The law school employment outcomes are weighted heavily towards Biglaw placement despite Biglaw making up a minority of JD post-graduate opportunities. Biglaw is an elite job outcome, and it’s no surprise to anyone interested in Biglaw that attending the best schools and earning the highest grades are essential qualities for the ideal candidate. Such criteria drive the Cravath System. Breaking down and understanding the Cravath System can help law students (1) recognize both the obvious and hidden criteria of Biglaw hiring, (2) know how to best prepare for Biglaw interviews, and (3) find unconventional ways to snag a Biglaw job even as a less than ideal candidate.
A brief history of the Cravath System
You may have heard about the Cravath Scale, a popular name for the market-matching lockstep associate compensation structure in Biglaw, but Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP (“Cravath”) also has its own model for talent acquisition: the Cravath System. The Cravath System boils down to securing entry-level associates who provide the best “raw materials” so that successful attorneys can be developed internally. These raw materials would include the ability to handle complex legal matters, reliable work habits, and a desire for growth and longevity within the firm. Although this article will focus on hiring practices, attorney development is a crucial aspect of the Cravath System. Cravath’s website states that the system is “our model for developing talent, incentivizing collaboration and client service, and building long-term relationships of trust.”
The Cravath System today relies on the axiom that accessing graduates who attend elite law schools and earn top grades is both an effective and administrable strategy for capturing desired talent. But why? One reason is that the legal education landscape looked completely different when the Cravath System was born. The LSAT did not exist until 1948 and most law schools did not require an undergraduate degree. The only signals that a law school candidate could be valued for before conducting interviews were attendance and performance at an elite law school. Harvard, Columbia, and Yale, however, each required a college degree for admission and, by 1948 when the LSAT came about, nearly 70% of Cravath’s associates had graduated from one of these three law schools.
The Cravath System perseveres today
The law school admissions process has changed immensely and these days, it even reinforces the Cravath System’s initial justifications. While in the past, sufficient performance at a law school that required college degrees would qualify applicants in a rough yes-or-no fashion, all of the law schools today heavily screen applicants. Not only are the prestige of law schools and relative ranks closely monitored by everyone and their moms, but undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores have come to dominate the arms race for aptitude at the admissions stage.
Cravath and other law firms can outsource the screening process to the admissions offices that toil endlessly to compete amongst themselves for qualified students. Baked into law school admissions is college admissions which also provides an extra layer of screening that is even more multi-factored than law school admissions. In addition, law school grades, class rank, and extracurriculars are designed to establish relative “winners” and “losers”, so even more screening occurs before an application ever reaches a law firm’s door.
While it may be disheartening to hear that Biglaw, which has by and large universally adopted the Cravath System, looks only at two objective factors – law school prestige and grades, summarization does not necessarily preclude holistic review. The ultimate goal in the talent acquisition stage of the Cravath System is to find worthy molds for associates that can be trained from the inside to become successful firm attorneys rather than to ensure that fancy institutions and top grades are listed on the firm’s website (although this collateral consequence has significant marketing power). The criteria, whether you agree with them or not, are used as a means to an end. Trusting that students who made it to elite law schools and earned high marks are likely enough to fit the right mold, the Cravath System lives on and dominates today’s Biglaw talent acquisition scene.
The Cravath System is echoed in other types of firms as well and can be considered an ultra-industry practice. Professor Lauren A. Rivera, in her book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, places large law firms into a category called “elite professional service” firms (“EPS”), making law firms cousins with investment banking and consulting firms. The characteristics of EPSs are that they:
- were historically dominated by the American upper class
- involve both analytical and interpersonal work
- have business with similar large corporate clients
- have time-intensive work – averaging over sixty-five hours per week
- engage in similar hiring procedures for entry-level hires: on-campus interviewing (“OCI”).
OCI processes are very similar in that each EPS first sets the bounds of competition (school prestige and GPA), screen resumes to select for usually two rounds of interviews (the “screener” and “callback”), and candidates are interviewed independently by revenue-generating professionals (partners and associates) who might end up work directly with the candidates.
Thus, law firms are not completely unique in its adoption of the Cravath System. MBA students in particular may be able to relate to the job search struggles of law students. It is quite likely that such a talent acquisition model may have become what it is today under a different name, or no name at all. Regardless of the origin of the Cravath System, it continues to show incredible inertia, and few, if any Biglaw firms deviate from it.
The conventional candidate
In short, Biglaw’s conventional candidate has high levels of pedigree. Rivera defines pedigree as the shorthand term for “a job candidate’s record of accomplishments.” The conventional candidate’s greatest strength or most striking weakness in his or her pedigree will be the reputation of the law school attended and the grades attained. Some of the highest ranked schools place over 70% of their graduating class into Biglaw (defined as 100+ attorney headcount by the ABA). Most T-14 schools are above 50% in Biglaw placement, but only a few schools in the T-30 are within comparable striking reach.
