Frank D'Amore
Frank D’Amore ()

The National Football League’s lengthy draft of entry players recently concluded. Watching a portion of it led me to wonder just how things might play out if law firms or other organizations that hire aspiring lawyers operated under a similar system. Just imagine, for a second, the president of the American Bar Association striding to a podium and declaring: “With the 14th selection in the third round, DLA Piper selects Courtney Johnson of Harvard Law School. Kirkland & Ellis is on the clock …”

This, of course, is unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever. Organizations, though, that still hire law school grads, essentially conduct drafts of their own as they compete against other firms for talent. While the NFL is a big business, the legal industry is a behemoth in its own right. Moreover, the consequences of what lawyers do, many might argue, has far more material impact in so many aspects of our lives as compared to whether a football player is successful in making a first down. Nevertheless, I believe that NFL teams know much more about the new players they draft than legal organizations do about the newly minted lawyers they hire, which seems to be the inverse of what it should be.

For example, in the NFL, extensive research is devoted to evaluating incoming players. Anyone of consequence—and even free agents—will have had coaches and scouts see them perform live in games, usually quite a few times. Massive amounts of game tapes are studied and the top players are relegated to intensive analysis at a Combine that scrutinizes everything from their time in the 40-yard dash to how flexible their hips may be. Personal interviews are typically conducted, along with outreach to coaches and others who know the players, to gain their insights, too.

There are few comparables in the legal field. Firms, for example, don’t have representatives attend moot court competitions and are not provided with films of how law students perform in a classroom with minutes left on the clock and crucial questions still unanswered in final exams. Professors are rarely interviewed to ascertain what a student was like throughout the year. While interviews, of course, are held, some on-campus meetings are similar to speed-dating sessions. Even interviews in the firm are not as in-depth as those held with teams, where a player may be asked to diagram how to react to a play. Could you imagine an interview of a law student that asked him, on the spot, to counter an argument on a specific issue in a pending case?

Some may say that the consequences are far greater for pro teams in signing an entry player; after all, the early selectees are paid millions of dollars for their first few years in the league. However, while even later draftees and free agents receive more than entry lawyers, is the effect of a bad hire less consequential for a law firm or other organization? One mistake—whether it results in malpractice or “just” a desultory effort that sours or endangers an important client relationship—can have a much bigger impact than a dropped pass by a rookie.

My thesis is that legal organizations could do a better job with entry-level hiring if they emulated some of the standard practices adopted by the NFL. In this regard, I am not suggesting, for instance, that third-year law students should be timed as to how quickly they can accurately Bluebook a cite; rather, being more comprehensive in the overall effort, and digging deeper in certain areas, as in the NFL, may pay some big dividends in the legal field. Although numerous factors come into play in hiring a new lawyer, several of the most significant ones will be examined in this article.

Pedigree, class rank and honors are three important criteria that are heavily weighed in the lawyer selection process. This makes eminent sense, as they are tangible indicia of intellect and the ability to achieve, both of which, if in place, augur well as to one’s future as a lawyer. The question, though, is whether they should be factored in so heavily, and assessed as mechanically as they are today.

In the NFL, similar factors are considered. For example, players from bellwether schools in power conferences, as with their legal equivalents, get special attention. History may have also demonstrated that certain types of players from some schools, such as a Penn State University linebacker, a University of Michigan lineman, or a University of Southern California running back, have had great success in the NFL and those types of performers may be drafted just a bit higher than their peers.

Where the NFL differs is that teams go much deeper in the schools it considers and do not rely so heavily on honors. As to the former, an NFL team, including those that are considered elite, do not just draft players with top pedigrees. Consider Jerry Rice, who toiled in relative obscurity for non-power Mississippi Valley State University, and later became one of the most prolific wide receivers in history in his Hall of Fame NFL career. Would the legal equivalent of a Rice, who shined at a fourth-tier law school, have any real chance of being hired out of school by one of the country’s top law firms?

A similar dynamic exists as to the latter point—rankings and honors. Tom Brady, who surely will be a Hall of Famer someday, was not an All-American and, in fact, rode the bench during his first two years at Michigan. This may have made him akin to an upper-half/top-third type of student, albeit in a highly regarded institution. This would normally place someone like him far back in the pack of aspiring law students, especially if he sought to be hired at a top law firm. The Patriots, who are among the NFL elite, saw something in Brady that led them to select him, albeit late in the draft, over other quarterbacks who had garnered the honors that eluded Brady. Would most of the top firms dig deep enough to assess and consider someone like Brady and thus bypass the easier analysis of relying more on class rank and honors?

The practice of law, as one partner characterized it, is a “long, hard slog.” As such, the propensity for working hard is as important in the legal industry as it is in the NFL. It is easy to see just how hard a football player works on game day. The NFL, though, goes deeper, and normally interviews coaches and a few teammates of the player to find out just how hard someone works, behind the scenes and on a daily basis.

It is not as easy to evaluate this in an aspiring lawyer, especially if one relies too much on a resume. While that document may provide clues, such as someone noting that he self-financed his education, there is no telltale sign here, as others, who may not have been employed in college or law school, may still prove to be indefatigable workers. It thus is important to probe in interviews on this point, by asking candidates about situations where they really had to bear down for long stretches of time and how heavily their job may be weighed in the work-life balance that many younger lawyers are trying more diligently to achieve.

Resilience is a characteristic that all successful lawyers I know share. The same holds true for football players, who continually are knocked down—literally and figuratively—and need to get back up. This is fairly easy for NFL executives to gauge in a game, but much more scrutiny is conducted through interviews of the player, and his former coaches and teammates, as to how the player may have overcome setbacks in life and on the field.

This is an even more challenging attribute for law firms or other legal organizations to ascertain, as nothing on a resume is likely to shed any light on the topic. Once again, interviews become the domain that can best gauge whether one can recover from setbacks. Asking someone to describe major defeats or significant disappointments, and how he responded, should help you determine what may happen when the lawyer inevitably has to bounce back as his career unfolds.

Finally, having the courage to take a risk—even if it is quailed to some extent—is as important to the NFL as it should be to a legal organization. A quarterback, for example, is going to have to step it up at times—and go long—rather than just throw dinks and dunks all day. NFL executives spend a lot of time and money trying to get a feel as to whether the quarterback has the temerity to do that.

In law, there similarly will be times when playing it safe will not be good enough—bold action will be required, whether it is in the courtroom, negotiating a deal, or pursuing business. A resume may be of little help on this point. Rather, ferreting this out in discussions with candidates, and searching for exemplars in his life, may be the best way to examine this.

In conclusion, if there is one takeaway, it is that law firms and other organizations should try to emulate the NFL in digging deeper as to a candidate’s experience and skills and not be afraid to cast their net wider in looking for talent. Interviews should likely be given much more weight and should be designed to determine how well someone has the traits that have defined those who have succeeded in that firm over time.

Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, http://www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at fdamore@attycareers.com.