How, exactly, does a law school establish itself as the nation’s premier pipeline into Big Law?
Maintain a robust alumni network at the largest firms, draw a pool of students with law firm ambitions, and sustain a top ranking and elite reputation for starters. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to be located in the country’s largest legal market.
Columbia Law School has proven—yet again—that it’s a fertile ground for large firms looking to hire their next generation of legal talent. More than two-thirds of the Manhattan school’s 2017 graduates, 68 percent, are now working as associates at the country’s biggest law firms.
That strong showing earned Columbia the top spot on Law.com’s annual Go-To Law Schools report. This marks the fifth straight year it has landed at No. 1 on our list, which ranks the 50 law schools with the highest percentage of recent juris doctor graduates landing lucrative associate jobs at the 100 largest law firms in the country.
“The firms’ hiring teams know that our students will arrive with superb legal and leadership skills, ready to take on the most challenging assignments,” said Columbia law dean Gillian Lester.
Columbia’s Big Law placement rate was almost eight percent higher than the law school next in line, the University of Chicago. That Windy City campus held on to its No. 2 position by sending nearly 60 percent of its most recent class on to those big firms. New York University School of Law moved up two spots to No. 3, with 57 percent of new grads going to Big Law. The University of Virginia School of Law and the University of Pennsylvania Law School round out the top 5 on our list, with a respective 56 percent and 52 percent of 2017 J.D.s heading to the biggest 100 law firms. (Both schools moved up three spots this year.)
All together, the 50 schools on our Go-To Law Schools list sent 29 percent of their most recent graduating class into associate jobs at those large firms, which is up slightly from the previous year. That growth is due in part to the relatively strong law firm hiring market in the fall of 2015, when last year’s law graduates went through the on-campus law firm recruiting cycle. That was the last summer associate interviewing season before the widespread move to a $180,000 starting associate salary at many of the large firms, which led some firms to rollback new lawyer hiring more recently.
The 2015 law firm recruiting cycle was particularly strong, according to James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). Offer rates for firms’ summer associate programs hit a recent high of 54 percent that year, and have since fallen slightly to 52 percent. The largest firms—those with 700 or more lawyers—had a median summer associate class size of 20, which has since fallen to 16.
“That was also the year that offer rates coming out of summer programs hit 95 percent for the first time ever, a historic high that has persisted through 2016 and 2017,” Leipold said, meaning that almost all of the summer associates got offers from their firms for full-time employment once they graduate.
Each year, Law.com asks the 100 largest law firms in the country—as determined by The National Law Journal’s annual lawyer headcount survey—to tell us from which law schools they hired their most recent class of associates, and from which schools their newest partners graduated. The vast majority of firms supplied their numbers. For those that did not, we used data gathered by ALM Media’s RivalEdge database and independent reporting to determine their associate hiring numbers.
Our Go-To ranking does not include 2017 graduates who are currently working as clerks, some of whom have offers to join a large firm at the conclusion of their clerkships. Hence, some schools with strong federal clerkship rates appear lower than expected. Data from the American Bar Association showed that in 2016, the most recent year available, Yale had the highest percentage of graduates with federal clerkships at 34 percent. Stanford was next with nearly 25 percent of graduates landing federal clerkships, while Harvard Law School sent 19 percent of graduates into those competitive but temporary positions.
Our Go-To ranking also does not count 2017 LL.M. graduates hired by the largest 100 firms as associates, nor does it include those graduates who went on to associate jobs at large firms based overseas.
Our Go-To Law Schools ranking demonstrates that a law school’s reputation and location play significant roles in which campuses attract large firm recruiters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, schools with the highest U.S. News & World Report rankings—a common proxy for prestige—tend to be popular with Big Law. All but one of U.S. News’ top 13 law schools—Yale Law School—also appear in the top 13 spots on our Go-To list, albeit in a different order. (Yale, No. 1 on U.S. News, is absent from the top of our list not only because a large number of graduates take federal clerkships after graduation, but also because they pursue a wide range of careers outside of Big Law.) Just four law schools ranked in the top 30 by U.S. News do not also appear on our Go-To list.
Location also matters. Six New York City law schools were on our list, which makes sense given many law firms have their largest offices there. (Fordham University School of Law; St. John’s University School of Law; Yeshiva University Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law; and Brooklyn Law School each join Columbia and NYU on our list.) That figure grows to eight when you add in Cornell Law School in upstate New York, which holds its law firm recruiting week in the city, and Seton Hall University School of Law, in nearby Newark.
Being in New York gives NYU law students ample opportunity to network with employers formally and informally, said associate dean for career services Irene Dorzback. Last year, 760 of the law school’s alumni participated in the school’s career education programs, be it mock interviews or career panels.
“That’s a tremendous number of alumni who are involved,” Dorzback said. “In some ways, that’s the advantage of being in New York.”
Law schools in the nation’s second-largest legal market, Washington, also did well on our list. Five D.C.-area schools landed on the Go-To Law Schools ranking, with Georgetown University Law Center leading the pack at No. 12. Philadelphia law schools captured three spots on our list, as did schools in Boston and Southern California. Four law schools in the Bay Area also made the list, with the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and Stanford Law School taking the No. 10 and No. 11 spots, respectively.
But campuses such as the University of Virginia School of Law and Duke Law School prove that being located within a large legal market isn’t a requirement for getting graduates placed at large firms. Charlottesville, Virginia, is more than a two-hour drive from Washington, but major firms heavily recruit UVA law students because of their strong intellectual capabilities and interpersonal skills, said senior assistant dean for career services Kevin Donovan.
“The success we’ve been having, there’s no magic to it,” Donovan said. “We have a great faculty that attracts great students. Our admissions team has put together a series of extraordinary classes in recent years. We work hard to get them ready, and they work hard to get ready. And we’ve got a really strong alumni network.”
The University of Chicago has the advantage of being located in city with a robust legal market, and large firms also like the school’s reputation for traditional law teaching, said Abbie Willard, associate dean for career services.
“I think we have the reputation for attracting students who are very serious and somewhat bookish, if you will,” Willard said. “We also have the reputation for it being a very rigorous law school that has held on to the Socratic Method. So that combination attracting the best and brightest who know what they’re getting into and want it—and who are willing to work hard and go through that kind of training—I think is appealing to employers.”
Columbia’s Big Law placement success in 2017 is particularly impressive because its graduating class was 11 percent larger than the previous year. Class sizes at most of Columbia’s peer schools held steady or decreased slightly.
Davis Polk & Wardwell reported hiring 24 Columbia graduates last year, with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton bringing on 19. Debevoise & Plimpton hired the third-largest group of Columbia grads at 18.
“We value all our law school relationships and recognize how fortunate we are to develop such a strong pipeline of Columbia students,” said Cleary partner Liza Lenas, herself a 1999 Columbia Law graduate.
While 2017’s law graduates benefitted from the strong law firm recruiting market when they were second-year students, their current counterparts don’t appear to be as lucky. New data from NALP shows that large firms pulled back on summer associate hiring last fall.
“We’re not seeing nearly as many firms growing their summer programs,” said Chicago’s Willard. “When your entry-level salary has jumped to $180,000, you’re going to be more careful about how many people you bring in. Even if that person is only with you just a couple of years, that’s quite the investment.”
Read More: The 2018 Go-To Law Schools