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November 2, 2010 12:06 PM

Getting Beyond the Conventional Wisdom: A New Look at Firm Recruiting, Hiring, and Promotion

Posted by Aric Press

From the November 2010 Issue of The American Lawyer

Can Bill Henderson, the one-man idea factory and Indiana law professor, do for the study of law firms what Indiana's most famous academic, Alfred Kinsey, did for the study of sex?

Henderson is already well known for his provocative analysis of firm data, some of it supplied by ALM. He's identified the bimodal distribution in hiring new law school graduates, a fancy way of saying that there are two groups of students--a relatively small and overhyped cohort earning $160,000 a year, hired by megafirms--and a much larger group, earning in the five figures, hired by everyone else. He's hunted for patterns in lateral partner movement, searched for success markers in big firms, and charted the one-model-fits-all expansion plans of the NLJ 250.

Now he's starting to get really serious. Henderson and a small group of like-minded analyst-practitioners, including Anthony Kearns, an Australian risk-management specialist, and Caren Ulrich Stacy, an Am Law 100 professional development veteran, have formed a company. Called Lawyer Metrics, one of its missions is to examine--and bring some analytic rigor to--the big-firm hiring, training, promotion, and retention processes.

It's not so much that the current let's-hire-a-few-more-lawyers-just-like-me process has led to institutional failure. Rather, it's led to waste, mismatched careers, and cadres of disappointed wooers and wooed. No one much cared about this a few years ago during the flush times when firms' main hiring requirements were a decent pedigree and a steady pulse. Everyone was too busy to do much more than complain. Now that the game has changed, have the recruiting patterns shifted too? Not so much.

Working with a small group of Am Law 200 firms, Henderson and his researchers are starting to take apart the urban legends that fuel the lawyer recruiting and promotion process. Part of this is a Moneyball approach (named after Michael Lewis’s book on the statistical basis for the Oakland A's draft choices). Partners are asked about what values and traits they want in their lawyers. Then the researchers pour over the resumes and evaluations of associates and partners trying to identify characteristics shared by those who have become "franchise players" and those who haven't. The results are tentative and firm-specific; it's premature to announce findings. But the suggestions are that the conventional wisdom may be awry; brains and determination matter, but not all glowing personal attributes have equal positive impact. Henderson is daring to ask which matter more--a few years in the military, a few years in the job force, or a few years as a law review editor--in predicting law firm success? For many hiring committees, the answers may seem self-evident. Alfred Kinsey’s America was equally convinced that all red-blooded American men were heterosexual and faithful to their wives, who, everyone knew, weren’t much interested in sex anyway.

Henderson's search doesn't stop with associates. Are the characteristics that help associates succeed found in successful partners, especially partners adept at attracting business? And if they're not, in a time of scarce resources, how would that insight affect firm recruiting and training? In other words, can firms consciously try to pursue both short-term and long-term goals--or consciously decide not to?

To some extent, it doesn't matter what Henderson and Co. discover. What matters is that the inquiries have begun. It's another sign that the information revolution, which has inundated other sectors of our lives, is only beginning to wash up on law firm land. If we've learned anything from the last decade, it's that we can't predict the consequences of new information beyond acknowledging its power to disrupt.

That's true whether we like it or not. You can resist or adapt, and I'm wagering on the wisdom of the latter course. A couple months back, I wrote about the release of the Real Rate Report from CT Tymet­rix. The report wasn't comprehensive, and it was based on the billing records of only a few dozen of the nation's leading companies--ones that added up to only a few billion dollars. Friendly critics called to complain, scoffing at the methodology and (this is my favorite part) arguing in the alternative that everyone who cared already knew all about going rates. Everyone, I suggest, except the customers. To that new data the reaction was fear and disdain. More information is coming. Will you greet it as a lawyer finding fault, or as a leader seeing opportunity?


Aric Press, ALM's editor in chief, can be reached at apress@alm.com.

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The simple answer is all about partners building and maintaining fairly priced practices. Thus, lateral moves are driven by these partners ability to do this at their current firms. Higher rate practices are going to move on or stay at firms that can still get the higher rates; all other partners/practices will move on or be moved out.

This is not the first effort to analyze law firm success factors successfully.

One of the most interesting professional articles I have read in recent years is MONEYBALL INDEED!, by James Bergin and Ron Paquette of Kerma Partners, available at http://www.kermapartners.com/Default.aspx?id=297 .

The money quote from the article intro:

"We identified several attributes that were disproportionately present among the population of outperformers. Each such “success factor,” when observed individually, was significantly more “predictive” of success at the firm than law school rank
or GPA."

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