The Secret of My Success: How Status, Eliteness, and School Performance Shape Legal Careers


  • Richard Sander,

  • Jane Bambauer

  • We have benefited from careful critiques of earlier drafts by Patrick Anderson, Bryant Garth, Jack Heinz, Gabriel Rossman, and Ronald C. Den Otter, and by the anonymous reviewers at JELS. Tal Greitzer provided invaluable technical assistance.

Address correspondence to Richard Sander, Professor of Law, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476.


If we study the 40,000 law graduates who join the legal profession each year, how well can we predict their future careers? How much of their future is predicted by their social class? The law school they attend? Their law school grades? This article undertakes the first in-depth examination of these questions. Drawing on several large and recently released data sets, we examine the role of class, school prestige, and law school grades on the career earnings of lawyers and the success of big firm associates in becoming partners. We find that social class strongly conditions who goes to law school, but no longer predicts much about postgraduate outcomes. Law school prestige is important, but it is generally trumped by law school performance (as measured by law school grades). Law school grades reflect both personal characteristics not well captured by prelaw credentials, and one's relative position in a law school class as measured by prelaw credentials. Our findings suggest that there is little empirical basis for the overwhelming importance students assign to “eliteness” in choosing a law school.