It’s a broad generalization, but elite schools seem to open relatively easy doors to Biglaw and are more forgiving with grades, while getting high marks becomes increasingly important as a school’s prestige decreases. Once a law school’s Biglaw placement is near or above the 50% mark, some remarks start to get thrown around that “anybody who wants it can get it” after factoring out those who intentionally pursue any other kind of legal career.
For schools far from that strength of placement, law school applicants are commonly advised to estimate that the placement percentage will reflect how well they must perform academically to have a fighting chance for Biglaw. If the BLI School of Law’s Biglaw placement is 10%, then one could expect to have to place at or near the top ten percent of the class to attain Biglaw. Of course, this heuristic does not guarantee anything, and does not factor in pre-existing connections or special and relevant work history.
Much of the spotlight on school prestige is due to administrability and marketing. Law firms rarely deny that otherwise highly-qualified candidates can be found at all institutions. However, the streamlined access to a pool of candidates using year-to-year relationships formed with career services at elite schools is where a firm gets the most bang for its buck. A firm might conduct 50 screeners at a T-14 while interviewing less than a handful at a regional, lower-ranked school. Many applicants from lower-ranked schools who are at the top of their class still have to apply directly through a firm’s website to even make it onto the hiring radar.
Prestige is also a valuable marketing tool to clients and competition. Clients will want to see that the attorneys they are paying hundreds of dollars per hour came from the best schools. Biglaw firms are stuck in this arms race because the first-mover to diverge from the practice of collecting pedigree will stand out like a sore thumb and will have to justify why their less pedigreed attorneys are no less competent.
While firms generally do not consider grades to be indicative of future performance, Rivera says that “grades provide a straightforward and ‘fair’ way to rank candidates.” Two objective numbers can be compared much more easily than personality, writing samples, or simulated work. One positive belief about grades seems to be that even if they don’t predict performance, good grades can serve as evidence of stress-management or meticulous work. The belief is that the overwhelming majority of high academic performers could not have gotten to where they were without a degree of self-care, ambition, coping mechanisms, and diligence.
After pedigree, in no particular order, prior employment, extracurriculars, and other required application materials (often cover letters, statements, and writing samples, etc.) can also move the needle. Prior employment could be substantively relevant (e.g., a past accountant looking to join a tax practice) or indicate workstyle familiarity if someone has past experience in an intense corporate environment. While many law school extracurriculars echo the stratification of grades, being able to balance activities beyond academics is seen as a positive, not to mention signaling aptitude for collaboration and leadership.
Finally, while Biglaw is known for glossing over, or entirely ignoring application materials, diversity positions may give more weight to diversity statements, cover letters can stand out, and a poor writing sample riddled with errors can kill an applicant’s chances.
The unconventional candidate
Rivera points out a hybrid talent acquisition model, the sponsored contest. In a contest system, everyone can apply and ideally, the most merit should win every time. Such is the case for the conventional candidate. In a sponsored system, existing winners get to choose the new winners. The unconventional candidate – someone who lacks the pedigree of a conventional candidate – can reach the interview stage by playing the sponsored system instead of the contest system. Once at the interview stage, both candidates generally find themselves on level playing fields. Rivera’s description of the sponsored contest is that everyone is allowed to apply, but “in reality, employers consider only those applications sponsored by existing elites: either prestigious universities or industry insiders.”
The greatest weapon for a candidate lacking competitive pedigree is that an industry insider can offer opportunities to interview—a slight, but potentially determinative advantage. On one extreme end, sponsorship by an insider can take the form of “your father and I are good friends, this interview is just a formality” or even traditional nepotism. Thankfully, any law student today can acquire sponsorship by an industry insider through the power of networking.
Rivera states that “individual sponsors did not need to be high up in the organization . . . insider-outsider status was more salient than vertical position within a firm,” and I know from personal experience that junior associates and even upperclassmen who have ties to the firm can be a sufficient sponsor.
Partners at a firm usually have enough power to push candidates lacking in pedigree to the interview stage. Individual sponsorship is not official, and “the tie to an individual sponsor did not have to be strong. No explicit description of the relationship or candidate was necessary.” Simply getting to know a firm insider and sharing a short but personable conversation would usually suffice for the insider to “put in a good word” for an application. Even an indirect relationship can be a successful sponsorship (e.g., a professor reaches out to an insider and mentions that her student has applied to the insider’s firm). While most sponsorships are a result of a personal, non-business relationship, high-touch referrals (from clients or broader industry insiders such as judges) can also have a similar effect.
