Hiring has always been a game of odds; particularly in the law profession. We see a candidate's resume, check references and do a face-to-face. Then most of us reach a decision based on a slightly educated hunch. The data on lawyer retention makes it clear how much of a crapshoot hiring really is. According to the National Association of Legal Professionals (NALP), 15 percent of entry-level associates leave their jobs each year. As for lateral associates, for whom we theoretically have better information at hiring time, 20 percent leave each year. And the number of those lawyers leaving for performance-related reasons has increased every year since 1999.
Wouldn't it be great if we could predict more accurately which potential associates or partners would turn out to reliably work hard, produce high quality work, treat clients well, be loyal and deal honorably with others at the firm?
More Diverse Candidates from Which to Choose
Each year brings not only an ever-larger crop of law school graduates, but the success of modern anti-discrimination laws has produced many more kinds of candidates than there used to be, some from very diverse backgrounds. This abundance only heightens the dilemma of how to make a good choice, of how to be "discriminating" in the old-fashioned, good sense of the word. Barry Schwartz's bestselling book, The Paradox of Choice argues that having more possibilities can often produce paralysis instead of better choices, and may well impair not only decision-making ability but also the integrity of the decision-making process.
How to Choose
The traditional selection process begins with the resume -- the pedigree of the law school, GPA, moot court and law review achievement - and is then combined with a certain chemistry that the personal interview generates. Some interviewers narrow down their choices simply by resorting to a legal version of the old "in my mold" standard: preferring graduates of their law schools, or children of their friends or, with laterals, lawyers from whom they once sat across the boardroom or courtroom.
Some may have other personal touchstones. While Title VII holds that you can't hire based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or age, you can still choose to hire only brown-eyed people, only those who love the old jazz standards ("no hip-hop in this shop!") or whatever other attributes you think make a good hire.
An article in the New York Times Job Market section reported that Merrill Lynch, Prudential, Sony and several other household names are using handwriting experts to help evaluate candidates. In Japan, candidates often include blood type on their resumes, thanks to a pervading belief that blood type determines personal characteristics.
But using these kinds of methods may leave us feeling we've missed the boat, discrimination-wise, and turnover statistics appear to support that.
Isn't there some better way to make good hiring decisions?
Emotional Intelligence and Other Interpersonal Skills
Daniel Goleman is known for defining, assessing and promoting emotional intelligence (EI) -- his shorthand for a set of identifiable skills critical for dealing well with one's own and others' emotions. His studies show there are three variables that can be evaluated about an aspiring candidate: raw intelligence, relevant experience and EI. Further, he found that a high score on the latter is more predictive of success than both finely measured IQs and carefully constructed resumes, taken together. The results have been replicated over different national cultures, different types of professions and with applicant differences in experience, race, gender and age.
Moreover, organizations using personal style assessments in their hiring, training and promoting have reduced turnover as much as 70 percent, while increasing productivity by as much as 140 percent and bottom-line profitability as much as 130 percent. Goleman developed an assessment specifically for gauging an individual's EI Quotient, evaluating such traits as: emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment, self-confidence, self-control, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, empathy, service orientation, ability to mentor and to leverage diversity, political awareness, the abilities to influence and communicate with others, leadership, conflict management, relationship- and team- building, and collaboration.
A well-known personal attributes assessment is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a series of simple questions that can be answered in 20 minutes. Used for more than 60 years, this assessment places each person in a matrix of 4 X 4, or 16, personality "types." Other widely available assessment instruments include the Birkman Method, the California Personality Inventory, Raymond Cattell's IPAT and the MMPI.
Both the Gallup Organization and Professor Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist and contemporary leader in the field of positive psychology, have recently developed assessments to identify "signature strengths." These are based on research indicating that employees who use individual strengths in their work are more effective and more satisfied. While not designed to evaluate mental health, they do aim to predict with a higher degree of accuracy than just a law candidate's LSAT or GPA scores or his/her interning or clerking experience, how the applicant will perform.
Who's Using Assessments?
- Corporations. Many successful companies require high-level candidates to take two-three day assessments that reveal skills and strengths. This information is useful both for placing the person in the right position and getting the best performance out of him or her down the road.
- Law Departments. Corporate law departments, because of their position within the corporate world, are starting to more regularly use hiring assessments, often prodded by non-legal managers who've successfully used them in their own hiring process.
- Law Schools. Law schools have for years incorporated assessments into their repertoire of tools for assisting students in making career decisions Law schools that offer these include Boston College, Dickinson, Columbia, University of Vermont, Temple, Campbell, University of Pennsylvania and Yale.
