A recent survey by Robert Half Legal found that 83% of law firm respondents noted increasing demand over the last year for legal services. That is a welcome new trend after years of lower demand and lost legal jobs. But that promising development comes with a new challenge for legal employers–hiring the best legal professionals to provide those services.
One would think that, with approximately twice as many law students graduating in any given year as there are new legal jobs, finding eager and qualified new employees would not be such a challenge. But the wording is important: “recruiting highly skilled legal professionals” was identified by the respondents as the firms’ greatest challenge.
What makes for highly skilled legal professionals? The graduates have all been vetted by, admitted to and graduated from an ABA-accredited law school, all have passed one or more bar exams, and theoretically therefore arrive at the recruitment interview with all the skill that our legal education system offers. Aren’t the best candidates simply the ones with the highest grades? What’s the challenge?
Let’s start with the ground-breaking, extensive study done by Marjorie Schultz (University of California-Berkeley law school professor) and Sheldon Zedeck (U Cal-Berkeley psychology professor) in 2011 about what skills are needed to practice law well. A few of those 26 skills that they established involve cognitive reasoning, analysis and researching capabilities, as might be expected, although there are no “subject matter” skills. As most of us in the fast-paced digital age realize, any subject matter expertise that one graduates with is likely outdated in a matter of months or years, at best. So becoming a subject matter “expert” is a continual process of mining, analyzing and applying both historical and rapidly-evolving current information to our clients’ issues. That’s when those cognitive attributes are important.
The other 20+ skills they found necessary to practice law well involve “non-cognitive” skills, like establishing and maintaining healthy relationships with clients and colleagues, giving practical, empathic advice, managing one’s own stress, work flow and expressions, mentoring, managing and influencing others, negotiating and advocating, and networking and developing business, to name a few. These are skills that virtually no law school teaches and that we know from reliable data lawyers are often weak in.
As stated in the study, these “non-cognitive” constructs “correlated at a higher level of significance with lawyer performance factors than did LSAT scores, UGPA [undergraduate grade point average], or Index [combinations of those factors].”
So the search for “skilled” legal professionals takes on a more daunting quality in light of this information. No transcript will identify these skills. Few interviewers are equipped to identify them either.
The result is that the legal industry suffers from a frequent mismatch of employee skills and job requirements–resulting in high rates of attrition, client dissatisfaction, malpractice and disciplinary actions, and lawyer distress and burnout.
Robert Half Legal suggests that law firms try to coax new lawyers into their firms by offering more positive cultures, expanded professional development training, and more benefits, essentially to help offset the effects of that mismatch.
At some point–hopefully well before more organizations implode and talented individuals leave–we as an industry will have to start focusing on the skills that really matter in a fast-paced, high-pressure, high-performing profession that is in the end measured by client service–that is, identifying, training and supporting lawyers who can manage the daunting task of establishing healthy, sustainable practices. That involves a set of skills that is of a different type and magnitude than those cognitive skills we traditionally focus on.
As the Shultz/Zedeck study concluded: those who possess the few cognitive skills that law schools teach and measure–and that employers tend to focus on–are “unlikely to exhibit [the] strong emotional development” necessary to practice law well. Producing graduates with that strong emotional development may well be our profession’s greatest challenge.