A Major-League Approach to New Lawyer Recruitment

Now that baseball season is (finally) with us again, I’d like you to meet Kevin Ahrens. He’s not a lawyer, judge or law professor – he’s a 19-year-old from Houston who has foregone college to start a career as a professional baseball player. Last June, the Toronto Blue Jays chose him with their first-round pick in major-league baseball’s annual amateur draft (he was the 16th overall selection).

Kevin plays shortstop and has been a very productive hitter throughout his amateur career, which consists of three all-district and two all-state selections during his time at high school. He stands 6’2″, weighs 190 pounds, and bats from both sides of the plate. As a hitter, he has remarkably quick hands that give him tremendous plate coverage and figure to provide solid home-run power in a few years’ time. Defensively, he’s okay at shortstop, but his size and skills probably portend a move to third base in the future.

I don’t know Kevin – never met him, never will – but I already know all this information just from reading any number of websites that provided me these insights for free. Rest assured, though, that most if not all 30 major-league baseball teams collected much more information about him — data they kept to themselves, along with the methodologies they used to evaluate him.

These 30 teams paid scouts to fly to the Houston area and watch Kevin play in various local games and tournaments. They videotaped him batting and playing defence, and distributed the videos organization-wide. They ran his high-school statistics through any number of formulae. They may even have interviewed his coaches, teachers, teammates or family members.

In short, 30 organizations each spent real money to learn everything they needed to know about one teenager whom only one of them would eventually draft and pay a signing bonus of $1.44 million. Major-league teams do this for hundreds upon hundreds of young men across North America, and take similar measures to evaluate other young men around the world.

Now consider this: Kevin might never be a regular in the major leagues, let alone become a star. He might peak in a few years’ time as a career bush-leaguer, hang up his spikes at 26, and represent a huge wasted opportunity. As a Blue Jays fan, I sure hope he doesn’t (and I’m confident he won’t), but even first-round draft picks are risky, and for players drafted lower down the list, the odds are against them from day one. But major-league ballclubs still spend all this time and money — because if they don’t, they know they’ll immediately be at a huge talent disadvantage relative to their competitors.

Now, meet Jason Singleton. Jason’s a second-year law student at the University of Alberta. (Actually, he’s not; I just made him up.) Jason scored several A’s and B-pluses in his law school courses – half of which were graded on a 100% final exam and none of which taught him much about the practice of law. Before law school, Jason completed an undergraduate degree in business at Simon Fraser University, where he was a low-A student. He’s interested in corporate law and really enjoyed his Business Law course at U of A.

Jason is 25, personable, smiles easily, and is eager to impress. In his spare time, he enjoys rock climbing and playing Ultimate. He looks good in a suit, but has questionable taste in ties; his shoes are a little scuffed. He answers standard interview questions well, talking a little too long but eventually getting most of his points in. He says he’s not afraid of working hard. He didn’t get drunk at the cocktail party and he handled himself well at the dinner.

This summary reflects the information used by the law firm that just gave Jason an articling position with a strong likelihood of hireback. No scouting trips, no interviews with family and friends, no statistical analyses – Jason had good marks, is interested in business, and was liked by five of the six partners and associates who interviewed him.

On such slim evidence do law firms across North America make their own draft-day decisions every year, and on such decisions are the much-hyped “talent wars” being fought. Compared to sophisticated organizations in other industries, law firms’ talent evaluation and intake systems come across as remarkably loose, informal, even primitive.

If baseball teams recruited potential draftees the way law firms assess law students, they wouldn’t look much beyond the player’s batting average, home run and run-batted-in totals for hitters, and wins, losses and earned-run average for pitchers. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist scouting director would laugh you out of the room if you suggested drafting a player on such un-contextualized and potentially misleading evidence. But most law firms are “drafting” new lawyers on their batting averages and win totals, and have been doing so for decades now.

The largest law firms in Canada and the U.S. spend a lot of time, money and effort to compete for the “top law students,” which they define narrowly as those who got the best marks at the top-rated schools. These are the very same schools, mind you, that lawyers consistently complain don’t actually teach students useful information about being a lawyer. Firms invariably speak contemptuously about law school courses, but they still rely heavily on the grades awarded in those same courses every year at hiring time.

It seems to me that the current recruiting process for new lawyers gives firms as much chance of selecting good lawyers who will provide great client service as they do of selecting underachievers who won’t add value to the firm. Law firms that can, but don’t, develop sharp, sophisticated systems for evaluating talent are putting a potentially huge competitive advantage on hold.

To be fair, this is not entirely the firms’ fault. Law societies set up a lot of hoops around the new lawyer recruiting process, through which both firms and students must jump. There are reasons why they do so, including streamlining the process and trying to make the playing field as even as possible, but one of the effects of these processes is to create numerous barriers to innovation in new lawyer recruitment.

