What Law Students THINK They Know about Elite Law Firms: Preliminary Results from a Survey of Third Year Law Students
David B. Wilkins
Harvard University - Center on the Legal Profession
G. Mitu Gulati
Duke University School of Law
W.G. Hart 2001 Legal Workshop
There is a growing body of scholarship in the United States on the structure of elite law firms. Virtually all of this work, however, is written from the perspective of the firms themselves or the lawyers who work inside these institutions. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the perspective of another group with an obvious interest in the structure and practice of large firms: law students. Consequently, we have almost no information about what law students know, or more accurately, think they know, about the practices of elite firms and how these practices are likely to affect their careers. This omission is important since perceptions are important both as a potential window on actual firm practices and as a significant influence on the strategic choices of students, firms, and law schools even if the perceptions prove to be incorrect.
This paper begins to close this gap by reporting the preliminary results from a nationwide survey of third year law students at American law schools about hiring and promotion practices at elite law firms. The survey tests three hypothesis about elite firms: 1) that the hiring practices of these entities are more concerned with sorting prospective applicants on the basis of a few visible, rankable signals (such as law school status and grades) than on evaluating a candidate's substantive knowledge or skills, thereby leaving those with hiring authority substantial discretion to make decisions on the basis of subjective determinations about whether a given student will "fit in" to the institution's culture; 2) that succeeding at a large law firm is as much about whether one finds a mentor or is perceived as being a "star" or a "team player" as doing high quality work and playing by the rules; and 3) that perceptions about what it takes to be hired or promoted at a large law firm are likely to vary according to the respondent's gender, racial, and law school identity. Survey results suggests that third year law students subscribe to some version of each hypotheses. The paper concludes by discussing the implications of our findings for students, firms, and law schools.
Date posted: June 16, 2001