20 October 2008

Jocks Outperform Nerds In Big Law

In big law firms, academic ability isn't all it is cracked up to be.

While there are minimum standards and success in certain law school classes is important, participation in collegiate athletics and "group hobbies" are better predictors of big law firm success than top grades, LSATs and graduation from high ranked law schools. Foreign language proficiency was viewed by the study as a minus. Success was measures by hours billed, months with the firm, and "fitting in." The study described "leadership" along with compatability as an overall description of success by its measures.

A caveat almost all commentators have noted is that the pool of people even considered by big law firms is academically very elite. About 53% come from the schools ranked in U.S. News and World Report's top twenty law schools, and decent grades are ubiquitous.

I'm not terribly surprised by the results.

Strong academic performance in law school, and attendance at high ranked law schools, measures IQ more than it does propensity to work long hours. Law school, which typically bases a grade on a single closed book final exam, is less about sheer diligence than almost any other type of graduate education. Serious involvement in sports is often a proxy for lack of creativity, and in law, especially big law firm law, lack of creativity is a virtue rather than a vice. Lawyers are more like dentists who need to develop technique through repetition, than they are like fiction authors. The flip side of creativity is relentless steady focus on doing the same thing well, over and over. Big law firms want the guy who got good grades by studying 60 hours a week, not the much smarter guy who managed to secured similar grades while studying only 20 hours a week. Because, in big law firms, putting in hours matters more than almost anything else.

Foreign language proficiency may be a marker for being outside the typical narrow social circles of big law firm lawyers. IQ isn't necessarily a good measure of interpersonal skills (for example, high IQ societies are notorious for their contentious management fights), and almost no law school or undergraduate activities central to one's academic record or the law school admissions process involve working in groups. Yet, big law firms, more than any other kind of law firm, involves working in teams. Some commentators describe the results as Big Law learning the lessons long applied to M.B.A.s which is apt, because most Big Law firm work for large financial and publicly held companies run by M.B.A.s.

5 comments:

Michael Malak said...

I have a simpler theory.

Team sports are an invention of the nineteenth century, as it helped workers for the twin new evils of corporatism and communism. Prior to that, individualism -- in sports and in vocation -- was supreme.

It is no wonder that those who participate in team sports and "group activities" are best suited for working professional in a large group.

brutus said...

Serious involvement in sports is often a proxy for lack of creativity, and in law, especially big law firm law, lack of creativity is a virtue rather than a vice.

Wow, what a sweeping statement offered without support. You should just go ahead and say it: big dumb jock. Get it off your chest.

As to the characterization of law discouraging creativity, that depends a lot on the practice area. Many practice areas are highly bureaucratic, where the practitioners expertise is merely knowing what forms to file, how, and where. In other area, being able to devise strategies and shape creative arguments are primary.

Lawyers are more like dentists who need to develop technique through repetition, than they are like fiction authors. The flip side of creativity is relentless steady focus on doing the same thing well, over and over.

Yes, like factory work, but with paper. Except, of course, that most of the real know-how often resides with the support staff who actually prepare the paper.

Michael Malak's theory that individualism was supreme prior to the 19th century is a typical gloss on history. Individualism among the masses was not a dominant personal identity until it was packaged and sold as consumer culture beginning in the 1950s. Prior to that, identity was centered on the group and reinforced through traditionalism.

BTW, your post is littered with typos and grammar errors. Go back and proofread just once and you'll catch most of them.

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Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I certainly admit to copy editing errors.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Also, to the main point brutus makes, no, I don't think it is dumb jocks at all. I think it is very smart jocks who rely more on experience and discipline and preparation than a high flow of ideas.

I honestly don't think that creativity is an unmitigated good. I don't trot out the full thought that brings me there in this post, although I've been playing with the idea (not original) for the better part of a couple of a decades on and off. I do think that most personality traits have flip sides and that just about any place on any given personality spread has its benefits and downsides.

One has structural visualization or an aptitude of conceiving abstract concepts, but not both to extremes, although perhaps a mix of a little of each.

One is creative, or one has focus and determination.

One is extroverted or introverted.

One is sharp in reasoning ability, or one relies on experience in life.

Different combinations of personality traits make for different people. No combination is really bad, although some fit more naturally into societal holes than others.

Some combinations are certainly more convenient than others. It is more convenient to be hetrosexual, for example, in daily life, even if no one has any choice in the matter and even if the two traits are equal in dignity and value overall.

Sure, law is not entirely homogeneous. In the same way, the people who are best suited to be psychiatrists are probably not the people who are best suited to being surgeons. Somewhere out there are lawyers with jobs where creativity is a real virtue. But, they are a decided minority and don't generally perform well on the measures of success in big law firms that was identified.

I simply don't think that a high flow of ideas, which is one of many operational definitions of creativity, is very valuable to the kind of practice of law that goes on in a big law firm. Indeed, I'd venture that it is a hinderance that can get a lawyer off track.

Not every mental trait is equally desirable either. Some people are smarter than others, and up to a certain point at least, being smart is a real edge, for example.

Most people have psychological profiles at least somewhat well suite to the jobs that they do. Msybe not perfect, but not completely off either. Jocks do well in big law because they are well suited to what the economic pressures on those law firms requires.