Numbers Do Not Equal Success

Sucess ReflectionSeveral months ago, I was asked to write a chapter on civility as a core value of our profession.  My chapter is included in the newly-released book Essential Qualities of the Professional Lawyer (published by the ABA Standing Committee on Professionalism and the Center for Professional Responsibility).  Despite my obvious and fully disclosed bias here, the book is excellent.  Each chapter is chock full of insights and tips for all attorneys, but law students may especially benefit.

I have been thinking about law students heading back to campus for On Campus Interviews after their summers of interning or resting.  They may be interested (and heartened) to read that several of the compendium’s authors discuss the reality that both lawyer effectiveness and job satisfaction are determined by personality, values and non-cognitive skills.  Yet many legal employers, especially law firms, seem to focus on scores and grades and ignore these better harbingers of success.

I remember as a law student being surprised by the buzz that started after Labor Day (there was no OCI intense week but interviewing stretched over many weeks).  All of a sudden, a hierarchy based on grades separated those who were magically and repeatedly receiving numerous “flybacks” and summer internship offers and those who struggled to receive a few.  Many years later, it seems naive; there is so little relevancy to that employer “mating dance.” Focusing only on intellectual development or cognitive skills is distorting.  These factors alone won’t lead to success or to a personally satisfying career.

In the book, William D. Henderson, law professor and expert on the legal profession and legal education, compellingly debunks the notion that grades or LSAT scores are good predictors of lawyer success.  He shares empirical research and analysis identifying specific lawyer effectiveness factors, including such characteristics as passion, developing relationships, networking and business development, able to see the world through the eyes of others, as well as analysis, reasoning and problem-solving skills.  The resounding conclusion is that success requires more than high cognitive ability as measured by standardized scores or academic prowess.  Nonetheless, high cognitive ability is pretty much the sole measuring stick used by law schools and firms in their admission and hiring practices.  “Ironically, as important as intelligence is for hiring,” he writes, “it is all too often the absence of various non-cognitive factors that cause lawyers to be fired (e.g., inability to relate to clients or colleagues, lack of drive or passion) or hit a permanent plateau (e.g., inability to effectively supervise or delegate legal work, lack of a professional network).”  I have certainly seen this in practice.

Because law school performance places an inordinately high premium on cognitive skills, many students during their academic careers focus on the intellectual and ignore the larger goals and personal values that may have led them to pursue a career in the law in the first place.  In a chapter entitled “The Authentic Lawyer: Merging the Personal and Professional,” Professor Daisy Hurst Floyd notes that the law school curriculum and culture is transforming on many levels, including our personal values.  She provides research showing that while still in law school, many law students shift their motivations from primarily intrinsic (focused on fulfilling values we truly enjoy or furthering a fundamental purpose) to extrinsic (focused on external rewards such as grades, money, fame).  The result often is a disconnect that leads to dissatisfaction.

I highly recommend the book, and not just because of my work with it.  The authors, practicing lawyers and law professors, recommend specific habits we can cultivate to help us keep our personal values and style in the face of an overwhelmingly intellectually-based culture.  A more holistic approach to life will allow us to see opportunities in the kaleidoscope of our rapidly-changing legal culture, leading us to both personal and professional success.

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Jayne Reardon
As a prior trial lawyer, Jayne leads lawyers to embrace the transformative possibilities of future law practice. As a prior disciplinary counsel, Jayne is passionate about promoting the core values of the legal profession. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Notre Dame. Jayne lives in Park Ridge, Illinois with her husband and those of her four children who are not otherwise living in college towns and beyond.
Jayne Reardon

2 thoughts on “Numbers Do Not Equal Success

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with this post. Today at lunch I just so happened to read some more of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, and it echoes this message, stating that differences in IQ (above a certain base level) are poor determiners of future success. Numbers like law school GPA and class rank are used by first employers who seem to have no other evaluation tool easily available to them; after that first position, however, the reputation you’ve established and the achievements you’ve made using your intellect plus an array of varied skills and competenicies are what matters.

    1. Thanks Lori, appreciate your comment. You’re so right about the relevance of Malcolm Gladwell’s perspective. I recall his discussion of the importance of practice and development, whether you’re talking youth hockey or The Beatles…it is key that we remember to hone our professional skills!

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