What if Hiring in the Legal Industry was Like the NFL Draft?

Now, any of you that know me in "real life" know that I'm a pretty die-hard Denver Broncos fan.  (I may have written other blogs about the Broncos even). I definitely knew the signal for "Touchdooooooown!" before I could walk--or at least that's the story amongst my grandparents and older relatives. 

Last night, my husband scored a ticket to the VIP Draft Party at Sports Authority Field.  FOR ONE.  I stayed home, where we are currently doing a remodel and have no television, and streamed Netflix with my lonely, badass self and a glass of wine and the office pets.  As an aside, I'm sure that the field will soon be renamed, AGAIN.  Just go back to Mile High already!!!!!  For that matter, maybe the folks at Native Roots are onto something with renaming the field (check out the news clip online here). Mile HIGH indeed!

When thinking about the Draft though, I got to thinking that law firms of all shapes and sizes could stand to learn a thing or two from the way the Draft works.  First of all--someone may look good on paper, but bomb the combine or be a horrible team player, and you don't take the risk on them.  Secondly, even someone from a small college with enough talent, dedication, and hard work can play in the Bigs.  Hello, Memphis?! Are they even a Div. I school? Wikipedia says they are.. and I'm super-happy to have their quarterback as an alternative to Sanchez (c'mon)!  But their main competitors in the American Conference are the likes of South Florida, East Carolina, and Navy... I say this, knowing full well, that my college team of choice (CSU, of course) is from the Mountain West... 

This is similar to the legal industry really, though.  First round Draft choices in the NFL are akin to those top-ranking students from the top-ranking law schools that go straight from law school into the top-ranking firms.  By top-ranking firms I mean those with $160K starting salaries at a huge, back-East or international law firm (*cough*BigLaw*cough*--it's like a dirty word around here). As you go down the Draft picks, maybe into the second or third round of choices, you start to see fewer and fewer of the powerhouse law firms making moves and more of your average, mid-sized firms, but still small/solo firms are not represented at all.  We just can't compete!  And just like there are always a few DII and DIII players that are in the draft each year, students from second and third tier law schools sometimes can beat out graduates of elite law schools for jobs.  But, really, there are very few of those success stories, and even fewer of the true "underdog" stories where the elite athlete at a small school (Lynch much?) goes to the best of the best pro team. (see Freakonomics' blog for more info along these lines).

Anyway, back to my original point: law firms and the legal industry can learn a thing or two from how the NFL Draft works. Mark Levin at Law360.com  agrees with me, writing: 
The NFL draft is the culmination of months of research and often years of watching top player prospects, all in the hopes of making the right decision on draft day and assembling the right athletes for a shot at a championship season. Law firm management, does this sound familiar to you? You also spend years vetting talent (months at a time with summer associates and less formally with lateral hires), but at the end of the day, many of your decisions end up feeling like more of a leap of faith than science.
Did you know that prospects are subject to not only grueling physical tests at the combine but full psychological profiles, too?  Neither did I.  But THIS is something law firms should DEFINITELY use.  Maybe some do, of course, but I've never been vetted in that way.  If you are considering public sector employment as a District Attorney or a Public Defender, you should definitely be considering whether you are cut from the right cloth.  Although I loved the job and helping people of all sorts, I was definitely NOT the right material. 
Although roughly 80 percent of the Fortune 500 and 89 percent of the Fortune 100 companies use psychometric assessments in their hiring process, law firms are loath to modernize their ways. Less than 5 percent of the largest 250 firms in the country currently use assessments during the hiring process, and none uses instruments that are purpose-built for the legal profession. Even structured interviews — following a script of sorts and understanding how an attorney might fit within a firm and its culture in the same way that position coaches use their informal interviews to talk Xs and Os and "put a player on the board" — take place at just a handful of firms nationwide.
The NFL does their homework! Watching hours of tape with a team of analysts to even decide whom to watch beforehand... Why don't law firms ask for videos? I could put together one hell of a tryout tape from a few trials that I've done, not to mention Motions hearings, interviewing witnesses, and negotiations with opposing counsel.  Maybe it's that pesky confidentiality thing... yeah, probably, actually. 

Law firms, lawyers, and the legal industry in general don't do their homework!  Yeah, to be considered qualified, you have to have gone to three years of law school and passed a bar exam.  You had to have taken the LSAT and done well in undergrad to get into law school of course.  But really, if you can regurgitate a lot of material using the same wording as the text, you can pass the bar.  I think more people freak themselves out who fail than who are actually incapable.  That being said, I agree with Mr. Levin again when he says,
Few organizations use less discipline, structure and intelligence in their hiring process than law firms.
This is insanity!  As a trial lawyer, I prepare everything. I cross-reference. I color-code. I make a beautiful trial notebook. I make a powerpoint presentation, or three.  I talk to everyone involved, and don't just take their written statements for granted.  Why, as lawyers who are hiring other lawyers, do we not also prepare for a new-hire like we would for trial?!  Don't just rely on references, but CALL those references.  Make a "prospective hire" notebook!  Color code the shit out of it! 

