Here’s an argument you don’t hear everyday: law firms who hire the smartest people are hurting their business.
That’s the gist of the argument by Bill Henderson, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law who studies the legal profession (and whom we’ve quoted often in these pages). At least if we define “smart” as people who did very well on the LSAT and go to the “best” (as in highest-ranked) law schools. Henderson says that there are a lot of different skills that go into being a profitable lawyer, and being a slightly better standardized test taker than somebody else is not the most important of those skills.
Hey, you know what Aristotle says: “I know enough to know that being able to quote myself makes me an over-educated douche who can barely balance my abacus.”…
Henderson argues that blindly hiring lawyers from the best law schools may be hurting big firm business. From the ABA Journal:
The top law schools admit students with higher LSAT scores, notes Indiana University law professor Bill Henderson. But academic credentials are not a reliable basis for hiring decisions in an environment where law firms are competing for market share, Henderson writes in the National Jurist.
“Sure, lawyers need to be smart,” he writes. “But in this more competitive environment, they also need to be personable, collaborative, entrepreneurial, service oriented, and interested in contributing to the collective welfare of the law firm.”
This argument makes intuitive sense to anybody who does not buy into the mystical predictive powers of the LSAT.
But even it we act like the LSAT is a test of intelligence (and to be clear, it’s really not), the interesting point here is that “being smart” isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to making money. Processing information quickly and logically is great fun, but it doesn’t pay any bills. You need business skills to make it work in a professional legal environment.
And those are skills you are not going to learn at law school:
“Obviously, beyond intelligence as applied to legal doctrine, many of the attributes needed for success in the ‘new normal’ legal economy are not attributes emphasized in law school,” he writes. “Virtually all law professors were vetted based on a world where academic credentials really mattered. As a group, law professors are ill-equipped for the changes that are occurring.”
I’m sure that there are students at lower-ranked law schools nodding their heads right now. But not so fast, my friends. Just because Henderson is criticizing top-tier legal education doesn’t mean he’s arguing in favor of bottom-tier legal education. (Getting a high score on the LSAT doesn’t mean you’ve got any kind of business sense, but getting a crappy score on the LSAT doesn’t guarantee good social skills.)
Henderson is arguing for lawyers to be educated in a different, more practical way — not educated in the same way they’ve always been educated at the top 14 schools, but perhaps closer to the approach of regional law schools (like Indiana University, where Henderson teaches). Henderson is trying to put some of his theories into practice with his new company, Lawyer Metrics.
But the differences in how law schools teach their students are not as huge as some might think (or expect). And so long as legal education remains basically the same everywhere, it’s likely that firms will continue to hire people from top schools, hoping that they can be retrained on the job.
Law Prof Predicts a ‘New Hierarchy’ of Law Schools [ABA Journal]
Why the Job Market Is Changing [National Jurist]