Clarence Thomas is the Man.

Shocking title, I know. Just read.

I often write on this blog based on my perspective as a Black male in law school. When it came time for me to make my choice of what law school to apply to, I naturally looked to one place: The US News and World Report Rankings. Any person of color considering law school, in law school, or even more importantly, about to graduate law school – like myself – is uniquely aware of the weight the US News law school ranking carry. They often make the difference between getting interviewed by 20 top-level law firms, and getting interviewed by none at all. Some recent statements by a Supreme Court Justice have shone light on both the rankings, and the Justice’s perhaps unexpected viewpoint.

Recently, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas came out unequivocally against the US News Law School rankings and has had many Blacks, including myself, agreeing with him . . . which is a first, I can assure you. The often-conservative Justice expressed his view on the “prestige” attached to “top-tier” law schools, vis-à-vis when it comes to hiring law clerks for his chambers. His words:

“Isn’t that the antithesis of what this country is supposed to be about? Isn’t that the bias that we fought about on racial terms, or on terms of sex, or on terms of religion, etc.?”

Here Justice Thomas is explicitly comparing the overwhelming prestige thrust upon approximately 10 law schools to the same bias this country has traditionally had when it came to immutable characteristics. Specifically, the comparison suggests his great disapproval of this discrimination in the legal profession. Justice Thomas goes further and says:

“My new bias, which I now embrace, is that I don’t eliminate the Ivies in hiring, but I intentionally prefer kids from regular backgrounds and regular students.”

I can tell you from personal experience, and anecdotal stories, that the employers most coveted by law students – big corporate law firms – are not of one mind with Thomas when it comes to this. They don’t seem to want regular students. They overwhelmingly prefer law graduates from the Ivies, and send their recruiters those shools in disproportionate numbers. Many students often transfer from my law school, which is just inside the top 50 according to US News, to schools like Georgetown or Michigan because they feel like the employers are just not coming here like they are going to the “prestige” law schools.

The significance of who is being funneled into the highest echelon of the legal profession is clear when you consider who attends these schools. I’ll note that there are some exceptions to this trend. I personally know individuals at Ivy League law schools who are not in the demographics that usually are admitted, but by-and-large the trend is what follows. Recent studies have shown that the highest-ranked law schools tend to admit students who already happen to be in the highest socioeconomic strata of the United States. These students have had the connections to get into prestigious undergraduate institutions, the time to pursue a wide array of extracurriculars, the ability to do extensive study abroad or travel, and the money to pay for expensive LSAT prep courses which boost their final scores. All-in-all, these prospective students, from the very beginning of College, have a leg up on poorer minority students.

The obsession with the law school rankings seems odd, but is by-and-large the norm. Students of color are often resigned to the notion that their non-Ivy law school just won’t put them where they want to be. The American Bar Association’s own stance on rankings:

“Neither the American Bar Association nor its Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar endorses, cooperates with, or provides data to any law school ranking system.”

This seems unequivocal, but it doesn’t change realities for lower-ranked law schools and the job opportunities available to their students. Justice Thomas puts it succinctly and eloquently:

“I think the obsession is somewhat perverse. I never look at those rankings. I don’t even know where they are. I thought U.S. News and World Report was out of business. There are smart kids every place. They are male, they are female, they are black, they’re white, they’re from the West, they’re from the South, they’re from public schools, they’re from public universities, they’re from poor families, they’re from sharecroppers, they’re from all over. … I look at the kid who shows up. Is this a kid that could work for me?”

It is refreshing to see this statement. Justice Thomas himself was from rural [read bumblefuck] Georgia. However, he did attend one of the Ivies that he now thinks does not per se make a law student better, namely Yale University Law School. Also, if one takes a look at the law school from which the vast majority of his clerks have come, they overwhelmingly attended Ivy league law schools. This may be a function of the system, however, as most Supreme Court Justices take clerks who have clerked with a Federal judge before. What this means is, the pool from which Justice Thomas is choosing, those who have clerked in Federal Circuit Courts and Federal District Courts, already weeds out many from non-prestige law schools.

Will the rest of the legal profession begin to understand that good lawyers can come from just about any law school in the county? The answer to the question is most likely “no.” Is Justice Thomas making a point that resonates with many from underserved communities in lower-ranked law schools that at least someone at the very top recognizes their potential? The answer is likely “yes.”

