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In crafting the White House’s recent brief to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing for the primacy of grades over affirmative action in the college admissions process, U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson may have drawn on his private practice experience a bit more than usual. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where Olson was a Washington, D.C.-based partner from 1984 to 2001, takes a similarly orthodox position on academic performance, requiring all prospective new lawyers to rank near the top of their law school classes. This grade requirement has come as little surprise to ambitious law students, but seasoned partners many years out of law school have been unhappy to find their transcripts are also at issue when they seek to join Los Angeles-based Gibson Dunn as lateral partners. One 47-year-old partner who recently interviewed to join Gibson Dunn’s 140-lawyer New York office “had more than $7 million in highly portable business,” said a legal recruiter who asked to remain unnamed. “They turned him down because of his grades in law school.” Other headhunters had similar stories. “They’ve done this for years,” said legal recruiter Ren�e Berliner Rush. “If a partner’s transcript doesn’t meet their cutoff, they will not bring them aboard.” Gibson Dunn Chairman Kenneth Doran confirmed that the firm looked at lateral partners’ grades, noting that the standards were the same for incoming partners as for new associates. “We have a very selective and rigorous process for bringing in lateral partners,” said Doran. “We look at them the way we look at all our lawyers.” Of course, the rationale for examining the transcripts of men and women in their 40s differs sharply from that behind looking at law students’ grades. The aptitude for the law and the future career success law school grades are meant to predict would hopefully already be evident in most large firm partners. But in the status-conscious legal profession, high law school grades can have durable value as totems of prestige, feeding partners’ perceptions of themselves as an intellectual or meritocratic elite. Though in recent years virtually all law firms have come to regard profitability as the most important measure of prestige, a number of firms also continue to carefully weigh non-economic factors like partner and associate selectivity. A law firm’s prestige affects not only its ability to attract lawyers and clients, but its ability to hold on to them as well. Partners are less likely to leave for the sake of money alone a firm they are extremely proud to be a member of. But as firms expand around the world, many have a more difficult time tapping traditional sources of non-economic prestige like history or community ties. As a result, a number of firms have turned to internal and external marketing campaigns to burnish their prestige. Influenced in particular by the temporary success of San Francisco and Silicon Valley firms in grabbing the national spotlight, law firm marketing teams have unleashed in recent years a torrent of advertisements built on computer, airplane and skyscraper imagery, all meant to suggest that a given law firm is on the cutting edge of innovation or that it lies at the beating heart of global finance. ROOTED IN HISTORY On the other hand, some New York firms have been self-consciously emphasizing their long history. At the height of the dot-com era, Shearman & Sterling put together a historical exhibit to mark the firm’s 125th anniversary. The exhibit, panels of which still line the firm’s hallways, traces the firm’s role in cases and transactions starting from the end of the Civil War. Chadbourne & Parke has taken a similar track recently, running ads celebrating the firm’s 100th anniversary by pointing out the firm’s role in negotiating the Wright brothers’ sale of aircraft technology patents. Given Shearman’s rapid expansion around the globe, Edward J. Burke, the firm’s marketing chief, said the historical exhibit was important to impress upon new partners from abroad that they were joining a powerful and venerable institution. “When partners come here from Germany and other places,” he said, “they look very closely at these panels.” Former New York-based Gibson Dunn partner William A. Gray said the firm’s academic selectivity played a similar role by promoting a shared self-image among the firm’s partnership that they were “the best and the brightest.” The firm was very up-front about the grade issue when he was considering joining it from San Francisco-based Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, he said. “They raised it right away,” said Gray, a cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “Fortunately I passed.” The grade requirement varies according to law school, Gray explained, so that lawyers who graduated from schools such as Harvard are accepted if they rank within the top quarter of their class. Graduates of lower-ranked schools need to do considerably better. Grades are far from the only criteria the firm uses in evaluating partners, Gray noted. Most partners the firm rejected, he said, probably fell short in other areas besides grades. The rigorous interview process, he said, spanned months and required meetings in virtually all Gibson Dunn offices. But Doran said there had “absolutely” been candidates who fell short on the basis of their grades alone. On the other hand, the firm has also turned away candidates with strong grades and strong business because they did not otherwise seem to be good fits, he said. Candidates are also given an opportunity to explain their academic record. One headhunter recalled that an ultimately successful candidate was once asked to explain why he chose to attend a law school that few Gibson Dunn partners had even heard of. The candidate’s explanation that he received a full scholarship from that law school satisfied most partners, the headhunter recalled. But many partners perhaps understandably feel they have no reason to explain themselves at this point in their careers. Another headhunter described a meeting at Gibson Dunn in which a partner with a very large book of business was told the firm would need to see his law school transcripts. “We both thought it was a joke,” said the headhunter. Humor later turned to disbelief and the partner did not join Gibson Dunn. The firm’s approach “clearly would not be received well by someone who graduated in the bottom quarter of their class but who feels they have overcome that,” acknowledged Doran. But if the firm has assaulted some partners’ egos, the grade requirement and the other signs of rigor in the selection process have imparted to Gibson Dunn partners a feeling that they are part of a truly elite group, Gray said. “I felt great when I got through the process,” he recalled. “I was really pleased.” Gray said the firm’s thorough scrutiny of lateral partners was also likely intended to foster a firm culture similar to those at elite New York firms like Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Sullivan & Cromwell, which are highly selective at the associate level but avoid U.S. lateral partners altogether. “If [Gibson] could do that, they probably would,” he said. RECORD OF ACHIEVEMENT New York’s Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton is another firm well known for placing emphasis on academic performance, at least among incoming associates. Cleary partner Michael Ryan said the firm does not look at lateral partners’ transcripts, though. “When you’re looking at a lateral, you’re really looking at a record of achievement in the profession,” he said. But even without transcripts, Ryan noted, academic performance can be detected on r�sum�s that list law review membership, prestigious federal judicial clerkships, Order of the Coif or other hallmarks of academic distinction. “I’m sure people notice things like that,” said Ryan. Such honorifics may offer firms some comfort about candidates being brought aboard, he said. “What we’re looking for as much as anything is character,” said Ryan. “What is she going to do tomorrow if her field of practice evaporates?” But if some firms worry about whether lateral partners could diminish their prestige, others look to new partners to raise their profile. Gray, who left Gibson Dunn three years ago to become co-head of Weil, Gotshal & Manges’ structured finance and derivatives practice, said his current firm was definitely more concerned with new partners’ ability to generate business than with their academic histories. Moreover, he said, Weil Gotshal was more concerned with lateral partners’ public profile. Noting that the firm was often stereotyped as a bankruptcy firm, Gray said Weil Gotshal most aggressively sought partners in a broad range of practice areas who were well known both among lawyers and clients. “They want lateral partners who confirm and validate the firm’s position in the marketplace,” he said. “They want to make sure the world knows how strong our practices are.”

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