of its expertise.  Finally, from time to time, large or mid-sized firms need lawyers to provide work on a contract basis.

Large firm attorneys must look to solo and small firm attorneys to meet these needs.  At the same time, our legal profession has grown so stratified that most larger firm attorneys have never met a solo and don’t think very highly of them.  So if you’re a solo with a pedigree of a great law school (and concommitantly, perhaps a great clerkship or previous biglaw job) you’ll fit within the large firm’s comfort zone – and the firm will have more confidence in sending the work your way.

I know this from my own personal experience.  I graduated from Cornell Law School, which has consistently ranked in the top 15, though because of the Ivy League affiliation, it carries an even more impressive reputation than its ranking reflects.  Though I was a middling law student (I’m a far, far better attorney) and had almost no hands-on experience when I started my firm, my Cornell degree helped generate a substantial amount of lucrative contract work in the early years of my practice that kept my firm afloat.  We can forever debate the equities of a system that perpetuates this practice, but for now, it exists – and if you have a degree from a top school, why not take advantage of it?

2.  A degree from an upper ranked school is a show stopper. Even now, with so much disatisfaction about biglaw, a large percentage of graduates from the top schools continue to stream into large firms, or perhaps government agencies like Department of Justice or prestitigious legal aid jobs.  So when you graduate from a top law school and start a firm, you stand out.  People remember you – and being remembered can help you find clients.

3.  A degree from an uppper ranked school may give you  a broader reach of contacts. Usually, graduates from upper ranked schools spread out to practices all over the country while those from lower tiered schools typically remain local.  Thus, graduates of top schools have access to a broader range of alumni contacts which can be useful for those who hope to build a national practice.

The bottom line is that when you start a law practice, everything matters.  If you were a police officer before going to law school and starting a practice, that’s going to help you build a criminal law practice.  If you clerked for the head of the family law division at the local court, you’re going to have a competitive edge over a lawyer who lacks those same connections.   Some might argue that law school ranking shouldn’t matter because it’s an elitist concept or one that we can’t control.  But ranking does matter, just like everything else, so if you’ve got a great ranking, flaunt it.  And if you’re sitting at biglaw, depressed about your plight because you spent 100k on a Harvard law degree and never spent a second in a court room, cheer up:  you may not have an ounce of practical experience, but your degree and biglaw credentials will still buy you the same ticket to solo practice.