American Lawyer magazine looked at the issue of new lawyer recruitment last summer, in an article titled Is This Any Way To Recruit Associates? It concluded that firms are missing out on talent acquisition opportunities and competitive advantages by clinging to traditional ways of evaluating law students, especially regarding the sacred cow of grades:

[A]cademic performance is not necessarily a proxy for work performance. In 2000 Kansas City, Mo.-based Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin did a study to see how well grades predicted professional success. The firm compared each of its associates’ grades, class rank, and school rank to their evaluations and accomplishments at the firm. Blackwell found that neither law school rank nor class rank could determine who would become a standout lawyer.

Partly in response to this finding, Blackwell revamped its approach to associate recruitment and advancement. While academics are important, says Blackwell’s recruitment partner, Peter Sloan, they are not sufficient. The firm looks for exceptional analytical and communication skills by reviewing writing samples, interviewing references and meeting with candidates.

The article contains a number of examples of law firms that have moved past the simple combination of “good grades” and “good presentation” that drive so many hiring decisions in this industry. London-based Linklaters, which administers a harrowing aptitude test, and San Francisco-based Orrick Harrington, which trains its lawyers in behavioural interviewing, are two outstanding examples.

The funny thing is, law firms do a better assessment job when considering potential lateral hires. They speak with lawyers who know the potential recruit personally or are familiar with her work. They get detailed reports on her skills, leadership abilities, successful deals, court victories, and team-playing nature. They learn which clients the lawyer is on good terms with and which she has a decent chance of bringing with her to the new firm. And they don’t even think of recruiting her unless her specialty fits in with what the firm needs.

In short, firms adopt a more sophisticated approach to the lateral recruitment process, closer to what baseball clubs go through when scouting amateur (or indeed, established professional) talent. Yet the same considerations don’t seem to apply to new lawyers who, while obviously not in possession of so thorough a track record as experienced laterals, are certainly not tabula rasas onto which the firm can write what it wishes. Firms can and should apply the same sorts of effort and techniques to new lawyer hires.

If I were starting up a law firm today, and wanted to hire new graduates whom I felt certain would be effective, reliable and profitable, law school grades would be a minor consideration. I’d be more interested in learning the law school equivalent of all the things I would seek to find out about established lateral recruits. To cite some examples, I’d look more closely at:

  • The new lawyer’s performance in clinic-type courses, rated subjectively, including talks with professors and clinic workers.
  • Evidence of her leadership skills, both in class and in extracurricular activities.
  • Her project management skills: did she set and achieve goals in some curricular or extracurricular area? Did she get the job done on time and over expectations?
  • Her contacts within the legal industry, and even more significantly, among potential client groups, especially in areas such as new media or high-tech startups where she’s likely to have friends and colleagues.
  • Perhaps most important, how did she relate to other people — particularly outside the law school environment? It’s easy for lawyers to get along with other lawyers; how will she do with clients?

As for grades, so long as there some vowels on the transcript, I’d feel pretty confident that the student had the intellectual chops. There are no dummies in law school.

I have a feeling that we’re set to see some real innovation in this direction – talent is becoming too scarce and too important for firms to stick with business as usual. Law firms that start taking this approach are going to reap tremendous benefits down the road after hiring the best talent, the most promising of tomorrow’s lawyers, through sophisticated scouting techniques.

Meanwhile, firms that continue to hire articling students and new lawyers the way they always have — judging them on grades, cursory interviews, and cocktail party performances — are going to fall further and further behind innovative competitors that don’t look for good students, but for good lawyers.

Eventually, just like in baseball and other major-league industries, everyone will have to take a sophisticated, high-caliber approach to identifying and recruiting talent. The risk of getting buried in last place will just be too high.


  1. This is a wonderful, thoughtful post.

    I am a law student at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall — do you mind if I share your piece with my peers?

  2. Thanks very much, Patrick! Yes, by all means, please circulate — I’d be flattered and delighted!

    I also want to extend my thanks to friend, lawyer, and former Batter’s Box compadre Craig Burley for his great assistance in crafting this article.

  3. Excellent post, definitely very well thought out. However, as a recently graduated soon to be lawyer, I would like to offer three points.

    1. many law firms look at grades as a first sign of a “smart, mindless, and trainable” potential. In my experience, most large firms wanted students with high grades but little in terms of actual experience. In other words, they wanted people who are smart enough and work hard enough to get good grades, but can also be molded and shaped into whatever the firm wants. As I found, combination of good grades and signifncant work experience was actually a bad thing.

    2. At the same time, grades should not be disregarded, particularly because law schools grade on a curve and probability of getting a higher grade decreases in an exponential fashion. The difference between 79 and 81 is much more than the mere 2% may suggest. If a person is willing to and is able to work hard enough to get the extra 2%, it definitely says something about him.

