November 15, 2010 | File under: Advice and Lessons • Schooling
I went to a top five law school. Are you impressed? Well, you should be, or so I was always led to believe. Growing up, I was always enamored with the idea of attending a prestigious school. Harvard, Yale, Princeton —- the names are just saturated with prestige and command instant respect. Primary education reinforces the belief that attending one of these sanctified institutions provides a free pass to career success. And with career success comes happiness. Or so the myth goes.
Prior to law school, I spent most of my undergraduate years at a large public university after a brief stint at my “dream school” that turned out to be a less than ideal place for me. I had a wonderful college experience at the public university I attended that I wouldn’t trade for the world, but something felt incomplete after those four splendid years. For one, I had two bachelor of arts degrees that proved I could perform well academically but failed to equip me with any real skills that would make me attractive to employers. But I also felt compelled to fulfill my lingering aspirations to attend one of those big name schools, satisfying the “potential” I had always demonstrated. Attending one of those schools would open doors to me that would not be possible with what I thought was just an “average” education.
After much anticipation and LSAT preparation, my mission was finally complete the day a big, fat envelope arrived from one of my top-choice law schools. There it was: my ticket to success! It would be smooth sailing from that point on, I thought. I knew my school placed nearly 100 percent of its graduates with one of their preferred employers. Among those employers were the names of the very best law firms and organizations, many which promised a salary for first-year associates so high it almost sounded obscene.
Landing a job after law school was easier than I could have ever imagined. Granted, the job market was definitely more favorable to recent law graduates back then, but even so I was shocked that many employers did not even seem interested in the grades I had earned in law school. Just the fact that I was a graduate of my school —- a name that would equally serve them on their website and marketing materials —- was enough to secure a spot among their ranks. I had done well in law school, no doubt, but that detail hardly seemed to matter so long as my people skills were sufficient to “fit in” at the firm. It was kind of like joining a big sorority or fraternity.
Name recognition continued to bolster my career prospects, even after I left my first job. That top school on my resume earned me several quick responses to job solicitations. Even outside of the big cities, potential employers perked their ears at a candidate offering a top-school pedigree. And sure enough, my degree paid off by providing that edge in getting my second law firm job.
However, despite the obvious job networking advantages of the degree, I was not necessarily a better lawyer for attending the best law school. In fact, I think I was just an average lawyer, with no more (and in many cases, far less) legal prowess than any of the other lawyers I encountered who attended what I perceived as “mediocre” law schools. Obviously, my passion for the law was lacking, so although I performed my job well, I did not excel at it. It almost made me feel guilty for having been given what I thought was an unfair advantage over other aspiring professionals whose talent far outshined what could be reflected on a piece of paper.
What it all came down to was this: you get what you pay for. I paid dearly, not necessarily for the best quality legal education, but for name recognition. And I got it. It provided an easy road past many barriers to entry with which other, non-pedigreed lawyers struggled. But I was mistaken in presuming the name recognition was also an indication of the quality of lawyer I would become. Of course, I also failed to question whether the huge investment required just to earn name recognition was worth the financial sacrifice it entailed. I was buried in student loans after graduating form law school; had I gone to a less expensive school, I may not have spent all of my twenties in debt.
Success, narrowly defined, may mean having that job at one of the top firms that provides a comfortable living in terms of money, not necessarily quality of life. Yet satisfaction and talent, concepts that I had once associated with success, are characteristics that name recognition alone cannot confer. So unlike many of my former law firm colleagues, I may be able to impress others by name-dropping where I attended law school, but I can never claim career satisfaction. Even though I got what I paid for, I ultimately did not want the life I was groomed to lead as a lawyer. And ironically, my fancy degree put me in no better position financially than I would have been if I had attended a “lesser” school. I spent most of my six years as a lawyer paying for my previous three years of school, and by the time I finally got to the point of “breaking even,” I had had enough. Success is what I had strived for, but careared is what I got.