Abovethelaw.com agrees that the hiring process in law firms is lacking when compared to the draft. 
If someone enters the NFL draft, the teams and their executive and coaching staff will know everything relevant about that person from field scouting, reviewing past footage, and his participation in the NFL Scouting Combine. They can evaluate the potential player’s speed, strength, agility, and other physical characteristics. This will be useful in determining whether the potential player meets the team’s needs.
In law, if a firm wants to evaluate a recent law school graduate, the firm must review the applicant’s résumé and law school transcript. As most of us already know, the “thinking like a lawyer” classes we took in law school seldom have any practical use after graduation. Law schools generally do not teach students how to perform a deposition, a trial, contract drafting, negotiation, and useful things like that.
Since law firms do not have a Scouting Combine to determine a job applicant’s skills, employers are reluctant to hire someone that does not meet the traditional mold: top grades from a top school. I know that there are some recruiters and startup companies that are trying to change this but whether they will succeed is unclear.
So, my take on this?  The legal industry is a stagnant, old-world, old-boys club, that doesn't embrace technology, change, or progressive thought very often.  With one exception.... Wait for it...

#smalllaw, your Solo/Small Firms, they know how to get things done. They'll give new hires more authority, more autonomy, more of a chance at success than the #biglaw counterparts who pay new recruits to kill themselves on the field for very little chance of ever making partner. 

Solo and Small firms embrace change.  We find ways to do things creatively to save clients' money and allow a lot more flexibility for work/life balance.  When we hire someone, we hire for life.  We make damn sure the new hire is a good fit and they are in it for the long-haul.  Stick with me from the beginning and the profits years from now will make up for the low salary up front.  Instead of a 15-20 year partner track, you may have a 3-5 year track with a small firm.

When I make my first Draft move as a solo practitioner, you can bet that that first associate, paralegal, or secretary will be someone that I gel with and that I trust.  Solo and Small firms know that fresh graduates are not just what they appear to be on paper, and we subscribe to the sentiment although to a certain extent legal work is an image-based profession, it should be merit-based and "merit should be determined by more than which law school you attended and your class rank." (see Abovethelaw again).  I, for one, will never ask a potential applicant their rank.  As one law school professor I had used to state--a graduate with a C average, is still a graduate, and a passing score only two points above the curve cut-off on the bar exam, is still a pass. You'll all be lawyers in the end!

No two candidates are the same.  Just like no two players are the same.  Forbes posed the question based on this graphic below: Who would you pick as your first Draft choice at quarterback? The statistics are VERY different, but if you know about the Wonderlic Score a higher score is much better.

Chart1

"On paper which player would you rather have? Player A was the third overall pick in the draft. Player B was draft pick 199 all the way in the sixth round. Player A is Vince Young, who played 6 years in the NFL with no major accolades since winning Rookie of the Year. Player B is Tom Brady, considered by many as the best quarterback of all time, who in 14 seasons thus far has won 4 Super Bowls (Most Valuable Player in 3 of them). When the average Wonderlic score for a quarterback is 24, it should raise a red flag and create cause for additional inquiry."  (I can't believe I referenced Tom Brady. For point of clarification, Peyton Manning's Wonderlic Score was a 28, and his brother, Eli, scored a 39).  The statistics on passing, interceptions, and rushing can only go so far in predicting performance.  We aren't always what we seem on paper...
So, what is a legal firm to do?  Keeping in mind that I've never hired anyone, ever, but have trained a lot of people and enjoyed team-building since my days as a tri-sport athlete (quad, if you consider rodeo)... I have these things to say (stolen in part from Mr. Levin again)

3 tips for hiring top legal talent: 


  1. Understand your firm culture and don't hire someone who is not a good fit. It's a waste of time to try to change someone to fit your mold. 
  2. Vet your prospects thoroughly. Just like the NFL, make a reasoned decision based on data, and don't be afraid to ask for those tapes or additional psychological testing. 
  3. Know that you will have to TEACH someone new how to develop into a good lawyer. This is especially true if you are hiring fresh out of law school. Develop individualized methods for bringing a new lawyer up to speed, and you will be their best mentor--not to mention gain a friend for life. (Thanks to a few mentors of mine, you know who you are).