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by Vault Law Editors | October 26, 2010


Yesterday, the ABA Journal reported on a study that found a correlation between law firm profitability and managing partners with “powerful” faces. Professors from the University of Toronto and Tufts University asked undergraduates to rate photos of AmLaw 100 managing partners for qualities including dominance, maturity, attractiveness, likeability and trustworthiness. According to the press release, “Power in the managing partners’ faces predicted profit margin and overall profitability of the law firms,” whereas “human warmth in the face—likeability and trustworthiness—was uncorrelated with law firm profits.”

(Note that these high-powered faces might be attached to some overweight bodies, since for men—who still represent the majority of BigLaw managing partners—a certain amount of extra bulk apparently adds gravitas. For women, on the other hand, perceived excess poundage seriously undermines their earning potential.)

If a powerful appearance and confident attitude are factors in reaching the top of the law firm ladder, they are also criteria for success as one ascends the lower rungs. The good news for weak-chinned, wishy-washy lawyers is that, notwithstanding your natural inclinations, you might be able to “fake it ‘til you make it.” At the TechnoLawyer Blog, Marin Feldman offers some advice for associates on “how to dodge the ‘of counsel’ bullet (and make partner).” “Biglaw partners are a very specific breed,” she observes. “If you’re an associate with great technical skills but no ‘it’ factor, you’re doomed to become of counsel, or worse—be asked to leave.” Feldman outlines five ways otherwise bookwormy associates can “gain the ‘it’ factor.”

First, cultivate your partner personality. Firms want partners who are socially savvy, self-aware and confident. They look for well-dressed, well-kempt people who can get the job done for clients and take them to a dinner after. It shouldn’t be so hard to upgrade one’s wardrobe, but lack of interpersonal skills is a bit harder to redress. On the other hand, I’m not so sure social savvy is in fact a prerequisite to partnership. Let’s see a show of hands—how many associates out there work for socially awkward, insecure partners? As a respondent to this year’s Law Firm Associate Survey noted, “Some partners are great and some partners are antisocial egomaniacs,” and, as for routine social interactions, “some won’t look at you in the hallway.”

Second, get an important client to back you. Once you’ve finessed your partner personality, it’s time to start buttering up your firm’s key clients. The value of this step seems pretty self-evident, as do that of the next two. Bring in business: lots of it. Future partners are shameless salespeople who win new clients based on the strength of their personalities. And, perhaps most important, build your reputation in the firm. That’s because associates who eventually become partner wage public relations campaigns and work hard to raise their profiles within the firm.

In contrast to the self-promoting, glad-handing associate with partner potential, says Feldman, “future of counsel hide in their office and work on the matters assigned to them. They find networking oily and uncomfortable and think they prove themselves on the strength of their work.” Fat chance. Adds Feldman, “No associate was ever plucked from obscurity and made partner.”

The sad truth is that high-quality work alone isn’t likely to get you far in this world. You need also to be visible, to promote yourself, and to cultivate relationships with clients and people of power within the firm. Brilliant but disheveled, awkward geeks might launch their own multibillion-dollar enterprises, but they’re unlikely to work their way up the ranks to lead a billion-dollar law firm. According to Feldman, even the “serious, detail-oriented lawyer” whose only obvious flaws seem to be an “awkward phone demeanor” and occasional bad breath is doomed to of-counsel-dom.

Nevertheless, other evidence suggests that a number of socially inept, sour-breathing nerds still manage to slip past the sharp-eyed review committees. Witness this Roll on Friday of the recent Financial Times ceremony in London, where partners pounce on the booze and “swarm in desperate circles around the handful of pretty women”:

The room gets louder and more boisterous, as partners with high-functioning aspergers and personal hygiene issues decide that they might be in with a chance with the pretty woman from their PR team who’s babysitting them.

But perhaps these “innovative lawyers” are just the exceptions that prove the rule.


Would this guy have ever made partner?
Mark Zuckerberg
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

- posted by vera


Filed Under: Law