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Character better predictor of lawyering success, panel says

May 17, 2017

Although Rebecca Love Kourlis sees more collaboration than in the past, she said the gap between the skills the legal profession needs in today’s market and the attorneys law schools are producing is not only widening but will be difficult for legal education to overcome.

Kourlis, retired Colorado Supreme Court justice and executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, was one of three panelists who participated in a discussion about legal education during the 7th Circuit Bar Association annual meeting and judicial conference April 30-May 2 in Indianapolis.

Joining in the panel discussion, “The Future of Law School,” were Randall Shepard, retired chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court; and William Henderson, Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor and co-founder of Lawyer Metrics.

The trio highlighted research that has been showing grade point averages and LSAT scores are not the best indicators for future success in the legal profession. Rather, students with character traits like a strong work ethic and emotional stability will be likelier to excel.

Speaking after the discussion, Kourlis said the unprecedented changes brought by the Great Recession may require different skills for working in a law firm or an in-house legal department, or taking a more entrepreneurial approach and helping to launch a legal services startup. While law schools are responding, catching up to current demands will be difficult and could lead to bad decisions.

“I worry when people say, ‘Well, the answer is to just shrink law schools,’” Kourlis said. “I don’t think the solution is fewer lawyers. I think the solution is more lawyers who are more adaptable and, perhaps, have less debt so that they’re not carrying around a ball and chain around their ankle.”

The IAALS’s Foundations for Practice survey found that personal characteristics such as integrity, resilience and common sense, along with professional competencies such as arriving on time and being able to work on a team, were the top skills lawyers needed right out of law school. The legal skills such as research and analysis were viewed as important but something that could be acquired over time.

Indiana law firms of all sizes most valued experience when hiring attorneys with 10 years or less in practice, according to the survey. Having worked in some type of legal employment, participating in a legal externship or holding a court clerkship were seen as more helpful in determining which candidates would succeed on the job. Law school attended, law review experience and extracurricular activities were considered less helpful.

A 2008 Law School Admission Council study, conducted by University of California Berkeley Law professor Marjorie Shultz and psychology professor Sheldon Zedeck, concluded the LSAT score does not predict who will become a better lawyer. Instead “effectiveness factors” such as creativity, writing clearly, identifying problems and appropriate solutions, and listening were determined to more reliably spot future success.

During the question-and-answer portion of the discussion, Senior Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, asked Henderson whether law schools are looking more at an applicant’s personal makeup when deciding whom to enroll.

Henderson cited the familiar refrain from law schools that they are constrained by the U.S. News & World Report rankings. This annual survey rates the quality of law schools, in part, by the average GPA and LSAT scores of the students. Flouting those criteria comes with the potential price, Henderson said, of sinking a school’s position on the rankings and raising consternation among the alumni.

Kourlis disagreed, saying blaming U.S. News was too easy. The profession, she said, can make changes that would incentivize law schools to produce a different kind of attorney and, possibly, make changes to the bar exam.

After the panel discussion, Henderson pointed out that law firms and legal departments that want to fill their offices with more effective people will have to learn to discount factors such as test scores and law school grades. As the Shultz-Zedeck study shows, traits such as motivation and the ability to personally grow and adapt are more important.•

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