04 September 2009

Pedigrees Produce Bad Work Ethics?

Alumni from top law schools, like mine, like big law firm practice less, and are less inclined to work hard than their peers from less prestigious law schools.

[G]raduates of the most selective schools are the less satisfied with their jobs at large firms, while graduates of less selective schools are relatively more satisfied. . . .

[G]raduates of elite law schools . . . are more likely to have considered careers in business consulting or investment banking. . . . Interviews with lawyers in this group reveal that they do not want to work the long hours generally required at law firms, and they especially do not want to put in those hours patiently for ten years to compete for the partnership prize. This is a relatively privileged group that expects to do well in life. For them, the corporate law firm apprenticeship is something to put on a resume and move on. . . .

Students from less selective schools . . . know they had to work harder simply to attain those positions, and they realize that their options are more limited. . . . Thus, for a segment of students from the lower echelons of the law school heirarchy, the large corporate law firm job is a coveted reward for hard work and is not to be squandered.

The non-elite law school authors of the study argues that it follows that law firms should hire more associates from non-elite law schools. The study is closely in line with the research showing that the LSAT scores used to determine which law school one attends (or whether one attends law school at all) are poor predictors of performance as a lawyer.

Basically, in the current system, the biggest, highest paying law firms hire overwhelmingly from the pool of the most intelligent law students. This isn't the only factor in their hiring process, but it is how these firms make the first cut. Big law firms are also select for appearance and demeanor, a sufficient academic work ethic to do well in law school and make law review, and reasonable performance in a summer clerkship. Big law firms have been doing this at least since the 1960s or 1970s when the higher education admissions process became much more meritocratic. Previously, socio-economic class played a bigger part.

A generation later, we are reflecting on the results of this grand experiment and tentatively concluding that there is more to the practice of law than IQ. Lawyers at the largest firms, while well paid, have low levels of job satisfaction, have outrageously high turnover rates for new attorneys, and lack the skills needed to justify the immense amounts billed to clients for their services in their early years. Large law firms are absolutely profligate in how they conduct their business. Their inefficient business model survives only because the stakes and profit margins in their typical cases are so high that clients are willing to pay large sums of money for even slight improvements in perceived likelihood of success in their cases.

The big open questions are:

(1) Precisely what, other than IQ, makes a good lawyer? What is the best way to screen for these traits? Furthermore, which traits are most valuable for which kinds of law?

(2) What career path would be best for the high IQ people who are currently tracked to become large firm lawyers, management consultants and investment bankers? Have they been tracked there recently as a result of an economically unjustified growth in the size of the Wall Street finance industry relative to the rest of the economy? Could some new business model or type of profession better utilize their talents and make them happier?

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