Saturday, March 19, 2011

Who will be a good lawyer?

Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck in 2008 completed a formidable study, "Final Report: Identification, Development, and Validation of Predictors for Successful Lawyering." It builds on earlier work (which I haven't yet read but which they summarize here, at 24-27), through which they developed -- from extensive interviewing of lawyers, judges, law professors and students, and a number of clients -- 26 elements of effective practice. Perhaps even more excitingly, they adopted some existing psychological tests, and developed other tests of their own, which turned out to correlate -- much better than standard law school admission tools such as the LSAT did -- with which lawyers actually were performing effectively (that is, displayed those 26 elements of effective practice)(see 53-61).

Shultz and Zedeck are surely right (79-80) that these findings make further research along the lines they developed well worth undertaking. But they would also, I'm sure, acknowledge that we have a long ways still to go towards the goal of identifying new admission tools that will actually predict lawyering effectiveness. A marker of that distance is that the various new measures they had devised were apparently less powerfully correlated with the lawyering effectiveness of current law students than they were with the effectiveness of those already out in practice. In some respects, the new tests evidently did better than tests like the LSAT in predicting student effectiveness (76), but when the authors ran statistical multiple regressions to assess the value of all the potential predictors they had employed, it turned out that the LSAT seemed to provide the clearest predictive value! (77)

It isn't easy to know what to make of these results. One possibility is that law school -- or at any rate Boalt (the University of California at Berkeley), whose students were the ones studied in this part of the work) -- is not a setting in which it's easy to develop and demonstrate lawyering competencies. Perhaps it is only after graduation, when former students' attention turns definitively to practice, that the qualities Shultz and Zedeck's tests may predict can actually come into view. Another possibility is that today's law students aren't the same sorts of people as yesterday's, and that the psychological factors that might have predicted high competence in yesterday's students -- that is, in the current lawyers for whom the new tests correlated well with effectiveness -- don't work with today's students.

At any rate, there is clearly more to study here. Such studies won't be simple, as the 59 Tables accompanying Shultz and Zedeck's Final Report attest. But it is surely worth trying to figure out better than we now can who the most promising potential lawyers are among each year's applicants, and it is also surely worth building on the empirical effort Shultz and Zedeck have made to explain what the actual skills of successful lawyering are.

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