These aren't the droids you're looking for.
- Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
You can offer a superior skill set or a unique one, but if you're trying to do both, you're wasting your time.
The Economist has since changed its pricing scheme, but not so long ago they offered three different options that looked like this:
Online Only - $59.00
Print Only - $125.00
Online and Print - $125.00
You may notice something just a little bit weird, the Print Only and Online and Print options are the same price. That makes no sense, as the third option gives exactly what the second offers, plus more. Noticing this, economist Dan Ariely ran an experiment with some of the students at MIT.
100 students were asked which of the three options above they would prefer. 16% chose Online Only, 84% picked Online and Print, and no one picked Print Only. Naturally, anyone who would have preferred Print Only, went ahead and got the online edition too, why not? More for the same price.
100 (different) students were then given a different set of choices, Online Only and Online and Print. The middle choice was eliminated, but this should make no difference in the results, as no one in the first group picked it. But, something interesting happened, 68% of the students went for Online Only, and only 32% picked Print and Online. This shift towards the Online Only option represents a 30% decrease in revenues, all lost because a choice no one wanted was eliminated. What the heck is going on?
Human beings are bad at judging values of things in a vacuum, but are fairly good at making comparisons. We have no idea whether $59 for an online subscription to the economist is worth it, same with the $125 print edition. But, we know that paying $125 and also getting the online edition is better than just getting the print edition for the same price. We have a hard time comparing options 1 and 2, but a very easy time comparing 2 and 3, and we know 3 is better. Knowing that 3 is better than something, even if that something is irrelevant, makes us prefer it to an option that we don't know to be better than anything. It's all smoke and mirrors, but our chimp-brains don't know any better.
So, how does this apply to lawyering? When interviewing for a job, trying to advance within your firm, or working on bringing in clients, you should decide whether your skill set is best evaluated in comparison to others, or on its own. If you're in the 98th percentile at your school, that should be the center of your resume. Who really knows the value of a legal education these days? No one. But, you can at least assure your prospective employer that you're a better choice than your other classmates who are getting the same dubious education.
Imagine you're at the 60th percentile though, or the 30th percentile. At a top law school, 30th percentile isn't much to be ashamed of, you're still smarter than most of the total law student population. But, if directly compared to people with better grades, you're screwed, even when compared to the top students at very low ranked schools.
What you have to do is take the focus off your grades, and put it on some intangible factor that does not easily lend itself to comparison. Note how you've taken two classes on environmental law, one on real estate deals with an emphasis on Superfund issues, and are on your school's Environmental Law Review. You're not the student with mediocre grades, now you're the guy environmental law guy. Prospective employers will be less inclined to compare your grades, because you're making the comparison less relevant. You can easily compare a 3.8 and a 3.4 GPA from two students with History degrees from Duke. But, a 3.8 GPA in History at Duke compared to a 3.1 in Bio-Chem from Cal Tech? Not so easy.
If you find yourself outside of the top 25% at your school, start building up some very strong intangible qualities. Take several classes in the same specialty, get on a journal in that field, try to publish a note, and enter writing competitions. In a head-to-head comparison, you'll likely come up short, so make sure the pool of applicants who look similar to you is as small as possible, make that head-to-head comparison less likely to happen.
On the other hand, if you have very good grades, shouldn't you still build up some of these other credentials? Why not be the guy with a 3.9 law school GPA AND the environmental law guy? Short answer: you're not that good. These things take time and energy. Becoming a jack of all trades will mean that in every comparison, you lose. Your GPA may slip, meaning if you want the brainiac comparison, more people will beat you, and if you go the specialist route, you'll still be beaten by the people who've given up on worrying about grades and are more focused on the specialty than you. Instead, drop irrelevant extracurriculars, focus on bringing your GPA up even higher, and get a leadership position on Law Review.
In another experiment, Ariely tested whether the pricing anomaly with The Economist would play out in the dating arena. He showed people three pictures of faces. Two were of different people of roughly similar attractiveness. The third was one of their faces, but with a slight distortion. By an overwhelming majority, 75%, the original of the distorted face was considered more attractive. It didn't matter which face was chosen to be distorted. The baseline attractiveness of the faces played some role, but the biggest factor was having an uglier version to be compared to. In life and in law, find that person who looks like you but a notch worse, and stand as close as possible. And, when you see that person who looks like you, but a notch better, either stand further away, or put on a hat.