Law Firms Could Learn A Lot From The NFL Draft 2016-12-17T14:00:31+00:00

 

Mark Levin
Mark Levin

Law360, New York — Although many write off the spectacle of the NFL draft as little more than hype and an attempt to re-engage fans during the off season, organizations that rely on human talent as business capital should pay close attention, as there are significant hiring lessons to learn from the NFL.

The NFL draft is the culmination of months of research and often years of watching top player prospects, all in the hopes of making the right decision on draft day and assembling the right athletes for a shot at a championship season.

Law firm management, does this sound familiar to you? You also spend years vetting talent (months at a time with summer associates and less formally with lateral hires), but at the end of the day, many of your decisions end up feeling like more of a leap of faith than science.

Would you like to improve your odds at building your own championship team?

I’ve been to the NFL combine for three years now and have watched position coaches sweat every detail of every on-field drill. Medical tests last hours and the constant drone of the MRI trailers in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium eventually just blends in with the rest of the buzz of the event.

But for all of the hype, it’s quiet in the stadium. You will never see more talent on the field with fewer people in the stands than at the NFL combine. It’s an oddly jarring sight. No place in the stadium is actually crowded during the event, except for the east side club level lounge that serves as headquarters for all player and coach press conferences.

The scene at the Crowne Plaza and Indianapolis’ Union Station is quite the opposite. The Crowne Plaza houses all of the athletes at the combine and is also the venue for formal team interviews. Informal interviews take place across the street in the Main Hall at Union Station, and across a small hallway from the ornate Main Hall and through a set of somewhat plain glass doors lies a complex of rooms that serves as a temporary home for all of the companies and professionals that provide psychological evaluations and psychometric assessments for various NFL teams.

Over the course of five long days in February, my company, The Right Profile, administers a psychometric assessment to nearly every player that will be considered in the NFL draft. Although I have only been at the combine for the past three years, one of my business partners, Dr. Robert Troutwine, has been part of this process for nearly 30 years. Teams also get reports from the league-sponsored “player assessment test,” which is provided to all teams at no charge, but depending on the athlete and his college career, a team may seek opinions from multiple independent psychologists.

Knowledge is power in the draft, and when you are investing millions of dollars in an athlete, you want to be sure that your investment has a good chance of paying off someday.

For all of the hype of the televised on-field workout portions of the combine, arguably the most important parts of the talent assessment, the player interviews, happen far away from the cameras. Informal interviews allow teams to talk with players for 15 minutes in a somewhat unstructured environment where interviewers may discuss family, a player’s college experience and any off-field issues. The rest of the interview focuses more on offensive and defensive schemes as coaches attempt to “put the player on the board” and understand how he might fit in with the rest of the team. Performance numbers get crunched and hundreds of hours of film get boiled down to minutes, which are then reviewed with prospects in formal evening interviews. Coaches and staff get an even better feel for a player here, dissecting film to discuss the most minute details — what was the play call, what were the player’s responsibilities and, if there was a mistake, what happened. Answers speak volumes — not only for one’s understanding of the game, but also for the attitude of the athlete and his responsibility for what went right or wrong.

And then there’s our part in the evaluation — The Right Profile uses a proprietary assessment called the Troutwine Athletic Profile (TAP). The TAP takes roughly 25 minutes, and an athlete’s responses to its 95 questions helps form a profile that predicts whether the prospect can take his game to the next level, including the ability of the player to fit in with the organization. Our clients receive a report in which the prospect is given a final grade along with a descriptive summary of various findings along several key dimensions relevant to success in sports. From there, we use our database of nearly 20,000 past pro player assessments and some sophisticated analytics to arrive at projecting a prospect’s chances for success in the NFL. The amazing thing about our reports is that a preliminary report for each assessed athlete is available to our clients immediately. So, although Dr. Troutwine will add a human component and detailed analysis to every report during the three weeks following the combine, all of the player issues that we find through the TAP and our computer-graded score is available to our clients to help guide some of the discussions in the interviews that same evening.

So, now that you understand a little bit more about how NFL teams draft players, why does any of this matter to law firms? The answer is simple: Few organizations use less discipline, structure and intelligence in their hiring process than law firms.

