Success Factors and Moneyball: Reassessing Hiring Criteria

Success Factors and Moneyball: Reassessing Hiring Criteria

The Great Recession sparked radical changes in the legal marketplace, including drastically reduced entry-level and junior associate hiring and the rise of core competency systems for their evaluation, compensation, and advancement. As part of this trend, there is a movement to reevaluate traditional criteria for hiring lawyers at all levels of seniority and possibly to expand the factors considered in the effort to predict success.

  • The 26 Factors for Effective Lawyering

In a multi-year study, University of California at Berkeley law professor Marjorie Shultz and psychology professor Sheldon Zedeck interviewed hundreds of lawyers, judges, academics, students, and clients to determine which factors are important to being an effective lawyer. They then created new tests to predict those competencies, and administered the new tests to more than 1,100 Boalt Hall and UC Hastings law alumni. Next, the professors analyzed over 4,000 evaluations of the test takers’ professional performance provided by the test-takers' peers and supervisors as well as by the test-takers themselves.

The study empirically showed that traditional methods of ranking candidates for law school admission - LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point average - not only predicted fewer than ten of the 26 factors for lawyering success, but also negatively correlated with several effectiveness scores. The traditional assessments predicted mainly the most academically-related factors, while many of the competencies necessary for effective lawyering included elements such as problem solving, practical judgment, creativity, advocacy, negotiation, and people skills. The new tests used by Shultz and Zedeck predicted as many as 23 of the 26 factors. See: “Predicting Professional Effectiveness,” 36 Law & Social Inquiry 620 (2011).

26 Factors in Effective Lawyering
© Shultz and Zedeck. Do not cite, quote or use without permission.
(Please note that these are randomly ordered; they are not in order of importance)

  • Problem Solving
  • Practical Judgment
  • Passion and Engagement
  • Analysis and Reasoning
  • Creativity/Innovation
  • Integrity and Honesty
  • Writing
  • Community Involvement and Service
  • Providing Advice and Counsel and Building Relationships with Clients
  • Organizing and Managing One's Own Work
  • Finding and Using Facts
  • Self Development
  • Researching the Law
  • Speaking
  • Ability to See the World Through the Eyes of Others
  • Strategic Planning
  • Networking and Business Development
  • Stress Management
  • Listening
  • Influencing & Advocating
  • Questioning/Interviewing
  • Negotiation Skills
  • Diligence
  • Organizing and Managing Others
  • Evaluation, Development and Mentoring
  • Developing Relationships Within the Legal Profession

Extending the study results to new and lateral lawyer hiring suggests that recruiters adopt standards less tied to student grades and the academic rank of a school, and more targeted to these 26 factors of effective professional performance. Academic records and traditional interviews yield insufficient relevant information. Rather, the professors recommend some form of job effectiveness evaluation, or behavioral interviewing based on needed lawyer competencies, to better assess candidates. Hiring mistakes are expensive, estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Thus, legal organizations can’t afford to continue making those decisions solely based on scholarly credentials while hoping those candidates have what it really takes to be a success.

  • Lawyer Metrics/Moneyball

The data-driven approach employed by Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, revolutionized the methods sports teams use to select and develop their players. Beane’s key insight was that biases of scouts and coaches caused baseball teams to misidentify and misprice talent. Bill Henderson and Caren Ulrich Stacy of Lawyer Metrics propose that law firms can benefit from a similar approach to talent acquisition. Their Moneyball analysis explores the association between performance and several dozen traits that can be observed on a lawyer’s resume or transcript, ranging from traditional criteria (grades, law review, clerkships and law school rank) and non-traditional criteria (non-legal work experience, advanced degrees, publications, participation in team sports, and the like). This application of the Moneyball analysis to legal profession hiring reveals that law firms typically overvalue some attributes and ignore others that really matter, resulting in bad “tradeoffs” at both entry level and lateral lawyer “draft picks” .

The Moneyball model requires legal employers to identify factors beyond grades which are positively correlated to success in their particular organizations. They must take their firm or corporate culture into account, because lawyers’ success profiles vary significantly between organizations, and even between offices or departments of the same firm. Each firm must determine how it actually keeps score of excellent performance (e.g., business development, billable hours, leadership, initiative, problem solving, and interpersonal skills), and devise ways to ascertain how candidates stack up against those criteria. According to an October 10, 2011 AmLaw Daily article, firms employing Moneyball models successfully predicted 50 – 60 percent of low performers and 10 – 33 percent of high performers.

Despite these new and interesting methods of assessing merit, candidates with attributes traditionally sought, such as academic and law firm pedigree, still garner top hiring attention. The hope is that the legal profession will learn to value other “non-traditionally” qualified lawyers, who also have much to contribute to the practice as it adapts to new realities.

Valerie Fontaine
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