Saturday, July 5, 2008

"Pedigree" vs. "Quality" - Part 2

The Wall Street Journal Law Blog article that prompted my last post (there were actually two inter-related articles on the Blog - "New Comer Law Firms Are Creating Niches with Blue Chip Clients" and "The Model Seemed Broken To Me - Looking At a Law Firm Alternative") have been commented on extensively in the past day and the same issues keep rearing their ugly heads. What constitutes “an elite firm”? Why is there a heavily promoted theory that if one does not land a job in a BigLaw they are a lesser lawyer?

On a corresponding note, Jeff Bleich, President of the California State Bar, wrote "Reflections on our Reflection" in the California Bar Journal, July 2008 issue, about how the makeup of the legal profession is a poor reflection on the diversity of our society as a whole. Looking at the portraits of prior presidents of the state bar, primarily white males, caused him to reflect on the legal profession.

“You can’t look at that wall for long without wondering what the bar and what this profession lost decade after decade. All of the talented men and women who were excluded from practicing law, or from the bar, or from leadership because of their race, their gender, their orientation, their disability. Decade after decade, our profession was deprived of their talents because of a culture of narrow-mindedness and bigotry.

“While the portraits in the last few rows change a little, it is only a little. Outside the building, on the sidewalks and in the stores and restaurants nearby, men and women of every race, ethnicity and physical disability are doing every sort of job. But when we go to meetings of lawyers — whether it is local bar meeting, or a court calendar, or to see the next class of bar members sworn in, our group looks different. We have not come close to reflecting the sort of diversity that exists everywhere else in our society. . . . White males constitute only 44 percent of California’s population, yet they are 81 percent of the lawyers here. . . . "

I think Axiom (cited in "New Comer Law Firms Are Creating Niches with Blue Chip Clients") summed up the legal industry’s pervasive bigotry in its choice of words – “pedigreed” lawyers. The definition of “pedigree” is a line of ancestors, a lineage, or a list of ancestors of a purebred animal. The word is most often used by dog and horse breeders, as well as other geneticists.

“Quality” on the other hand, is defined as superiority of kind, degree or grade of excellence, and having a high degree of excellence.

Am I missing something? Is it really true that for Axiom to place its lawyers with blue chip clients (corporate America), the lawyers in its stable (pun intended) need to demonstrate “pedigree” rather than “quality”?

I came across a blog article from 2003 (which could have been written yesterday in that its contents are equally applicable today as then) entitled "Why are Lawyers Such Snobs?" The article is worth reading in its entirety, but a few quotes are cited here:

“Any conversation about the future of the profession is incomplete if it doesn't acknowledge how pervasive and influential our profession's snobbery about pedigree is. . . .

“[O]ur profession worships credentials. We assume people from big, fancy law firms are smarter, and we assume people from fancy expensive law schools are better. You're a big liar if you pretend it's not true. . . .

“People, this is crap! Let's think about this. Is this really a good way to discern among people in our profession? I thought the Harvard summer associates in my class were the worst of the bunch -- not good writers, not especially impressive thinkers, and with an air of entitlement that was really ugly. The guy in my class who will be the best lawyer is a former merchant marine who didn't have the interest or inclination to go anywhere but UMaine, but he's got a fantastic mind, a real-world practicality and a great work ethic. . . .

“[T]he gist of it is, our profession exerts a nearly irresistible pressure on talented young people to climb to the highest rung of a specific and extremely narrow ladder. To do so, they incur big big debt, and take on impossibly demanding schedules, at school and in the beginnings of their professional career. And then the golden handcuffs kick in (and the professional snobbery sinks deeper) and making a different choice means admitting you can't "hack it". It's a real trap for the unwary.”
I wholeheartedly agree!


Anonymous said...

It would be a good thing if every attorney who describes old-line megafirms and top rated law schools as "pedigreed" remembered that the term is a polite euphemism for "highly inbred". Each of the recognized breeds of dog and horse were formed by repeatedly breeding closely related animals to arrive at a nearly uniform conformation.

Anonymous said...


Here's a little basic economic theory for you. It's called "signaling." Pedigree is a way that the market signals quality. These signals can be wrong, but absent any other benchmark, due to information asymmetry, an attorney who comes from a pedigreed/elite firm is signaling "I know my stuff" whereas the market can glean no such signal from someone who claims to have been really smart but did not take the white shoe/blue chip/biglaw route.

Trying to change the fact that reputation and work history matters seems a bit futile, but if that's how you want to spend your energy, best of luck.

I am sure if you google signaling you will find a more cogent explanation, but law firm pedigrees are a perfect example.

Another example? Why do elite investment banks/law firms only hire from Tier 1/Ivy/Near-Ivy schools? Signaling.