What should we look for when recruiting "aspiring lawyers"?
In promised course of discussing the McKenzie Friend Marketplace on this blog, I suggested to Lucy that a major influence behind the mushrooming of legal experience within and around the law school curriculum was as follows:
“It’s firms and chambers who look for ‘commitment’ and experience that drive this problem as much, if not more than law schools. So, as I know you can do very well, please have a word with your bretheren on that front.”
Lucy seemed to concede that it might indeed be part of the problem but said this:
“I confess I’m unsure what they could do in practice to stop this, they have to select somehow – I’m open to suggestions and would be happy to host a guest post from you on that topic?”
And because Lucy is an engaged, considerate and – in the least po-faced way- serious commentator on the legal ecosystem; and because I love the sound of my own voice, I said yes. So here I am.
I did a little research in preparation too. A twitter poll, no less. 200 odd responses which told us, in a not at all unbiased, self-selecting, but nevertheless interesting way that when asked whether recruiting trainees or pupils, lawyers like them to have legal experience because...
- 35% helps show commitment (you can go and sit on the naughty step)
- 26% helps show skills (you can go and argue with me on the cost benefit or discrimination steps)
- 9% other (see me, below) and
- 30% said it is not important (on the whole, you can go out and enjoy the spring sunshine).
The commitment idea is a resilient idea which I will try and kill dead, but you won’t let it die. Commitment, in particular longstanding commitment of the, “I have always wanted to be David Pannick Lucy Reed", kind as I have argued, in It’s the Thick Ones that say they want to be Barristers from Day One can be a bad thing. Phil Shiner was committed, for instance (see here for Roger Smith’s eloquent invocation of what the psychs call moral licensing) but more importantly for current purposes, the Sutton Trust have found that:
“those students who had been uncertain or had no career in mind at the start of their course had actually performed significantly better than those who had been absolutely or fairly certain about a job or career.”
Doubt may be wiser than faith, especially when it comes to premature career choices. So in so far as you are looking for commitment, or its cousin, passion, I urge a good deal of circumspection in even thinking it important. Several of those saying ‘other’ in the survey spoke of passion. Wanting all your recruits to be passionate may be a bit delusional; it may be an attempt at mirroring, looking for candidates to flatter your own view of yourself; and there is significant risk that it will be highly misleading. If you have ever talked off the record to students about training contract or pupillage interviews you will know that passion is one of the concepts that they know they must practice synthesising. They make it up. It is a game. They are quite a few who are gambling in the Casino of bullshit. Sorry folks, but that’s the long and short of it. I can see some legal jobs where passion may be an important differentiator, but not that many. And having work experience is very rarely going to indicate passion. Certainly, I would say, it is insufficient for it to become a requirement.
The second claim is that experience is important because it helps shows skills. As the McKenzie Friend debate that led to me writing this blog shows, it is not just experience, but the quality of that experience, the supervision and feedback on that experience, and what has been learnt as a result that is what is important about experience in this sense. Most of us are sentient and intelligent enough to learn something from unmediated experience; so even unmediated experience probably adds a bit to most people’s skill sets, but I doubt that a few weeks, even a few months, here and there, are likely to be what differentiates the simply good recruit from the excellent one. If we are looking to differentiate on a CV trawl or at interview – getting someone to tell you what they have learnt from legal experience is not going to get you very far, I surmise. Longer periods of proper work may be different. If you want or need candidates to come with more solid, practice or context ready knowledge and skills then there is a case for a much more sustained level of experience. And several of the tweets I got mentioned the importance of experience in other contexts. Law students, being young, and so often having just come straight through the educational system can be a bit lacking in knowledge of the rest of real world but again a few weeks experience here and there is not going to magically transform the young into the commercially savvy, common-sense laden streetwise brilliance of our average barrister or solicitor.
So in general as a marker of better skills or aptitudes, I am pretty sceptical that looking backwards at work experience is going to tell you much. So far then, I am unpersuaded that the costs (to the students and increasingly to law schools in organising, and chambers and firms in hosting etc etc) is worth it. Very little differentiation for a lot of effort. It may help students choose a broad practice direction (though again how well experience apes the reality of practice is moot). In fact, well-structured clinical experiences might be much better at that, along with the educational benefits they can bring. And firms that use vacation placements as a form of extended assessment are different again, I think, but even they often require work experience as a condition of getting on.
My broader concern relates to experience often being elided with definitions of ‘talent' . Talent is often marked out by, “drive, resilience, strong communication skills and above all confidence and ‘polish'”. These words come from research done for the Social Mobility and Child Pveroty Commission on work experience in elite firms by Ashley et al. Such concepts, they say, “can be mapped on to middle-class status and socialisation.” Perhaps work-experience if a form of social elocution lesson; the majority of would-be employers use it and it does not require too much hard thought about whether it really works or not. The herd mentality in recruitment is strong. Alternative approaches to selection may feel, “expensive, difficult and high risk”. The big problem with this approach is that it is much easier for some people to get work experience than others:
applicants from less privileged backgrounds may find themselves in a catch-22 where a lack of social networks make it more difficult for them to acquire the relevant work experience that makes their application to vacation schemes stand-out, and helps to provide evidence for skills such as teamwork and leadership. They may also be less aware than their peers that it is important to secure work experience and/or internships even during their first year, because they lack the relevant advice from family and students from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds may continue to enjoy advantages here as nepotism continues to operate and firms do still offer work experience unpaid. Individuals who gain work experience in this manner still have to go through the formal selection process and assessors at some firms say that they are careful to question applicants about precisely how they obtained work experience. Nevertheless, some students are undoubtedly assisted in this manner.
Experience as a CV filter is particularly problematic in this regard but even in interviews, where there is the opportunity to contextualise the experience, it is very hard not to read too much signal into the noise of someone’s past.
So, although I doubt I can persuade many, it may very well be better not to focus on experience at all. Lucy wondered what could be done in the alternative. I suppose I would say recruiters should concentrate more directly on what really counts. Don’t focus on proxies that are easier for people with connections. I saw this advice recently on the Farnam Street blog which hails from Daniel Kahneman’s recommendations for fixing your hiring process:
If you are serious about hiring the best possible person for the job, this is what you should do. First, select a few traits that are prerequisites for success in this position (technical proficiency, engaging personality, reliability, and so on). Don't overdo it — six dimensions is a good number. The traits you choose should be as independent as possible from each other, and you should feel that you can assess them reliably by asking a few factual questions. Next, make a list of questions for each trait and think about how you will score it, say on a 1-5 scale. You should have an idea of what you will call “very weak” or “very strong.”
Now ask yourself if ‘having experience’ is really in your six questions, and follow the rest of the advice in that blog if you dare. Or think about strengths based interviewing rather than the explicitly or implicitly competence based approach of looking for legal experience:
Competency based questions like these assess people in the past, not the now or the future. They tell you nothing about someone’s potential to do a good job other than their ability to find a good example in the moment.