Yeah, I essentially agree. I would never dismiss the accomplishment of getting accepted to a T14. These are the superstars among superstars. Anyone can have a bad day and get a 150, but nobody accidently gets 175.
Here's what I'm getting at:
I have no doubt that the "average" Harvard student is anything but average. I understand that they are very, very smart. But, as I get further into my career I see that lawyers who are smart enough + VERY hardworking are typically more productive employees than those who are VERY smart + average work ethic.
I've worked with T14 grads who sucked and non-ABA grads who kicked ass. Some T14 grads I've known were very smart but were not necessarily good employees. They were entitled, bored, felt that some work was beneath them, complained a lot. Of course, I've worked with other T14 grads who were excellent, dedicated, and put most of us to shame. It depends on the individual, I suppose.
So if the issue is who would make a better employee, I tend to think that the one who has shown exceptional motivation and discipline would be my choice, regardless of pedigree. I've never met a top 10 percenter from any school who wasn't insanely motivated.
But ... it depends. That's why your question is, essentially, unanswerable without more information. What position are they applying for? What other information do you have about the candidate? Was the top 5% (I wouldn't necessarily go top 10%) on law review or moot court, and if not, why not? What about the position?
See, that's the difference in expectations and even teaching styles. But here's the salient difference- you're assuming that the average HLS grad isn't a hard worker. That's the opposite type of bias.
What I'm saying, instead, is that to finish at the very top of their class (remember, a lot of the top law schools aren't grading any more in a traditional way - see, inter alia, Yale) in that environment is different. You are determining that someone who is just an average HLS student is necessarily not a hard worker- instead, however, it might be the case that this student is an incredibly hard worker, and incredibly smart, but is competing against other incredibly hard workers who happened to score 178-180 on the LSATs (if you catch my drift).
The level is different. Go back to the football analogy. You need more information when make those types of comparisons. Or, put a different way, is that just because one can rightly say that a top 5% finish in a T4 school is meaningful, doesn't mean that one can turn around and say that an average finish in HLS is necessarily because they have an average work ethic.