The Talent

September 3, 2009 7:37 PM

In-House at The American Lawyer

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Aric Press - From the September 2009 Issue of The American Lawyer

According to some provocative new research we report this month, the Am Law 100 and 200 firms have been looking for love in all the wrong places. And according to firms I talk to, the severe recession is leading them to only reemphasize their arguably misdirected efforts. Let me explain.

A team sponsored by the American Bar Foundation has been surveying 5,000 lawyers who passed the bar in 2000. Called "After the JD," the project is, among other things, tracking their careers and job satisfaction. As two of the lead researchers, Ronit Dinovitzer and Bryant Garth, write this month, they have found that, as a group, the lawyers working in large firms are the least satisfied. Among that group, the graduates of "nonelite" law schools are happier than top-tier grads and tend to stay a bit longer. The authors suggest that law firms ought to heed their findings and start recruiting more nonelite school graduates. (They also suggest that firms decrease their work demands, along with the pay of young associates.)

My friend Bill Henderson, the University of Indiana law professor, has used this research and come to similar conclusions in a recent insightful essay for the National Association for Law Placement Bulletin. He goes further, arguing that today's elite hiring is a perversion of the original model.

Back in the day, Paul Cravath not only hired from Ivy League schools, but he chose the top students. And, once he had them, he sought to train and refine them, not simply turn them into billable-hour drones. Together, the top grades and the good training were good business, Henderson writes. During the run-up to the current recession, that pattern was turned on its head: Any elite graduate could have a big-firm job, even if his or her motives were limited to paying off loans and burnishing a resume. Given the contraction in hiring, the grumpiness of clients about bills, and a renewed emphasis on the lawyer-client "value proposition," Henderson implies that firms should abandon the anybody-with-an-elite-pulse model and instead find and train lawyers capable of "exceptional client service." Optimistically, Henderson calls his essay "The Bursting of the Pedigree Bubble."

It's a nice sentiment, but I don't think it's about to happen. If anything, I fear that we will look back at the exuberant spree of the last few years as the high-water mark of nonelite law school hiring. There simply weren't enough bodies to go around, so the Big Law machine was willing to expand its recruiting pool. The fact that some of those hired performed well, or were happier with their lots, or possessed the drive and emotional intelligence that clients crave will not be enough to change old habits. When it comes to preserving the prestige patina, sometimes the rules of cognitive dissonance are suspended.

By now we all know that firms have sliced their hiring and tamed their recruiting practices. Reducing the number of campuses they visit has been part of those changes. That falloff, I am sad to say--judging by what the firms tell me explicitly, as well as their faux-patrician sniffing when I raise this subject--will be at the schools that are judged, as the Russians like to say, nekulturniy.

This leaves an opportunity for the firms wise enough to seek first-class talent no matter what brand is on a diploma. Putting that attitude into practice would be an important part of an effort to take hiring more seriously, of not relying on admissions officers to do the work of hiring committees, to actually define attributes that firms and their customers need--and then try to recruit for them. Rather than retrench, this is a moment to put your partners to work on the future of your firm. As it happens, they have plenty of time to devote to the project.

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