Lawyers Work Better Using Their Natural Abilities

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By Lazar Emanuel
[Originally published in NYPRR November 2003]


Several articles I’ve read lately have commented on the need of individual lawyers for the guidance of a coach. One article was by Steven C. Bennett, a partner in the New York office of Jones Day and a member of the firm’s Training Committee (NYLJ, 9/26/03). The article was entitled “Be Your Own Coach.”

In reality, it’s very difficult for a lawyer to be his own coach. Most lawyers, especially lawyers in the first five years of practice, profit from the insight that can come only from a professional assessment and from professional counseling.

Lawyers come in all sizes and shapes. There’s no such thing as a unique lawyer personality or a unique lawyer mentality. People are motivated to study law for a broad variety of reasons — parental influence, personal values and interests, an impulse towards financial rewards and/or public recognition, a love of theatre and drama, a lack of immediate alternatives. One of the great deficiencies in our educational system is the lack of guidance for individual students at critical stages of their development. In general, high school and college students are left to make their own haphazard decisions about curriculum and career without any comprehensive insight into what they really should be studying and doing to achieve satisfaction and personal fulfillment.

As a result, most lawyers go through the entire process of earning their J.D. without ever asking the triumvirate of basic questions: What are my own innate abilities? What impact will they have on my life as a lawyer? How can I make the best use of my abilities in my work?

Fortunately, the practice of law offers many alternative applications of abilities. A litigator’s work demands abilities very different from those of a lawyer in mergers and acquisitions. The need is to discover the abilities that are most compelling in the individual lawyer and to build a successful and satisfying practice around those abilities.

Law firms invest thousands of dollars on every entry-level lawyer. But statistics show that much of this investment is lost or wasted. The rate of attrition among new lawyers within a single law firm in the first years after hire is staggering. A study completed by the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education shows that the following percentages of entry-level lawyers had left their law firms within the first 28 months: Class of 1998, 32.7%; Class of 1999, 22.8%; Class of 2000, 15.6%. The percentages were even higher for entry-level male lawyers as a group and for all lawyers in firms of less than 250 lawyers. Firms with 250–500 lawyers were not far behind. And the difference in firms of 500 or more lawyers was hardly significant. [See, Keeping the Keepers II: Mobility & Management of Associates, 2003.]

Logic and the incentive for greater economy and efficiency would dictate that the law firms spend as much money on finding ways to keep their young lawyers as on the process of hiring and finding them in the first place. But few law firms have in place a program for determining the innate abilities of their new lawyers and for educating and training them in the maximum use of these abilities. As part of their training programs, all law firms should turn to professionals who are skilled in assessing these abilities and in coaching each lawyer individually to use them.

A good assessment tool measures innate abilities by requiring the individual to perform objective work samples. A work sample is a specific task requiring a timed response to an external stimulus. Thus, for example, one work sample may measure the rate at which an individual produces new ideas in response to a new set of facts or a new hypothesis. A lawyer scoring high in this ability would be happy in trial work, which demands rapid adjustment to new and changing facts. A lawyer at the lower end of this measurement would be more comfortable in copyright or patent law.

The range of abilities tested by a good assessment test is very broad and instructive. We list some of the answers a good assessment test will provide. Remember, the answers represent the results of objective, hands-on, timed, work samples.

Learning About Your Abilities

Do you get energy from being and working with others? Are you uncomfortable when you’re forced to work alone? Are you able to work alone on one assignment for a long time without stress? How do you prefer to communicate your ideas — verbally, or in writing.

Can you move easily from assignment to assignment? Do you prefer to work on multiple assignments or to concentrate on one at a time? Do you work well in a team, or do you prefer to do your own work in your own way?

Do you prefer to work on files that can be “closed” within a few months (transactional law) or on matters that require a longer-term perspective (trial preparation)? Do you need short-term results or gratification or can you wait years for your rewards?

How easily and quickly do you find or “see” relationships among seemingly unrelated things or events? The answer may determine how well and quickly you can react to change and new challenges and whether you like to solve new problems and to “figure things out.” This ability, sometimes called “inductive reasoning,” is essential to a good lawyer. A lawyer must be able to analyze and correlate, or find the common link among, scattered facts, evidence and legal principles.

