EliteMany years ago, I stepped away from practicing law for a while and ran a large manufacturing and distribution facility. I had started at the company as a lawyer, but almost overnight I became a vice president and general manager leading over 500 people (soon to grow to 700). I had an MBA, which meant I had some classroom leadership training, and before law school I had worked for a few years so I had some exposure to working outside the law firm environment. But, I also had 15 years in law firms and departments and law school training, so by the time I got the job my leadership skills had been ground almost to dust.

As a manufacturing and distribution facility, this operation needed line shift supervisors. These individuals were really the first level leaders in the organization, at least by title. For eight hours, a line shift supervisor had around 50 to 70 individuals reporting to him or her. The line shift supervisor was much more the boss than I was as general manager.

The line shift supervisor was part of the management pipeline. The company had shifted from a traditional manufacturing setup about three years earlier and was now at the beginning of its transformation into a lean manufacturing organization. We had re-organized production lines into factories. A line shift supervisor worked in a factory and reported to the factory manager. The factory managers reported to me. When we thought about succession planning, the line shift supervisors were part of the chain leading to the general manager role (except for oddities like me).

Our facility operated five days a week with three shifts and during busy periods that expanded to six days a week with three shifts. We had six factories, which meant a minimum of 18 line supervisors. But, we also had distribution (three more supervisors) and speciality shops so we had around 25 supervisors when fully staffed.

Being a line shift supervisor on a production line was a demanding job, especially in a facility going through a lean thinking transformation. In other words, we often were not “fully staffed.” We regularly looked at prospects in the facility and interviewed candidates from other companies. When I started, the HR director would bring in the candidate, have him or her interview with some supervisors and factory managers, and then ask me to interview those who made it through the gauntlet. I would interview the candidate and promptly reject him or her. We did this dance several times before the HR director had a meeting with me to discuss life in the facility.

The HR director had worked for one of the best manufacturing companies in the world. He was on the last stop in his career and he and his wife were going to retire in the somewhat remote corner of Georgia where the facility was located. He had a lot of experience and wisdom. He explained that, while my goal of finding the best of the best was nice, it wasn’t realistic. In a facility that needed 25 line shift supervisors, not every one had to be a potential factory manager or general manager. We needed many who were really good and comfortable with line supervision, and a few who fit into the pipeline. Put into another language, I needed to stop looking for equity partners and find competent associates.

The Wrong Mix

Roll forward many years, a few jobs, and a lifetime of talking to lawyers, and I have a new theory I would like to test: we have too many graduates of top law schools. I do not mean this in the way that many talk about law schools overall graduating too many students. I mean this as a proportion of the total graduates. Whether we graduate 50,000 or 20,000 each year, do we have too high a percentage coming from the elite schools? This is a blog post, not a law review article so I will not explore every argument and permutation. For example, one assumption I make is that the mix of legal work has shifted towards more routine work and less creative work. That may be a very bad assumption (another thing we would need to test). Think of this as the famous 30,000 foot view.

Let’s start by taking some arguments off the table. We can assume that as the demand for graduates increases or decreases, the mix of graduates needed varies. That is, at times we may need more graduates who can become judges and at other times we may need more who can provide routine legal services. This isn’t an evaluative statement (one is better than the other), just a recognition that the needed skill mix varies among jobs.

Another argument is that students at elite schools have better skills, on average, than students at other schools. As you will see, my argument isn’t that some skills are better or worse, but they are different. In other words, elite school students have a different mix of skills than students in other schools.

With those two arguments addressed, let me move on to the theory. As we know, graduating from an elite school means passing through a series of filters. A student must get from high school into college (grades, test scores, extracurricular activities). The student must then get through college and get into an elite school (test scores, grades, extracurricular activities, jobs, other). Once into an elite school, a student has an extremely high probability of graduating. He or she must pass a bar exam, but that is not much of a barrier (passage rates are above 90% for many, maybe all, of these schools).

Students who go to other schools must pass through the same filters, but the filters are more porous. They let in more students. That means the variation and mix of skills is greater. Again, I am not saying some skills are better.

The Hiring Filter

For many decades, the filters used by large law firms to screen law school graduates have focused (not exclusively, but mostly) on three areas: 1) school, 2) grades, and 3) journal membership. In fact, this system (excluding journal membership) dates back to the early 1900s when Paul D. Cravath came up with what is known as the “Cravath System.” There are many aspects to the Cravath System and it often is mis-described. But, one component was hiring associates from the top of the class at the best law schools (Harvard and Columbia, at the time).

