It is an understatement to say that the world of work has changed dramatically over the past four years. Things were shifting already by the end of 2019 as dissatisfied workers grumbled and job changes were more frequent than ever. COVID took that phenomenon and dramatically catalyzed it, and nearly four years on it is still unclear where all of the pieces will ultimately settle. The legal industry has not been immune from this—firms have oscillated between struggling to adequately staff matters and force reductions, and a huge debate over remote work and work-life balance is ongoing as we write.
Additionally, the merits of certain prestige-based rankings are being hotly debated, the controversy over U.S. News school rankings being the most visible example. It is certainly true that both current and soon-to-be workers, in the legal industry and otherwise, can and should take factors other than prestige into consideration when making choices about where to apply and which offers to accept. That said, no matter what else should factor into these choices, prestige still matters a lot in the legal industry. This piece will explore why that is the case, as well as offer a little advice on what to do about it.
Prestige Boosts A Resume And Allows Quick Evaluation of Candidates
For every open, advertised position at a BigLaw firm (or a well-known smaller firm), there are dozens of candidates eager to apply. Ideally, firms would have time and personnel available to give full, proper consideration to each candidate, assessing strengths and weaknesses in the context of the available opportunities. Instead, firms must find ways to cull most applications before a human being spends a single second evaluating them. Prestige serves as a shortcut—a proxy for talent, skill, and experience, simply because it is effective as such more often than not. Any recruiter or hiring partner can assume—not unjustly—that if a candidate is good enough to work at Cravath, they're good enough to work anywhere. While there are myriad reasons why a candidate whose resume has less prestige on its face might genuinely fit better than one whose resume contains more prestige, the less prestigious resume will always earn fewer interviews. Starting at your undergrad (if not earlier), many evaluators will use the relative prestige of whatever institutions you have been a part of as a shortcut for assessing your competence, whether fair or not.
Prestige Matters on The Client Side
When resources are limited, clients will take cost, proximity, and other factors besides the pure likelihood of victory into account. However, the Apples, Johnson & Johnsons, and Googles of the world—the wealthiest clients with the deepest pockets and the highest monetary stakes—are less concerned about the expense side of the ledger. These clients almost exclusively work with the most prestigious law firms in the world. Accordingly, if you want to work for the most prestigious clients, you will need to be employed by one of the most prestigious firms.
What To Do With Your Prestige (Or Lack Thereof)
If you have prestige to your advantage, you only stand to gain from (tastefully) highlighting it at every opportunity you have, whether that be via resume, cover letter, or even in interviews. The more difficult question is how to compensate when your background lacks prestige. Options are limited for getting through the more automated systems, so submitting a resume and cover letter is not going to get you an interview at Skadden. That said, there are two primary things to do if you want to crack into the prestigious world. First, do everything you can to get an informal “in” at the prestigious firms you are targeting. What you've heard so often holds true: you simply must network. Second, do everything possible to ensure you're qualified for the work you want at the more prestigious firms. Maximize your relevant, substantive experience at your current firm to meet the needs of the firm and practice area you hope to move into. Tackle pro bono opportunities in your desired practice areas. Dive into every substantive work opportunity—be it memo, brief, or loan agreement—available to you. In other words, in all the ways available to you, maximize your prestige.