How well and easily do you organize ideas and concepts into their logical order and relationships? Can you see the likely consequence of a future chain of events? How good are you in organizing the tools you need in your work?

Are you drawn to study or understand mechanical systems, such as those used in engineering, computers or architecture? Can you learn and understand easily the principles used in astronomy, physics, statistics and higher mathematics?

Are you an abstract thinker? Are you more comfortable in work that deals with ideas and concepts or with products, machinery and tools? The law usually deals in abstractions and lawyers are most comfortable if they are high in abstract visualization.

How easily do you read maps and diagrams? How easily and quickly can you convert data and information into graphs and charts? Lawyers high in this ability may be happiest as tax lawyers or in estates and trusts.

How quickly and easily do you detect changes in your environment or visual field? How easily are you distracted by sudden change? How well can you “read” changes in facial expression or in body movement?

How easily do you learn and retain the material you read? How well do you “memorize?” What tools can you develop to help in memorizing new data?

How well do you remember numbers and miscellaneous data? How can you develop compensatory skills if this is not a strong ability?

How easily and quickly do you “process” new information? Do you enjoy “paper work?”

Can you adjust the speed at which you learn to achieve greater accuracy in your work?

How do you learn best? By reading? By listening to others? By listening to tapes? By using music and movement? A good assessment test will help to supply these answers.

Importance of Good Vocabulary

How good is your vocabulary? A strong vocabulary is a basic requirement for the successful practice of law. Statutes and decisions, the basic tools of law practice, contain subtleties in language that can be interpreted only by a lawyer who understands words and their nuances. A contract will survive challenge only if it expresses exactly what the parties intend. Researchers have found a strong correlation between the level of a person’s vocabulary and his success in life.

Fortunately, vocabulary is the one ability that can be most effectively expanded and extended. An initial assessment will tell the lawyer his vocabulary level and give him a target to shoot for. Over time, the lawyer can improve his vocabulary with a number of exercises and by being exposed to good reading. He may find that this is the best investment he can make in furthering his career.

But a good assessment test may be of little value unless it is administered and interpreted by a professional consultant through a process known as feedback. This is a process in which the consultant and the lawyer study the results of the assessment and the consultant then undertakes to explain the lawyer ‘s results on each work sample and to relate those results to the lawyer ‘s own work.

A good feedback is a give-and-take session lasting one or two hours. It can be given effectively either face-to-face or by telephone or video-conferencing. During the feedback, the consultant will put the assessment results in perspective and relate them to the other influences in the lawyer’s life.

These other influences can include the following:

• Personal traits such as unique speech patterns, social devices, body language, etc.;

• Personal interests (hobbies, sports, politics); family origin and history;

• Personal values (personal scales of good and evil, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical);

• Goals (money, status, rank within firm, judgeship, popular recognition);

• Career development stage (entry-level, associate, partner-track, partner, senior lawyer, consultant);

• Skills (capacities developed over time and through education and practice, for example, creative writing, specialized research, specialized knowledge, money management).

When combined, a good assessment test and a skillful feedback can represent the difference between a lawyer’s happiness and success on the one hand and a lawyer’s stress and dissatisfaction on the other — i.e., the difference between reaping the firm’s investment in a new hire and watching him drift away.

When we realize how readily available these tools are, it’s hard to understand why they are not more widely used.

Lazar Emanuel is the publisher of NYPRR. He is also CEO of The Highlands Company, publisher of the Highlands Ability Battery, a self- assessment test on CD.

DISCLAIMER: This article provides general coverage of its subject area and is presented to the reader for informational purposes only with the understanding that the laws governing legal ethics and professional responsibility are always changing. The information in this article is not a substitute for legal advice and may not be suitable in a particular situation. Consult your attorney for legal advice. New York Legal Ethics Reporter provides this article with the understanding that neither New York Legal Ethics Reporter LLC, nor Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, nor Hofstra University, nor their representatives, nor any of the authors are engaged herein in rendering legal advice. New York Legal Ethics Reporter LLC, Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, Hofstra University, their representatives, and the authors shall not be liable for any damages resulting from any error, inaccuracy, or omission.

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