Cravath’s approach made sense in the early 1900s for a firm doing high-end corporate work. The variability among lawyers was significant, in part because of training variability. Many lawyers were trained as apprentices, some had a mix of apprentice and classroom training, the few law schools that existed varied widely in quality, and many lawyers had no undergraduate training. New lawyers varied widely in quality and skill. By setting certain filters, Cravath was narrowing the variability of lawyers his firm would hire.

The legal system also was at a different stage in development. In the early 1900s, we had not gone through the tremendous explosion in statutes that we face today. Lawyers had more creative freedom (fewer constraints) and so skill included a heavy dollop of creativity. It is not hard to imagine that lawyers with more and better training may have faired better in that situation. Today, we face a world with a tremendous number of legal restrictions and those restrictions grow every day.

Once Cravath established his system, it grew from firm to firm and even jumped species. Accounting firms, consulting firms, and other professional firms have used the Cravath System. Over the years, however, the conditions that gave rise to the system have changed and, of course, how it was implemented has changed. But, one thing has remained constant: there still is a strongly-held belief, at least in many law firms and law departments: hiring a graduate of an elite school is better than hiring a graduate of another school for one’s law practice.

We Need More Line Shift Supervisors

So this is my theory. It is only a theory and we would need to test it. As the demand for law school graduates drops and enrollment drops, many have argued that the pool of applicants has dropped. That is, we see students with lower grades and admission test scores applying for school. At the elite schools, this change has not made a difference. The elite schools have been over-subscribed for a long time, so the mix in skill performance of elite school applicants has changed little (or if it has, it has changed among the many not accepted, not among those accepted). The change has been felt in the other schools.

The elite schools also crank out graduates at basically the same rate as before the drop in enrollment, while other schools graduate fewer students. That means the total mix of graduates changes and, presumably, the percentage of elite school graduates increases.

As the number of jobs for law school graduates decreases, and given the bias toward hiring graduates of elite schools, the mix of graduates hired shifts. Again, the percentage of elite school graduates among those getting jobs becomes higher and graduates from other schools disproportionately do not get jobs.

As law is becoming, in many cases, not a creative endeavor but one focused on large amounts of routine work, navigating statutes, turning out repetitive documents, and doing other tasks that require depth of knowledge in an area and strong technical (drafting) skills, the mix of what we need from graduates varies from the mix of skills we get. We have jobs that need people equipped to do more routine work and we are filling them with lawyers trained to be creative.

Going back to my manufacturing days, we are hiring supervisors as if every one should become a general manager when what we really need are good line shift supervisors. We know that even elite school graduates are having more difficulty finding jobs, because, among many reasons, traditional employers (large law firms) need fewer associates. Part of this is because the world is (very slowly) moving away from a labor-centric model, but my theory is part of this hiring reduction is due to a shift in the mix of skills needed (for example, firms use contract counsel rather than associates).

If this theory is correct, one logical solution would be to reduce the number of graduates from the elite schools, and increase the training in certain skills at the other schools (I’m not holding my breath). What skills? The lawyers at these other schools would need significantly increased training in how to work with computers, project management, process improvement, and similar operation skills. Their jobs will require more operational expertise. Knowing the law will help them, but they will spend less time creating novel legal solutions.

The reduction in graduates from the elite schools would help us match demand for elite school skills with supply. I am presuming (another theory to test) that elite school students find operational level lawyer jobs less satisfying. They also may not have certain skills at the levels employers need to do much of the legal work that needs to be done.

Altering the Ecosystem

At one time, it made some sense to have lawyers trained as generalists and have them ready to do whatever came across the threshold. Today, that approach does not make sense. We need lawyers with various skill mixes because lawyering has become a profession with a broad range of demands. This isn’t an elitist theory. It is a theory that recognizes ecosystems work best when the participants have various skill mixes and those mixes are tailored to what the system needs, instead of skill mixes set as if everyone does the same thing. Law schools still act, from admissions through curriculum, as if all participants in the ecosystem should have the same skill mix. A legal ecosystem where all participants are the same is like giant grove of elm trees. It looks nice at the outset, but pests and disease realize there is a feast to be had. The ecosystem suffers and, without change, dies. It would have been better to have a mix of types in the grove.