The More Things Stay the Same, The More They Change
After singing MacEwen's praises this morning, I must add a slightly critical note tonight. I just finished reading his blog entry on the (purportedly) ineffectual ways in which firms interview new associates (click here to see the article). As usual, MacEwen's observations are thorough and his ideas sound, but his analysis and conclusions could use some tweaking.
To set the stage, let's just all agree to agree that law firm recruiting of new law school graduates is expensive, appears to suffer from a lack of creativity (at least in terms of what firms actually ask candidates) and does not result in a high level of retention (per MacEwen, an abysmal 28% of interviewees accept and an anemic 38% remain at the firm after year four).
Damned if you don't
In response, firms are flapping their collective arms vigorously and doing what presents as obvious: interviewing more (by interviewing at schools a smidge further down the rankings, and interviewing slightly deeper into the rankings within schools) and getting more aggressive generally about recruiting. In a burst of benign and thoughtful energy, MacEwen suggests working with firms to identify factors other than grades and school prestige to work down to other traits and experiences that might actually more closely correlate to long-term success in firms.
My personal favorite is the idea to administer psychological profiles. The business world has been trying this for quite a while for managers. I certainly can see no argument for refusing to engage in the process in law. By extension, my own recruiting firm, BCG Search, administers a psychological test to its recruiters (perhaps they don't work--I passed with flying colors!). Anything and everything is worth looking at and I'm certainly in favor of a creative and tabula rasa approach.
However, this will all backfire anyway, and I'll tell you why.
Damned if you do
For starters, there is no way that firms are ever going to be able to get away from grades and school. There are lots of good reasons for this, I'll just remind you of the basics:
a) Law school grades are on a curve--that means that the traits most desired in candidates (endurance, creativity, quick-learners, etc., etc.) have all worked earlier in the candidate's life to get them in to good schools in the first place, and to succeed in a variety of educational experiences to present with great grades at the end of the race. Sorry folks, grades matter, they matter like hell, and they will only continue to matter--and more in the future than now.
b) The same logic works for school rankings--you can't get away from the fact that a big part of school rankings has to do with the fact that they can turn away HORDES of people--this leaves not only those that are smart, but those that have what it takes to deal with a multiple of experiences to come out on top. PLUS, because large law firms almost by definition have larger corporate clients, and these are prestige sensitive, school rank will continue to matter, and more so. Moreover, given that the rates for legal services are extremely inelastic (comparable to other services), clients want full value---and they want to ensure that any and all junior people for whose work they are paying $500 an hour are really, really, really smart.
c) Plus, frankly, if great grades and great schools aren't sufficiently reliable to base a forecast of "fit" for law-firm life (which criteria are, obviously, immediately tied to actual performance in the very skills that we are hoping these folks will excel at), how much less can we rely on mushy factors such as whether these people worked during school, took an MBA with their JD or took off time between their undergrad and professional degrees (as MacEwen suggests)? Just consider for a moment how many score of reasons you can think of that a person might have used as a basis for such decisions that have nothing to do with desirable character traits.
The "Irradiation" of Grades
Worse, the move toward additional criteria for hiring attorneys is only going to make things more competitive. As, I believe, grades and schools will never cease to be central, the addition of psychological profiles to ensure that the candidates have the right kind of personality to handle stress (as apparently living through law school is just not enough--hey! I know! let's just actually use the "hand over the open flame test!) is just going to provide yet a further way in which to decrease the available pool of talent. Thus, the intent to interview "down the curve" will be (if not completely chucked) countered by the need to screen candidates for "soft" criteria.
So, what are the choices? There are none. Firms will continue to have to recruit at higher and higher and more aggressive levels. I believe that what is happening and will continue to happen in the legal field is only a small part of a global trend--a massive lack of talent across all spectra. Law firms, just like lawyers, will have to exceed at all aspects to a good attraction and retention plan. They will have to find a way (somehow!) to differentiate themselves to people who have basically squat in terms of perspective on the practice of law. They will have to adopt corporate cultures that foster "teamwork", etc., and all the rest (sigh!). They will have to establish policies and procedures that fit in with the continually shifting zeitgeists of the various generations now involved in the practice (and there are more of them all the time--we apparently have new generations every 10 years now!). Basically, they will have to sprint to stay in place. Well, if this is not an example of Social Darwinism, I don't know what is.
On that happy note, good night!
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