Category Archives: People Practices

Why do smart young people go into finance, law, and consulting?

The economists over at George Mason had a discussion this week about professional services firms (it looks like consulting especially, but not exclusively) that led them to try and answer two questions of interest to this blog: why do smart motivated young people join professional services firms, and why do firms hire consultants.  I’m going to try to tackle both questions with my thoughts, so consider this part one of a two part series.

First off, Tyler Cowen offers his theory on why so many smart young people are going into professions like finance, law, and consulting:

The age structure of achievement is being ratcheted upward, due to specialization and the growth of knowledge.  Mathematicians used to prove theorems at age 20, now it happens at age 30, because there is so much to learn along the way.  If you are a smart 22-year-old, just out of Harvard, you probably cannot walk into a widget factory and quickly design a better machine.  (Note that in “immature” economic sectors, such as social networks circa 2006, young people can and do make immediate significant contributions and indeed they dominated the sector.)  Yet you and your parents expect you to earn a high income — now — and to affiliate with other smart, highly educated people, maybe even marry one of them.  It won’t work to move to Dayton and spend four years studying widget machines.

You will seek out jobs which reward a high “G factor,” or high general intelligence.  That means finance, law, and consulting.  You are productive fairly quickly, you make good contacts with other smart people, and you can demonstrate that you are smart, for future employment prospects.

That’s one theory, but I think it only plays into one motivator for a much more complicated decision.  I think Tyler is failing to appreciate just how intimidating graduating from college and choosing a career is for anyone without a technical and focused degree like engineering or accounting.   Up until you graduate college, each step in life is scripted – you go from middle school to high school, and from high school get good grades to apply to college, where you select the best college that you can get into.  All colleges are fairly similar in the sense of what you’ll get out of them is a degree, and all ask for similar inputs in the sense that they really want to see grades, test scores, and extra-curricular activities.  They don’t require you to declare a specialization or have any focused interest, so you can head off to explore the world without the terrifying possibility that you may close off some door to the future.  Law school lets you continue this process for another three years while staying under the comforting protection of the academy.

But applying to jobs is hard.  For starters, unlike colleges where you have a finite number of options conveniently ranked by status on a handful of similar lists, there are tens of thousands of employers in any given community, let alone the country, and the lists that rank them aren’t nearly as thorough or complete (if you ever want to feel good about college rankings, check out the methodology for a best place to work list).  Compare that to law, finance, accounting and consulting, all of which have a smaller number of firms that hire people straight out of school, and which are conveniently ranked by prestige by their own trade publications and sites like   In other words, the professions have their own equivalent of the US News rankings to help college graduates decide.

Not only are there tons of firms offering potential employment in the rest of the economy, but finding them is really hard.  They usually publish jobs on their own company’s websites, maybe the occasional job board (although for professional positions, most recruiters I know don’t like them), and through field specific headhunters.  In other words, even for entry level jobs, they want the new graduate to find them, not the other way around.   Professional firms show up on campus, throw giant parties, give presentations on how their application process, and even host the interviews right in the business school.  It doesn’t get much easier than that.

Finally, when it comes time to apply, all the professions are looking for pretty much the same thing, and it’s happily similar to the college application process that you’re not only familiar with, but have demonstrated that you’re pretty good at.  Fill out your GPA and test scores, write an application essay, upload your resume full of extracurriculars, and get ready for a few years of Excel, PowerPoint, and doc review.  Compare that to non-professional firms that want you to demonstrate your ability to do the job, despite your negligible experience, or tailor your cover letter to their culture when you barely understand what work is like.

In some ways, this supports Tyler’s point – these firms are excellent ways to quickly attain status with low risk.  But put another way, they’re also the easy choice for a generation of college graduates that’s never really had to choose, never had to explore what’s out there, and isn’t ready to settle down and make a career.  Some of this may sound condescending or bitter, but in actuality this process is hugely beneficial to the firms that hire these new graduates, and more importantly to those firms’ clients, as I’ll try to cover in Part 2 when I look at why companies hire consultants.

How Elite Firms Hire

Bryan Caplan is linking to a new study that covers an oft-discussed, but poorly researched, area of professional services firm management: the actual hiring process at elite firms in law, finance, and consulting.  (The actual paper by Lauren Rivera, “Ivies, Extracurriculars, and Exclusion“, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 2011, is behind a paywall).

