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In law school, it only takes a few hours to set your career back for years. Long after you’ve forgotten about the rule against perpetuities, you’ll be haunted by that C+ on your first-year property exam. Even in today’s simmering associate job market, major law firms still care about grades and law school prestige. While some leading firms now are recruiting from second-tier schools and looking farther down in the class at top 20 programs, academic credentials remain critical. That’s true — even for midlevel and senior associates. “Law school clearly matters,” says Barry Romm, a partner with Klein Landau & Romm, a Washington, D.C., placement firm. “There’s been some loosening around the edges, but no one is saying that we don’t care about credentials anymore. Every firm likes to point out they’re hiring the best and the brightest.” Likewise, recruiter Avery Ellis has not seen a dramatic change in who’s getting offers. While some firms were more flexible in February and March, when they were desperate for lateral associates with corporate experience, he recalls, the standards went back up after that work subsided. “This is how a law firm builds up its reputation and its brand,” says Ellis, managing director in the Washington, D.C., office of Mestel & Co. “They believe that it’s so important to have smart people.” And grades are especially important for students during the fall of their second year, when firms are interviewing for summer associates. At that point, only first-year scores are available. Essentially, one poor grade can mean the difference between your pick of a half-dozen offers and a mailbox full of rejection letters. “It’s pretty frustrating,” says K. Jill Barr, director of the Office of Career Services at American University’s Washington College of Law. “Because there’s a C+ on the transcript, they’re closed out of one part of the job market. Many of these law firms end up not recruiting what could be a terrific long-term attorney.” Since firms hire most of their new associates through their summer programs, students who don’t hit their stride until their second or third year typically are out of luck. “If you’re going to do well, do well your first year,” says Stephen Springer, a recruiter with Garrison & Sisson in D.C. Nevertheless, the brighter associate job market has opened doors for some local students who did not make law review. At American, Barr has noticed a definite increase during the past three years in students getting offers and the number of firms coming to campus. Across town at Georgetown University Law Center, Marilyn Tucker, director of alumni career services, reports that more employers are interviewing on campus this fall than ever before. Students also did well during last fall’s interviewing process. “The market has been so good,” says Tucker. “There definitely are students farther down in the class who got offers that they would not have had in the past.” For firms, it’s a sensitive issue. No one wants to admit publicly that they’ve lowered their standards because of market forces. At the same time, many firms insist they don’t limit recruiting to a small group of elite schools and that grades are just one of many factors. The focus on academic credentials, recruiters say, reflects the reality that most firms use nonlawyers to screen applicants initially. Grades provide an easy and objective way to cull through hundreds of resumes to select candidates to interview. “We can only visit a certain number of law schools, but we’ve found outstanding attorneys at schools that are not household names,” says Richard Wiley, a founding partner of D.C.’s Wiley, Rein & Fielding. For instance, Wiley points out that his firm interviews many candidates from Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, an up-and-coming school with a strong communications law program. That’s appealing to Wiley’s firm, which is best known for its communications practice. “Motivation and spark are not just found at Harvard,” he says. One top firm with a reputation for looking beyond the Ivy League is Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. “We’ve always been pretty diverse,” says Dennis Race, chairman of the hiring committee. “We don’t just look at the top 10 schools; we look at the top 50, plus local schools near our 11 offices.” While Akin Gump continues to recruit broadly, the firm has not loosened its academic standards in recent years. “If anything, they’re a bit higher,” says Race. The firm has been trimming the size of its summer associate class, he explains, a move made possible by reduced associate turnover and the assignment of more tasks to less-expensive staff attorneys and legal assistants. In the District this summer, the firm had 33 summer associates, down from 46 in 1999, Race says. At Hogan & Hartson, there’s also an emphasis on hiring a heterogeneous group of associates. This year, Hogan plans to visit about 40 campuses, having added such schools as Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to its interview schedule. “You can go beyond the top 20 and still build a world-class law firm,” says Robert Waldman, a partner who chairs the firm’s law school and judicial clerk recruitment committee. One factor that’s driving this broader search is the growth of the firm’s offices outside the D.C. area. After Hogan joined practices with Davis Weber & Edwards in April, the firm now has more than 40 lawyers in Manhattan. Consequently, Hogan & Hartson will look more closely at students from New York schools like Cardozo, Brooklyn, and Fordham, as well as Columbia and NYU. And to help grow its new Miami office, the firm will interview for the first time this fall at the University of Florida and the