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.