Just as most families are dysfunctional, so are most law firms. Large or small, that just seems to be how they are. However, unlike that drunken uncle who everyone simply tolerates at family gatherings, we do get to choose whom we hire. We decide who becomes part of our work family. Yet a surprisingly large number of firms continue to tolerate low-level performers who negatively impact moral, and drain the time and energy of the A-players. A recent study asked 400 CEOs, business billionaires and other successful leaders and investors what percentage of business success could be attributed to various factors. On average, they said that 52% was due to human capital, with execution coming in second at 20%, followed by strategy at 17% and external factors (such as interest rates, competition, etc.) at 11%. If this is true of regular businesses, how much more pertinent must it be for law firms, where the product itself is the direct result of the intellectual and creative capacities of the lawyers? Having seen countless clients spend an excessive amount of time, energy and heartache figuring out how to manage ill-fitting employees, it is clear to me that the best investment you can make—whether you are a megafirm with thousands of lawyers across the globe or a solo practitioner with just an assistant—is to be clear, systematic and thorough in searching for and vetting candidates. Consider the following five suggestions for the next time you are faced with a hiring decision.
1. Aim High – “The skill set we need is very unusual.” “I can’t pay as much as the other guys.” “I hired someone who looked great on paper but was a nightmare. So now I’m just looking for someone reasonably competent.” A wide range of experiences and assumptions interfere with attorneys’ aspirations to find great candidates. Lawyers are famously pessimistic. Don’t let this tendency prevent you from being seriously committed to finding someone great. After all, if you aim for 100% and get 95%, that is still far ahead of aiming for 75% and reaching it. One of the challenges is that hiring too often happens in a sense of crisis. “I just need someone who can ________” is a recipe for failure in the hiring process. You may be exhausted from running your practice without someone in that role, but finding the right person will be well worth the wait in the long run.
2. Get Clear About What You Need – At the beginning of a hiring process most law firms do not clearly articulate what skills they want for the future employee. Even firms that are fairly clear about the substantive knowledge and experience a candidate should possess, rarely systematically think through the other qualities of an ideal candidate. What soft skills should he possess? What qualities would make her an appropriate cultural fit? The candidate’s competency regarding teamwork, efficiency, being calm under pressure, creativity or integrity, for example, may have a huge bearing on whether he or she would be an A, B or even a C-player? Furthermore, even when a comprehensive job description already exists, it is still wise to revisit it and consider if anything has changed. As firms grow, the criteria for an ideal candidate may evolve.
3. Present the Job Accurately – If you are looking for an office manager and you know that the hardest part of the job will be accommodating the needs of four partners with conflicting agendas and difficult personalities, it doesn’t help anyone to candy coat the situation. Someone out there will be perfect for the job, but finding that person will be almost impossible if you don’t present the job accurately and ask questions targeted to finding someone with the requisite interpersonal skills. Similarly, lawyers often try to make a job sound intellectually stimulating or like it has more growth potential than it really does. This is a recipe for disaster. Just because that job would sound like hell to you, doesn’t mean that it won’t be appealing to the right candidate. If you say that you want someone who is ambitious, intellectual, and knowledgeable about your practice area, and if you then put them to work transcribing information, managing client files, and handling simple email correspondence with clients, you will likely find yourself with an employee who is unhappy and a poor fit for the job.
4. Look for Motivation – This sometimes elusive and abstract quality is also critically important for a hire to be successful. Yet, aside from asking, “why are you interested in this job?” most lawyers do very little to gage the motivation of their prospective employees. It may be helpful to keep in mind that there are two levels of motivation, general and specific. The first is a general focus on excellence. Some people are intrinsically driven to do well, almost regardless of the task. They want to come up with the best argument, strive for precision, accuracy, timeliness, etc. The second type is specific motivation, which relates to how engaged and inspired they are by the particular subject matter or mission of the organization. It is about whether the job or the firm is really a good fit for them in terms of values and content of the work. You NEED people with general motivation, but ideally want people with both. There are a lot of miserable people in the law, but it is certainly more fun to work with people who like their jobs.
5. Recognize that searching for talent is an ongoing process – You never know when that star associate will decide to move across the country, start her own firm, or give up the law to start a wine bar. Having A-players in the pipeline at all times is the key to successful talent management. Larger firms tend to rely on professional recruiters, while smaller firms generally use job announcements; but the firms at every level which are most successful in their recruiting are the ones who use their personal and professional networks to source talented people. The book “Who” by Geoff Smart and Randy Street provides some great examples of CEOs proactively involved in recruiting. For example, one CEO who grew his company from a start-up into a $13 billion company asks new acquaintances, “Who are the most talented people you know who I should hire?” and then he reaches out to those people. The books’ authors recommend a simple introduction like this, “Sue recommended that you and I connect. I understand that you are great at what you do. I am always on the lookout for talented people and would love the chance to get to know you. Even if you are perfectly content at your current job, I’d love the chance to introduce myself and hear about your career interests.” The lawyers I know who started taking this type of personal approach are amazed by difference it makes to their firms bottom line and to their own personal quality of life.