The 4 Qualities of a "Fast-Track" Associate


A fast track attorney is defined as an associate who rises through the ranks in a law firm faster than their peers.

A fast track attorney is defined as an associate who rises through the ranks in a law firm faster than their peers. These attorneys usually exhibit immediate fit and leadership skills very early on in their careers and often rise to be leaders in their practice areas, successful partners, and senior-level management.

The traditional law firm hiring process of hiring law students based on their law school, GPA, a 30-minute interview and a summer associate program heavy on recreational activities is based on the gut feeling of a hiring manager. Research shows that this approach is about as good as flipping a coin in predicting attorney performance. And in a competitive environment, law firms are eager for an edge in identifying the best talent including fast track associates and acknowledge their current methods fall short. 

Many law firms are now exploring and implementing a “competency” based approach. “Competencies” are observable behaviors that are essential for carrying out job responsibilities. Some are technical, such as written advocacy, legal research, fact-analysis skills, and others are behavioral such as leadership, teamwork, communication, drive to succeed, and project management skills. Firms are using these competencies to aid in the selection and development of their employees. Those who follow best practices assess and predict these skillsets with psychometric assessments that target either personality, cognitive ability, or technical skill and compare those test scores to on the job performance (either through 360 feedback or supervisor ratings of performance). 

With this trend emerging, a study of 175 associates over a three year period assessed associates for a variety of behavioral competencies via assessments and structured behavioral interviews which probe into how candidates have handled experiences in their past. The study found a strong correlation between “fast track associates” and strengths in these 4 behavioral competencies. Note that the first 3 and strongest indicators of performance are behavioral competencies which are predicted best using a personality test and behavioral interviews. The last competency (written advocacy) is a technical skill that is best assessed through writing samples scored via a standardized rubric.

1. Drive for Excellence—The associate’s attitudes toward and participation in training opportunities, reaction and approach to feedback, and contribution to meeting and responsibility for setting the firm’s high standards of excellence.

2. Leadership and Case Management—The associate’s management and communication skills, the timeliness and the efficiency with which an associate accomplishes necessary tasks, the associate’s ability to understand, formulate, and deliver clear assignments.

3. Client Service and Communication—The associate’s commitment to internal and external clients, judgment in advising and representing the client, effectiveness in advising the business or organization, and ability to promote the firm’s strengths and capabilities to new or existing clients and the legal community.

4. Written Advocacy—The associate’s ability, through clear and persuasive writing, to express ideas, present facts, and advance legal arguments.

The study also showed that high-potential associates demonstrate balance in their approach to work. While they are proactive in mindset and approach their work with a pre-established plan, they also have the flexibility and are able to react when something unexpected arises. High performing associates are also self-aware of their limitations and know when to seek help in tackling a challenging task.  Similarly, high-performing associates seek both learning and achievement for their own value but also to gain praise and recognition from others.

The field of organizational psychology has been studying workplace performance for many decades and the culmination of that research shows that traditional hiring methods do not work and that not utilizing these more scientific methods is a costly mistake. This proven research has been translated into psychometric assessments based on personality/cognitive ability and structured behavioral interviews that tap into past experiences of a candidate. These are currently the best tools to predict performance and law firms looking to improve their promotions, performance, selection, and development of employees can start diving into these products that help gauge fit focused on the competencies most relevant to law and the specific law firm culture/job. 

The most common assessments for these purposes are the Hogan personality inventory, The Neo PI-R, and the Hire an Esquire workstyle assessment. The Hogan and Neo PI-R tests will help give an overview of the employee/candidates traits which can then be mapped onto a competency framework relevant to law. The Hire an Esquire workstyle assessment is built to assess the competencies relevant to the role and match accordingly. Compared to traditional hiring methods such as resume reviews, pedigree, and unstructured interviews, psychometric tools will increase your chances of getting top performers, reduce the cost of bad hires, and create a more cohesive work culture.

Berman, L., Bock, H., & Aiken, J. (2012). Developing attorneys for the future: What can we learn from the fast trackers. Santa Clara L. Rev., 52, 875.