Best Law School / Worst Law School

via Stu's Views

Over at Above the Law, Elie Mystal ran a bit asking his readers to vote the worst law school in New York City. The Above the Law readers, it’s important to note, have a pretty significant bias toward BigLaw and big salaries and big bonuses. The site dwells often on the gossip that comes from the big schools and firms.

So it got me to thinking —  a dangerous subject I know — where did New York’s top judges go to law school?

For comparison’s sake, we’ll first look at the US Supreme Court. Why? Because I need some other top court for a yardstick. And because it is frequently criticized for, among other things, being top loaded with lawyers that have never actually been in private practice, spending all their time in government or academia. I think that, of the list, only Justice Kennedy was in private practice for himself for any length of time, with Justice Scalia doing a brief stint in commercial law and Justice Sotomayor famously hanging a shingle in her apartment for a short time.

Here’s the Supreme’s law school list, and let me know if you see a pattern:

US Supreme Court:
Chief Judge John Roberts: Harvard Law School
Antonin Scalia:  Harvard Law School
Anthony Kennedy:   Harvard Law School
Clarence Thomas: Yale Law School
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:  Harvard Law School
Stephen Breyer: Harvard Law School
Samuel Alito: Yale Law School
Sonia Sotomayor: Yale Law School
Elena Kagan: Harvard Law School

OK, even a pre-tween kid could see a pattern. But that pattern is also a problem.

It’s a problem because people choose law schools based on three fundamental criteria: Geography, money and academics. Some folks couldn’t go to those schools regardless of their grades. Now let’s turn to New York’s top court, since that is where we are going with this:

New York Court of Appeals:
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann: NYU Law School
Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick: St. John’s University School of Law
Victoria A. Graffeo:  Albany Law School
Susan Phillips Read:  University of Chicago Law School
Robert S. Smith:  Columbia Law School
Eugene F. Pigott, Jr.:  University at Buffalo Law School
Theodore J. Jones:  St. Johns University School of Law

That’s a pretty good mix giving quite a bit of diversity. Four of the seven went to schools that would not be considered first tier. And yet, there those judges are, at the top of the heap on one of the most influential courts in the country. (And several of those judges, it’s worth noting, have actual lawyering experience, as I culled from online biographies; and by that I mean they knew where to find the courthouse and stand in the well on behalf of an actual, living breathing human.)

It is, perhaps, easy to stick one’s nose in the air and feel good about where you were privileged to go to school. But as the New York Times pointed out recently, law school doesn’t teach lawyering.

And I’ve never had a client or judge ever ask me were I went to law school, nor has any juror ever asked me when the trial was over. So take all that law school stuff with a few shakers of salt.

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5 Responses Leave a comment

  • Jamison 2011.12.2 at 08:04 | Quote

    My wife went to a big law firm directly out of law school, requiring us to attend many firm functions. We used to joke that you could be standing at a cocktail party and know within the first 10 minutes not only where the other lawyers had gone to law school but also to what Ivy League schools they were now sending their children. And yet they were so good at inserting this into the conversation that you couldn’t even tell how you knew this. But I agree with the overall point of this blog entry: The only place it matters where you went to law school is at a big firm cocktail party. Nobody else cares in the least.

  • San Antonio Personal Injury 2011.12.5 at 16:20 | Quote

    You make a fantastic point about your work ethic driving your success, not simply the school on your diploma!

  • Eric Turkewitz 2011.12.5 at 16:28 | Quote

    You make a fantastic point about your work ethic driving your success, not simply the school on your diploma!

    You know, that comment might actually mean something if it weren’t coming from some web person whose job is to comment on blogs in the hope of dropping links to themselves all over the place.

    Thankfully, with WordPress, I can modify comments to delete the spammy stuff.

  • Reality 2011.12.29 at 01:52 | Quote

    The fact that 3 out of the 7 NY COA judges went to a top 6 law school indicates that going to this sort of school does indeed give you an advantage. Furthermore, with the economy in trouble and jobs becoming harder to find, where you went to school is becoming increasingly important. Lastly, for most of the top, highest paying, NYC law firms, going to a top 14 law school is close to a prerequisite. Saying that where you went to law school does not matter is, quite frankly, false and misleading. This sort of claim leads many to go into substantial debt at lower ranking schools, only to find that there are few jobs available upon graduation, and that the bills are piling up.

  • Eric Turkewitz 2011.12.29 at 11:26 | Quote

    The fact that 3 out of the 7 NY COA judges went to a top 6 law school indicates that going to this sort of school does indeed give you an advantage

    Sure it gives you an advantage. For that first job. And after that, it is all about how good of a lawyer you can be.

    I didn’t say it doesn’t matter. But I did indicate that the school itself is not always an indicator of how good the lawyer is.

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