Benefits to Law Firms of Assessing Their Lawyers’ Abilities

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By Kathleen Brady
[Originally published in NYPRR April 2011]


In last month’s column (NYPRR March 2011), I focused on the importance of self-assessment for every lawyer in the management of his or her career. Law firms can benefit even more by investing in group programs that begin with a self-assessment test for every lawyer in the group and include a meeting with a career counselor trained to interpret the results. These programs are especially helpful among entry-level lawyers fresh out of law school. How else can a law firm know what gifts and talents a new lawyer brings with him? An organized program built around a self-assessment test will tell a firm not only what each lawyer knows and can do, but also how each lawyer processes information, solves problems, makes decisions, and communicates with others.

Organized assessments of lawyer talents are often dismissed as an indulgent luxury, especially in tough economic times. But this is precisely the time for law firms to maximize their human resources to ensure that their objectives are achieved. Armed with knowledge of their lawyers’ abilities, the firm will be better equipped to assign work, build effective teams, improve communications, perfect client services, and enhance productivity and income.

In my work with lawyers, law firms, and students in law school, I have used many assessments of personality, interests and abilities. I have found that the Highlands Ability Battery is the most comprehensive assessment tool available to assist law firms in their search for talent. The Battery is different from other assessments. First of all, it results in a 40-page individual Report especially designed to elicit and interpret test results for lawyers.

The Battery requires the performance of a variety of functions online. Each function measures the speed and performance of the test-taker. Based on the perception that people are born with natural abilities that can be measured at maturity, the Ability Battery assesses innate abilities as they are being performed. Using 19 individual work samples timed to measure the speed and ease with which a person is able to do a particular series of tasks, the Battery provides data that tells us whether a lawyer prefers to:

• Focus on facts and data or on people and their emotions;

• Solve problems logically, intuitively or experientially;

• Make decisions analytically or deductively;

• Work in a structured or unstructured environment.

It also sheds light on a lawyer’s talents for leadership and for client development. Law firms can use this information in a variety of ways: to develop professional development programs and in-house CLE programs; to counsel junior associates in the selection of appropriate career paths; to help midlevel lawyers become effective mentors and managers; and to assist new partners in building strong skills in the development of clients and in their knowledge of the law.

I speak of strong skills. There is an important distinction between skills and abilities. A true ability is manifested when a particular function is performed by a lawyer easily, quickly, and effortlessly; it shows how the lawyer is “hardwired.” That’s why the 19 work samples on the Battery are timed. Skills, on the other hand, are developed through training, practice, and experience. Sometimes a skill is the extension of a natural ability; sometimes it is built upon an interest that demands recognition. Knowing the natural abilities of the members of a team assigned to a particular matter can help the law firm to point them towards tasks and roles which utilize their best talents and to steer them away from tasks that would be difficult for them. Many lawyers do acquire and employ skills that play against their natural abilities, and even become quite skilled at using them. Yet they are never completely satisfied. Similarly, when lawyers don’t have an opportunity to use their natural abilities in their work, they can become frustrated and unhappy. These are the lawyers who move on. Law firms waste valuable time and resources trying to manage or train these lawyers, all to the detriment of lawyer retention and the bottom line.

The Ability Battery Is Divided into Five Sections:

Personal Style (Generalist-Specialist, Introvert-Extrovert, and Time Frame Orientation). These are the work samples which determine what work environment is most comfortable for a lawyer. Most lawyers test as Specialists and Extroverts. As Specialists, they want to focus on a particular area of practice and become expert in that area. As Extroverts, they want to be a part of the action, to interact with others, and to work in teams. A law firm that knows how its lawyers are divided can only profit from the knowledge.

The Driving Abilities (Classification, Concept Organization, Idea Productivity, Spatial Relations Theory and Spatial Relations Visualization). The Driving Abilities were given their name because they have enormous influence on a lawyer’s performance. If they are not permitted expression, the lawyer can feel frustrated and disappointed in his work. The Driving Abilities determine how a lawyer analyzes and solves important problems; how many constructive ideas he can offer his team; and whether he thinks in the abstract or concretely.

The Learning Channels (Design Memory, Verbal Memory, Tonal Memory, Rhythm Memory and Number Memory). These tell us how a lawyer uses his senses to study and learn — especially whether a lawyer learns best from written material or from listening to lectures and class participation. They also tell us whether a lawyer is able to learn from graphics, from body movements, or from numbers. They provide insight into how attorneys take in and process information most effectively.

