Elitism and Education (Part I): Class and the Legal Profession

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Written by Lisa R. Pruitt

I’ve been contemplating a series on “Elitism in Education,” but the posting of a new paper by Richard Sander and Jane Yakowitz  prompted me to change the title to “Elitism and Education.”  That’s because their new study, “The Secret of My Success:  How Status, Prestige and School Performance Shape Legal Careers,” suggests that an elite law school education is not as important to a successful legal career as conventional wisdom suggests.  The draft paper is not yet peer reviewed, but here’s a summarizing excerpt:

“The consistent theme we find throughout this analysis is that performance in law school–as measured by law school grades–is the most important predictor of career success.  It is decisively more important than law school ‘eliteness.’  Socioeconomic factors play a critical role in shaping the pool from which law students are drawn, but little or no discernible role in shaping post-graduate careers.  Since the dominant conventional wisdom says that law school prestige is all important, and since students who ‘trade up’ in school prestige generally take a hit to their school performance, we think prospective students are getting the wrong message.”

Sander is, of course, well known for arguing that black law students are not well served by affirmative action when it places them in law schools where their numerical entering credentials (LSAT and UGPA) are significantly poorer than those of their classmates.   He has also asserted that affirmative action hurts blacks in the context of hiring by large law firms when blacks have lower law school GPAs than their white counterparts.  He maintains that this “handicaps” them “substantially in the the big law ‘tournament,’ plausibly leading to much higher attrition and lower rates of partnership attainment.”  Sander and Yakowitz explain that one purpose of this new study is to respond in part to skepticism that Sander’s prior article generated regarding the link between law school grades and career success.

I want to focus here on the new study’s insights into class (im)mobility, what Sander and Yakowitz refer to as SES (socioeconmic status).  Here’s the bad news:

“On the one hand, law students come predominantly from upper-middle- and upper-class backgrounds.  This was true fifty years ago and continues to be true today–to almost exactly the same degree.  Whatever is necessary to shape the credentials and desire necessary to end up in law school, it is distributed  in ways that correlate strongly with most conventional measures of social eliteness.”

Elsewhere they expand on this (p. 12 of the draft):

“[H]alf of all students at elite schools in the ‘After the JD’ dataset (who generally began law school in 1996 or 1997) had parents with occupational levels that put them in the top 10% of American households; only ten percent had SES backgrounds that put them in the bottom half of the American distribution.  As in the Warkow-Davis analysis [from the 1960s], students at less elite schools are more socially heterogeneous …  The similarity across time is striking; if anything, it is perhaps fair to infer that the most elite schools have become more SES-elite over time, while the least elite schools in the spectrum are a bit more socially heterogeneous than their 1961 counterparts.”

So, if someone is  just breaking into the professional/managerial class by getting a legal education, chances are very good s/he is doing so at a non-elite school.   This is not terribly surprising because, as Sander and Yakowitz point out, getting into law school as a function of  (a) who is in the pool of college graduates; (b) who wants to go to law school and believes they can finance it; and (c) who has sufficiently high LSAT and UGPA credentials.   Those from lower SES strata–especially if they are white–may not “look good on paper” to more elite schools.   Indeed, those from working class families may not even apply to higher ranked schools.  (Hard as it is for people who are in the know to believe, some prospective law students may not have “gotten the memo” about going to the best law school that will accept you.  Here is my own account of being a law school applicant from a working-class family).  They may choose non-elite law schools if and when those schools are less expensive, both in terms of tuition and in terms of requiring a move.   I wonder, for example, how many law students from working-class backgrounds attend local law schools with night programs.

If Sander and Yakowitz are correct that the power of law school eliteness is over-rated as a career maker, this is (somewhat ironically) especially good news for lower SES folks because they are particularly unlikely to get an elite legal education.

Now for the (other) good news:

“[T]he role of social eliteness in shaping lawyer careers after law school  has changed dramatically over the past two generations.  Whereas in the 1960s, social class, proper ‘connections’ and religion all played influential roles in shaping the types of legal careers available to law graduates, those factors do not seem to bear the same significance today.”

Sander and Yakowitz go on to depict in Table 2 (based on After the JD data) how factors reflecting family capital (e.g., “lawyers in the family,” “one or both parents are supervisors,” “family helped with career strategy,” “family was very important for obtaining first job”) relate to a lawyer’s median income.  I was admittedly shocked to see that among  7 such factors, only “lawyers in the family”was a positive indicator for a higher median salary.  Six other factors correlate with lower median salary, while a final one that might suggest a lack of family capital, “both parents are immigrants,” had no apparent impact on salary.

But therein lies a serious limitation of the Sander and Yakowitz study:  Salary is their principal measure of success, with some references also to law firm partnership.   Other lower-paid but prestigious and powerful legal career paths are not acknowledged as markers of success.  Also, I would like to see Sander and Yakowitz attempt to assess the influence of aspects of social capital that are not directly related to a lawyer’s family of origin.

Here is something else Sander and Yakowitz appear to overlook.  The salaries of lawyers who earn more money in spite of lack of family capital may do so because earning a higher salary is more important to them than other metrics for or manifestations of success.  Even assuming those from SES disadvantaged backgrounds are proportionately represented among those who earn good grades in law school, that number is really very small.  This group in particular may be more highly compensated than some of their counterparts from more privileged backgrounds because the former place a premium on making money, which gets reflected in their career trajectory.  A higher income may be more important to the lawyer who has transcended class boundaries precisely because s/he grew up with less (if any) financial security.   A lawyer from an upper-middle or upper-class background who has always known financial stability (and may enjoy the benefit of family financial reserves) may feel freer to choose the more rewarding or “alternative” law career path, even if the compensation is not so handsome.

So, this study brings some good news regarding class mobility for those in lower SES strata who have an undergraduate degree, “want to go to law school and believe they can finance it” (an increasingly Herculean task given the skyrocketing cost of higher education)–especially if they get good grades.  The devastating news is how few such people actually wind up in law school.  Sander and Yakowitz’s study indicates remarkably little SES upward mobility as reflected in actually getting the SES disadvantaged into law schools and therefore out into the legal profession.  The reasons for that are surely worth further study.

Cross-posted to UC Davis Faculty Blog.