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A law firm’s financial success & the managing partners’ face

Wednesday, December 4, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

Financial-SuccessHmmm. Here’s research that says the appearance of managing partners’ faces at America’s 100 top law firms is tied to firm “profit margin, profitability index, and profits per equity partner”. You may want to look at managing partners’ faces before making a decision about that job offer!

We’ve written about first impressions before but this one is a little surprising. Apparently, to predict how successful someone’s firm is (or will be), all you have to do is briefly examine their face. These researchers call it “the look of leadership” and say that “look” may be innate, acquired [through repetitive facial expressions that become permanent], or some combination of the two. Researchers had “naive undergraduates” (an amusing oxymoron) rate faces for both power-related traits (e.g., competence, dominance, and facial maturity) and warmth-related traits (e.g., likability and trustworthiness).

Participants (36 in all, 11 males and 25 females) looked at headshot photographs of Managing Partners from each of the firms in the American Lawyer’s top 100 firms for 2007. The photographs were cropped so they displayed faces only and no clothes were visible. After cropping, all photos were converted to gray scale and standardized in size. Information on financial success of the firm was taken from the AmLaw 100 listing for 2007.

Five traits were being assessed (competence, dominance, facial maturity, likability, trustworthiness) and so each participant saw each face five separate times and rated the face for a single trait at a time. Each trait was rated on a 7-point scale (ranging from 1 “Not at all” to 7 “Very Much”). The researchers hypothesized the power-related traits would be related to firm financial success and warmth-related traits would not.

You likely have surmised their hypotheses were supported. They were.

The research participants ratings of managing partners’ faces assigned more “power” to the faces of managing partners at more financially successful firms. Managing partners who “looked” powerful, were at more financially successful firms.

But, ratings of warmth (i.e., likability and trustworthiness) had no relationship to law firm financial success. Managing partners who looked “warm” were at both successful and unsuccessful firms but there was no relationship between a “warm” managing partner and how successful financially the law firm was.

So, is it that managing partners with powerful faces lead firms to financial success or that financially successful firms hire managing partners with powerful faces? It’s one of those chicken and the egg questions but if you are looking for a job, it’s a question that really doesn’t matter to you. [Although you probably do want to take into consideration the small sample size–just 36 rater-participants–in this study!]

The headshots used in the experiment were downloaded from firm websites and so would be readily accessible to anyone. You may think your own assessment of the “power traits” in someone’s face could be in error, but we hear our mock jurors make surprisingly accurate inferences over and over about witnesses and parties based on a few minutes of videotaped deposition excerpts. If you don’t want to rely only on your own assessment, ask a few friends, family members, colleagues, or head to a college campus and look for some “naive undergraduates”.

The inference is, of course, that if you want financial stability and success, you do not choose someone who looks likable and trustworthy (at least, based on this research). And that those rule-outs of the likable and trustworthy (looking) managing partner will probably have implications for the “feel” of the work environment you choose, so make sure you do not choose “power” and then resent the fact there is little “warmth” directed at you.

Rule, NO, & Ambady, N. (2011). Face and fortune: Inferences of personality from managing partners’ faces predict their law firms’ financial success. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 690-696 DOI: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2011.05.009

For the fourth year in a row we have been honored with recognition from the ABA via inclusion in their 2013 list of the Top 100 legal blogs in the country. We work hard to blog consistently even when inundated with work and would appreciate your vote for us at the Blawg 100 site under the LITIGATION category. You will have to register your email just so you can’t vote 47 times. There are many worthwhile law blogs on this list so take some time to peruse. Thanks! Doug and Rita

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