Although roughly 80 percent of the Fortune 500 and 89 percent of the Fortune 100 companies use psychometric assessments in their hiring process, law firms are loath to modernize their ways. Less than 5 percent of the largest 250 firms in the country currently use assessments during the hiring process, and none uses instruments that are purpose-built for the legal profession. Even structured interviews — following a script of sorts and understanding how an attorney might fit within a firm and its culture in the same way that position coaches use their informal interviews to talk Xs and Os and “put a player on the board” — take place at just a handful of firms nationwide.

You may say that the extra diligence used by NFL teams is necessary because of the high price of talent in the draft, but the high price drops quickly after the first few rounds. And, although a seventh round draft pick will probably make significantly more than a first-year associate at a large law firm, an experienced lateral attorney with a strong book of business may command more than some of those later round draft picks.

The importance of talent at law firms cannot be overstated. It is the “supply” of what is “sold” to meet client demands. A firm’s talent is synonymous with the quality and capabilities of a firm. Firms are not selling a product or service that can be produced by a fungible group of people. High law firm turnover (caused in large part by hiring decisions based upon little more than the law school attended, grades in school, a short unstructured interview process and, in the case of lateral attorneys, an uncorroborated book of business) coupled with high recruiting and replacement costs create a staggering annual cost of more than $25 million for a 400-attorney firm. Expand that out a bit and it costs the legal industry roughly $9.1 billion annually for the turnover that it produces in just the 400 largest firms in the United States. To put that in perspective, that turnover cost for those 400 firms is more than double the annual salaries of all NFL players combined.

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So, how can law firms start hiring better, create a stronger culture and better develop their attorneys? Here are four initial steps:

1. Understand Your Firm Culture

Every law firm thinks that it is unique and yet almost every firm describes its culture similarly as some amalgam of the following: “A culture of teamwork and collaboration, a devotion to personalized client service and finding legal solutions to a client’s real-world issues, and attorneys all sharing core values of hard work, innovation and creativity.” But platitudes aside, what does the firm value in its culture and what does that look like? Is time in the office more important than overall productivity? Does the company value hierarchy or prefer a flatter approach? Does a big book of business forgive a lack of corporate citizenship? There is no “right” answer to these questions, and all firms fall somewhere between the poles. The key thing is to assess where the firm currently stands so that you can either hire for that culture or work to change it (e.g. growing a preference for teamwork).

2. Assess Prospects and Use That Information in Your Interviews

Like the NFL, a psychometric assessment is a great start. It is, however, just a start. A structure needs to be in place to allow information from the assessment to help shape the interview. For example, if an assessment shows that your prospective hire is a strong self-starter who prefers autonomy and doesn’t take input well, you may want to discuss work habits and preferences in the interview before hiring that attorney for a position in the firm’s highly collaborative M&A team.

3. Hire for Fit

Our NFL and MLB clients use our reports to help predict success based upon a metric that we call a “champions rating.” Although it is only one piece of data in the evaluation, it allows a team to view how well the current prospect might do based upon how players with similar mindsets have performed historically.

4. Develop Talent Based on Their Skills and Abilities

Coaches recognize that no two players are exactly alike, so different techniques and drills are used to help each player reach his optimal performance. Compare that to a law firm where all fifth-year associates may receive the same business development training that is only applicable to a small portion of the group, offered too late to help others and completely counterproductive for far too many. Assessments can help recognize which attorneys will excel in which roles within a firm or client team.

No organization is ever going to be completely error-free in its hiring, even with incredible amounts of process, diligence, understanding of the intangibles required to excel in a certain job role and information to assess those intangibles. The legal industry has a long way to go though, and the firms that start hiring and developing their talent better than their competitors will quickly see their investments pay big dividends. How big? NFL teams that were early adopters of psychometric assessments saw a ratio of more than 50 percent higher than the rest of the league in the 10 seasons from 2000 to 2009 (a .700 record versus a .431 record) and had roughly three times as many playoff appearances. That’s huge.

So, what would a few more wins do for your business?

—By Mark Levin, The Right Profile LLC

Mark Levin is a co-founder of The Right Profile and a former chief business development officer for two midsize Chicago law firms, where he had an up-close view of the attorney hiring and development process. The Right Profile works with NFL, MLB and collegiate athletic programs to help them better evaluate, coach and develop athletes. The company recently started working with law firms across the country to help them with similar goals — including evaluation of potential hires, development of attorneys and building teams to win more business. Levin may be reached by email at levin@therightprofile.com.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] Assessing Lawyer Traits and Finding a Fit for Success, a white paper published by The Right Profile in conjunction with JD Match