Firm foundations: A look at best hiring practices

  • April 24, 2018
  • Ann Macaulay

Building a strong law firm is an ongoing challenge—not only when it comes to hiring the best people but, more importantly, keeping them. Fortunately, hiring experts say there’s plenty that can be done to cultivate a winning team.

The legal market “is showing confidence by hiring new lawyers,” says Christopher Sweeney, CEO of ZSA in Toronto, though he adds that firms are still being cautious in their hiring of both lawyers and support staff. Hiring activity this year should remain steady, according to The Robert Half 2018 Salary Guide for Legal Professionals, as “attrition rates at law firms and corporate legal departments continue to rise.”

There is a strong demand for professionals with backgrounds in high-growth specialty areas and more than three years of experience. There is also rising demand for tech-savvy support staff, as law firms hire paralegals to help meet the need to provide quality services at lower billing rates.

Behavioural interviewing is a growing trend that is useful for law firms that want to ensure they’re attracting and hiring the right people, says Warren Smith, Managing Partner at The Counsel Network in Vancouver.

Personality tests can also provide some insight into a potential hire and help determine whether a candidate is a good fit for a firm’s workplace culture. They can also help to get a more balanced group of people at the firm, since hiring a range of personalities and backgrounds can help get the best team. Not all personality tests are created equal, however. The Robert Half Guide offers a warning: “Firms need to make sure any kind of personality indicator is both legal and relevant to the hiring decision.”

A personality test can be a good way to facilitate a more in-depth conversation with the candidate. If someone shows a tendency to be obsessive-compulsive or poor attention to detail, that can be discussed further to gain some insight, says Smith. “Half the value is just in having that conversation and seeing how they react to it.”

Some firms are doing what’s akin to a take-home exam as a final step in the hiring process, says Smith, a trend that’s been seen in some of the biggest global law firms. “They want to see the person’s analytic skills or their ability to work through a fact pattern – not too dissimilar from a law school exam.” It’s a good way to try to understand all facets of the person, not just the interview portions, to see more than the candidate’s interview presentation. Smith has done searches “where somebody who’s been great at interviews has actually shown some glaring gaps or deficiencies when you looked at either substantive skills or the underlying personality types. Some of the testing processes can help shed some light.”

Perhaps even more important than an interview is the on-boarding process. Bringing somebody into a firm is a start; getting them to stay and become part of the law firm’s community is “probably a much greater predictor of long-term success than whether your interview process has got it right or wrong,” says Smith. Some firms spend an inordinate amount of time going through the interview process, but once the person is hired and “you’ve got them locked in and onboard with the company, that’s kind of the end of it. And I would say certainly from my perch that’s often where you can get into the much more difficult challenges.”

To help the on-boarding process, Smith suggests engaging in three steps:

  • First, a new hire should be connected with someone in their practice group who makes sure the person is being integrated well, especially during the first six months, who can answer day-to-day questions about the firm and how to get up to speed.
  • Next, appoint an “on-boarding partner,” someone outside the group to help the new person on more of a social basis. This can be someone who has insight into the firm but is outside the orbit of the new hire’s group and can offer helpful tips or suggestions on things like how to tackle a difficult partner. It’s more of a mentoring role, says Smith. “Somebody who can give you a 30,000-foot perspective on the firm writ large, as opposed to the practice group where they’re going to spend 90 per cent of their time.”
  • The third step is to encourage a new hire to find someone outside the firm who can provide some context or advice, whose only interest is to see the person succeed. “A good firm recognizes that there’s a benefit to that – it’s almost like having an independent audit of the onboard.”

Firm leaders who are serious about successful onboarding should look for constant feedback. “Who are the last five people at your firm who didn’t start here but are here today and are thriving?” Smith asks. “That will give you a very good indicator of where your next five are likely to come from.” They may have nothing in common on the surface but try to figure out why they came and why they stayed. That should give some good insight into where those who will thrive at the firm will likely be found.

Communication is one key to retaining the best people. If law firm leaders can provide a very clear sense of someone’s future internal path, that person will more likely be invested in the firm. Ultimately, most lawyers join a firm “because there’s a vision that the firm is trying to go somewhere, it’s trying to be something more than it is today,” says Smith. As a headhunter, he hears from people who are seriously considering making a move who “get excited by the story that the firm is trying to go to a new space or they’ve recently become an international platform and there are great opportunities.” They’re looking at a different way to partner with clients or approach how work gets done.

“People want to be part of something bigger than just themselves,” says Smith. “It’s incumbent on the law firms to create the compelling vision and say ‘we could be so much more together.’

“Without it, you’re just reduced to a collection of solo practitioners who are sharing office space.”

Ann Macaulay is a frequent PracticeLink contributor.