MIRED IN METRICS? HAVE SOME MORE!

Once a bad situation spins out of control, is there any way to corral it? When all else fails, try making things worse.

The ABA recently released its report detailing just a few of the ways that U.S. News law school rankings have been counterproductive for prospective lawyers and the profession — from driving up the costs of legal education to driving down the importance of diversity.  (http://www.abanet.org/legaled/nosearch/Council2010/OpenSession2010/F.USNewsFinal%20Report.pdf)

As U.S.News now develops law firm rankings, the report concludes with an ominous warning:

“Once a single rankings system comes to dominate a particular field, it is very difficuly to displace, difficult to change and dangerous to underestimate the importance of its methodology to any school or firm that operates in the field. This, we believe, is the most important lesson from the law school experience for those law firms who may be ranked by U.S. News in the future.”

In other words, rankings sometimes function as any so-called definitive metric: They displace reasoned judgment. Independent thought becomes unnecessary because the methodology behind the metric dictates decision-makers’ actions.

Since 1985, many big firms have become living examples of the phenomenon. That year, The American Lawyer published its first-ever Am Law 50 list of the nation’s largest firms. Most firm leaders now teach to the Am Law test, annually seeking to maximize revenues and average profits per equity partner. The resulting culture of billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios begins to explain why surveys report that large firm lawyers lead the profession in career dissatisfaction.(http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/pulse_of_the_legal_profession/print/) Without a metric for it, attorney well-being — and the factors contributing to it — drop out of the equation.

Courtesy of U.S. News, large firms now stand on the threshhold of more metrics. Will they make working environments of firms that have succcumbed to the profits-per-partner criterion worse?

It depends, but more of yet another bad thing — rankings — could produce something good — forcing individuals to sift through contradictory data, think for themselves, and make a real decision. But that can happen only if U.S. News produces a list of “best law firms” that bears little resemblance to the rank ordering of the Am Law 100 in average equity partner profits. Such contradictory data would confuse newly minted attorneys and force them to develop their own criteria for decision.

The American Lawyer itself provides a useful example of the possibilities. Eight years ago, it began publishing the Am Law “A-List,” which has gained limited traction as a moderating influence on the Am Law average profits-per-equity-partner metric that otherwise dominates decision-making at most big firms. The A-List’s additional considerations bear on the quality of a young lawyer’s life — associate satisfaction, diversity, and pro bono activities. The myopic focus on short-term dollars still dominates decisions in most big firms, but the A-List has joined the conversation.

What methodology will U.S. News employ in evaluating law firms? If it follows the approach of its law school ranking counterparts, many firms will game the system, just as some law schools have. (See my earlier article, “THE U.S. NEWS RANKINGS ARE OUT!” (https://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/the-us-news-rankings-are-out/)) But misguided and manipulatable metrics aren’t inevitable.

Talent is essential for any successful firm, large or small. Other qualities — collegiality, mentoring, community, high morale accompanying a shared sense of professional purpose — make a workplace special. Can the U.S. News find ways to measure those qualities?

That’s the challenge. But I fear that students won’t bother focusing on the U.S. News methodology or its flaws. More likely, whatever rankings emerge from the process will provide — as they have for so many deliberating the choice of a law school — an easy final answer.

Ceding such control over life’s direction to others is rarely a good idea. There is no substitute for personal  involvement in deciding the things that matter most. That means asking recruiters tough questions, scrutinizing the lives of a firm’s senior associates and partners, and finding role models who are living a life that a new attorney envisions for her- or himself.

In the end, the current large firm business model and its self-imposed associate/partner leverage ratios will continue to render success — defined as promotion to equity partnership — an elusive dream for most who seek it. For those who become dissatisfied with their jobs, time passes slowly. So everyone joining a big firm — even a person intending to remain only for the years required to repay student loans — has ample incentive to get that first big decision after law school correct.

So why would intelligent young attorneys let U.S. News’ self-proclaimed experts make it with something as silly as a ranking? Probably for the same reasons that they relied on U.S. News to make their law school decisions for them three years earlier.

Someday, maybe there will be a U.S. News formula for choosing a spouse. Then won’t life be simple?

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