Williams & Connolly

Why Big Law needs to hire odd ducks

May 23, 2013: 10:53 AM ET

At a time when their very survival seems up in the air, how can firms spot and hire the few candidates that will thrive in Big Law?

By Deena Shanker

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FORTUNE -- I never should have been an attorney.

I am physically incapable of pulling all-nighters, I avoid conflict instead of pursuing it, and I have essentially zero drive to fight for the interests of multi-billion dollar corporations. So it did not come as much of a surprise to anyone -- except my mom and dad, perhaps -- when after exactly one year of practice at a big law firm, I turned in my BlackBerry and walked out the door.

Big Law is famously tough. But despite its reputation, law students continue to line up for consideration at the country's top firms, hoping to land a coveted spot as an associate. Many of these young lawyers, though, will find that they are simply not cut out for law firm life and, according to Pamela Woldow of law firm consultancy Edge International, approximately 70% will leave within the first four years of practice.

At a time when their very survival seems up in the air, how can firms spot and hire the few candidates that will thrive in Big Law instead of wasting time and money on people like me?

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Woldow says that smart firms are beginning to change their hiring standards, selecting candidates who will stay longer than just a few years and who, upon making partner, will bring in their own business.

According to Heather Frattone, associate dean for career planning at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, this means that firms are looking for more than just exemplary report cards. Depending on the firm, "communications skills, project management, organizational understanding, drive, initiative, resilience, and entrepreneurship" are all sought after qualities in recruits, but different firms place varying levels of value on these traits.

Firm recruiters, Frattone adds, are beginning to ask more behavioral questions to identify candidates with the qualities they're looking for. "Things like, 'Tell me a time you were not successful at something you were working on, and what did you learn from that?'" These are the kinds of questions you might hear at any other interview. They just haven't had much of a role at law firms up until now.

But it's not enough for young lawyers to be smart, ambitious team players. Woldow advises looking for people with more life experience over candidates who went straight from high school to college to law school. "Maturity helps you roll with the punches a little more," she says. Candidates who have only worked within academia, who graduated at the top of their class, and are used to being lauded for their accomplishments often "don't understand that they're just the lowest of the low in a big machine." They have trouble taking orders, moving through Big Law's hierarchical structure, and putting in the required hours.

Psychotherapist Will Meyerhofer, a former associate at Sullivan & Cromwell and author of the legal blog The People's Therapist, thinks firms can keep associates around longer by only hiring people he calls "workhorses." These are the ones "who can just handle the brutal hours, who are very motivated by the money and making partner." He describes these people as "nerdy," "geeky," and "dorky," and with "fewer outside interests."

But while plenty of firms will happily snap up those recruits, Williams & Connolly regularly takes cases to trial and looks for attorneys who will not only make a positive impression on clients, but on juries as well. "Someone who can only talk on a purely theoretical, academic level, is going to be more challenged here," says Williams & Connolly hiring partner Meg Keeley. Instead, Keeley says, her firm seeks "someone who can make arguments on a practical and personal level."

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And, of course, candidates should also have a real excitement about the actual practice of law. (Tip: Don't mention Law & Order in an interview.) These are the people that Meyerhofer says will happily "sit and argue over the best ways to draft certain provisions."

A September, 2008 paper from UC Berkeley professors Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck suggests that Keeley is onto something. Attempting to help law schools identify promising future lawyers, the report's authors examined a number of "predictors" of lawyering effectiveness. Typical measures of "geekiness" like LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point averages were not reliable indicators of later lawyering abilities. Instead, situational judgment tests, biographical information, and seven specific personality traits -- ambition, adjustment, sociability, prudence, interpersonal sensitivity, inquisitiveness, and learning approach -- could better forecast an applicant's later success as an attorney.

Of course, most firms would love to hire these social and inquisitive lawyers, but picking them out of the overflowing candidate pool is not always easy. Law students don't usually confess to their interviewers that they don't like to work hard or have no passion for practicing law.

Woldow points to a few specific biographical indicators of future Big Law superstars: first-generation lawyers without legacies of Supreme Court justices and Big Law partners; first or second-generation immigrants; and people from modest economic backgrounds. These people, she says, often come in with different expectations. Instead of thinking they are due money and success, they think, "'I have to earn it and make my way.'"

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