Study Finds Link Between Law Firm Profitability and Managing Partners with Powerful Faces

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John Montgomery

Managing partners from America’s top 100 law firms were unsuspecting participants in a new study that found a correlation between leaders with powerful-looking faces and law firm profitability.

Power in the managing partners’ faces predicted profit margin and overall profitability of the law firms, while there was no link between warm faces and profitability. The results are detailed in an article (PDF) published in Social Psychological and Personality Science and summarized in a press release.

Law firm leaders who were among those rated most strongly for their powerful-looking faces were Kenneth Doran of Gibson Dunn, Robert Sheehan of Skadden (who now oversees the firm’s pro bono work), and John Montgomery of Ropes & Gray.

“Appearance matters a great deal when it comes to judging people,” the press release says. According to previous studies, “Senate candidates whose faces were judged more competent than their opponents won three-quarters of their races, and the more powerful the faces of CEOs of Fortune 1,000 companies looked, the more profits that their companies earned.”

Kenneth Doran

The data in the latest study could suggest that society expects people who look a certain way to be good leaders, according to one of the researchers, assistant psychology professor Nicholas Rule of the University of Toronto. Perhaps people who look powerful are given more opportunities to develop their leadership abilities, Rule tells the ABA Journal.

Rule has long been interested in facial characteristics. He has found, for example, that people looking at photos can tell better than chance whether a person is gay or straight, a Democrat or a Republican, and a Mormon or a non-Mormon.

To conduct the new study, Rule and Tufts University professor Nalini Ambady set out to download the photos of managing partners at America’s top 100 law firms in 2007. They were able to obtain 92 photos. Then they searched for the MP’s college yearbooks and found 73 undergraduate photos.

Study volunteers rated the photos for dominance and facial maturity (combined in a “power composite”) and likeability and trustworthiness (combined in a “warmth composite”). Half the volunteers rated the current photos and half the college photos; the ratings on the college photos strongly correlated with the current ones.

The researchers compared the facial ratings to law firm profits, while controlling for variables such as the number of lawyers in the firm and the managing partners’ years of experience. Researchers found that powerful faces were significantly correlated with law firm profitability, accounting for about 9 percent of the variance in profits.

Robert Sheehan

Skadden’s Sheehan tells the ABA Journal he’s “a bit amused” by the study. “Inherently there doesn’t seem to be a likely significance in the correlation,” he said. “But who knows, I didn’t do the study. And if they did a hundred more studies, then maybe it would be established. From one study, it’s tough to draw a conclusion.”

Sheehan was surprised that others rated his face as having powerful characteristics, since he doesn’t think people in his firm perceived his look that way. “When I was negotiating, sure I tried to affect such a visage,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s my natural look in most circumstances.”

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