How much weight does a prestigious law degree hold when it comes to climbing the ranks at a large law firm?
As one argument goes, rainmakers often come from humble beginnings and have to fight their way to the top, while graduates from highly-ranked universities are inclined to coast their way through Big Law.
Over the past several months, a number of law firms have announced new classes of partners for the upcoming year, and we thought it would be a fruitful exercise to take a look at who these lawyers are and where they come from.
As it turns out, if you want to become a partner at one of the top-grossing law firms in the country, it looks like — surprise, surprise — Harvard Law School is the place to go for your education, based on a Big Law Business analysis of partner promotions at 14 major law firms.
Big Law Business reviewed the legal education of 299 lawyers who were elected partners at AmLaw 100 and 200 firms, effective between Oct. 1 and Jan. 2016. We found 7 percent — or 21 of them — hold law degrees from Harvard, the top university of choice among the law firms that recruited these lawyers.
New York University School of Law was the second most popular school, making up 5 percent of the newly promoted partners: 15 altogether.
But at the same time, more than four percent — 14 lawyers— came from schools ranked 100 or below on this year’s U.S. News and World Reports law school rankings. This included two from Columbus School of Law at Catholic University; two from DePaul University; two from Suffolk University; and one each from New York Law School; Cleveland State University Cleveland-Marshall College of Law; Missouri-Kansas City School of Law; Mercer University; Ganzaga University School of Law; John Marshall Law School; Widener University School of Law and Rutgers Universiy School of Law — Camden.
The data provides a narrow snapshot into the the most prevalent legal education behind lawyers moving upstream in Big Law.
It’s worth noting the numbers are based off a sampling of law firms that have announced partner promotions in recent months, providing an early and incomplete look as many more are expected to announce in December and January.
The 299 partner promotions Big Law Business reviewed were as follows: 90 at Kirkland & Ellis; 31 at White & Case; 25 at Latham & Watkins; 24 at King & Spalding; 24 at Morgan Lewis & Bockius; 24 at Polsinelli; 23 at Goodwin Procter; 17 at Ropes & Gray; 11 at Bryan Cave; nine at Covington & Burling; seven at Cleary Gottlieb; six at Fenwick & West; six at Sullivan & Cromwell; and two at Wiley Rein.
The data is also skewed by an outlier: one of the law firms reviewed was Kirkland & Ellis, which promoted 90 lawyers to partner — three times as many lawyers than the second largest newly-made partner population at White & Case, which promoted 31 lawyers to partner.
Kirkland is known for having a robust non-equity partner class where sixth-year associates are given the opportunity to acquire the title of partner without any equity stake in the firm, which would explain the ballooned figures.
William Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University who studies employment in the legal industry, explained the Kirkland non-equity class: “They get really motivated people who say, ‘I get a chance to make equity at Kirkland and those partners work like crazy and come in at high rates. You have talented people working extremely hard without enjoying the full economic benefits of ownership. That profit eschews to the Kirkland equity class.”
“They can pull it off because they have a coveted market position,” he added.
Henderson also warned to take the law school data with a grain of salt: Even though Harvard and NYU rank high, the data is missing context, like how many associates started off with law degrees from those law schools, compared to how many made partner.
Out of the 299 partners, 47 of the lawyers either did not have a Juris Doctor degree (relying on foreign legal education), their education could not be found on their profile, or they were no longer with the firm. For the purposes of this report, Big Law Business only counted U.S. law schools where lawyers received Juris Doctor degrees.
Looking at the data, some trend lines turn up. For one thing, law firms with higher profitability tend to recruit from law schools that rank highly in U.S. News and World Report.
At the three most profitable law firms besides Kirkland & Ellis, 23 of the 32 partners who were promoted had JDs from law schools in the top 20 of this year’s U.S. News and World Report law school rankings. Seven were from Harvard and six from NYU.
At the three least profitable law firms of this list, only six attorneys of the 37 who made partner held JDs from law schools in the top 20 of the rankings.
At the same time, despite some law firms’ global platform, they tended to promote lawyers who came from law schools near the firm’s headquarters.
At Boston-based Ropes & Gray, for instance, the law firm promoted more lawyers who came from Boston College Law School and Boston University School of Law than law firms that weren’t based in the area.
The full results are as follows:
Harvard: 21 lawyers
NYU: 15 lawyers
University of Michigan: 10 lawyers
Georgetown: 9 lawyers
Northwestern Pritzker School of Law: 9 lawyers
University of Virginia: 8 lawyers
University of California Berkeley: 7 lawyers
University of Chicago: 7 lawyers
Columbia Law School: 7 lawyers
Boston College Law School: 6 lawyers
Boston University School of Law: 5 lawyers
University of California, Los Angeles: 5 lawyers
Fordham University: 5 lawyers
George Washington University Law School: 5 lawyers
University of Illinois: 5 lawyers
Vanderbilt University: 5 lawyers
American University: 4 lawyers
University of Southern California: 4 lawyers
University of Texas: 4 lawyers
Yale: 4 lawyers
Brooklyn: 4 lawyers
St. Louis University: 4 lawyers
Case Western Reserve University School of Law: 4 lawyers
Benjamin Cardozo School of Law: 4 lawyers
University of Pennsylvania: 4 lawyers
Stanford Law: 4 lawyers
University of San Diego: 3 lawyers
University of Tennessee: 3 lawyers
University of Notre Dame Law School: 3 lawyers
University of Georgia: 3 lawyers
Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago-Kent College of Law: 3 lawyers
University of Houston Law Center: 2 lawyers
University of North Carolina School of Law: 2 lawyers
University of Minnesota: 2 lawyers
Cornell University Law School: 2 lawyers
Rutgers: 2 lawyers
Suffolk: 2 lawyers
Columbus School of Law at Catholic: 2 lawyers
Seton Hall: 2 lawyers
Emory University: 2 lawyers
Washington University: 2 lawyers
University of California-Hastings: 2 lawyers
Duke University School of Law: 2 lawyers
Northeastern University: 2 lawyers
Temple University, Beasley School of Law: 2 lawyers
University of Minnesota School of Law: 2 lawyers
DePaul University: 2 lawyers
Indiana University Maurer School of Law: 2 lawyers
University of Iowa: 2 lawyers
University of Denver Sturm College of Law: 2 lawyers
University of Kansas: 2 lawyers
William & Mary: 1 lawyer
University of Miami: 1 lawyer
Tulane University: 1 lawyer
Wake Forest University: 1 lawyer
Georgia State University: 1 lawyer
University of Richmond: 1 lawyer
Mercer University: 1 lawyer
Santa Clara University: 1 lawyer
New York Law School: 1 lawyer
John Marshall Law School: 1 lawyer
University of Pittsburgh School of Law: 1 lawyer
Villanova University School of Law: 1 lawyer
Syracuse University: 1 lawyer
University of Wisconsin Law School: 1 lawyer
George Mason University: 1 lawyer
Brigham Young University, J. Reuben Clark Law School: 1 lawyer
Gonzaga University School of Law: 1 lawyer
Florida State University College of Law: 1 lawyer
Georgia State University College of Law: 1 lawyer
Washington University- St. Louis School of Law: 1 lawyer
University of North Carolina: 1 lawyer
University of Tulsa: 1 lawyer
Missouri Kansas City School of Law: 1 lawyer
Cleveland State University Cleveland-Marshall College of Law: 1 lawyer
Minnesota Law School: 1 lawyer
Widener University School of Law: 1 lawyer
Josh Block contributed to this report.
(UPDATED: This post has been updated to clarify that the data includes announcements from AmLaw 100 and 200 firms)