Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Fixation on Prestige

“Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?” Socrates

Why do you want to be a lawyer? This was the (predictably obvious) question posed to me at a pre-law seminar as a freshman in college. One student raised her hand and proclaimed that she wished to enter the legal profession because she wanted to change the world. How idealistic! I raised my hand and stood to attention. Confidently, and without thinking twice, I stated that I planned on becoming an attorney because I desired the prestige and the money. From the looks of others in the audience, it was the answer they had in mind too, but were ashamed to admit.

I’d like to think my answer was that of an immature eighteen year old, and, to an extent, it was. I ultimately chose to attend law school because I believed I’d be challenged intellectually and have the opportunity to study interesting issues and concepts. I am no longer eighteen and clearly there’s more to life than prestige.

If I keep telling myself that, maybe I can will myself into believing it?

But while I wish the prestige fixation was a lost vestige of the past, I've come to learn that law student’s prestige-focus is second-to-none (ok, maybe Anne Coulter gives us competition, but still…). As I have addressed earlier, (most) prospective law students desire to attend the most prestigious institution possible. For many, acceptance to the illusive “T14” consumes their existence. Undoubtedly, these students are eagerly anticipating the newest edition of U.S. News and World Report’s graduate school rankings. I can picture it now: incoming first years having panic attacks because the law school at which they deposited drops in the rankings.

It doesn’t end there. The next goal for law students is to place on the most prestigious law journal possible. Following that, of course, is fall recruitment. Law students nationwide compare their offers. For all too many, the most important indicator of a prospective employer’s worthiness is their vault ranking or “selectivity.”

Surely, a law student can relax after he or she has locked up a position at a prominent high-paying law firm. Right? You’ve done it! You’re (finally) a success! Think again. The question turns to what position you have on your respective journal’s editorial staff, and, then, (perhaps) to whether you have a prestigious clerkship lined up for post-graduation. Even those who don’t really want to clerk—who aren’t even interested in clerking at all—may choose to clerk. I guess I can’t blame them: it’s “prestigious” (although, in today's economy, risky). But when does this obsession with prestige end? And what’s the source of the law student’s infatuation with prestige?

I don’t have the answers to these central questions, but I do think that I have finally overcome my own prestige-obsession. This isn’t to say that I won’t continue to slosh through the morass of prestige with my peers. I almost certainly will—but, hopefully, for the right reasons: I’ll do what I do because I believe it will make me the best attorney rather than for its own, intrinsically “prestigious” sake.


  1. I was never a Psych major, but I think the whole 'prestige' thing is wrapped up in the fact that every single one of us are/were insecure dorks-- maybe moderately popular dorks; maybe A/V club dorks; perhaps even closet dorks who refused to embrace our inner nerd for fear of losing the marginal popularity we had in high school and/or college. Coming to law school allowed us to differentiate ourselves from the unwashed, and, for once, be surrounded by people like us (dorks) and people who want to be like us (i.e. wannabe dorks, or WDs).

    As with any sort of homogenization process, the observed parties then begin to seek ways to marginally differentiate themselves. Prestige, like grades, T14-ness, and clerkships, are proxies to illustrate that not only are/were we 'dorks;' we are/were trainable dorks who can/could contribute their intelligence to the betterment of society.

    I personally don't think the proxies are of much value in either the short or long-term. You went to a T14 school? Congrats! That's awesome! You got a clerkship with a Fed. Dist ct?? Awesome! You worked for Wachtell? Great! Guess what: you're still the bony-ass freshman soccer player the senior football players taped to the bench in his Fruit of the Looms, while they drank your Gatorade.

    Fuck it... I need to take some Xanax...

    (Full disclosure: the above was a **mostly** tongue-in-cheek response to a valuable and interesting post by Josh Borden. I am still in law school [and not a very 'prestiguous' one at that, but one that'll do] and was never taped to a bench as a freshman soccer player.)

  2. PS: Most gunners are just insecure WDs.

  3. I agree w. Master Shake generally, but also think part of the problme is that employers care so much about this because clients do. So maybe the problems on a larger scale than we think.

  4. really think clients care about who jumped 3 spots in the Vault rankings? I think they care more about who can get the job done.

  5. 2:37: I was talking about why students care about prestige and am suggesting they care because employers care. I think employers care because clients care. Not saying its wise, just that it is what it is.

  6. Master Shake--

    I think you're right in stating that much of the prestige obsession is rooted in law student's insecurity. Success in academia has long been a constant in the life of (most) law students. It is, in my opinion, an insecurity in other aspects of life that fosters the obsession with prestige. It is, in a sense, (for some) a way to over compensate for deficiencies in other areas.

    Thanks for the interesting comment. For a non-psych major, I think you've made a compelling argument.


    Interesting comment. Some of the obsession with the "T-14" and law journals, etc. is undoubtedly attributed to the fact that clients (and, in turn, the firms) place much emphasis on such accomplishments. With the price clients are paying, it is certainly understandable that they would want those with the most prestige-laden resume representing them. Still, I don't think this explains everything. For instance, a student can get a top job by excelling at a lower ranked law school. But this would not be as "prestigious" as attending a T-14.

  7. Good article, Josh. And thanks for the thoughtful reply, Mastershake!

    I think the emphasis on prestige is one of those things people in our circles universally despise in a self-loathing way. I say self-loathing because, to an extent, everyone's a victim. The person going to the 123rd ranked school (I don't know what school I'm talking about or if there is a 123rd ranked school...I'm just making a point) is thrilled he or she is not going to the schools 124 down which are, by virtue of ranking, less "prestigious."

    I wish the fixation, as Josh puts it, was less because there are so many other (more) important considerations in picking an employer, law school, etc. True story: I know someone who picked a job that forced him to be two hours away from his wife. He had an offer in the city where they were living at the time that paid just as much...but it wasn't as "prestigious."

  8. Honor / prestige isn't necessarily, for everyone, a disease that requires a cure. One of the things I love most about law school compared to college and grad school (I did a degree before law school) is that the race for honors encourages us to try very hard, to be our best. For some people that means cheating, and for some lots of unnecessary stress, and then unhappiness when the chips don't fall where they wanted them to...but for me I enjoy the race. I don't always win but sometimes I do or get close and I'm ready for the next challenge. It's the slaps on the back, and the congratulations, and the feeling that people are proud of you for being, or at least trying to be, excellent...that's another side, I guess the upside, of this honor thing. I prefer it, with all its warts, to an environment where no one challenges each other and everyone is just doing their own thing and not pushing themselves either.

  9. "I can picture it now: incoming first years having panic attacks because the law school at which they deposited drops in the rankings."

    Good prediction. There was that guy saying he was considering going to UIUC over GW now bc of the rankings.


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