Judging a Lawyer by Their Cover

Cynthia Vukets of The Star covered today a new study that predicts the success of lawyers based on their law school yearbook photo,

A University of Toronto professor has found that he can predict how much money a law firm will make just by looking at university yearbook photo of the managing partner.

“We found that power is what predicts their success,” said Nicholas Rule, a psychologist. “It’s the impression of power that one gets from someone’s face.”

He took yearbook photos of the managing partners of the 100 top US law firms and showed them to college students. Students rated the faces on various characteristics that create impressions of power and warmth.

Law firms making the most money for the number of cases they handled had managing partners with the highest “power” rating. The same applies to politicians and CEOs, said Rule.

Although David Bilinsky has previously mentioned the study here on Slaw, The Star sent a few notable legal personalities to Rule to see what he thought about them, and the results are worth checking out.

I was initially resistant to this hypothesis, especially if it was a biologically-based claim. It would sound too similar to the now-discredited phrenology, and wouldn’t account for skeletal differences for racialized minorities. So I decided to actually read the study, and found that the authors clearly identify a sociological phenomenon occurring,

Thus, in the domain of leadership, individuals who look like better leaders could actually become better leaders because they are more often chosen for leadership positions, are more likely to be treated like leaders by their peers and mentors, and are given more opportunities to develop leadership abilities.

The power domain measured in the study was broken down into dominance and facial maturity, whereas the warmth composite was comprised of likeability and trustworthiness. Each composite was then correlated profit margin, profitability index, and profits per equity partner. Controls were introduced for the influence of facial attractiveness, affect ratings, the number of lawyers per firm, and years of experience for the managing partner being rated. (An affect rating is an attribution of emotion to the targets’ posed expressions intercorrelated with the targets’ actual emotion traits).

As mentioned, the power domain was positively correlated with the financial profitability of the firm, which the authors attribute to firm leadership. While recognizing the limitations of their assumptions, they do overlook the “black babyface effect,” where studies have shown that powerful faces actually hurt the success of visible minorities.

With that important caveat highlighted, I realize that I am the Slaw contributor chronologically closest to having their law school yearbook picture on hand. This composite of myself was actually being used for our yearbook, until they replaced it with a less “powerful” pose:

The additionally commentary was provided by Logan Rathbone, a colleague of mine who had some fun with this picture.

What do you think? Lots of money in my future (based on the facial features alone), or a lifetime of frustration over global conquest?


  1. i am so going to go look at my yearbook right now…

  2. I sent the picture above to Dr. Nicholas Rule, one of the authors of the study. This is what he said,

    In the study we found that power was associated with law firm MPs’ leadership success; interestingly, power also predicts the success of corporate CEOs and both American and Canadian political candidates (measured by the number of votes they get). The ratings of power are an average of ratings of dominance and facial maturity, both of which have clearly defined features. Your two photos show some pretty striking differences in dominance and facial maturity (the inverse of which is known as “babyfaceness”):

    Lawrence has round features, non-prominent cheekbones, a relatively flat brow, and a good bit of distance between his eyes and brows. These are all features associated with babyfacedness. Thus, people would be likely to perceive him as warm, approachable, and trustworthy; but he does not look very dominant or powerful.

    You, on the other hand, have more angular features, more prominent cheekbones (slightly occluded by the shading in the image), a lower brow (causing your eyes to look deep-set) and a small distance between your eyes and brows. These are features related to high facial maturity. In addition, the way you are looking up from underneath your brow appears threatening and dominant. People would therefore likely perceive you as powerful from this photo.

  3. This research looks ripe for mash-up with Facebook’s new facial recognition feature.