Just how important is law firm prestige?
This question might seem strange coming from a Vault Law editor, since we are, after all, known for the Vault Law 100—a ranking of the 100 most prestigious law firms in the U.S. as decided by 20,000+ law firm associates. I’m certainly not here to tell you that prestige doesn’t mean anything, because that’s simply not true. But like so many questions in the legal world, the answer here is one that every attorney is familiar with: It depends.
That “it depends” includes honing in on context. Are we talking about prestige as it relates to students going through OCI? To law firm associates seeking a lateral move? To clients looking to hire the best law firm possible? To every one of these groups, prestige will matter for different reasons and to varying degrees.
At Vault Law, our main focus is on legal job seekers and the considerations they have in mind as they evaluate legal employers. We know that prestige is important—as you’ll see below, our data shows that many candidates look to prestige as a guidepost for selecting a law firm. But we also know that prestige is not the be-all and end-all for this population. Even for those specifically seeking BigLaw employment, priorities vary among candidates, and they continue to shift each year.
In our Annual Associate Survey, one of the questions we ask first-year associates is what factors were most important to them in deciding whether to accept a law firm’s offer of employment, and they may select up to three factors. The following chart shows the trend lines for the top five factors we have seen in recent years: 1) firm culture/colleagues, 2) quality/type of work, 3) prestige, 4) location, and 5) specific practice group.
At number three, not only is prestige not the top factor for associates when it comes to selecting a law firm, we also see that the percentage of associates selecting prestige as a top factor is on a steady decline. To more clearly visualize the trend, we pulled out the prestige line to display on its own:
The data is clear: Prestige is not everything to BigLaw candidates. Instead, we see that the work they’ll get to do and who they’ll get to do it with are more important considerations. Given the legal industry’s reputation for being hyper focused on prestige, this might come as a surprise to some.
This year, we also saw a number of decision factors (outside of the top five) trend upward, many of which make sense in the context of the social justice movement and global pandemic that affected job seekers in 2020. As the legal industry continues to normalize post-COVID and we see Gen Z enter the legal workforce, we will no doubt continue to see changes in what candidates are prioritizing in their careers.
For now, the best generalization we can make is that candidates are seeking their best firm fit, whether their focus is on prestige or another factor. The resources we create at Vault Law aim to equip candidates with information to help them determine exactly that. In addition to our prestige rankings, we publish the Best Law Firms to Work For, Best Law Firms for Diversity, and Best Midsize Law Firms to Work For to shed light on the quality of life at law firms. We also publish real associate quotes on law firm profiles, which provide commentary on everything from firm culture and compensation to quality of work and training to pro bono and diversity.
If you’re a legal job seeker, be sure to take advantage of these resources, which allow you to look beyond prestige and distinguish firms based on what matters most to you.