Bill Henderson on What Makes a Successful Lawyer

Bill Henderson (Indiana Law) consistently produces top-quality empirical work on the legal academy and the legal profession. In a recent piece in the National Jurist, he describes research he and others have done into what makes a successful lawyer and predicts that the model in which increasingly large law firms hire exclusively from the top law schools cannot survive. His basic point is that the things law schools measure in making admissions decisions (LSAT and UGPA) and the things they teach their matriculated students (legal reasoning and doctrine) do not correlate with the attributes required for success as a practicing attorney. He contends that lawyers need to be intelligent, but also “personable, collaborative, entrepreneurial, service oriented, and interested in contributing to the collective welfare of the firm.” He offers data suggesting that high LSATs and UGPAs are not predictors of these talents and restates the familiar criticism that law schools do not teach them. He posits that a new hierarchy of law schools will emerge as a result of an inevitable transition away from the traditional model.

I hope he’s right. Nothing would make me happier than to see law firms look for a greater range of skills, including many of the kinds of skills we emphasize in teaching dispute resolution, such as collaboration, emotional intelligence, and the ability to negotiate. I wouldn’t be disappointed if large law firms (and others) began to look for talent at law schools outside the top 14 (particularly those that emphasize dispute resolution). But I confess to skepticism, for several reasons. First, until US News changes its formula, most law schools will continue to place heavy emphasis on LSAT and UGPA, regardless of the consequences for the legal profession. Second, the brands of the top schools are very, very strong. Legal recruiters and lawyers bidding for clients will always feel safe if they can point to top law school credentials of their lawyers. It’s much riskier to “gamble” on graduates of lower-ranked schools, no matter what skills they bring to the table. And finally, sorting people by their LSATs and GPAs is easy. It is much harder to figure out who has emotional intelligence and the ability to work collaboratively.

I know it is fashionable these days to predict huge changes in the legal profession, with firms shrinking, technology replacing much low-end legal work, and outsourcing sending previously lucrative document review to India. I have challenged some of those predictions elsewhere. Social institutions do not always do what makes sense, especially when entrenched interests and structural impediments hinder change.

7 thoughts on “Bill Henderson on What Makes a Successful Lawyer”

  1. I too place heavy skepticism on the openness of larger law firms to shift gears from solely recruiting the top law schools or very top law students at middle tier law schools. For one, I don’t think large law firms have a need to change. This is especially true now as summer associate programs continue to shrink. I think the prestigious schools that these large firms recruit is a starting point for the two reasons specified above: perceived analytical ability based on the LSAT score that got those students into those schools, and, more importantly, the brand name of the school that those students carry. These are two “attributes” that distinguish students of highly ranked schools from their competition, plain and simple; so it is just easy for law firms to start here to weed out what candidates to consider. After this, I think factors such as “personable, collaborative, service oriented, etc,” as were mentioned above, are just soft factors — hiring factors that come into consideration after the firms grab a number of students from highly ranked schools to interview.

    These others factors/qualities are certainly important, but with summer class sizes shrinking I imagine that large firms have no worry that they can find enough students from prestigious schools that happen to be “personable, collaborative, service oriented, etc,” to fill their classes with. Maybe this changes if summer program ever boom again, but that remains to be seen.

  2. Law schools’ failure to provide any coursework regarding the business of law, and managing a law practice, is a tremendous failure. With an increasing client demand in coming years for web-based relationships with firms, I believe the large law firms we see today will dissolve, being replaced my solo and small firm practices. Law schools must begin preparing students to run a legal business and actually practice law, in addition to their continuing to teach students how to read and analyze appellate decisions.

  3. You’re making an assumption that what law firms are looking for, or should be looking for, are the candidates who will become successful lawyers. But law firms only need a portion of their new hires to become successful lawyers. What they need for the first few years are the smartest people they can find who can be trained to generate good research, writing and analysis and other facets of the associate product they are selling. If only a few of those associates make the transition to becoming successful attorneys, that still works out just fine for the law firms who can’t promote all those associates to partner anyway.

  4. I am hesitant to accept the idea that law firms should place more emphasis on an applicant’s ability to work collaboratively and on an applicant’s emotional intelligence. While I agree that these characteristics may well be more indicative of a successful lawyer than LSAT scores and UGPAs, I am skeptical that it is possible to accurately measure emotional intelligence and ability to work collaboratively. Of course, experience that requires these characteristics may be present on an applicant’s resume, suggesting, at the very least, that the applicant has had some practice in developing these skills. However, while I agree that law firms should look beyond LSAT scores and UGPAs, I believe they should do so carefully. These numbers accurately indicate various aspects of the applicant’s abilities and experiences. In the end, all an applicant can hope for is that they are being judged fairly and accurately in regards to the skills that their presumptive employer is looking for while hiring.

  5. I agree that law firms and law schools alike should not just place emphasis the LSATs and UGPAs. Although these numbers can be indicative of the applicant’s abilities, I think employers should also be open to hiring students that may not have the top grades, but instead have equally valuable skills, such as such as collaboration, emotional intelligence, and the ability to negotiate. However, although this transition would be ideal, I also am skeptic that law firms will move away from the traditional hiring model, because as stated, it is difficult to measure emotional intelligence and the ability to work collaboratively.

  6. As a third-year student graduating in December, I can attest to the difficulties of the job search, especially as it relates to large law firms. I am in the top third of my class, but this is not sufficient to get my resume even looked at by the big firms in my city. I may be biased, but I believe that I am a well-rounded candidate that has much to offer many firms.

    In this economy, it has become even more difficult to get noticed; not only am I competing with those ranked higher than I am, but I’m also competing with unemployed lawyers with much more experience. I understand that weeding candidates out based on grades, LSAT scores, and class rank makes the hiring process easier for firms, but I feel there is much they are missing by doing so.

    As many before me have noted, this is likely wishful thinking. However, I continue to hold out hope that someone will look beyond numbers and consider skills and attributes that can’t be measured by exams.

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