Tea Reading or Testing—What’s the Best Way to Hire?

Dr. Larry Richard

By Dr. Larry Richard

This post was originally published at the Legal Executive Institute website, a ThomsonReuters site, on July 29, 2015:

Amidst the head-spinning change and the increased competition that all law firms face today, there is an increased emphasis on—some say a frenzy to—hire the best people. The cost of making a hiring mistake is growing, and the consequences of doing so take effect even sooner than before.

Many law firms are re-examining their approach to talent acquisition, seeking more efficient, accurate and successful methods.

One topic that always comes up, but raises great anxiety in most lawyers, is the use of psychological testing as a pre-employment selection tool. There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about this topic, and in this post, I’d like to clear things up and explain why testing should be a part of your hiring strategy.

First, let me address a bias I have. I like testing. I do a lot of it. So naturally I would advocate for its use. But the truth is, the very reason that I use testing so extensively is because 20-plus years ago, when I was investigating the best way to reliably hire lawyers who were a good “fit” with the firm (I’ll explain “fit” in more detail below), I looked at the scientific literature and became convinced that testing, when done properly, is one of the most effective tools out there.

I’m both a lawyer and a psychologist, and the lawyer in me was quite skeptical that any test could tell me something useful. After all, I pride myself on being an astute observer of people, as I’m sure you do—how could a test add anything at all? Plus, what if a candidate “gamed” the test? And wouldn’t testing scare away risk-averse lawyers? But the psychologist in me was curious, and inclined to trust the science.

In the end, it was no contest. I became convinced that a sophisticated test can add valuable information that can be obtained in no other way, and, more important, that information could reduce the risk of making a hiring mistake.

So why should you use testing? To understand this, it will first help to understand a bit about the principles of successful hiring. When you hire a lawyer, you should be interested in more than just academic credentials. We all want the smartest, analytically skilled lawyers for our firms, with great credentials in a particular practice specialty. But smarts and experience alone are not enough to lead to success. In today’s complex environment, lawyers play many new roles beyond just practicing law. That means that new skills are required that we didn’t used to worry about, and this, in turn, means that we have to be much more sophisticated in our hiring practices.

Personality testing provides an enormous advantage here. Personality is one of the broadest and most reliable predictors of a person’s typical style of behaving, and their ultimate performance. Personality traits are stable over time. Everyone has a unique trait “fingerprint”.

The real question here is not whether a candidate has the “best” personality—there really is no such thing. Rather, the question you should be asking is whether the candidate’ personality is a good or bad “fit” with the firm, or with the practice group, or with a particular partner that the candidate will be working with. The idea of “fit” is simple but powerful. The research convincingly shows that the more congruent the fit, the more successful the individual and the longer the tenure of the individual. (It also is correlated with higher job satisfaction.)

Think of testing as a supplement to a series of good interviews. The interviews give you a subjective impression of a candidate. Testing can then give you three important types of objective feedback about fit:

  • Confirm—Suppose all your interviewers agreed that the candidate “seems like a nice person”, and you happen to be looking for lawyers that will fit in with your strong culture of collegiality. Suppose further that you test the candidate, and you learn that the candidate scores very high on a trait called “Sociability”. This basically explains why the interviewers came away with the impression that the candidate is nice—people with high scores on Sociability like connecting with other people, and are often perceived as “nicer” than those with low scores. (by the way, lawyers in general score much lower than the general public average for this trait, so if you find a high-scoring lawyer, it’s a rarity.) Thus, the test helps to “confirm” what the interviewers observed, and gives you a more concrete, scientific basis that underlies the more impressionistic data from the interviews.
  • Clarify—Suppose one interviewer concludes that the candidate seems very cautious, e., reluctant to disclose a lot until the candidate has as much information as possible. Let’s say that a second interviewer describes the candidate as someone who enjoys taking risks. Seems contradictory, no? And yet, this is not an uncommon situation. People are complex. Personality is not linear. Many individuals—including many lawyers—score high on a trait called “Cautiousness” but also score high on a trait called “Risk-Taking”. The first trait explains why someone plays their cards close to their chest; the second trait explains why a person likes variety, novelty and stimulation. This might play out in the world of real behavior as a person who buys junk bonds but reads the prospectus carefully; or, the person who buys a Volvo and always wears a seat belt, but drives it fast. These kinds of paradoxes that show up in seemingly conflicting candidate interviews can often be very satisfactorily reconciled once you see the candidate’s personality test scores. Personality is idiosyncratic, and does not follow rules of logic.
  • Uncover—Tests are also excellent at uncovering qualities that normally don’t show up in an interview. Take “procrastination”. This quality can be quite damaging in a law practice. However, you will rarely learn anything in a job interview that would tip you off that the candidate tends to procrastinate. But a good test can identify trait patterns that raise the potential for procrastination as an issue.

If you don’t like a candidate, a test is not going to change your mind. But if you do like a candidate, you would be well served to add to your subjective impressions the objectivity that a test can provide. No candidate is ever a perfect fit with a firm or a practice. But testing helps you to reduce the risk of making a hiring mistake, and it improves the odds in your favor.

Tests should never be used in a binary way—in other words, you should never make a hiring decision solely on the strength of a test, because personality only explains about one-third of the factors leading to a person’s behavior. But one-third is a large chunk—nothing else has that kind of predictive power. So tests help you chip away at uncertainty, but they always should be used in conjunction with interviews, references, writing samples, problem-solving exercises, or other screening mechanisms.

In the end, talent is the lifeblood of a successful law firm. And testing is one of the best, most scientific ways to find and retain the best talent. It’s time to think about following the success strategy that most of your clients already use.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

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