University of Miami. “It adds to the vitality of these offices to have people with roots in these communities,” says Waldman. Meanwhile, the D.C. office of New York’s Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson also is reaching out to more schools. In 1998, the firm visited 16 schools, plus a regional job fair in Boston and a minority job fair. This year, the firm plans to interview at 23 schools and five job fairs. Vasiliki Tsaganos, a partner who co-chairs the D.C. office’s recruiting committee, says Fried Frank is looking at more schools because of increased competition from other firms for the same small pool of top students. “There are great candidates who are not in the top 10 schools,” she says. PEDIGREE POWER While firms have expanded recruiting, pedigree still matters. “The higher your law school [ranking], the more forgiving they are about grades,” says Ellis. “If I had a transcript full of C’s, I’d want it to be from Harvard.” For instance, Springer’s placement firm, Garrison & Sisson, was recently contacted by a first-year student who had already started classes at the University of Colorado when he was accepted off the wait list into Georgetown. The student was advised to pack his bags, forfeit his admission deposit, and leave Boulder. “If you want to practice at a big firm, you should go to Georgetown,” says Springer. Even firms with pressing staffing needs will generally keep positions open rather than hire lawyers with lesser credentials. “Firms will call us and say they’re desperate, but when we send them candidates with on-point experience, they’ll say, ‘We don’t like those law schools,’ ” says Ellis. Geography also plays a role in school status. Students from up-and-coming programs like Catholic, American, and George Mason School of Law compete better in the D.C. area, where their schools are well-known and alumni have risen into partnership ranks. “If you’ve done well at George Mason and you’re looking in this market, you’re in good shape,” says Springer. “But if you’re looking in San Francisco, it’s a much tougher battle.” Another example is the University of Baltimore. The school does extremely well in Washington, D.C. with firms with strong Baltimore ties — such as Venable and Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe — but not elsewhere, says Romm, who notes his firm has had trouble placing a top-tier UB candidate in Washington. The attention to credentials also varies significantly by practice area. “The litigation partners are the most particular about resumes,” says Ellis. “They love to see law review, federal clerkships, and those Latin words — summa cum laude.” By contrast, if you have experience in intellectual property, technology, corporate law, or another hot practice area, grades matter less. “If you’re a good ERISA lawyer with a good personality, you can get into a firm that wouldn’t touch you as a litigator,” says Springer. Unfortunately for some, pedigree and grades are not forgotten after law school. “I do have alums that are three to four years out who are irate that firms are still asking for transcripts,” says Marianna Blagburn, assistant director for career development at the George Washington University Law School. The importance of your GPA slowly diminishes as employers focus more on where you’ve worked and what you’ve done. “The more senior you are, the more your experience matters, but some firms won’t give you a break on that,” says Stuart TenHoor, a Washington legal recruiter. Even prospective partners do not escape academic scrutiny. “Some firms will even ask for transcripts for partners,” says Steve Nelson, managing consultant for law and government affairs with the McCormick Group Inc. in Arlington. Of course, many firms are willing to consider lateral partners from lesser-known schools — if they have a significant book of business. If you really want to work at a large firm in Washington, all is not lost just because you went to Podunk U., or sank to the bottom of your class a la John McCain. After several years in the wilderness, you can make back to the promised land of $150,000 salaries. One route there is to work first for a smaller firm and gain experience in a marketable practice area. “Once you’re in the club, it’s a lot easier to move around, because somebody has given you a stamp of approval,” Ellis says. Another smart option is to work for Uncle Sam. “Students would be well-advised not to give up or underestimate themselves,” says Wiley, whose firm hires many attorneys from the Federal Communications Commission. “If you go work for the government, you can reinvent yourself.” Georgetown’s Tucker recalls many alumni with mediocre grades who have made “course corrections” and wound up at a large firm later. For instance, one of her research assistants couldn’t find a job with a major Washington firm. She landed a job with a top firm in the Midwest, which served as a springboard to an offer from a prestigious D.C. firm. Tucker recalls another student many years ago who couldn’t get a summer job after his second year. With few options after graduation, he went back to Georgetown to get his LL.M. in tax. Today, he’s a partner at a major firm. “Persistence pays,” says Tucker. “It may not happen in law school or after the bar, but if you keep at, you will succeed.” And of course, big firms are not the only place you can have a rewarding career. “Large law firms make up only 15 to 20 percent of the job market,” says AU’s Barr. “There’s a whole other world out there — small firms, government agencies, and clerkships. Many folks find their niche outside of the large firms.” Ted Allen is a senior editor with The Daily Deal, a business newspaper affiliated with Legal Times.

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