A fixation on law school prestige has long pervaded the legal world. It’s taken for granted that attending a top school (think Harvard, Yale, Stanford) opens doors at big law firms and greases the path to partnership. But new research by Richard Sander of UCLA School of Law and Jane Yakowitz of Brooklyn Law School is challenging those assumptions.

In their draft paper, “The Secret of My Success: How Status, Prestige and School Performance Shape Legal Careers,” the authors report that law school performance, not status, matters most to one’s long-term financial success, whether a few years out of law school or across a career. Grades, the study found, are also the best predictor for hiring by big law firms and promotion to partner.

Consider, for example, a hypothetical law student with a 3.25 – 3.5 grade point average (GPA) at forty-seventh-ranked University of Florida. Under the authors’ analysis, if that student had attended twentieth-ranked George Washington University, her grades would likely slip to the 2.75 – 3.0 range, and her salary would be 22 percent lower, if all other factors held constant. Had that student landed at seventh-ranked University of California at Berkeley, her grades would drop to the 2.5 – 2.75 range, and her salary would dip 7 percent. At eightieth-ranked Rutgers, meanwhile, her GPA would climb to 3.5 – 3.75, and she would earn 13 percent more.

Sander and Yakowitz relied on four main databases to arrive at their findings: the “After the JD” survey of 4,500 second-, third-, or fourth-year lawyers in 2003 sponsored by the American Bar Foundation and the National Association for Law Placement; a survey of some 800 Chicago lawyers in 1975 and again in 1994 – 95; a University of Michigan Law School alumni survey starting in the late 1960s of more than 10,000 subjects; and a 1990s bar-passage study by the Law School Admission Council of about 27,000 law grads.

The authors concede that going to an elite school does help lay the foundation for a successful career, but say that “the positive effect of higher grades (and the negative effect of lower grades) is much stronger.”

Applicants considering a school, Sander says, should figure out if their credentials, such as LSAT score and undergraduate GPA, equal those of the average student there: “If not, they should think twice.” Unfortunately, he says, most applicants think they’ll excel wherever they go. Others agree.

“I don’t think students assume they are going to do poorly anywhere,” says Susan Robinson, Stanford Law School’s associate dean for career services. She adds that while grades matter at all schools, they matter much less at top schools, because when it comes time to hire, firms rely on the schools to winnow candidates and seldom ask for undergraduate transcripts or LSAT scores.

Sander cautions students not to take the findings too literally. “We’re certainly not saying people should plan to go to the 200th-ranked law school,” he says. The pair’s real audience, he adds, is legal academics: “We want legal academia to start realizing that what goes on in law school has a tremendous effect on people’s career outcomes.” And, he says, schools that either inflate grades or move to “fuzzy” grading systems — as some have done recently — are “trying to fool employers,” but “end up fooling students instead.”