Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Paralleling Law School Grades and Wonderlic Scores in hiring decisions by Law Firms and NFL Teams

Boston University law professor Jay Wexler has a terrific new essay for Salon titled "I made Clarence Thomas laugh". The essay explores Jay's experience as a clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg from 1998-99. It's informative and also funny:
It is true that Justice Ginsburg is short, maybe even quite short. But listening to people who haven’t met her talk about how short she is could lead you to believe that she is some sort of miniature person who could fit in your shirt pocket or the palm of your hand. In fact, she cannot fit in these tiny places.
One passage, in particular, caught my eye:
Almost all the justices hire four law clerks. Most of the clerks come from a handful of top law schools. People are always asking me, “How did you get that job?” I tell them that the one thing in the world I’m actually very good at is taking law school exams. Indeed, I can write an essay about a complicated set of totally made-up facts under extreme time pressure as well as just about anybody. It turns out that this ability has no relationship whatsoever to being a good lawyer, being a good law clerk, being generally smart, or anything else, but it did go a long way to getting me my job at the Court.
I don't believe a relationship between law school grades (which, especially in the case of first year courses, are usually determined only by a final exam) and success as an attorney has ever been proven. Perhaps that's because that kind of relationship may be impossible to show empirically. It also begs the qualitative question of what "success" means - is it only about making money or is it also about respect from peers or advancement of social justice? Is it simply, what will people remember about your career when your career is over? Others, like Above the Law's David Lat, have explored this topic, but there's no conclusion to be found. There's a folksy expression that I've heard, something along the lines of "the A student becomes a professor, the B student becomes a judge and the C student becomes the wealthy lawyer", but that doesn't seem quite right either.

Still, as Jay notes, success on a law school exam seems unrelated to how one works as a lawyer (or as a judge, law maker, law enforcer, regulator, clerk, professor, lobbyist or one of the many other jobs pursuable with a law degree). You get two or three hours to respond to a completely made-up fact pattern, sometimes without access to a book or notes (because lawyers never get to use books or notes, right?). This kind of exam probably is helpful practice for taking the bar exam, but it does not seem related to work as an attorney.

This reminds me of the Wonderlic Test for the NFL draft. I've written about the Wonderlic before. Like students taking a law school exam, Wonderlic test-takers have to respond to made-up questions in a high-pressured, limited time setting:
The Wonderlic is a twelve-minute, fifty-question exam designed to assess aptitude for learning a job and adapting to solve problems. Although it is administered to prospective employees in a wide range of occupations, it is most famously employed in the NFL, with prospective NFL players strongly urged to take it before partaking in the NFL draft. The exam is thought to measure how well prospective NFL players will comprehend playbooks, react to different schemes and onfield developments, and navigate through the pressures of stardom and celebrity, among other considerations that may affect the quality of their employment. The Wonderlic is also commonly perceived as a proxy for an IQ test.
50 questions must be answered in 12 minutes, meaning the test-taker is allotted about 14 seconds per question.
Many have written about what appears to be a lack of relationship between Wonderlic score and success as an NFL player (others, like Jason Chung, have looked at distributing prejudices associated with the test). Still, the test is used by teams in evaluating players. The media also finds it interesting to learn of a player's score, especially a terrible score. Scores are supposed to be kept confidential, but terrible scores seem to get leaked and players with those scores publicly ridiculed as a result. At least law students with bad grades don't get written about in the press.

There's probably something to be said for the idea that decision-makers crave numbers when selecting one person over another. A law firm hiring partner can cite grades as justification to hire one law student over another, and an NFL general manager can use a player's Wonderlic score (along with various other measurements) to justify drafting one player over another. But that doesn't make the decision-making process more accurate or more predictive than other types of processes. And maybe both law firms and NFL teams can learn something from that.