Home Legal Job Interviewing Interviewing Primer 101.5: Understanding the Interview Process—What Employers Want: Intelligence

Interviewing Primer 101.5: Understanding the Interview Process—What Employers Want: Intelligence


Intelligence, to my surprise, was not number 1 in my survey of the “hierarchy of legal employer needs.” Moreover, my assumption that intelligence means getting top grades in law school and making law review—and nothing more—was blown up by the survey results. Savvy legal employers are coming to realize that intelligence means much more than just academic performance.

This blog dissects the four kinds of intelligence legal employers seek from the ideal candidate for a position in their organization.

The Traditional View of Intelligence

Past legal hiring practice focused on academic intelligence—primarily how a candidate fared in law school, as evidenced by grades and selection for the school’s law review. If you did exceptionally well in law school, that was all many legal employers needed to know about you.

While outstanding law school performance historically was almost always good enough to get you that first job, this is not always the case anymore. That narrow view of what constitutes “intelligence”is evolving. For a growing number of today’s legal employers, academic achievement is only one indicator of intelligence…and of only one kind of intelligence (the others being creative intelligence, situational intelligence and social-emotional intelligence). An increasing number of sophisticated legal employers want to see for themselves, having experienced the more-than-occasional disconnect between great grades and practitioner success, as well as the converse—the so-so law grad from a low-ranking law school who becomes a stellar performer.  I experienced this all too often as an employer of attorneys.

The Four Kinds of Intelligence

“Intelligence” not as easy or obvious a concept to define as it might seem. In fact, it is rather complicated, and getting more so as neuroscientists learn more about the brain.  Its complexities and subtleties are becoming increasingly important in hiring decisions.  There is a developing consensus among the people who study this that there are at least four different kinds of intelligence. Legal job candidates have to concern themselves with each kind because savvy employers of attorneys increasingly focus on them.

Academic Intelligence

Academic intelligence is what most people assume is meant by the term “intelligence.”  An individual who possesses academic intelligence is considered  “book-bright,” blessed with the ability to quickly absorb information, process it correctly and recite it back on demand. These individuals have superior ability to understand theoretical concepts and sort through and understand complexity. Objectively, academic intelligence is manifested by good grades and high standardized test scores. Despite the expanding view of what constitutes intelligence among legal employers, don’t discount the the importance of the academic variety. It is still a door-opener to a good job.

Creative Intelligence

Creative intelligence could also be called “relational intelligence.” It is distinguished by the ability to: connect the dots; see the long view; understand the implications of disconnected facts; activities and events; and learn from history. People with creative intelligence tend to be information sponges and “strong sorters,” meaning that they are able to separate “wheat from chaff.” They are ideophoric, meaning that they are interested in a wide variety of things and constantly search for new ideas and ways to do things.

Such Individuals demonstrate this by being result-oriented problem solvers. They like problems, anticipate them, seek them out, and are likely to be able to see looming issues before they jell. They are critical thinkers.

Situational Intelligence

Situational intelligence may be the easiest of the four to define. It equates to common sense, “street smarts,” good judgment and knowing what to do in the moment. People who have this attribute are rational, realistic, quick reactors and naturally tend to do what is in their own best interests and in the best interests of their organizations. They see things as they are and act accordingly.

Social-Emotional Intelligence

This kind of intelligence means having “people skills,” oral communications ability, listening ability and real interest in interacting with others. Manifestations are likeability, social comfort, enthusiasm for interaction with others and sales prowess (client development capability or potential).

Do not let the order of presentation make you think that social-emotional intelligence is the least important kind of intelligence. On the contrary, in predicting legal career success, it may well be the most important intelligence component of all. Part of social-emotional intelligence is affective empathy, being able to feel an emotion that another person feels. “I feel your pain,” to quote Bill Clinton, one of the most empathic individuals of all time.

Why Bother Differentiating?

If you are in the legal job market, Intelligence is worth dissecting in detail because legal employers increasingly are making its broader definition a key determinant of their hiring decisions. Even if a prospective employer has never thought of intelligence in quite so sophisticated a way, and may still be wedded to the notion that academic intelligence equates to overall intelligence, you need to be cognizant of the other kinds of intelligence so that you can make the very best case for yourself. In so doing, you will be educating the employer and expanding his or her horizons when it comes to the concept and perception of intelligence. In other words, breaking down intelligence into component parts enables you to compensate for less than stellar grades.

What to Do With This Information

Demonstrating Your Intelligence

There are a variety of ways to demonstrate your overall intelligence even absent superior law school performance. The way you structure your resume can serve as an intelligence indicator. A logical, organized, reader-friendly resume can go far toward validating intelligence. A resume addendum narrating your problem-solving ability in the context of specific examples is another way to manifest intelligence. Adding an explanatory cover sheet on top of a writing sample also works in your favor with respect to this point. A reference list that makes both contact and conversation easy also demonstrates intelligence.

Ideally, you are one of the rare individuals who possesses all four kinds of intelligence. If that is the case, your uniqueness is likely to come out in your resume and job interviews.  If not, and the vast majority of individuals are not blessed with enjoying all four intelligences, you might have to work on improving your intelligence weaknesses.

Boosting Academic Intelligence

Improving your academic intelligence is, on one level, not easy to do. What I mean is that it is a hard slog to become smarter and have your grades demonstrate that. However, if you still happen to be a student, you have an opportunity to present to employers as having high academic intelligence because employers generally take the approach of judging this trait by looking at your grades.  Work harder—and smarter—and your grades should improve.

Enhancing Creative Intelligence

Creative intelligence is the product of both nature and nurture. If nature did not particularly endow you with innate creative intelligence, you can compensate to an extent if you work at: connecting the dots; understanding the broader implications of what you see, hear and read; and soak up as much information about the world around you as you can. Immersing yourself in reading history is a great way to hone your creative intelligence. History affords you the luxury of knowing how a jumble of events actually evolved into outcomes. In other words, you already know the end of the story while you are reading about the snippets and seemingly unrelated events that led up to the end result. Applying the strategies, tactics and techniques that the “winners” employed into your own situation is guaranteed to improve your creative intelligence.

Example: Read about Hannibal’s military victory over Rome at the Battle of Lake Trasimene. His prodigious creative intelligence produced a stunning victory in what historians deem the greatest ambush in history. His thought process is instructive.

Augmenting Situational Intelligence

This is where you can do the most to improve your overall intelligence presentation. Situational intelligence is, for most of us, an acquired talent, one that improves as we are faced with more situations that require a rapid and reasonable response. If you have a dearth of such experiences,  you can create situations that force you to come up with solutions.

Improving Social-Emotional Intelligence

Social-emotional intelligence is a more daunting challenge. Whether you are an extrovert, someone at ease in social situations who actually enjoys person-to-person interaction, is something that is, to a large extent, embedded in your DNA. However, all is not lost.  Putting yourself in social situations can overcome some of this intelligence “deficiency” even if you still detest the idea or are intimidated by face-to-face communication.

A Final Note

One additional point needs to be made about intelligence:  There is not necessarily a precise delineation between one kind of intelligence and another. The possibility for some overlap exists. For example, creative intelligence and situational intelligence are not always distinct concepts and can blend one into the other.


Next: Interviewing Primer 101.6: Understanding the Interview ProcessWhat Employers Want: Being a Quick Study


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