Bryan outlines the five key highlights:

  1. Most applications practically go straight in the trash
  2. Evaluators have a lot of slack
  3. Super-elite credentials matter much more than your academic record
  4. Super-elite schools matter because they’re strong schools, not because they’re better at building human capital
  5. Extra-curriculars matter

Ask anyone at a major firm in finance, law, and consulting, and you’ll here about the dedication that every professional has to the hiring process, that because talent is the cornerstone of any successful firm, everyone up to the partner level is heavily involved in recruiting and selection.  You’ll hear paeans to diversity in the firm, not just in terms of race or ethnicity, but also backgrounds and interests.

The truth, as Rivera reveals, is more mixed.  Professionals at all levels are indeed involved in hiring, but they’re also busy with client work, and resume reviews are quick skims. And despite practicing professions dedicated to rationality, they’re still humans who suffer from the same hiring biases as any other manager.  While they talk about diversity at recruitment events, they look for signals of people who are just like them, especially when it comes to attending an Ivy League university, which anyone who has tried to break into a top-tier firm from a school off the standard recruiting schedule can tell you.

As Megan McCardle points out, this isn’t just bad for society, it’s terrible for the firms:

Forget about the effects on society, though; this is terrible for organizations.  You see this in Washington all the time–a friend who went to a lesser-known state school said he could always tell the people he wasn’t going to like when he met them at cocktail parties, because the minute he told them where he’d gone to school, they became extremely interested in going to get another drink or find the cheese dip.  This is one of the smartest, most consistently interesting and original, most talented writers I know.  Having actually attended one of those elite schools that apparently make you fascinating, I can attest firsthand that statistically, the elitists were vanishingly unlikely to be as interesting as the person they abandoned because he’d gone to a state college.


The Ivy League is full of smart, interesting people.  But it is not full of all of the smart, interesting people in the country, or even a majority of them.  And given the resumes required to get there, it produces a group of people who are narrow in certain predictible ways.  (I include myself in this: just because I can see it operating doesn’t mean I can escape it.)
The problem is that actually seeking out a wide variety of graduates would be much more expensive and time consuming.  Why spend the effort searching for “best” when you can easily access “very, very good”?


It’s not actually a great personal tragedy to be turned down by McKinsey (she said, from personal experience); there are still a lot of interesting and remunerative jobs out there.
But it may well be a corporate tragedy for McKinsey and its clients.

The homogenization of top-tier professional firms might not be as bad as Megan makes it sound.  At their core, these firms are looking for people who are willing to work extremely long hours, with intense focus, on work that might be analytically demanding, but isn’t usually that interesting.  Not coincidentally, that’s what elite universities usually screen for too, so university admissions serve as a useful shorthand.  It’s also why many of these firms are finding new sources of talent in burnt out PhD students – what better way to prove that you’re willing to work really hard at something you don’t enjoy than spending five years on a degree you don’t even want?

Rivera’s finding about extra-curriculars, while it surprises Bryan, lines up fairly well with how I’ve heard professionals describe “diversity” in their firm.  If you listen closely, diversity falls into one of two categories.  First, there’s diversity-of-academic-background, which means that there are people running around who went to the same elite institutions, but got a degree in something other than business or economics.  The second is diversity-of-outside-interest, and usually involves the anecdote about the partner who’s in an improv group, or the managing director who likes to build custom motorcycles.

These people are interesting in the sense that they’ve shown a fanatical devotion to at least one thing outside their core practice, but I’m not sure if it’s what I’d rely on to bring intellectual diversity to my firm.  And it’s intellectual diversity that leads to better outcomes for clients, as  Scott Page discusses in his book The Difference (I wish I could quote from it, but my copy is in storage in Detroit).

In contrast, I’ve seen a number of companies, both professional and corporate, that practiced what I call”talent arbitrage,” recruiting the best and brightest from top-tier state universities that fly under the radar of the usual hiring elite .  GE used to be well known for this practice, but I’ve also seen it more recently in rapidly growing software companies, profitable legacy manufacturers, and highly successful specialist consultancies.  It takes a much more sophisticated human resources function and dedication to talent management than most companies employ, but it’s also a way to hire great people without having to offer the astronomical salaries now needed to recruit from the Ivy League.