The puzzle of the Biglaw interview
Both the conventional and unconventional candidates can get an initial interview on the basis of pedigree or sponsorship. However, there is a sharp shift at the interview stage from the objective to the subjective. School rank, GPA, and whether or not there was a sponsor at all are objective characteristics of a candidate. Even a candidate with top grades from a top school, or a candidate sponsored by a rainmaking partner will be judged on a brand new set of criteria moving through the two rounds of interviews.
According to Rivera, law firm interviews are the most unstructured out of all of the EPS firms. Evaluators, who are almost always partners and associates, are often given little or no guidance in how to determine who is and isn’t qualified. Conversely, a structured interview might have interviewees answering the same set of questions so that answers could be compared. Law firm interviews rarely (but effectively never) rely on case or technical interviews either. In the broadest sense, the interviewer has huge discretion to share a conversation with the interviewee to get a grasp of the candidate’s fit and polish.
Fit is an interesting word; at first glance it seems synonymous to “qualified”, possibly pointing to strength and conditioning, or perhaps even the fit of the candidate’s suit! However, Rivera’s use of the word fit is defined as “the shared values that delineate appropriate workplace behavior.” Fit is perceived to be stable personality characteristics, basically indicating a broad range of ideas such as whether or not a candidate could match a firm’s culture, be personable or interesting enough to work long hours with, or integrate themselves into the workplace social network. In summary, fit is personality and good fit is when the personality either meshes well with or mirrors the already existing personalities at a firm. However, everyone admits that evaluating a person’s personality is an extremely subjective process, riddled with biases, and two entirely reasonable evaluators can have opposite reactions to a limited snapshot of an interviewee’s fit.
Polish, though commonly weighted less than fit (again, there is no mandatory rubric), is the other main criterion and equally subjective. Polish is equated with presence, presentability, or poise (why do they all start with P?) but also has a necessary transitive characteristic, where it is the result of two people’s interactions and not one person’s skill in a vacuum. Rivera states that “[p]olish consisted of seeming at ease while putting the interviewer at ease, taking the reins in conversation while maintaining adherence to conversational rhythms and turn-taking norms, displaying excitement but keeping it within bounds, and seeming confident yet not cocky.” There’s a lot that goes into polish!
It’s difficult to get a singular grasp of polish, but Rivera details a few instances of good and bad polish. The most polished candidates come across as interviewing the interviewer and flipping the roles (a skill best developed by practice through networking in my opinion), taking a natural effort to discover commonalities, and having excellent conversational timing. Polish is natural, polish is comfortable, polish gives off the right emotions in the right amounts, and generally is seen as a skill that makes a genuine conversation flow effectively.
The interview conversation: a roadmap
Biglaw interviews, despite the complete lack of structure, tend to follow conversational patterns, testing fit and polish at every stage. First is the icebreaker. The interview rarely starts with a question related directly to the position, but instead sets a brief stage for introductions and small talk.
Second is the autobiographical narrative, or commonly known as the “tell me about yourself” question. Compelling and emotionally arousing narratives work best, and an ideal autobiographical narrative shares both past experiences and future trajectory. Artful storytelling is more important than what the actual experiences are, and the narrative is the candidate’s best chance to express ambition, ownership, motivations, passions, goals, and many other valued characteristics. Highly vivid stories, stories that “move” or “wow” the evaluator, and especially stories that were very similar to the evaluator’s own experiences are received best.
Finally, interviews tend to leave time at the end for question-and-answer. Having no questions for the firm comes across as lacking genuine interest and overall preparedness. While this final stage rarely makes the candidate (since an evaluator has usually reached a conclusion by this point), it can definitely break one. Poor questions focus on quantifiable and extrinsic details, while the best questions drive home the image of an intrinsically-motivated and genuinely excited candidate. Thus, questions about time commitments, work-life balance, family leave policies, and compensation are received poorly while questions exploring the positive experiences that come with the position, or the evaluator’s own perspective will likely confirm any good impressions already made.
At the broadest level of analysis, a candidate needs to be liked in order to get the job once they have sufficient objective qualifications, be it educational merit or sponsorship. Awareness of, and practice for polish, fit, and the common interview stages can go a long way. Biglaw talent acquisition often has the impression of formlessness, arbitrariness, and luck-based outcomes. To a degree, that is probably true compared to many other talent acquisition models employed elsewhere. However, those pursuing Biglaw will benefit from understanding the components of both criteria and process, and both building on strengths while working on weaknesses.
Joseph Kim A 2L at Notre Dame Law School, Joseph grew up in California where he developed an interest in working with music, powerlifting, and bowling. He’s been a member of the FIRE community since before law school and plans to pursue FatFIRE following graduation.