The innate talents of lawyers, their acquired talents, and their organizational capabilities – an overview

I admire Boris Groysberg’s book, Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance (Princeton Univ. 2010). He exhaustively studied equity research analysts who were top-ranked by Institutional Investor. The first chapter condenses a huge amount of research on innate performance drivers and acquired performance drivers, and his book adds one..

On the side of what people seem born with, the pre-eminent one is general intelligence, sometimes called “g” by psychologists (See my post of Jan. 6, 2009: high g’s are healthier.). He also points out emotional intelligence – an array of attributes including self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation and empathy (See my post of Sept. 20, 2010: lawyers and their brains.). He includes deep motivational structures such as those studied by David McClelland), including the need for achievement and for socialized power. Also deeply internal to people, part of their innate makeup, are personality and temperamental attributes such as energy, persistence, and a low anxiety threshold. For law departments, hiring decisions seem quite sensitive to these factors as they pore over resumes, schools attended, and higher degrees.

Genetic inheritance, however, is not destiny. Others who study professional excellence focus on acquired skills. The most fertile discipline that espouses this view is human capital theory (See my post of Aug. 14, 2009: human capital with 10 references.). Adherents to this view see education, experience, and skills acquired lead to higher productivity. Continuing legal education, HIPO programs, lunch-and-learns, and other efforts by law departments build human capital and past work experience embodies it.

Groysberg’s primary theme, however, adds to innate and acquired abilities. The addition is organizational support, and it is too often overlooked, to the detriment both of new employees and their employers. When companies hire outstanding lawyers from firms or other departments, they need to recognize that the people, structures, systems and cultures that surrounded the star contributed mightily to their success. Law departments probably scant this dimension of ability.

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