Saturday, October 23, 2010

Law Firm Managing Partners, 'Powerful Faces,' and Profitability

Mirror, mirror on the wall
Who has the most powerful face of them all?
Without "that look," might our law firm fall?
Mirror, mirror on the wall....
Research published in the October 2010 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science finds that major American law firms whose managing partners have the most "powerful-looking" faces are also the most profitable firms in the nation.

In the study, Judgments of Power From College Yearbook Photos and Later Career Success, researchers from the University of Toronto and Tufts University asked participants to rate the faces of 73 Big Law managing partners for typical indicators of power - dominance, facial maturity, likeability, and trustworthiness, with each trait being rated on a seven-point scale. The key finding of the study follows:

Specifically, inferences of power from the faces of law firm [Managing Partners] predicted the amounts of profits that their firms earned. These relationships were consistent for current photos and for photos taken roughly 20 to 50 years earlier. The aspects of the face that are predictive of these leaders’ success therefore appear to be consistent across time rather than developed through experience.

Nicholas Rule of the University of Toronto and Nalini Ambady of Tufts University had people judge photos of 73 managing partners from the top 100 US law firms for dominance, maturity, attractiveness, likeability and trustworthiness. Half of the judges rated current photos downloaded from law firm websites. The other half rated photos from college yearbook photos, which on average were taken 33 years prior. Law firm profits were obtained from public records.

Ratings of dominance and facial maturity together formed a measure of power, and this facial power measure was a strong predictor of law firm profitability. Power in the managing partners' faces predicted profit margin and overall profitability of the law firms. Not only did facial power in the current pictures correlate with profitability, but facial power in the decades-old yearbook pictures was nearly as effective at predicting profits.

The finding of this study - that corporate adherence to stereotypical expectations of power in selecting leadership does make a difference in the bottom line - is not without significant implications for women, visible minorities and other classes typically excluded from the circles of power in large, corporate organizations.

The study, strangely, is silent as to the racial and gender composition of the 73 managing partners rated.

While I am hopeful that there is no necessary inference to be drawn from that surprising omission that these leaders were virtually all white and male, I am not optimistic in that regard.

As a final note, another recent paper, Law Firm Managing Partners: A Team Cohesion Analysis (abstract only), identifies the benefit of gender and racial diversity in effecting firm cohesion:
Firms with relatively more female managing partners do better, as do firms with relatively more female and minority associate attorneys (these data were compiled from the AMLAW diversity surveys). This may relate to client pressures for these large law firms to hire (and promote) more female and minority attorneys. In any event, these finding seem worthy of further exploration.
Profitability is not addressed in this study.
- Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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