Law Practice Management

What Are Lawyer Success Traits? Study Can’t Account for Politics and Luck, Critic Says

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Will a new for-profit venture designed to identify the traits that make lawyers successful end up making law firms less diverse and more insular?

That’s the question raised by former Kirkland & Ellis partner Steven Harper. Writing for the Am Law Daily, Harper notes the new enterprise by Indiana University law professor Bill Henderson, who plans to help law firms collect and analyze their own data to aid decisions about hiring and promotion. As part of his research, Henderson will ask partners at large law firms to identify the values and traits they prefer in their lawyers.

But Harper sees some potential problems with the research. One issue: The statistics won’t reveal the internal politics driving decisions, or the luck that is involved in success.

“Most equity partners are talented, but equally deserving candidates fail to advance for reasons unrelated to their abilities,” Harper writes. “Rather, as the business model incentivizes senior partners to hoard billings that justify personal economic positions, those at the top wield power that makes or breaks young careers—and everybody knows it. Doing a superior job is important, but working for the ‘right’ people is outcome determinative.”

Luck is also a factor, he writes. “The most important things that happened to me—in work and in life—were fortuitous,” Harper says. “No statistical model could have predicted them.”

Another problem is that law firm partners prefer people who are like themselves. “That tendency inhibits diversity as typically measured—gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and the like—along with equally important diversity of views and a willingness to entertain them,” Harper says. “Even today, concerned insiders are reluctant to voice dissent from big law’s prevailing raison d’etre—maximizing short-term profits at the expense of competing professional values and longer-term institutional vitality. Won’t meaningful diversity—of backgrounds, life experiences, and resulting attitudes about professional mission—suffer as groupthink makes firms even more insular?”

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