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Law firms could learn a thing or two from the way public interest law organizations and government agencies hire new attorneys.

A new report on lawyer hiring, based on surveys of more than 24,000 attorneys, identifies a deep disconnect between the way most of the legal industry hires new attorneys and the qualities they say they value most highly — a gap the public interest sphere has largely managed to avoid.

Alli Gerkman, Director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers.

Public interest organizations, which generally look beyond Big Law hiring criteria such as class rank and law review participation, “don’t have the ability to make mistakes in hiring,” said Alli Gerkman, director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, an initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, which produced the report. “They’re small. They’re lean. Every single hire they make can have a positive or negative impact on the organization.”

Large firms have more resources, but they still face problems with hiring. A 2015 survey of law firm hiring partners by LexisNexis found that 95 percent said new associates lack key practical skills right out of law school. Meanwhile, law firm associates are a notoriously unhappy bunch, and more than a quarter of new associates leave within three years.

Rather than zero in on the prestige of the law school listed on a candidate’s resume, their class rank and participation on law review, public interest organizations and government agencies tend to assign more weight to the potential hire’s legal experience — whether theirs participation in law school clinics, externships, pre-law school job experience, and even pro bono legal work.

That approach generally yields hires who not only bring some practical skills to the job, but who also are a good culture fit and have a commitment to public interest work, said Guillermo Mayer, the president and CEO of Bay Area-nonprofit law firm Public Advocates.

Law school prestige, as well as class rank, “tells us nothing about your ability to succeed in our organization,” Mayer said. “We look at, ‘Did you take a clinic? Did you work for a public interest organization? Did you lead a campaign? What was your role?’”

Public Advocates seeks candidates with an enduring commitment to social justice, and extensively questions references to glean insight into applicants’ legal research and writing skills, as well as their ability to work in a team, speak in public, and interact with others.

Mayer serves on the advisory board for Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers’ Foundations for Practice, a multiyear, national research project on what the legal profession values most in attorneys and how employers can better hire the lawyers they actually want. The new report titled, “Hiring The Whole Lawyer: Experience Matters,” is the latest installment of that research.

An earlier phase of the study, released last summer, concluded that intelligence alone isn’t enough to make a good lawyer. Character — including integrity, resilience, work ethic and common sense — emerged as the most desirable qualities in new lawyers.

The rub, of course, is that job applicants’ character is much more difficult to discern from a resume than, say, whether they attended a highly ranked law school, Gerkman said.

“One of the things we heard over and over again from employers we brought in for roundtable interviews was, ‘We would like to find ways to hire that allows us to bring in the candidates who have this broader set of criteria,’” she said.

To figure out how to improve lawyer hiring, Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers surveyed attorneys on what criteria would be at the top of the list were they aiming to hire the well-rounded candidates identified in the first phase of the research as the ideal lawyer.

The survey results turn traditional law firm hiring on its head.

Respondents reported that all 17 of the potential hiring criteria were useful, but legal employment, recommendations from lawyers and judges, and legal externships were most often listed as either very helpful or somewhat helpful. Also near the top of the list were experiential education, life experience between college and law school, participation in a law school clinic, and federal court clerkships.

By contrast, class rank emerged 11th on the list of most helpful criteria, law school attended was 12th, and law review experience was second-to-last. Yet, most large law firms hire new associates through on-campus interviews at top law schools that are secured based on a candidate’s class rank.

Smaller firms aren’t doing much better in the hiring department, Gerkman said. “We saw that smaller firms tended to still hire in the same way as big firms. They just shift their factors down a bit,” she said. “Maybe they can’t get the top 5 percent of the class, so they look at the top 25 percent.”

Law firms that rethink how they hire new lawyers stand to gain a competitive advantage by bringing in lawyers with the qualities that lead the long-term success and who are likely to stick around, Gerkman added. She has been urging law firms to model their new associate hiring processes on the way they decide who makes partner — by examining that associate’s work product, teamwork and contribution to the firm.

The next step is to figure out how law students can communicate to employers that they have the attributes of a well-rounded lawyer, and how law firms can better pick up on those signals.

Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers is launching a pilot program at three law schools whereby employers who typically hire from those campuses will determine what attributes they want from new hires and how those attributes can be measured. The hope is that the pilot will lead to a new hiring metric that can be shared across employers and replace — or at least supplement — the traditional hiring criteria.

In the meantime, current law students should use the new survey findings to make better decisions about their law school careers and to think about how to sell themselves to employers, Gerkman said. In short, enrolling in a clinic is likely to look better to employers than loading up on extracurricular activities, which most survey respondents said wasn’t very useful in making hiring decisions.

“One of the things I’m most excited about with this is I think it empowers law students to direct their careers early on,” she said. “I think that students who take this information and really use it, and think about how to communicate it as they’re out on the job market, will find themselves having more success.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ

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