O’Melveny Could Set Trend With Law Student Cognitive Testing

Nov. 23, 2018, 11:01 AM

O’Melveny & Myers will ask law students interested in joining the firm to play computer games designed to test their cognitive skills while rooting out hiring biases, an approach that may signal a new industry recruitment trend.

“There is no right or wrong way to play the games, since there is no winning or losing,” O’Melveny diversity and inclusion partner Darin Snyder told Bloomberg Law. “What matters is how the games are played, and the behavior-based data that is collected.”

Starting in January, first-year law students can opt to play the series of 12 games, which take about 30 minutes to complete in total, to boost their applications for a job at the firm. The software behind the games makes use of artificial intelligence and a customized algorithm to analyze talent in a highly competitive market for the best and brightest candidates.

These cognitive assessment tools are common in corporate hiring, but law firms often rely on more traditional methods. Cognitive skills tests like O’Melveny’s, which appears to be the first of its kind used in Big Law, aim to eliminate bias and encourage candidate diversity, but are also known to have limitations.

‘The Most Opportune Time’

Dr. Larry Richard, a lawyer-turned-psychologist and founder of LawyerBrain LLC, estimates that less than 1 percent of law firms use this type of testing in their hiring process. But he says he has seen a greater interest from law firm leaders in recent years.

“Right now is the most opportune time for firms to try things like this,” Richard told Bloomberg Law. “I think we’re going to see more and more.”

O’Melveny’s testing tool will be custom-built by the software and analytics firm pymetrics, using data collected from O’Melveny’s star associates.

Based on their results, pymetrics will build a so-called “success profile” against which law students can be measured. The software company will then audit the algorithm in order to remove potential gender, racial or ethnic biases in the underlying data.

“We really continued to be frustrated by not being able to significantly increase the number of underrepresented groups in our candidate pools and in our hires,” Mary Ellen Connerty, O’Melveny’s director of diversity and engagement, told Bloomberg Law. “The other thing that it really does is it moves us out of our normal pools for recruiting and allows us to have a greater reach.”

To grow the recruiting pipeline, Connerty said the Los Angeles-based firm, which employs more than 700 lawyers, will offer the link to its assessment game to law schools where it hasn’t historically done on-campus recruiting.

O’Melveny welcomes about 60 to 70 summer associates each year and recruited on campus at more than 25 law schools in 2017. The firm aims to reach both nationally prominent schools and key schools in its regional markets. O’Melveny also has accepted write-in applications, conducted resume collections, and attended recruiting events for diverse candidates.

Moving in the Right Direction

To be sure, there’s no mathematical way to eliminate bias completely. “Part of the fundamental difficulty in defining, understanding and measuring bias stems from the contentious and conceptually difficult task of defining fairness,” wrote researchers in a 2017 report for AI Now, a New York University research center dedicated to understanding the social implications of artificial intelligence.

Connerty acknowledged this barrier, but said she hopes the tool will move the firm in the right direction. “Realistically, what we’re trying to do here is to mitigate bias,” she said. “Nobody is promising that we’re removing all bias.”

What Connerty does hope for is that pymetrics will give the firm new, relevant information about associate candidates that can “override” existing biases.

Caren Ulrich Stacy, CEO of Diversity Lab, said O’Melveny is the first law firm she knows of using this type of screening tool. But implementing the program is just the first step in a long process, she said.

“The next important question will be whether they act on the algorithm’s recommendations and make decisions to hire candidates that do not fit the typical grades, law school or other pedigree thresholds that most large law firms have employed for decades,” she told Bloomberg Law.

Michelle Fivel, a partner at Major Lindsey & Africa who helps associates make lateral moves, also hasn’t seen cognitive testing in the legal industry before.

O’Melveny is also considering using the pymetrics test for its lateral hires. If that becomes the case, Fivel told Bloomberg Law there’s a possible risk of turning away potential hires who don’t want to take that extra step.

“In this market, it’s very candidate driven,” she said. “Firms are in competition for the top talent. So to add another layer of testing to a potential candidate might slow down the process.”

Alongside the new skills test, O’Melveny also announced this week it will begin using a software tool at the firm that purports to find gaps between attorneys’ workplace flexibility needs and their perceived access to flexibility options.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Russell-Kraft in New York at srussellkraft@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com

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