Justice Thomas’ comments speak to the perceived meritocracy in one facet of American society. What the Justice said resonates because it suggests that for many, at least in the legal profession, the merit is attached more to the school name, regardless of the person typing it on the resume. Will bad law students and lawyers get far? Probably not.

The more important question is will great law students and great lawyers from lesser-ranked schools even get in the door and get a chance to show their stuff?

3 Responses to “Clarence Thomas is the Man.”
  1. calvdart says:

    Interesting take but I am going to push back a little.

    I don’t agree that recruiting exclusively from top tier schools is the same “…bias that we fought about on racial terms, or on terms of sex, or on terms of religion, etc.” If we were discussing the application process into top tier law schools then I might agree, but I think things change when we are discussing the application process to prestigious firms and clerkships post-schooling.

    I think you’re sentence, “They don’t seem to want regular students.” pretty much sums it up. If I am running a highly desirable firm or clerkship, I don’t want regular students either, I want the best of the best. And to be sure, simply because you went to a top-tier school does not automatically qualify you as the best of the best. But I think there is a strong argument that you will be more likely to find the best of the best at one of these institutions than elsewhere.

    So, if I am weeding through literally hundreds of applications for one opening and I want to answer the question, “Is this person smart enough for the job?” I will more often than not use their educational background as a proxy. If a person does not have the educational background I think is required then I could dig for more hints as to their intelligence – I could call them up and have a conversation, I could consider their educational trajectory as opposed to attainment, I can call up references, etc. I can’t pursue any of those activities if someone’s race/sex/religion is not what I think is required, nor would their race/sex/religion have the same impact on their job performance as education. “I know Calvin is black but his skin is getting lighter over time. Can you confirm that in a few years he’ll be certifiably white?”

    At the end of the day, characteristics such as race, sex, and (to a lesser extent) religion are beyond the control of an individual. Their education is not. These traits can certainly impact the caliber of someone’s education but there exist opportunities to overcome these barriers to reach one of the highly desirable, top tier programs – I would much rather have someone be biased against me based on my education than biased against me based on my skin color.

    • djonesmhc says:

      One of the quotes from Justice Thomas that I left out of the article sums up his point wonderfully:

      “Think about it. Suddenly we’ve created this kind of nobility. Here’s the highest nobility, here’s the next nobility,”

      That’s the heart of the article. That these schools essentially create another form of elite. A few of these top law school are on a pass/fail grading system. The school knows that their name alone is gonna get these students opportunities, so they’ve eschewed grades all together. Grades cease to matter. So once someone gets into Harvard Law, as long as they do minimally well, they’ll be guaranteed many times the number of opportunities that those at lower ranked schools have.

      Contrast the Harvard law student with someone at a school outside the top 20. That student has to be in the top 10% of his or her class, as judged by GPA, to even be considered by the same firms that run to Harvard in droves. His application never reaches the desk of the recruiter, I can assure you, if he or she has less than a 3.7. Meanwhile, Johnny and Jane Harvard, in the same position during their 1L, have each “passed” their classes and are off on 20 or more interviews.

      What I mean by “regular” students is NOT unexceptional. I mean a student who is not in the privileged class to attend an Ivy league law school. The regular student is the one who may have chosen a public university’s law school in order to save money, but who has all the intelligence to perform at the highest level. THAT student is never getting a foot in the door. That is the great shame of it all.

      • calvdart says:

        There will always be tiers of nobility. This entire discussion is predicated on the fact that a certain tier of “nobile” law firms is essentially off limits to a set of presumably “less than nobile” law students. And considering that Harvard was founded in 1636, this tier of nobility is anything but sudden.

        A student that applies to both Harvard Law and State University Law then elects to attend State University Law to save money has made a pretty bad economic decision. They have decided to save money now while opting to forego the prestige of a top tier school and the accompanying financial benefits in the future. I would not make that decision myself.

        My point is that law firms are not the ones responsible for addressing these issues. The onus rests with the educational institutions and their admissions committees. These top tier institutions, both graduate and undergraduate, are the ones tasked with providing a diverse educational experience for their students. If they cultivate a community where students of privileged backgrounds only spend time and thoughts with other students of privileged backgrounds, then the schools have failed and should be the ones criticized for their shortcomings. A profit driven firm has no such moral/ethical responsibility to their employees. I find no shame in allocating recruiting resources in the fashion most likely to yield the types of lawyers that will drive strong profits and strong futures for their firms.

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