    3. One of the biggest problems I see with the holistic approach to hiring that you suggest is the amount of time it would take. Lawfirms already claim to be overwhelmed with the 100s of resumes and dozens of interviews they have to conduct in the timespan of the “interview week”. The only way your approach could realistically work is if law firms would stop hiring a year in advance during a single week but instead move to an ongoing recruitment process.

  4. Seva, thanks for your feedback! Your experiences suggest to me that many law firms do, in fact, prefer students who are blank tablets: bright and hard-working, but otherwise inexperienced and ready to believe and absorb whatever the firm wants. That makes no sense to me unless what the firms are really looking for are drones — worker bees to rack up the billable hours and accept the prevailing culture without question. Not a pleasant prospect.

    I agree that a holistic approach wouldn’t work very well within the current structure — as I say, the current system limits innovation, so it’s not all on the firms. But I still think a law firm that wanted to really focus time and resources on this area could drop out of the matching program and set up a “Talent Bureau” for promising law students that looked at different and more accurate criteria for future lawyers.

    Your report, however, suggests that firms may be less interested in identifying tomorrow’s partners than they are in identifying today’s billers. With real talent in dwindling supply, clients getting angrier about legal fees, and a law firm leadership vacuum in the offing, this approach strikes me as more than slightly insane.

    Tell you what, though — if the LSUC gets serious about eliminating the articling year (which I’d rank about a 15% possibility, at most, right now), then all bets would be off. The formal strictures of the apprenticeship program would be eliminated, and firms would be free to develop their own recruitment and training approach for new graduates. I’m not saying that’d be good or bad, just that the removal of the articling year would quickly force firms to seriously rethink how they integrate first-year associates into the mix.

  5. The problem with law firm recruitment is the same as that which faced firms when they first got computers. IBM used to advertise, “No one will ever blame you for purchasing an IBM”. The selection of students is done by associates who do most of the interviewing. No one is going to blame them if the person they recommend for hiring has all A’s, even though he or she turns out to be a bad articling student or lawyer. An associate or even a partner who recommends someone on the basis of his or her qualities other than grades runs the risk of being blamed if it does not work out. Grades look to be an objective measure of a person’s qualities; qualities like an interesting resumé or character are viewed as subjective and are therefore to be distrusted.

    The law schools are, of course, complicit in this process by purporting to normalize the grade distribution in each class. The fact that law schools do not now take and never have taken an interest in statistics sufficient to make a truly valid determination of students’ relative standings leads to a wildly unfair assessment of students. Osgoode, for example, requires that the “C” range have one third C+ and two thirds C. This results in a bimodal distribution – the mean and median both being in the B range – which, if the assumption that the distribution is a normal one is correct, is impossible and yet no one seems to care enough to do anything about it. Of course, if the assumption is not correct, the whole justification for the “curve” disappears. Statistical cognitive dissonance does not seem to afflict faculty councils.

    The law schools’ attitude to statistics reminds me of the persistence of awards of simple interest — both being the result of the comprehensive failure of high school mathematics.

  6. John’s not quite right on the C+ rule: the grading regs state that you can’t award more plus grades in any category than 1/3 of the number of all grades in that category.

    My own woeful ignorance of stats doesn’t let me see whether this affects John’s point about a bimodal distribution. But at the same time I can agree that grading, whether at Osgoode or at U of T or UBC etc., is a difficult exercise that may lead to contradictions. The attempt to be fair within the faculty (no “easy” profs, no “hard” profs) and yet fair across the system of law schools (where some would, like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, maintain that all of their residents are above average) produces rough justice indeed.

    On John’s larger point about using grades because they’re a “safe” measure, I’d simply remind everyone that there were bad old days, when applicants to firms were judged on factors that were less than meritorious, and so if grades, dumb as they are, do nothing else they force a law firm to swallow hard before declining to hire a Black woman with a fist full of A+ marks. And if you think that all such discrimination is a thing of the past… you’re dreaming.

  7. Not sure how well the sports analogy holds, there’s still tons of sporting prospects who get overblown hype based on simple measurables like a fastball in the high 90s, football player that runs a sub 4.4 second 40 yard dash, or an NBA player with a huge vertical, and that’s aside from the simple eye ball test of “well he looks like a good player.”

    I’m also not sure if the costs of a mistake in talent evaluation/recruiting is the same for law firms as it is for a pro sports team. Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan changed the path of two teams for about two decades, hiring a lazy, alcoholic articling student is something that’s probably corrected fairly early on, so I’m not even sure if a more involved, holistic approach is even worth it.

    I don’t doubt that the way hiring is done is imperfect, but I certainly don’t buy that law firms are living in the dark ages compared to the rest of the world. It’s a tough job in every industry and you’re never going to come up with a perfect system.