Paul L. Caron

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Why ‘A’ Students Struggle In BigLaw

James Goodnow (Fennemore Craig, Phoenix), Why ‘A’ Students Struggle In Biglaw:

The skills that made you a great student are not enough to make you a great lawyer.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about a piece of advice I received back in my associate days. I was a freshly minted JD. Since I was a kid, I was always motivated to get that “A” in school, and doing so eventually helped me land my first law firm job. When I started practicing, I was confident those grades would translate into the success I could expect as a lawyer.

Then I heard an older partner musing aloud: “Ya know, if I was in charge of hiring, I’d only hire B students. ... Your students who get Cs, you don’t want to hire them. They’re not gonna hack it. But we go out and hire all these law school kids with straight As, and all they know how to do is research, write, and watch Star Wars. They’re going to work a million hours, give you all this great written product, but they’re not going to be out there hitting the bars every night drumming up business. It’s your B students who are in the sweet spot. Smart enough to do the work, but social enough to bring the work in.”

I’ve been mulling this partner’s concept since he uttered it over a decade ago, and I’m still not quite sure where on the spectrum between total nonsense to profound this theory lies. Early in my career, I convinced myself it was nonsense. The more I’ve practiced, however, the more I’ve come to believe that the partner may have been on to something. ...

I ... think this attorney was circling a more basic tension that law firms place on their associates and many young partners: the tension between being a great attorney and a great business developer. ...

Time is the fundamental currency of a law firm, and like all currencies, it can be invested, and it can be spent. The short-term economics of a legal practice strongly incentivize spending our time in a way that maximizes the revenue earned. If you want a big check, you need to send out some big bills.

But if a firm’s immediate prospects are determined by how much revenue it can generate from its existing client pool, its long-term prospects are determined by how much it can expand the pool altogether. If you want to be rich today, bill. If you want to be rich tomorrow, you need to hustle, network, and generally get your face in front of all those clients who just don’t know they’ve hired you yet.

It takes practice and repetition to learn how to connect with strangers, make the ask for new business, and treat the process with discipline and purpose. My personal goal has always been to spend at least 20 percent of my working hours actively trying to bring in new clients. That’s one workday a week that I’m committing to bringing in zero actual dollars, in the hope of bringing in far more down the road. ...

Law firms need to decide what they want their associates to be and communicate that expectation to everyone in the firm. It’s acceptable to expect your associates to bill 2,400 hours a year if you’re clear with them that billing is an associate’s only job, and business development is something they can pursue on their own time if they choose. It’s equally acceptable to expect a firm’s associates to be actively developing themselves and bringing in new business early, but doing that means understanding that the amount of hours those associates bill will (and should) go down in the process. Either way, the key is being transparent with associates so they can make informed decisions and not be surprised down the road.

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This same theory can be applied to law schools. Top students at a top 50 law school may be sociable enough to attract clients and smart enough to do the actual work. You can retain top students from Harvard, Yale, etc. and they are probably smart enough to do the work, but not to bring in clients.

Posted by: Chris P. | Jun 22, 2019 1:57:32 PM

Although the generalization to only hire “B” students is obviously too broad, it is true that firms do not have unlimited work to do. Once while serving on a legal education panel, I received a question about what courses should be added to a law school’s curriculum. As a veteran manager of a large law firm, I responded that a school should consider a course in sales and marketing. The audience laughed but I did not intend to be funny. One of the biggest misconceptions among law schools, law-firm associates and many law-firm partners is that you can just open the faucet when you need more work. The many partners who leave their firms every year to pursue “better opportunities” can attest to this misconception.

Posted by: Tom Sharbaugh | Jun 21, 2019 3:27:02 AM

The skills that made you a great student are not enough to make you a great lawyer. The same applies to engineers. Solving problems where the answer is in the back of the book does not prepare you for real world problems with many inputs and hard to define variables which may have many possible solutions- but judgement is required to select the best one.

Posted by: Glenn Beachy | Jun 20, 2019 5:49:13 PM

One of the most successful Aerospace program managers I worked with described the phenomena as "there are two types of program managers, trappers and skinners." He was a trapper in charge of getting aandd starting new programs.

Posted by: Ron | Jun 20, 2019 5:01:07 PM

I wouldn't draw much from a mere grade point. I'd look for the factors I saw when I worked with residents at a top children's hospital. Sharp A students could be quite good at medicine. There's no reason why they shouldn't. But good grades can be the result of two negative factors.

1. Studying so much they never developed the social skills that are also a part of medicine. This resembles what the quoted article meant about hitting the bars.

2. So smart in the academics that they fail to realize just how easy it is to botch the sheer mechanics of patient care. Failing in school teaches you that you can fail in life too.

And doctors who display those traits, especially the first, often have trouble attracting or retaining patients, much like lawyers with clients.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry | Jun 20, 2019 2:54:53 PM

I was told that there were three types of attorneys in a firm: finders, minders, and grinders. I'm an outstanding minder and grinder, but I'm not very good as a finder. A successful firm needs the right combination of the three.

Posted by: Christopher R Pastel | Jun 20, 2019 2:36:45 PM