- Out-Placement Firms. According to Keith S. Mullin, CEO of New York's Mullin & Associates/Lincolnshire International, "[Using testing to make hiring decisions] is most effective when organizations have determined behavioral traits and competencies as success indicators and implemented them into an effective performance appraisal system."
- Law Firm Consultants. David H. Meister, a leading professional service firm advisor, points out that the correlation between financial success and employee attitudes has now been clearly established causally: It's employee attitudes that drive financial success and not the other way around. He advises that determining employee attitudes is a major step towards improving profitability.
Why Not Law Firms?
After performing assessments to better identify a candidate's strengths, a hiring partner or managing partner can determine whether those attributes are consistent with the firm's values generally and conversely -- whether the firm, given its overall composition and goals, is a good fit for the candidate's specific strengths. The information can also help a firm better place the new lawyer in practice groups, firm committees, and client teams. For example, some strengths, such as extroversion or relationship building skills, might steer an associate towards public relations or client development. For those lawyers strong in conscientiousness or intellectual curiosity, the best practices or technology committee might be a better fit.
Still, most law firms use no hiring assessments at all, nor do they plan to. Given their successful application by legal entities that have embraced assessment tools and with potential benefits so evident, why do many law firms persist in avoiding them?
One reason is that law firms often consider their hiring objectives unique, and assume therefore that assessments used by other professions are unlikely to be helpful. These firms contend they're looking for someone with an ability to excel in case law analysis or blue sky compliance or other specific legal areas.
These competencies are unlike, the argument goes, what the rest of the corporate and legal world are looking for. As have old attitudes that once dictated white button-down shirts, resisted technologies from Dictaphones to extranets and, more recently, eschewed business development strategies, this bias will eventually be overcome by the advantages the 21st century can bring.
Still other law firms may be simply unaware of what these instruments can do in terms of identifying appropriate hires and helping to elicit their best performance.
"While many corporations use assessments in filling legal positions," according to Mullin, "law firms usually do not. In my opinion, law firms could benefit from better understanding the kind of information collected, what the tests say about someone and how the results can be used."
A managing partner of a mid-sized Manhattan firm may be speaking for many others when he says he appreciates how valuable information from assessments could be, but that his firm is reluctant to request that candidates undergo testing for fear of putting itself at a recruiting disadvantage.
If you're one of the few firms asking applicants to complete an assessment, what signal does it send? First, the way the message is delivered is key to how candidates feel about assessments. The assessments are relatively short and simple, particularly for the typical associate who has already run a veritable gauntlet of testing. So there should be no anxiety over the difficulty or rigorousness of the questions. Applicants should also be assured that there are no "right" or "wrong" answers, and that no judgments are being made about their mental health.
It's also important to convey that the testing's purpose is as much to ensure the applicant's success as to benefit the firm. In fact, one of the major reasons firms are able to improve retention, productivity and bottom-line profitability is that assessments help produce lawyers with much higher job satisfaction.
Getting From Here to There
So where do firms that want to start using hiring assessments start?
- Become Educated. Managing and/or hiring partners should take advantage of firms that specialize in designing, administering and interpreting assessments to become more familiar with how these diagnostics can help meet challenges inherent in contemporary legal practice.
- Expand the Culture. Taking time to give assessments to currently employed attorneys, particularly recent hires, could not only be a first step toward improving overall firm functioning, but also set the stage for assessing applicants. Once assessment becomes a part of established firm culture, it is less likely that applicants would feel any stigma about being asked to participate.
- Address Immediate Needs. The management configurations of most firms develop by happenstance. Many firms hope that somewhere in their crop of upcoming associates will be one or more who can eventually successfully handle the rigors of managing firm conflicts or leading client development or developing mentoring programs. Because this is essentially driven by wishful thinking, firms often find at some point that they have major gaps. The crisis analysis that ensues, while uncomfortable, can help spur a firm towards positive action. And assessments allow firms to tailor hiring to address their most pressing needs.
- Bolster Your Recruiting Pitch. A commitment to careful and thorough assessments could be incorporated as a positive part of the firm's recruitment effort. It says the firm cares enough to use every tool available to ensure each new associate is placed in the practice group, on the committees and with a team that is most likely to ensure his or her success.
- Customize Your Training. Information from assessments would not only help position each associate based on his or her strengths, but could also provide the firm with the basis for formulating cost-effective training targeted to address those areas where new associates need strengthening.
In sum, once a few well-respected firms take the lead in introducing testing, it's likely that an avalanche of "me-too's" will eventually follow. In the meantime, a courageous few firms have the opportunity to embrace what the 21st century offers for effectively discriminating among applicants - and to reap the benefits of that courage.