Pardon the Disruption: Rethinking the law firm recruitment model

February 6, 2014

L-378667_RTR23GK8In our last post, we suggested that law firms begin compiling and analyzing data to help advise their clients. Today, we take a look at law firm hiring. In particular, we discuss modern hiring practices, and problems with conventional wisdom regarding the selection process.

Currently, all of the big firms tend to compete for the same few thousand candidates: second-years at top-tier law schools with strong grades and enough social skills to survive the interview process. But once you step outside of this echelon of the law school hierarchy, the reality is grim. Even top students at low ranking schools are often shut out entirely from big firms.

Why is this the case? It would be easy to assume that big firms simply believe that a pedigreed lawyer is better than a non-pedigreed one. But there are more nuanced factors at work here. For one thing, an entrenched system means a safe path: Lawyers won’t be criticized for bringing in the number five student from Yale, even if the choice backfires. It’s a bigger risk to “take a chance” on the top student from John Marshall. Secondly, the clients themselves are likely biased in favor of firms that hire from the big name schools, and more comfortable working with a lawyer with certain credentials on his or her resume.

There’s also some self-selection involved: Top law students tend to thrive in a structured setting—that’s how they managed to succeed at the most demanding schools—and are thus more inclined toward the rigid structure of a big firm. Finally, it’s much easier to use objective criteria to select new hires than to find a more complex but accurate system of assessing whether a candidate will be a good fit—or a good lawyer.

This thinking produces a number of shortcomings. First, it creates less diversity, as attorneys at Big Law firms all wind up having similar educational backgrounds. Additionally, by limiting the pool of applicants to those who fit these narrow criteria, other well-qualified candidates are overlooked.

There are also those who argue that there’s no evidence a top 25 law school—or any top-tier school, for that matter—will necessarily produce a better candidate. Author Malcolm Gladwell, for instance, has repeatedly (and controversially) argued that good students from schools with lower rankings tend to be more successful after graduation. Why? Gladwell argues that students attending top schools get discouraged when they’re no longer at the top of their class. In other words, it’s better to be a “big fish in a small pond,” Gladwell says. “The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them,” he writes.

So how should law firms adapt? For starters, each firm should specifically lay out the most important characteristics that their firm looks for in a potential hire. Firms must also use the interview process to focus on assessing those characteristics. For instance, some firms require applicants to take tests during the interview process to assess the candidate’s strengths, weaknesses and ability to work well under pressure.

Finally, and related to our last post, firms should rely more heavily on statistics to make hiring decisions. Rich empirical data exists and can be exploited to discern patterns about lawyers and law schools that best fit a firm’s needs. (For an interesting example, see this graphic showing the schools attended by the nation’s “Superlawyers,” divided by region). These resources could be used to assist in evaluating the best types of recruits that will succeed at the firm. While none of these methods is foolproof, they’re all still better than using the monolithic and dated top-25-school-only approach still used by many firms.