The best and the brightest?

It’s a small thing, but it’s been bothering me disproportionately, so I want to say a few words about one of my least favourite current phrases in the law:  “the best and the brightest.” It’s normally used in a talent recruitment or institutional marketing capacity to describe the very small group of the very best lawyers and law students, and I must have come across it a half-dozen times in the last week alone. An archetypal example was uttered in April by US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in response to a question put to him by a law student who asked what she had to do to become “outrageously successful” without “connections and elite degrees.” Justice Scalia’s response eventually came around to her chances of clerking for his court:

“By and large, I’m going to be picking from the law schools that basically are the hardest to get into. They admit the best and the brightest, and they may not teach very well, but you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. If they come in the best and the brightest, they’re probably going to leave the best and the brightest, OK?”

Justice Scalia’s criterion for identifying excellent future law clerks is depressingly common within the profession. He doesn’t actually know how to identify the best and brightest law students and new lawyers, and he’s hardly alone in that. He’s one of many people who rely upon a law school or law firm’s exclusivity, elitism, household name or other purported quality signifier as a substitute for having to actually determine “bestness and brightness” for himself. It’s a habit hardwired into tens of thousands of annual decisions about  which school a 1L should attend and which schools a law firm should recruit from, and it doesn’t do us any good.

Let’s start with the law schools. Everyone knows there are elite schools and non-elite schools, right? Even if you don’t read the noxious US News & World Report law school rankings or their equivalents in other countries, you “know” which are the “best” schools, especially if you graduated from one of them. How do you know? They have the best reputations, of course — even if you couldn’t name one aspect of the educational experience that justifies “elite” status or name three elements of substance that differentiate any one school from another. “Reputation” and “prestige,” based on countless dimly illuminated factors poked into the crannies of our minds, might hold sway, but we have no empirical evidence that an “elite” law grad is any better or brighter than a “non-elite” grad. Magazine rankings and law blog chatter serve only to confirm our existing region- and class-based prejudices about what places one school above another.

The great majority of law schools are largely indistinguishable from each other, in terms of the nature of their education, the quality of their teaching, and the (negligible) practical elements of their training. Almost every law student is smart and works hard — that’s the baseline standard of admission (along with, in most cases, tremendous pre-existing socio-economic advantages). Some schools keep class sizes intentionally small or raise tuition beyond most peoples’ reach, but while that may make them more “exclusive,” it doesn’t make them any better at teaching students the law. If there are ways of determining the “best and brightest” law students, finding out where they take their classes hasn’t proven to be one of them.

None of that keeps law firms (and Supreme Court justices) from relying on school pedigree to make interview selection and lawyer hiring decisions for them. But that raises an even more pernicious problem: let’s say you could figure out who the “best and brightest” law graduates are — how do you know which of them will turn out to be great lawyers? Law school prowess has little relevance to eventual lawyer success — the absence of correlation between LSAT scores and lawyer success has been proven. Yet those who hire new lawyers continue to rely on law school performance as a hiring factor, even though it tells us little about whether a student possesses or can quickly acquire the skills that practising lawyers need, the appetite and aptitude for client service, business management, persuasive advocacy and ethical steadfastness.

Now, here’s the funny part: the system has in fact come up with a way of determining which are the “best and brightest” law students  — they’re the ones who get hired by the “best and brightest” law firms! And how do we know which firms fall into that category? Well, they’re usually very old, very large, and very well-known (and big old famous organizations are all but guaranteed to prosper, right?) But the main reason these firms are considered the best is — wait for it — they recruit only from the best law schools! The Cravath system has been around for so long that the “top” law schools and the “top” law firms now perform a little pas-de-deux, each using the other tautologically to confirm its own higher sense of self (“our graduates go to the best firms”; “we recruit only from the best schools.”)

And that brings me to the final aspect of the “best and brightest” phenomenon that’s so problematic: this belief  that the “top” lawyers are to be found at the “top” firms. I am not saying, not a for a nanosecond, that large well-known firms don’t count among their  ranks some of the finest lawyers the profession has produced. Of course they do. But they don’t own the exclusive monopoly on that particular asset. I’ve met brilliant lawyers of extraordinary skill in midsize regional firms, solo practices, corporate law departments and public-sector environments. And I’ve met lawyers who work for famous law firms whose skills and talents are pedestrian. Succeeding in a BigLaw environment is undoubtedly a sign of the fact that you have the qualities to thrive in that kind of environment — but those qualities are not automatically equivalent to superior talent and execution. In our big-firm, AmLaw-obsessed legal culture, this obvious truth keeps getting lost.

All of which is to say, if you find yourself talking about “the best and the brightest” the legal profession has to offer, or you hear someone else saying it, ask a few questions: Best at what? Brightest according to whose standards? Based on precisely what criteria, and how many of those criteria are irrelevancies, assumptions, stereotypes or conventional wisdom? Let’s not buy into a myth that puts you down or puts other people up without sufficient cause. I think a powerful, sweeping assessment like “the best and the brightest” deserves and requires more scrutiny than that.


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