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Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Test?
By Ross Guberman –
Here’s a single-question pop quiz:
How do you feel when you hear the words “Writing Test”?
A) “Sign me up!”
B) “I’d rather have a root canal.”
C) “It depends on whether I’m the one taking the test.”
D) None of the above.
In theory, PD conferences brim with buzz about bridging the gap between law school and practice, providing objective feedback, and tying advancement to measurable competencies. If you wanted to knock off all three goals in one fell swoop, a valid and reliable skills test would seem like a dream come true.
In practice, though, the idea of forcing either candidates or lawyers to take a skills test makes many people squirm. And not just because it conjures up memories of the SAT, or, for some of us, the dreaded 600-yard run-walk test in gym class.
These hesitations are natural. But for both recruiting and professional development purposes, the many benefits of a fair skills test should still carry the day. Let me make a four-part case for why:
1. A good skills test can help associates develop the skills they need to meet prescribed competencies.
At many law firms, for example, to get to “Level II” or its equivalent, associates are expected to “write error-free documents.” That competency is neither helpful nor specific. First of all, very few partners, let alone associates, draft documents that are truly “error free.” And even more important, whether you’re talking about a stock purchase agreement or a letter to a touchy client, thousands of types of “errors” are possible, and different patterns of errors reflect very different skill gaps.
To help associates, you need more than just “Be Error-Free” on your competency models. My own writing assessment, for example, can predict the patterns of errors that associates will make in real life. Although there’s rarely a quick fix, at least the results can point the attorney to the most important skill gaps to fill.
2. A good skills test is often more objective—and blunter—than are partners’ in-the-moment impressions.
Most of the midlevel and senior associates sent to me for writing coaching have never been told the truth about their writing. By the time I interact with them, it’s often too late. How much time and money could the firm have saved, I often wonder, if the attorney’s problems had been nipped in the bud years before?
By the same token, although associates often rightly complain that partners have their own biases, it’s pretty hard to argue with a third-party assessment that’s been validated on thousands of attorneys.
3. A good skills test can help solve one of the great mysteries of law-firm life: Why do some attorneys do so much better than other attorneys with comparable credentials?
When I started developing my writing assessment, I was very excited about my initial pool of questions. Over time, though, I found that some of my questions just didn’t work statistically. Partners didn’t get the answers right more than associates, or high-rated associates didn’t get the answer right more than lower-rated ones. For many other questions, by contrast, I found dramatic differences between these groups.
By parsing the data and finessing the assessment, I’ve not just made a better test but learned a lot about what truly distinguishes star performers on the skills front.
4. On the recruiting side, a good skills test can identify candidates who seem great on paper but will have problems in practice. And it can identify candidates who didn’t go to the “right” schools or didn’t get the “right” grades but who would nevertheless add a lot of value if they were given the chance.
People love to talk about the gap between law-school performance and true legal ability, but in truth, hiring hasn’t changed much. If anything, many of my clients are more school-focused and grade-focused than ever.
Sure, I’m all for identifying Harvard grads who are going to run into trouble, but I really love the idea of spotting a “diamond in the rough” who perhaps didn’t ace the LSAT or her torts exam but who could still knock the socks off many associates at the most elite firms. Adding a skills test to the classic school-ranking-and-GPA mix would be a good step down that road.
So for those of you picked answer “A” above, the “Sign me up!” response, you pass the pop quiz with flying colors! Tests don’t create attorneys’ weaknesses. At the very least, tests merely identify problems. And at their best, they can even help solve them.
Ross Guberman is the president of Legal Writing Pro LLC, a training and consulting firm. From Alaska and Hawaii to Paris and Hong Kong, he has conducted more than a thousand programs on three continents for prominent law firms, federal judges, and dozens of agencies and associations.
Ross is also a Professorial Lecturer in Law at the George Washington University Law School, where he teaches a seminar on drafting and writing strategy.
Ross holds degrees from Yale, the Sorbonne, and the University of Chicago Law School.
Ross is the author of Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates, an Amazon bestseller that reviewers have praised as a “tour de force,” “a must for the library of veteran litigators,” and “an indispensable tool” filled with “practical, trenchant advice.” The first edition has sold 30,000 copies, and the book was nominated for Scribes Book Award for the best legal book of 2011. Ross’s next books arePoint Taken: How to Write Like the World’s Greatest Judges and a guide to the world’s best contract-drafting tips.
An active member of the bar, Ross is also a former professional musician, translator, and award-winning journalist. After the federal takeover of Fannie Mae, Slate magazine called his 2002 article about the company “totally brilliant and prescient.” In her bestseller Reckless Endangerment, New York Times business columnist Gretchen Morgenson wrote that “the article was groundbreaking and made even the most jaded Washingtonian take note.”
Ross has commented on business, law, writing, training, and lawyer development for newspapers, radio stations, and television networks. He has also addressed several major international conferences, including the American Society of Training and Development, NALP’s Annual Education Conference, the Professional Development Consortium, the Professional Development Institute, and the Association for Continuing Legal Education.
The American Society for Training & Development has awarded Ross its Certified Professional in Learning and Performance™ credential for passing a rigorous eight-part test and for creating a standardized writing assessment that he has since administered to more than a thousand lawyers.
A Minnesota native, Ross lives with his wife and two children outside Washington, DC. Family travel has taken them everywhere from Australia to Zambia.