Brownstone » Brownstone Institute Articles » The Structural Privilege of Elite Law Students
law student privilege

The Structural Privilege of Elite Law Students


Cartel-like legal hiring practices are contributing to the breakdown of our legal educational system.

What would you do if you attended one of the most prestigious law schools in the country and were guaranteed a $215,000 per year job upon graduation? For many students, the answer is obvious: harass conservative speakers on campus.

Much ink has been spilled about recent events at Stanford Law School, where a quarter of the student body disrupted an event featuring federal judge Kyle Duncan. Students carried outrageous signs such as “JUDGE DUNCAN CAN’T FIND THE CLIT,” and after preventing him from delivering prepared remarks, a student asked: “I fuck men, I can find the prostate. Why can’t you find the clit?”

Then, after SLS dean Jenny Martinez issued a perfunctory apology defending free speech, a third of the school’s law students formed a “black block” protest – forcing her to take Game of Thrones-esque walk of shame as she left her constitutional law seminar.

Why do students at schools like Stanford and Yale behave like antifa rioters? Many have written about how woke ideology and critical race theory have hijacked law schools, but the problem goes deeper. Judge Duncan correctly observed that the inmates are running the asylum at Stanford Law School – but these schools ultimately respond to the market demands of so-called “Big Law” firms.

Large international firms hire over 80 percent of graduates from “Top 14” law schools. Clients pay a premium to these firms on the grounds that they only hire the best and the brightest. But the virtual guarantee of highly remunerative employment has spoiled kids.

In 2021, 87 percent of Stanford Law students graduated with big law positions or federal clerkships (a near-guarantee of subsequent big law employment) in hand. Clients pay over $500 an hour for fresh graduates, thanks to a cartel-like hiring apparatus that constrains law firm recruiting in the name of prestige. Most of them receive these job offers after just one year of law school, leaving them ample time to engage in campus activism.

A student’s “big law” career begins when they receive a summer associate position following their first year of study. These positions pay about $45,000 to students during the summer following their second year, and are a near-guarantee of full-time employment after law school.

Revoking a summer offer, or failing to extend a full-time offer after the summer, is incredibly rare, because doing so would compromise a firm’s ability to recruit at top schools. Firing a low-performing associate is equally rare, because of an industry-wide consensus that students should be given at least two years to learn the ropes. 

At Columbia Law School, students feel so assured of their big law associate positions that they threw a public tantrum on the school’s Instagram post about a Federalist Society event with Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Associates at Cooley, Latham & Watkins, White & Case, Ropes & Gray, and Watchtell weighed in, including a Fried Frank summer associate who called Justice Kavanaugh a rapist.

There’s an urban legend at my law school that an associate at Sidley Austin (where Barack and Michelle Obama famously met) got sick of his job and decided to stop responding to his emails to see how long it took the firm to fire him.

Six months.

It’s well known that law firms pride themselves on arranging soft exits for failing associates, which maintain their so-called “alumni” networks. The end result is that the second and third years of law school are effectively a vacation for students who secure these jobs. Many stop attending class altogether. 

Students have gotten the message that they are in control. If a firm rescinds an offer based on second or third-year grades, students will avoid that firm. If a firm declines to extend an offer of full-time postgraduate employment to a summer associate, students will choose law firms that make 100 percent return offers. And if a firm fires an associate during their first year on the job, well, students will avoid that firm, too. In other words, if any firm rescinded an offer based on asking a federal judge whether he can “find the clit,” or calling Justice Kavanaugh a rapist, it would torpedo its human capital model.

The prisoners run the asylum because the law firms refuse to hire outstanding students from regional law schools, many of which provide a far more rigorous legal education.

Firms complain constantly – including to law school professors and administrators — about the caliber and work ethic of new associates. They don’t want to work on nights and weekends. Their work is subpar. You can’t throw a rock in a big law office without hitting a senior associate or partner with a complaint about the paucity of talent coming out of elite law schools. But they keep hiring from them, and they keep refusing to fire their associates, on the assumption that firing first- and second-year associates will make recruiting first-year students at these same schools impossible.

Big Law will not heal itself. American business leaders who are properly alarmed by what the Stanford debacle portends for our constitutional republic can make a constructive choice: hire firms outside the Big Law firmament. Whatever benefit these firms receive through their monopoly on elite students is being poisoned by the entitled culture that their recruiting practices create. In the same way that woke insanity has bubbled up into Big Law from elite law schools, a market correction from clients can encourage professionalism to trickle back down.

Business should not be complicit in a rigged legal-economic system that creates an inflationary spiral that pays new graduates far above their reasonable market value in order to buoy the prestige and tuition costs of law schools hell-bent on destroying our legal system.

There are smaller firms with winning records that provide excellent client service while billing their clients half of what big law firms charge for new associates. If more business leaders hire them, instead of big law firms, perhaps elite law schools will return to preparing students for the practice of law, instead of preparing them for activism subsidized by their clients.

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
For reprints, please set the canonical link back to the original Brownstone Institute Article and Author.


Donate Today

Your financial backing of Brownstone Institute goes to support writers, lawyers, scientists, economists, and other people of courage who have been professionally purged and displaced during the upheaval of our times. You can help get the truth out through their ongoing work.

Subscribe to Brownstone for More News

Stay Informed with Brownstone Institute