In recent days, I’ve written about the BigLaw Law Factory debate from a structural perspective and noted the “escape hatch” of vendors of aspirational goods such as Apple and Lexus.
A commenter raised the issue of the educational system. Perhaps that’s another aspect of this question.
The Educational Institution as Aspirational Good
Why do students want to go to Harvard? Is it because Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) went there? Is it because Harvard’s undergrad tuition is actually reasonable compared to other institutions? (Harvard subsidizes families with incomes below $180K.) Is it because they believe they’ll get the best possible education there? Is it because of the other thought-to-be-top-quality students who will attend?
Or is Harvard an aspirational good a la Apple and Lexus?
The real answer is complex, of course. It differs for different applicants, and I suspect each applicant combines many of the above rationales.
Still, applicants generally share a belief — based on reality — that their job prospects will improve with Harvard on their resume1. That belief holds for both undergrad work and Harvard Law. (HBS — Harvard Business School — likewise scores here.)
As a hiring manager, I paid no attention to an applicant’s educational background. In fact, at Microsoft I routinely wrestled with HR when they attempted to insert “BSCS or equivalent2” into my job postings. I wanted people who were good at getting stuff done, who could think creatively, who were street-smart rather than (or in addition to) book-smart.
I also spent a lot of time and energy attempting to hire well, and I was willing to risk the occasional misjudged hire to get the great-but-hard-to-classify hires.
But if I didn’t trust my hiring ability, I might have been tempted to turn to the line about college on an applicant’s resume. If she graduated from Harvard, it said that some other reasonably smart people (the Harvard admissions committee) had made a judgment about her and that she was smart enough, industrious enough, or both to make it through Harvard’s courses. And if she graduated near the top of her class, that was added information I might have used.
The problem was that I wasn’t hiring someone to ace classes.3 There were no classes to ace in my business world. Rather, I was hiring them to be creative problem solvers. Graduating summa cum laude or at the top of the law school class doesn’t guarantee that. Does it make it more likely? Perhaps. But I had other tests, more valuable indicators of who would add the most value to my team.
As an employer, I wasn’t interested in Harvard as aspirational good. (I don’t drive a Lexus or own an Apple product, either. But that’s just me.4)
But many employers do see it that way. “She went to Harvard; she must be terrific,5 or at least she’ll be solid.”
Is Harvard is an aspirational brand like Apple and Lexus? There’s the same “feel” — it is at least as good, it’s maybe a bit nicer, and it makes me (as applicant or hiring manager) feel good about myself.
Law Firms, Hiring Counsel, and Harvard
Some law firms may hire exclusively from Harvard and its peers because they aren’t sure how else to judge aspiring attorneys. Some firms reason that doing well at Harvard is a good model for doing well with BigLaw work. Some may hire from the same schools their partners attended.
And some hire because they want to be seen as “we hire Harvard-quality folks.” That’s the aspirational-goods aspect talking, even if it’s not the only reason they’re hiring from Harvard.
Some may also see the transitive relationship in hiring from Harvard. If the firms are judged by clients as aspirational goods, then those clients, counsel of major corporations, are seeking self-affirmation through engaging outside counsel. A staff of Harvard Law grads offers such affirmation.
Thus I think it likely that firms wishing to position themselves as aspirational brands will hire, or continue to hire, the majority of their associates from top-rated law schools. It’s not about whether those applicants will be the best, but rather about the message the firms will be sending to potential clients. If those applicants aren’t perfect, they’ll still, as a group, meet the aspirational-goods criteria: they’re at least as good, they might be better in some ways that may or may not be crucial, and they project a sense of “the right stuff.”
Is that bad?
Law firms are in business, and part of business is marketing. That’s neither good nor bad; it just is, without moral judgment.
Legal Project Management and Aspirational Firms
In the final installment, I’ll discuss how LPM fits into this model. I think it’s clear that Legal Project Management will be a requisite part of surviving as a commodity firm, and of helping those firms climb up the ladder and take on more challenging work. But I think it also plays an interesting role in firms that seek to position themselves as aspirational, as the right place for corporate clients to turn when it’s impossible to make truly metrics-based choices.
1No, Alan, I will not put the accents in resume. It’s a bit pretentious, and resume is now an English-language word; it’s no longer a French loaner.
2Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, a degree that didn’t exist when I was in college. I would email back, “It’s okay if they have the same degree Bill [Gates] has.” Sometimes I had to ping them a couple of times before they’d recall that “BillG” dropped out of Harvard long before he was degree-eligible.
3There is a theory that acing law school classes exactly parallels much of the work of BigLaw — learn lots of facts quickly, use them as weapons in legal sparring, etc.
4I did apply to Harvard when I was 15. The admissions counselor there felt that I was intellectually ready but not emotionally mature enough. He was so right.
5Here’s a suggestion to applicants writing resumes, for what it’s worth. I noted that on resumes where the applicant had included a grade-point average, at least half of them claimed a 4.0. (While I put no stock in the educational section of resumes, I did read through those that were presented to me.) Companies like Microsoft and Google, and top-tier law firms, attract those kinds of folks. It got to the point where, when I saw someone with, say, a 3.5 GPA on a resume, I’d wonder why on earth they put that on there! You’re bragging about a not-top-tier grade? If you don’t have a 4.0, leave the GPA off. If you didn’t graduate in the top part of the class in law or B-school, or at least summa cum laude as an undergrad, leave the GPA off your resume! These are the days of grade inflation, and I hiring managers I’ve talked with recognize that.
I’m not saying that you need to have a 4.0 to succeed. As I’ve noted, I don’t think success in classes is a first-order predictor of success in many jobs. In addition, a 3.0 in a very tough schedule might represent a stronger performance than a 4.0 on courses designed to keep the varsity athletic teams from flunking out. All I’m suggesting is a bit of awareness that at least some hiring managers see the statement of a 3.5 GPA as representing a lack of awareness as to your strengths and weaknesses. Emphasize not just your strengths but where you believe you’re the best; a 3.5 isn’t the best these days.