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November 30, 2007

War for Talent!
(Part Deux)

We zeroed in again on this raging issue among law firms, but try as we did to raise our ratings, no fights broke out among the highly civil managing partners around our roundtable at Teatro Goldoni.

Richard Alexander (second from left) has been Managing Partner at A&P since 2005—he was in the final days of his first term when he sat down with colleagues Maureen Dwyer, Managing Partner at Pillsbury, and Roger Warin, Chair of the Executive Committee at Steptoe.  The beloved bookends are Bisnow sponsors John Niehoff (Beers & Cutler), and Tom Doughty (Jones Lang LaSalle). 

Mark Bisnow:  So how do you distinguish your firms from others as you compete for lawyers?


We all try to differentiate ourselves, but you have a limited set of tools.  You see a convergence when you look at firm web sites and slogans, which you didn’t see five or ten years ago, which say that all law firms are committed to diversity and pro bono and public service.  Everyone says it’s been in their blood but the question is whether those really are part of the core values of the firm.  The bottom line is we are in a client-service business and clients demand hard work. We can’t get away from that.

Why is it you’ve got to stick to the top students at the top law schools?


At the top 20 schools—the ones everybody knows—in those classes you’re going to go to the top quarter, pretty easily to the top third

Is there really a material drop off in quality after that?


Probably not.  But we have inadequate tools to decide the lawyers that are going to be successful.  We revert to measures of class rank, law review membership, and G.P.A.  Those may tell you who the best students are, but not necessarily who the best lawyers are.  Management consultants will tell you that you’d be better off if you could do EQ tests and personality profiles.

And why can’t you?  Your candidates wouldn’t accept them?


No, they wouldn’t.  If I were a law student, I wouldn’t. 


It’s very hard to make a judgment, as Roger said, about whether a good student will be a good lawyer, just like it’s very hard to tell if someone who’s a good associate will be a good partner.  Firms are going to have to think more holistically.  I’m going to get in trouble with my colleagues, but I think there’s an elitism in law firms about where the talent is.  People go to schools outside the top tier for a variety of reasons—personal, family, financial reasons.  And those people have a much harder path to get in the door because we don’t reach out to them.  They have to send in cold resumes and we have to look at a resume and say, wow, this person looks really special

Tom: This isn’t unique to law firms.  With other professional services businesses, you only have blunt tools for picking talent.  A protégé of mine failed a sales aptitude test at another company—now he’s working on our team and hitting the ball out of the park.
John (right) has the secret for finding future stars.  He says an inordinate number of his partners were paper boys or girls when they were younger.  So find people who want to work hard. (Paper boys don’t seem to exist anymore, do they?  What’s today’s equivalent—a Starbucks barista?)

We do go to the second tier schools, at least the local ones.  We’ve found that the people who are often the brightest workers and stay with the firm come from the second-tier schools.  I’m one of those as well; I didn’t go to one of the top schools. 


I was just at a ceremony for Chuck Manatt.  He went to Iowa State and George Washington.  Then he became the founder of one of the great law firms in the country [Manatt, Phelps] and head of the Democratic Party, with a career that anyone would envy.  We would have probably missed Chuck Manatt if he had sent his resume to us as a second year.  Now, Arnold & Porter probably would have picked him up because they’re better at this than we are.

Richard: Oh, of course.

Do you really face the problem all over again when choosing partners among your associates?  Don’t you have better information at that point?


The associate job is different than the partner job.  I’ve seen every example you could imagine of the super-smart, “can’t miss” associate.  Not a single dissenting vote when they come up to partner, and five years later it’s not working out.  I’ve also seen marginal cases that end up as super stars. 


We’re changing the way we deal with associates.  In the past, associates weren’t really developing business.  You were just concentrating on doing excellent work and billing hours.  And then you became a partner and you were suddenly expected to have an entirely different relation to the client.  We’re expecting our associates in their fourth, fifth and sixth years to be doing more in terms of client relationships and business development.  So hopefully it will be easier to judge that person for partnership. 

Are you saying you are changing the associate role because of this issue? 


Yes, because I don’t think we can wait until that magic moment when you become a partner and then say overnight your job has changed.  We want to give them the skills beforehand so they feel comfortable.

Cardinal Bank
The Lansburgh
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