Putting lawyers on trial

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S PROFESSIONS have traditionally dealt with the growing numbers of young people keen to join their ranks by raising the academic standards that applicants must meet to be considered.

But, just as medical schools are discovering that this might ensure that their halls are filling with near geniuses who struggle to develop a compassionate bedside manner, so accountants and lawyers are learning that academic excellence does not necessarily make effective practitioners. Moreover, larger firms of solicitors, like the international accountancy practices, are becoming conscious of the high cost of losing recruits.

Law firms have traditionally been seen as resistant to the idea of moving away from one-to-one interviews and towards more scientific approaches to recruitment. But Oxford Psychologists Press believes it has come up with a tool that will be of assistance to those determined to make their recruitment process more effective and efficient.

The company already has a series of "structured learning exercises", marketed under the name ABLE, devoted to selecting graduates for sales and manufacturing careers, human resources (HR) specialists, accountants and call-centre staff. It was challenged to come up with something suitable for lawyers by an occupational psychologist who saw a demand among the many law firms with which she worked.

Legal Interpretation, to be launched at the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) annual conference in Harrogate this week, works by asking candidates to assess whether a company's health and safety code complies with the law. Developed by Steve Blinkhorn and Charles Johnson, who are responsible for the ABLE series and have carried out a thorough job analysis of a lawyer's work, it assesses the ability to understand regulatory concepts and documentation and to seek information, logical reasoning, mental agility, decision making and verbal reasoning.

It tests would-be recruits' ability to integrate such skills, says Russell Harper, the company's sales and business development manager. A key aim is to spot those who "can learn and use skills rather than just recite parrot-fashion". This is a response to the feeling that courses attended by lawyers - and other professionals - tend to concentrate on cramming information.

The establishment within the IPD of a group dedicated to HR specialists working in law firms is proof of the profession's need to get the best out of its people. Mr Harper is confident that firms will be attracted to the notion that psychometric tests are a way of making selection fairer and more predictive.

But he points out that the test is suitable not only for organisations looking to hire lawyers. The test is designed for any job that requires an aptitude for understanding complex legal documentation and regulations, such as the civil service, accountancy, advising on insurance claims and anyone involved with contracts and employment legislation.

While using the test requires training in this area of human resources, firms are likely to be attracted to the idea that it is efficient - being priced at about pounds 4.50 a candidate and taking about 40 minutes to administer.

OPP claims it can be applied to assess the potential of students seeking summer placements before beginning legal studies as well as graduates, but warns that it is not suitable for assessing the abilities of already experienced lawyers.

Not that they are entirely safe. The increasing trend for accountancy firms to make the partnership selection process more objective has led to a rise in the use of psychometric tests at this stage - and, as with most other things, it is reckoned inevitable that lawyers will follow.

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