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Do Prestigious Law Degrees Really Matter? Prestigious Schools Act as Career Insurance When Things Go Wrong

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After graduation, many students think about going to law school. They consider the school's ranking, tuition, and location, among other things. Chris Rider, assistant professor of strategy at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, says students also should consider how the school can help them if their careers take a turn for the worse.

“Many of us avoid contemplating the unpleasant negative turns that our careers can take, instead focusing on achieving our most ambitious goals,” Rider said. “But, what if your employer fails and you unexpectedly need to find another job? Worse, what if you are to blame for the firm's failure? My research addresses these questions. The key insight is that your career will probably fare better the greater the prestige of your alma mater.”

In his study “Organizational Failure and Intraprofessional Status Loss,” which was published in the May/June issue of Organizational Science, Rider and his co-author Giacomo Negro of Emory University, examined the career paths of more than 220 law firm partners after the prominent law firm they led went out of business.

What kind of career consequences would these lawyers face? Eighty percent found new jobs at lower status firms, while only 20 percent found jobs at higher or similar status firms.         Remarkably, even though partner productivity was uncorrelated with educational prestige, and even though these partners graduated from law school many years ago, the alumni from top ranked schools were the least likely to lose professional status after their firm failed.

Educational prestige provides protection from career failure for several reasons, Rider says. Hiring organizations view educational prestige as an indicator of competence and character. Educational credentials are the most commonly applied criteria in resume screening. Employers attribute superior ability to graduates of the most prestigious school independent of achievements.

Additionally, graduates of top law schools have stronger professional networks. Their friends are willing to vouch for them even if the firm they were steering failed. These connections enable individuals to maintain their career trajectories and preserve their intraprofessional status, according to the research.

The level of career protection was most noticeable among the top ranked law schools. If a lawyer had an alma mater in the top 10, they fared better than someone who went to a top 20 school.

 Accordingly, Rider infers that educational prestige counterbalances the labor market fallout caused by association with failure.

Therefore, as students consider law school as a way to move forward in their careers, they also should consider which school can best protect their careers if something goes wrong.