In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, he makes a telling observation about American Nobel Prize winners: Only a few of the laureates in medicine and chemistry were produced by elite schools like Harvard and Stanford; more came from more modest schools like the University of Notre Dame or City University of New York. The Ivy Leagues were excellent at attracting superb students, but when it came to predicting who would become a great scientist, they didn’t know what to look for.
Law firms face a similar situation—how to predict which law students will become great rainmakers?
It all starts with asking the right questions.
The first question recruiters typically ask is: Was this candidate strong academically in law school? It should be: Does this lawyer have the ability to connect—to build the relationships that will bring in business?
Elite law firms hire exclusively from among the top 5 percent academically, said legal consultant Amy Knapp. However, “doing well in law school isn’t the same things as doing well in business. It means you are good at writing and good at legal reasoning. None of those talents are necessarily indicative of skill in business development.”
Not all firms take this approach. Richmond, Va.’s LeClairRyan (a client of mine) prefers candidates with above a 2.8-grade point average. “This lower cut-off allows us to look at the total resume,” said recruiting manager Danielle Roberts. “Our favorite question—one that always throws off candidates—is, ‘Tell me your story, what has happened in your life to bring you where you are today?’ This gives firms a window into the real character of candidates.”
Of course, it is a little more complicated than hiring the handsome or popular; it requires finding a certain personality type. Knapp described one rainmaker who was a distinctly quirky individual, but he was so gregarious and brilliant that he amassed the largest book of business at his firm.
“There are so few rainmakers because we filter them out,” Knapp said. “The skills that would make a great rainmaker are not necessarily the same skills that would make a great law firm associate. It is often just too tough for them to make it all the way to partner so they can shine. In those first few years, associates are valued for the same types of things that are valued in law school. A few years later, suddenly, things are totally different as they approach partnership. It is really like a bait-and-switch. ‘You did everything we said, but now we are evaluating you on new and different criteria—show us the clients!’ ”
LeClairRyan tries to get around this by setting up coaching sessions, ostensibly to help summer associates work on business development skills; the real purpose is to test them for the potential to be rainmakers. “In one of these sessions, it became clear that one of our summer associates was not only a relationship-builder, but an exceptional relationship-builder,” Roberts said. “He received an offer from the firm soon after, but the real coup came when he invited the recruiters on-campus to meet his friends. We came on campus and set up a table offering free breakfast, and he was sensational—he knew everybody and everybody knew him. He will be a rainmaker.”
By the way, this summer associate had good grades, but nothing exceptional, she said. The firms that weren’t willing to interview him missed out.
Perhaps it is time for firms to spread the net a little wider and value personality at least as highly as academic superiority. Find the lawyers who meet basic academic standards, but who shine in the soft skills that will help them bring in business.
Adrian Dayton is a lawyer, speaker, author and consultant who coaches law firms with regards to business development through social media. You can grab a free chapter of his latest book, LinkedIn & Blogs for Lawyers (West 2012, co-authored by Amy Knapp) at https://adriandayton.wpengine.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @adriandayton.