College admissions scandal and the illusions of prestige

It is no coincidence that the list of parents indicted for buying their children entrance to allegedly prestigious colleges contains so many denizens of Hollywood and venture capital and investment banking.  Both professions sell illusions and dreams: outright fiction or the promise of profit.

The purportedly "elite" colleges and universities into which they bribed their kids also sell the illusion that merely being associated with them will confer lifelong important advantages.  That is not nearly as true as they would have you believe.  In fact, in many if not most circumstances, enrollment in a nationally prominent purportedly "prestigious" institution of higher education is less a plus than a minus.

Take lawyers, for instance. Sure, if you want to get a seat on the Supreme Court these days, you'd better have gone to Harvard or Yale Law Schools.  But that's nine jobs out of about 1.34 million lawyers in the U.S.  Planning your career around the hope of getting one of those seats is far riskier than planning on the NBA as your ticket out of the ghetto.  If ambitious young lads or lassies are planning to be a lawyer and want to get a career leg up, the odds are that they would be far better off applying to Home State U's law school.

Sterling Law Building at Yale Law School (photo credit: Schmitra).

My friend Richard Baehr has a huge amount of experience dealing with lawyers in many places.  He writes:

I spent most of my last 25 years as a health care consultant doing expert witness testimony, where lawyers were all around me.  Many of them who could have gone to more elite schools chose to go to their  state law schools, and then work where they grew up.

The best ones were as good as those I came up against in New York or DC  in bankruptcy and anti-trust cases.

In general, litigation in the states where I worked the most — Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, West Virginia — judges and other lawyers regarded someone who was a top lawyer with a degree from the state school a lot more favorably than those from more "prestigious" eastern schools.  I saw this in a few antitrust cases, where heavyweights from DC were called-in by a giant company.  As to lawyer satisfaction, during trials themselves, which sometimes lasted 3–4 weeks, they had completely miserable existences.  (Mine was not any better — and I went back to a hotel room at night.)  

Most of these State U Law School graduates earned very solid incomes, though certainly not what top New York lawyers earned.  Then again, it is a lot less costly to live in Columbia, South Carolina, or Lexington, Kentucky or Tallahassee, Florida than New York City.

My own career experience as a Harvard Business School and Columbia International Relations professor, followed by decades as a strategic consultant to global corporations, was in that very narrow band of work where a recognizable university pedigree really did open doors.  In Japan, where I did a lot of work, Harvard is regarded as the equivalent of Tokyo University, so enjoyed at least the imputation of some sort of status.  But even at these optimal circumstances for the value of prestige, the most one could say is that the door was open, but then you have to walk through it and perform.

On Wall Street, which is where the biggest opportunities for making the biggest incomes are, those Harvard or Yale grads who may get their first job at Goldman Sachs based on prestige and connections don't last very long if they can't deliver performance.  Math sophistication, cunning, and street smarts are far more important on the financial markets than pedigree.  And some of the richest and most feared figures in the markets are not the aristocratic sorts.