Would the IRS be better served recruiting students at the top of the class at a non-elite school rather than a student at the bottom of the class at an elite school?Replace the phrase the IRS with any employer, and you have the makings of a debate that is likely to be as contentious as it is important.
From our secure perches in legal academia, we have the luxury of being able to test this hypothesis. The sample sizes are likely to be small, and potential biases abound. But remember: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Define a set of law professors -- the members of your faculty, perhaps, or a cohort of comparably experienced professors in a particular field (civil procedure, federal securities law, whatever). It's going to be hard, if not impossible, to tell where each professor finished in her or his law school class, but we do know each professor's first law school alma mater. Then take stock of each member of the set according to whatever criterion of productivity you like: entries, pages, and/or citations, in raw form or weighted according to your own judgment of quality. Ready? Correlate.
With any luck, you'll get some sense of the predictive value of pedigree. In the example Paul Caron cites, the Internal Revenue Service is obviously assuming that law school pedigree matters a lot, or at least enough to outweigh the predictive value of an individual's place in her or his graduating class. Whatever the IRS is doing, let's hope you've properly defined your dependent variable. Even if you've chosen well, it might not matter. It may well be that neither the pedigree of the law school nor the individual's performance there has any predictive value. Bill Henderson's classic blog post on predictors of scholarship certainly suggests as much. But what the hell. Let's keep measuring. Repetition in pursuit of knowledge is no vice.
For my part, I've already admitted in this forum that I mostly ignore both law school pedigree and class rank. But if I had to choose, I'd go with the high-ranking graduate of the nonelite school. When forced to rely on gut instinct, I'll put my trust in someone who has worked hard to finish as high as possible, even in a less elite talent pool, ahead of someone whose lone claim to distinction depends on her or his classmates.
Here at MoneyLaw, of course, argument by anecdote is anathema. But it is football season, and I can't resist this one little story. Do you know who wore #4 for the University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in a colossal upset of Florida State on September 2, 1989? The picture up top shows him dodging the Seminole pass rush. Here's another hint: he was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round (33d overall) in the 1991 NFL Draft. According to his Wikipedia entry, this player, at least while he was in Atlanta, "was a third-string quarterback with unremarkable numbers and an affinity for partying." But 15 years later, he's still playing pro football. This elite player from a nonelite college program still wears #4 . . . for the Green Bay Packers. With the possible exception of John Elway, he's the greatest quarterback of all time. You know him as Brett Favre.