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May 29, 2009 11:00 AM

How Bill Belichick Might Run a Law Firm

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Aric Press from the June 2009 Issue of The American Lawyer

As a fan of the Cleveland Browns, I watched the annual National Football League draft with the usual mix of hope and dread. This year's effort was a bit different, for it seemed to be based on the philosophy of Bill Belichick, the formidable coach of the New En­gland Patriots. As football fans know, Beli­chick chooses players according to the needs of his team's system, not a player's celebrity. Some years he will draft a full complement, other years he will trade away choices, preferring to stockpile picks for the future. As I sat there adjusting my Dawg mask, groping around for another Great Lakes Amber Lager, I began a small thought experiment. What if the Patriots' drafting principles were applied to the way law firms hire new lawyers? How would managing partner Belichick operate in The Am Law 100?

It's a good time to ask. The big-firm recruiting-and-retention system is badly damaged. It seems unlikely that when the economic calamity ends, law firm recruiting will revert to business as usual. At a minimum, we can expect firms to sharply reduce their summer associate programs, end the practice of hiring their new lawyers 12-24 months before they want them to start, and begin, in ways large and small, to start taking the hiring process more seriously than they did during the boom years.

So, how would Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft operate in The Am Law 100? My guess is that Kraft & Belichick LLP would proceed like this:

First, they'd decide what they were, what they wanted to be, and what sort of talent they needed to get there. The results of this inquiry would be announced at a partners meeting. Partners who disagreed with the goals would be put on waivers.

Second, they would decide which of their needs could be met by hiring new lawyers, which by hiring laterals, and which by getting more out of their existing players. Note, here, that these first steps would require honest self-examination and an allergic reaction to cliché wisdom. Beli­chick would order ten extra laps around the building for any partner who argued that K&B's distinguishing attribute was the quality of its work.

Third, K&B would use a staff of scouts to go into the law schools to find talent, here and abroad. The scouts would look at transcripts--analogous to reviewing game tapes. But that would only be an initial inquiry. They would talk with professors and other students, they would attend moot court finals, they would sit in on clinics--or, failing that, they would offer to oversee a few. And, just like in the NFL, they would test potential recruits on skills that go beyond their time in the 40-yard dash or its equivalent, how long a student can stay awake in a library chair. They would test for empathy, psychological balance, resilience, and other forms of emotional intelligence.

Fourth, K&B would invite potential recruits to a four-day camp where they would take more tests, interview with K&B partners, and, in the manner of business school recruiting, solve complex hypotheticals, often working with fellow tryouts.

Fifth, Belichick would decide to whom he'd extend offers and what he was willing to pay them. The era of one-salary-fits-all is over. Top choices might command $160,000 plus bonus to start. K&B's goal: Find the lawyer-equivalent of Tom Brady, the non-law review editor, sixth-round draft choice who went on to become a three-time Super Bowl champ and a national heartthrob.

Of course, this is fanciful. But I suspect about as many NFL top draft picks become All-Pros as law review editors become Am Law 100 partners. Belichick has found a better way--if you count winning as better. There will come a time when The Am Law 100 takes its hiring as seriously as its billing. Or, as another football coach liked to say, the future is now.

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I'm not sure when recruiting turned into out-and-out fawning, rather than an evaluative process designed to identify prospectively successful associates, but it had gotten far out of hand at least a decade ago, creating new associates who arrived with a substantially overdeveloped sense of worth and entitlement, while contributing less and less each year in that their thinking and writing skills were often poor to nonexistent. This observation applies to so-called top tier school grads in particular. I recall BigLaw firms being at the mercy of law school placement offices regarding all aspects of recruiting, including timing and content and, most sacred, DIVERSITY, and actually feeling compelled to hire the entire summer class, regardless of how individuals performed over the short trial period, in order to avoid getting "bad marks" back at the law school. And of course, all the while treating these summer clerks, oops, I mean "associates," as royalty, with expensive meals and outings comprising the bulk of their time, and limiting assignments to "interesting" topics so that the poor darlings would not be bored. I actually recall being told that no summer associate could be assigned to help outline an important new development in the law--an assignment that would have made them familiar with an actual practical area that would likely confornt them later in practice--because it wasn't sufficiently exciting. Then these kids (usually 24 year olds) show up, get dumped into document review, and become nastily negative about how the firm is treating them. (BTW, document review happens to be a useful way to learn about a case if you pay attention, but NOooo . . . they don't want to do such boring work even at $160,000 a year! They want to bill hundreds of dollars an hour meandering without a clue in research and writing memos that can hardly be deciphered. They show up at assignment meetings without paper or pen to take notes. They circulate e-mails asking if anyone has the answer to their specific question, as if the assigning attorney hadn't considered the issue already. CLUELESS, THE LAW SCHOOL SEQUEL.

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