The Inverse Relationship Between Prestige and Salary

It’s a misleading title, but hopefully it will lead some folks to read this great post by Bill Henderson on the ELS blog. Bill compared high-end plaintiffs’ counsel to high-end corporate counsel, asking where they went to law school. While 64% of AmLaw counsel went to a top-25 law school, only 32% of plaintiff superstars did. Bill is appropriately modest about these preliminary data, but he adds an intriguing series of research questions:

I would like to parse out how social forces and individual skills and personality traits (e.g., risk adversion, extroversion, affect recognition) impact the career trajectories of young lawyers. The plaintiffs’ bar might be a good place to start.

I’ve a few thoughts. First, it is probably true the top 100 plaintiffs lawyers make a significantly higher mean salary than the top 100 defense counsel (excluding in-house counsel who receive stock options for wearing a businessperson’s hat). If you want to be rich, obviously, get out of the law. But if you can’t help but love the law and mammon, go with the plaintiff side of the bar.

Second, prestigious schools do little to incent their graduates toward entrepreneurial activity, because the costs of passivity and laziness are lower. The bottom of Harvard’s class can still land appropriately paying NY Firm jobs pretty much at will. Such young lawyers are trained to believe that success means prestige, not (largely) different salaries. The top of the class at HLS and the bottom of the class at the school probably could, should they desire, pay the same effective tax rate and live in the same tony Westchester suburb ten years after graduation. This simply isn’t true at less prestigious schools.

Third, less-prestigious schools work much harder to train their graduates in trial and business-development skills. The proliferation of such training programs draws the ire of Jeff Harrison at Moneylaw:

My sense is that law school quality varies inversely with the number of [“centers, institutes, certificate programs, and foreign programs.”] Examine your own school’s version of these. Can you identify one or two people who are the “but for” causes of these programs? Was there a demand for that program before it came into existence? Probably not, but in the log-rolling tradition of a faculty were few or none are going anywhere else, all but the most outlandish are approved.

Well, fair enough, but the data may suggest that such programs sometimes help a few students to become obscenely wealthy. The story of practical training can’t be just about capture: it might also be demand-driven. And the success of the graduates of less prestigious schools isn’t just, I think, the effect of self-selection.

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