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Using Measures of “Critical Thinking” to Select Lawyers: Not such a good idea

Posted in Selection

I belong to a listserv on Positive Psychology, the new discipline that studies the principles that help ordinary people to thrive (instead of focusing on how to “fix” people who have problems.) Someone on the listserv posed the following question to me (I’m paraphrasing here): Can the Watson Glaser (a test that measures “critical thinking”) be useful in screening lawyers during selection. Here is my response to him:

The Watson Glaser is a very useful tool, but it won’t be that helpful in recruiting lawyers because of a statistical barrier, i.e., restriction of range. By the time someone becomes a lawyer, they have already been screened several times for IQ, analytical and reasoning ability, etc. So the pool of job candidates almost all have capabilities on the higher end of this constellation of abilities. The Watson Glaser, or any test of its type for that matter, is most effective when measuring individuals drawn from a population with lots of variability, i.e., dispersion of scores across the whole bell curve. Such a test will do a very good job discriminating between someone who could not handle the analytical load imposed by legal training and someone who can. But it will do a much less effective job in making fine distinctions between two lawyers.

Moreover, in my experience, the kinds of critical thinking skills measured by the Watson Glaser are entry-level skills, i.e., the “ante to get into the game”. The kinds of skills that differentiate top performing lawyers from average performing lawyers are the same kinds of differentiators that you find in most other industries–emotional intelligence skills, the ability to synthesize ideas, adaptability, open-mindedness, sociability, and cognitive empathy.

My research shows that lawyers as a group don’t naturally come by many of these traits. Lawyers are skeptical and exhibit a disproportionately high degree of negative thinking, which is fine in their lawyer role but an impediment in the other roles that they are called upon to play these days (mentor, supervisor, manager, leader, rainmaker, etc.) They are very low in Sociability, low in Interpersonal Sensitivity, low in Resilience, high in Urgency, and very autonomous. These traits help them be effective as lawyers. But once again, many of these traits interfere with their effectiveness in the other newer roles that they need to play. In the law firm of the future, law firms will need to look for individuals who have the ability to “think like lawyers” when appropriate, and to then adapt and “think like managers” (or like any of the other roles I’ve mentioned.) The most important two traits in developing this capacity, in my opinion, are adaptability and empathy. Both of these are capable of being assessed by some of the better personality instruments available today such as the Caliper Profile, the Hogan, etc.

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

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