In a word, Aaron was gawky. Not in a bad way. Just in a way that said ‘work in progress.’ A slim, be speckled, quiet and shy person, he didn’t make much of an impression in a room full of sharp elbowed, ivy league associates. My first impression, and the impression most of us had of him, was that he was a really nice guy. Probably smart as a whip too, but quiet and unassuming. Aaron had the promise of being a really fine ‘service partner’. But he would never be a rainmaker.
Or would he?
Law firms today struggle to identify the associates who have the potential to be big business generators. With strained resources and tightened partnership entrance requirements, firms are becoming more selective in their associate training investments. Often late in the associate's careers, senior associates with ‘promise’ are shuttled into training programs in the hopes that they can be taught to develop business. And, too often, that training doesn’t work.
One reason may be in how law firms define a ‘promising associate.’ The traditional view is that a lawyer’s promise as a potential rainmaker can be found in the quality of their work, their productivity, how well they work with others in the group, their firm citizenship and their client service abilities. All of these traits are critically important qualities of an exceptional lawyer. But they take time to assess and, frankly, they are lousy predictors of whether a lawyer will turn into a top business generator. The question becomes, ‘are there ways to predict business generation success early in a lawyer’s career’?
A better early warning system
The earlier firms can identify talent for business development, the more time they have to cultivate that talent. Business development skills take time to develop the same way lawyering skills take time to develop. Neither comes overnight. Firms need a better early warning system to identify attorneys with the characteristics and inherent abilities to generate work. Interestingly, we can look to professional sports for answers in how to do this.
For a long time, recruiters in professional sports evaluated draft picks based exclusively on their statistics- or, the athlete’s historic physical performance. Size, quickness, field goals, defensive play and similar measures were the best predictors of athletes capable of playing in the ‘big leagues’. But these characteristics weren't always the most accurate predictors. Some did well in college but failed in the Pro’s. Others were moderately good in college and became superstars in the Pro’s. There was another level of analysis that was needed. Frustrated with the hit and miss nature of their selections, some recruiters began to look beyond the physical qualities and more at the psychological qualities of the athletes. And what they found was that ‘heart’ was a much better predictor of an athlete’s success in the big leagues than was their physical characteristics.
The qualities that comprise an athlete’s ‘heart’ or grit are surprisingly applicable to the legal industry. In looking for those diamonds in the rough, there are several characteristics which can be observed in associates over a short period of time and early on in their career that are strong predictors of future success in business development and in the firm. These qualities are selflessness; desire to succeed; willingness to persevere; receptivity to being coached; and dedication to their practice.
Time and again, I’ve seen associates like Aaron grow into highly productive rainmakers not on the talent of their legal abilities (although that can’t be lacking) but on the magnetism of their personalities and the drive in their character. They have a reserved confidence and respectful determination that propels their success. They are very often not the best or brightest in their class but they almost always are the ones that work the hardest. They are optimistic and selfless givers and never seem to give up. You can see signs throughout their past of how they’ve overcome obstacles, persevered where others might not and reinvented themselves to accomplish their goals. They are inspiring individuals and people naturally gravitate toward them.
So, if you want an early warning system to find the top talent in your firm I suggest you look for good lawyers in your firm with grit, heart and perseverance. Look for the ones who are ‘Aarons.’ Those will be your future rainmakers.