"We evaluate ‘courage’ as a behavioral characteristic of our lawyers, and we link this evaluation to compensation," says John P. Donahue, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of Rhodia Inc., in the July 2007 issue of InsideCounsel.   Rhodia has "embraced professional objectivity of its in-house lawyers as a core value" and Donahue wants to make sure that "our lawyers can deliver bad news to clients," with whom they are often closely aligned. 

Valuing Courage

Given the data we have about the strong tendency of lawyers to avoid rather than confront conflicts (yes, even those feisty litigators, oddly enough) (see my article "The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers"), Donahue’s goal is one that can’t be lauded enough.  Hospital administrators contend that a ratio of 1 conflict avoider in 4 employees results in a "dangerous workplace"–think:  "I don’t want to get so&so in trouble over reusing needles" or "Maybe she’ll start writing down dosages after she gets used to our procedures". 

Left to their own proclivities, lawyers’ much higher rate of avoidance than hospital workers risks being just as dangerous.  Avoidance not only fails to resolve firm and client issues, but at the extreme, failure to report and confront violations of Sarbanes-Oxley, insider trading and discrimination laws, to name a few, can not only crater a career, but also a firm or a company.  Add in malpractice, fraud and the range of criminal possibilities (see, for example, Enron and other corporate demises and the unfolding saga of Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman) and silence should never be considered golden.

Hence Donahue’s laudable efforts to support and promote courage.   

Which is where our thought for today could end.

Evaluating Courage

But Donahue goes further than suggesting putting in place environmental supports like "constantly talking" about maintaining objectivity, creating a culture that embraces bearers of bad news and rotating lawyers among client departments. He wants his lawyers’ courage to be evaluated and then to compensate them accordingly.

Evaluating courage or any other personal characteristic as it relates to their work is a radical idea to many lawyers. Basing compensation on that evaluation is outlandish.  They don’t know what a "behavioral characteristic" actually means, don’t trust the evaluation process, and certainly don’t think their compensation should be linked to so un-rigorous a process.  They are, after all, good lawyers, and good lawyers average in the top 10% on the characteristic "skepticism" in personality assessments (see again my article "The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers").

In this case, they should get over it.  Whether Donahue is using structured assessments or more unstructured evaluation techniques, these behavioral and personality evaluations are likely to be the key for law firms and law departments to break their recruitment and retention quandaries and, as icing on the cake, help solve the diversity dilemma.  (See my January 5, 2007 blog entry "KPMG Model Delivers Risk Management, Teamwork, Client Satisfaction and Diversity Too," reporting on KPMG’s use of the Birkman Method assessment to revamp its business model and achieve retention and diversity goals.)

This is not a new position, at least for me.  (See my article "The Case for Assessment: Using Discrimination for Better Hiring," which outlines all the uses of assessments in the non-law firm world and how law firms might profit from them.)  And now the tipping point is in sight as more law departments and law firms inch towards greater use of evaluations and assessments– and trumpet the benefits.

General Counsel Scott Terrillion, of Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc, uses an "evaluative selection method" to find the best attorneys for his company, with diversity being a natural consequence.  Roland Dumas, director of diversity for the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, points out that "if a law firm screens candidates based on what law school they went to and how well they did there, it won’t achieve much diversity.  There simply are not enough African-American and Latino law students in the top law schools who would survive the ‘top quarter’ cut."  Instead, Dumas recommends "capabilities" interviews, which use rich conversations to probe candidates to find those who have the talents the firm values. 

Struggling to complete with bigger firms, Kansas City, Mo.-based Blackwell Sanders developed a system for selecting and assessing associates that is more behaviorally evaluative than most firms use, and it found that using these behavioral evaluations, starting with the initial interview, enabled the firm to spot talent it might otherwise miss. The firm has documented its efforts in a handbook, From Classes to Competencies, Lockstep To Levels, which, according to the foreword by Ida Abbott, is "an act of remarkable candor and leadership … [that] will enable law firms to expedite the design and implementation of competency-based evaluations and performance-based advancement."

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.  Blackwell Sanders doubled the total number of minority associates, tripled the number in recent incoming classes, and increased by 22% the number of females associates.  Perhaps even more notable, a "high" minority attrition rate declined to "0" within four years. 

Jeffrey N. Berman, managing partner at Berman Fink Van Horn, says that for the last 10 years his firm has taken an even more radical step–using individually administered psychological assessments as part of their hiring process. Determining assessment traits important to the firm has given the firm "a handle on the type of attorney that is going to be happy and successful here," Berman says.  

The firm tells all prospective hires, lawyers and staff, that they will be required to take a personality test if an offer is made.  Contrary to the fear of many hiring partners, Berman reports that no one has ever objected to the assessment or refused to proceed, in part, he believes, because everyone in the firm has participated and also because it has been so accurate in predicting success.   "It never ceases to amaze me how accurate the testing is," he adds, noting that it has never proved inaccurate with anyone they’ve hired, even when the results contravene the impression of interviewers.

So diversity is not the only benefit firms can expect from the targeted use of evaluations and assessments–law turnover and high satisfaction and performance result as well. 

Our firm offers law departments and law firms state-of-the-art advice on identifying the characteristics that produce happy, productive lawyers in your environment and designing evaluations and assessments to use in hiring and promoting those candidates.  Don’t be left in the backwash.  This is a wave that can do much to move you forward.