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Stop Obsessing About Credentials
What happened to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, what it says about the legal profession's extreme emphasis on proxies for success, and why it keeps lawyers unhappy
Happy Sunday my friends! I wanted to share some thoughts I had over the past week about credentials, why we, as lawyers, celebrate them so much, and how they keep us miserable.
It came to mind because earlier this week, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, was questioned about her LSAT score. Jackson has a lengthy track record of professional success, but even with that, someone still tried to undermine her record—in the real world—by bringing up her score on a standardized test from decades ago.(see here) it made me think.
Why do we, as a legal profession, celebrate proxies for success so much? Why do we give so much respect to signals and predictors of success, instead of the success itself? Examples of this are everywhere:
Obsession with where someone attended law school (or their grades, or law review, or honors) many years after they’ve already graduated;
Excessive focus on perceived prestige of a job or firm when deciding which employer to choose; or
Bragging about number of hours billed vs. the outcome you achieved for your client
I realize that there are some good reasons underlying each of these examples. Like, maybe it’s difficult to measure success for a legal services engagement. How do you define a win when defending a lawsuit for a client?Absent a clear cut way to measure success, maybe you look at inputs and how much time was spent on the matter. And maybe the extreme focus on prestige has to do with how difficult it is to perceive quality in the legal industry, so you resort to signals and proxies, as a quick way to make a judgment about a particular opportunity, candidate, or school.
Still, it’s a problem. It’s not that these signals don’t matter it’s that we place too much emphasis on them. Personally, I believe the excessive focus on prestige and proxies is precisely why so many lawyers are unhappy with their jobs, and lives.
When I first found my way into the legal profession, I quickly learned the “rules of the game.” If you went to the most prestigious school, and got the most prestigious job, it would basically guarantee success. Although you could probably define success in many ways, it really meant one thing to me. Having a big impact. That’s why I gravitated towards top ranked law schools, law review, clerkships, etc.
Somewhere along the way though, things got weird. I kind of lost my way. I started to compete for credentials for the sake of the credentials themselves. You kind of need that obsessive focus to win. I had blinders on, and just told myself “if you can focus for a month, a year, on beating everyone else and winning this particular game (like 1L grades, law review writing competition, etc.) you’ll be set.”
It helped me win a few games early on. I got into a top law school. I got decent grades. I made law review. And then after my first year, I got to experience the rewards. Law firms that I never imagined would ever want to hire a guy like me started falling over themselves to recruit me.It felt good.
It really felt like I was doing the right thing.
Of course, all of this came at a price. It took a few years for me to realize but when you collect accolades, you’re not actually winning anything. You’ve helped no clients. You’ve had no impact on the world. All you’ve done is gain access to an exclusive world where you get paid well and the respect (or envy) of your peers & future colleagues. Your parents get to brag about you to their friends. It really does feel like success.
Once you’re in, you realize that the “game” has just begun. You have to continue outperforming your peers to move up and make partner. You see that everyone else has done well in the law school game, and now you need to do well in the law firm game. I remember being shocked by my summer associate class. We had over 100 law students, and I think half of them were from Harvard.
To avoid cognitive dissonance, I told myself that I had earned my place in this exclusive group of future lawyers, and that that was an accomplishment in and of itself. I never had the grades to go Harvard, but now I felt like I was just as good as them. I caught up. And so I started to value the game itself, because it gave me a positive sense of identity. It felt like I had proven my value through the credentialing system. Doing well on the LSAT meant I could go to Northwestern, and doing well there meant I’d earned my spot at Sullivan & Cromwell.
I didn’t need the ambiguity of the real world or the confusion about whether I was having an impact.
I felt valuable.
Of course, the job itself made me miserable. I quickly realized that it wasn’t right for me, and continuing to compete in this game was making me unhappy and affecting my health. Which I’ve spoken about and written about extensively before. For a lot of different reasons, I decided to leave.
A lot has happened to me since I left Biglaw eight years ago. I threw myself into the real world, in an attempt to have the impact I originally wanted. I found my place in tech, which is fast-paced and constantly changing. I’ve documented parts of my journey in this newsletter (so you know there have been ups and downs). In the end I found where I belonged and where I could really make a difference.
If I could talk to my 20-something year old self, I’m not sure what I’d say. I really don’t know how I’d explain my job or career trajectory. “I work in legal tech, and I have a large, measurable impact on revenue for my company, and on the community, by making memes and silly Tik Tok videos parodying the legal profession.” It’s definitely not as clean as me being able to say that I’m a partner at an AmLaw 200 firm.
Despite that, I truly believe I’ve found my place. Because even with all the ambiguity, I can tell how I’m moving the needle. I found the high impact that I was looking for. So I don’t worry so much about how to explain myself to strangers or my parents friends, or whoever else that might think that I’m being reckless with my career.
So to those of you who feel like you don’t quite fit into a neat little box in the legal profession, I’d say, go ahead and be a little bit reckless. You don’t have to do what I do, but you should feel empowered to pursue something different. Don’t try to achieve conventional success. Because what they never tell you—especially in law—is that “conventional success” is often anything but. They’re just proxies for success.
And they’ll never be a substitute for the real thing.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this please leave a comment or feel free to forward it on. I’m still trying to find my voice for this newsletter so any feedback you have is more than welcome.
There were accusations that this entire line of questioning was based on racism, and I can’t say that I disagree. But that’s a conversation for another day.
As of Sunday morning, the video has received almost 300,000 views across platforms and generated over a thousand comments.
I have always admired contingency fee lawyers. How much you win at trial or settlement isn’t a perfect measure of success, but it’s a lot closer than billable hours. Is it surprising that many of the most successful contingency fee lawyers do not have the prestige credentials that other litigators have?
I had a 2.9 GPA coming out of undergrad, and was told by a law school admissions consultant to reconsider going into law. I got into Northwestern Law off the waitlist. Yet a little over a year later, some of the world’s most prestigious law firms wanted to hire me. It was kind of a crazy experience.