A couple of unrelated events brought the same message to me last week: employers take into account a person's character. First, our law school hosted last week a Summit of Legal Employers in our region. An expert in the evolution of the legal marketplace, Bill Henderson, from Indiana Mauer School of Law, moderated the Summit. In the process the question came up several times what legal employers want from graduating law students. Along items I expected to hear--such as students who are more practice ready and technologically savvy--I heard more consistently a comparatively old fashioned trait. Employers want lawyers who will be professionals. By professional, they mean not just folks that will show up on time, but rather lawyers who have a sense of the right and wrong ways to treat people and who display professional values such as honesty and respect in dealings with clients, judges, and lawyers. Interestingly, employer interviews offer an insight into the significance of character. Following are some of the questions that employers ask: One was: "If you have made two commitments and have a conflict where you will have to honor one and bow out of the other, how do you handle that?' Another question: "What are your priorities?" By such keen questions, the employers gather information on candidates and assess whether the answers are genuine or simply say what the applicant thinks the firm wants to hear. Regardless of their effectiveness, the reality that firms pay close attention to a candidates' integrity was encouraging. Sometimes I sense that those of us in the profession get the impression that all firms care about is productivity, i.e. money. And that apparently is not true. Of course, a person's integrity will affect the employer's long-term interests. A lawyer who is ethical and has a solid sense of who he or she is and what is important in life will, in the long run, be (a) less likely to cause problems for that firm with inappropriate behavior, sanctions, etc., and (b) will likely be more productive. In short, I think we sometimes do not give employers enough credit for realizing the factors that affect success.
The unrelated "event" was a call from a former student, Andrew, who graduated several years ago. was now doing very well in an Indiana law firm, and wanted to bounce a question off of me. The call was before the Summit, so I'm confident it wasn't influenced by anything I refer to above. Andrew told me the story of when he was hired. There were seven candidates, some from top tier schools, all at the top of their class. He got the offer. Afterward, the senior partner told him later that the deciding factor was that the firm decided that Andrew was clearly the most ethical of the group. Now, I wish I could say of all students I've taught that they matched Andrew's ethical compass. Andrew, however, had a degree in philosophy and throughout law school showed maturity beyond his years. I have seen other law students as clear about their boundaries and how to conduct themselves as Andrew, but I often use him (and them) more as models to which I urge students to emulate. Why? First, because I believe that a student like Andrew will find more fulfillment in law practice, be less vulnerable to the dysfunction that accompanies bad choices, etc. Second, because it's nice to be able to point to real people who are the age of law students who are doing the right thing and succeeding.
So, does one's ethical compass--and character--count. Clearly. How is it measured? Well, employers said they could tell after a period of observing someone--that "you know it when you see it." I guess the message to law students is that doing the right thing, and paying attention to their choices, is worthwhile. If one has done the work to develop integrity, it shows. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Who you are speaks so loudly I can't hear what you're saying."