The other Specialized Abilities (Pitch Discrimination, Observation, and Visual Speed and Accuracy). These work samples measure discrimination in music and the other senses, the ability to perceive changes in a visual field, and the speed and accuracy with which a lawyer processes a series of numbers.

Vocabulary Level. Although it is not truly a natural ability, the Battery measures a lawyer’s vocabulary level because it is critical to her work. Most lawyers fall into the highest vocabulary levels.

Consider the impact of personal style in a law firm environment. Many lawyers test as specialists. Specialists have a unique way of interpreting common experiences and tend to impose their own standards on others. They succeed by means of their own skills or knowledge and prefer independent and individual tasks; they are happiest when they can develop in-depth knowledge and expertise in a specialized practice area. Generalists, on the other hand, share a common way of looking at the world and can sense how most others react and feel at work. They enjoy performing a variety of tasks and developing a broad knowledge base. They prefer solving problems within a group and tend to focus on the overall goals of the group in a way specialists do not. A deal team comprised entirely of specialists can face significant challenges without a generalist to remind the team of its objectives.

Introverts and Extroverts thrive in different practice areas. Introverts are quiet and reflective. They like time to process information before announcing their thoughts. They turn naturally to more stable work environments. For this reason, they are better suited to a Tax or Trust & Estates practice than to M&A. Extroverts, on the other hand, get their energy from external events and other people, so they generally like a faster-paced environment. They tend to think “out loud” and enjoy lots of interaction, as well as variety in their tasks. An Extrovert forced to sit in a library alone all day would be unhappy (and ultimately unsuccessful) just as an introvert forced to interact with others all day would be unhappy. Of course, some people fall in the middle of the Introvert-Extrovert scale and find they need a workplace that provides a combination of activities.

Knowing where associates fall on these scales will enable the firm to manage and motivate associates with minimal effort. It will be instrumental in making the right practice assignments, assembling work teams and building mentoring relationships.

Understanding the impact of the Driving Abilities is critical to building an effective work environment. The two Driving Abilities related to problem-solving are Classification and Concept organization.

Classification measures the ability to see relevant relationships among seemingly unrelated events, situations or data. It is the intuitive response to incoming data. The lawyer with high Classification loves to solve problems and enjoys change and challenge. The challenge for a lawyer with high Classification is that she may be overwhelmed by too many details and become impatient with others who are more methodical and better organized.

Concept Organization is the ability to organize ideas, information or facts in their logical, linear order. It is the ability to see how all of the pieces of a project fit together to make a coherent whole. A high score in Concept Organization suggests an aptitude for any planning activity as well as for communicating ideas to other people. High-Concept Organization lawyers are process oriented.

A firm with a lawyer who measures high in Classification would do well to assign him to partner with or be mentored by a lawyer with high Concept organization.

A low score in Concept Organization suggests a lawyer who is action-oriented. He does not wait to see every step in processing a matter before taking action. If a lawyer must act quickly and decisively, the kind of logical planning that is the central trait of Concept Organization is actually counterproductive because it may delay action.

Lawyers who score low in both Classification and Concept organization can solve problems by referring to their backlog of experiences. The challenge for these lawyers is to put their experiences into perspective and to recognize that people with different experiences may come to different conclusions.

A law firm which can identify lawyers with different approaches to problem-solving and which understands the value and limitations in each approach, will be more effective in staffing its teams, whether in client-building, expanding a practice specialty, or in litigation.

It is often said that self-knowledge is the most reliable path to career success. The Highlands Ability Battery can be offered to individual lawyers for their own professional growth. The results will help them (1) to focus on the practice areas for which they are best suited; (2) to increase their effectiveness as supervisors or team managers and (3) to develop business in ways that are most comfortable to them.

It can also be offered to entry-level lawyers and to lawyers in practice groups to build more effective teams and to provide management with insights on how to train and motivate their lawyers most effectively. Law firms that understand their lawyers’ abilities will undoubtedly have the edge in today’s competitive marketplace.

Kathleen Brady is Principal of Brady & Associates Career Planners LLC, a career planning and professional development training company for the legal profession and Kanarek & Brady, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in career transition services for lawyers. She is a certified provider of the Highlands Ability Battery.

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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