A first-time dean and Harvard law graduate has got a bottom-listing law school into the top-ranking law firms through shrewd marketing and a place in the on-campus interview circuit with top law firms. What’s going on here?

A first-time dean and Harvard law graduate has got a bottom-listing law school into the top-ranking law firms through shrewd marketing and a place in the on-campus interview circuit with top law firms. What's going on here? 2

Law students starting summer jobs at the New York office of a prominent national law firm come largely from the usual places: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, New York University and some local schools. Then there’s Keith Marlowe of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

Last fall, Mr. Marlowe applied for summer work at 110 U.S. firms and got no offers. But the Calgary, Alberta, native had an ace in the hole: private interviews, arranged by his law school, with some of the country’s biggest firms, including Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, which offered the 25-year-old a job paying about $3,000 a week.

In the stratified world of law, educational pedigree largely dictates where students will get a look. Firms want to signal to clients and colleagues that they only hire the best. As firms have grown and competition for junior lawyers has intensified, some firms have dipped below the Ivies and their equivalents. Nonetheless, a student from a school like Detroit Mercy — firmly in the cellar of U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of 184 accredited law schools — hasn’t stood a chance at the fancy firms.

But thanks to some masterful marketing by Detroit Mercy’s dean, Mark C. Gordon, top students at the school are now gaining entree to the big leagues. In the last two years, a half-dozen students have been hired for summer or full-time jobs at firms like Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw LLP. Firms such as Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP now include Detroit Mercy in their select on-campus interview circuit.

A first-time dean and Harvard Law grad, Mr. Gordon got his school on the radar of the top-tier firms by enlisting a stable of big-time private-practice lawyers to join an advisory board that’s now some 60 members strong. His pitch: Help Detroit Mercy improve its third-year curriculum by creating a required set of courses that simulate real-life practice.

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