Lateral Associate Hiring: From Distant Vision to Firm Office, Contributed by Tacie J. Steidel, Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox P.L.L.C.
The past few years at law firms have marked the end of predictable landscapes. Once a steady climb, the legal world has found itself on a constant evolving path, and with that, firms’ needs have changed as well. In order to maintain practice group strength and expertise, it is essential to make smart and informed lateral hiring decisions. The combination of a dedicated hiring team, direction, research, and a little common sense will help your firm do just that.
The Recruiting Committee of a law firm can guide practice groups through the process of identifying their lateral hiring needs. Often, a group’s initial thoughts on its area of need, or ideal candidate, are far from what it actually wants. The Committee should anticipate this and prepare a list of pertinent questions to ask when making this initial assessment. Having an honest conversation with all members of the practice group (both the partners and non-partners) in order to survey everyone’s expectations can help the practice group identify its true objective. Begin with the answers to these basic questions:
- What level Associate?
- What specialty?
- What office?
- What skills must the person possess?
- What holes in the group are they looking to fill and why doesn’t that aspect already exist?
Next, tackle the harder questions: the tacit ones. Perhaps the most important aspect of finding the right person for the job is to have an accurate perception of the group and the firm. If the firm is large or if it is small, it needs to attract people who want that type of environment. It is easy to label the straight forward areas like “we need a fourth year associate.” However, no one wants just a body in a chair. The difficult task is identifying the characteristics a person needs to embody in order to succeed in the group. Does the person need to write well? Does the person need to be the group’s interface with clients? Does the person need to manage a team? These areas are more important than any story a person’s resume will tell. It takes proper preparation to be able to spot them.
Pinpoint the qualities the group sees in its ideal candidate but know what it will settle for if it can’t have it all. Everyone sees their firm as the best, and thus believes their group deserves the best candidate on the market. Who wouldn’t? The hiring team should cautiously avoid drinking its own Kool-Aid. Everyone needs to be realistic about what the firm has to offer, the candidates it will attract, and what is available for its level.
Attracting the Right Candidates
— Know What Your Firm Can Offer
The Labor Department of New York ran three separate studies over the course of five years to focus on what people want from work. Results found that a common misconception among senior management is that the position and the perks (like salary and office space) are candidates’ focal points when selecting a job. These tangible elements actually take a back seat to the intangible. While supervisors perceive high wages and job security as the top of employees’ importance lists, in fact its qualities like “full appreciation of the work being done” and “the feeling of being in on things” that employees rank the highest. Be sure to fully understand what qualities your firm has in areas like these before beginning the candidate search.
When it comes to their careers, Generations X and Y have different mentalities than most baby boomer partners. Tune in to WiiFm. Today’s lateral associate candidates will want to know “what’s in it for me” and why a position is open. The aftermath of 2009 left everyone walking on eggshells. People are curious to know why associates left a firm and the long-term strength of a practice group. Find a way to sell the position as a unique growth experience that the candidate will not find elsewhere. Will the person gain unique skills? Will there be significant client contact? Will the candidate be able to manage or build a team and a practice? Candidates tend to embrace new opportunities because their current positions and firm leave something more to be desired.
— Manage Your Search Firms
Just as important as a Recruiting Committee’s firm knowledge is the assurance that its search outlets know the firm too. Search firms are probably the most common instrument used for lateral hiring. If the Recruitment Committee has conducted previous lateral searches, it probably has a few firms it prefers to use. This is a smart tactic. It is important to develop a close, trusting relationship with search firms so that they truly know and believe in your firm. A law firm should sell its strengths to search firms like it would sell its strengths to potential candidates. Candidates can sense genuine excitement and enthusiasm about a place, as well as the lack of it. Search firms are the law firm’s ambassadors; the Recruitment Committee must protect that relationship.
Additionally, the law firm should limit its search firm use to a trusted few. Doing so will send a higher caliber of applications and prevent the complications of candidate crossover. Keep the “go to” list limited. If a select group of search firms know they are the law firm’s first phone calls, most times they will invest their highest efforts to find the best fit―they want exclusive business. If a law firm’s search poses incredible challenges, a retained search with a trusted search firm is always a possibility. While a more unique situation, this option commits one search firm to dedicating its time only to the law firm’s search.
— Cast a Wide Net
Firms can use a variety of search mediums to cast a net over the largest candidate pool. Don’t rule out the old-fashioned outlet of a job ad. In this technology age, there are ways to make “boring” job ads pop. The Recruitment Committee should brainstorm where its firm’s attorneys look for their legal news and potential new clients. Do those online journals and networking sites have job boards? Places like LinkedIn, Law360, and regional legal business publications get high readership from candidates that most likely match your firm’s sought after skills. Additionally, these sites charge minimal fees for month-long ads in comparison to a search firm commission. Be creative and try to select outlets that already attract dream candidates.
Finally, remember the best and easiest option: internal referrals! If the firm doesn’t do so already, it should consider implementing hefty referral bonuses for people already employed at the firm. The strongest candidates come from those already working for the team. Chances are that the firm’s attorneys have friends from law school, former firms or clerkships, and professional organizations who might be interested in a career change. Internal referrals weed out weak candidates, as attorneys usually will not connect their names to candidates who do not meet their standards. Already employed attorneys will also have a better sense of who will fit and what the firm needs than external sources.
Interviewing and Making the Hire
Now that the Recruiting Committee has done its homework and publicized its search, ideally resumes are flooding the job inbox and the practice group thus has selected the top candidates. The key to making a long-lasting and effective hire is to solidify a focused and effective interview process.
When selecting which attorneys will be the designated interviewers, keep in mind that strong interviewers are normally attorneys of different levels, who have been with the firm for longer than a year. This allows them enough time to know the firm and the practice, and to be effective advocates for both. If interviewers do not love where they are and what they do, candidates will sense that. The Recruitment Committee should enlist the help of people who will send the message it wants conveyed. Candidates only get to meet a small portion of the firm during their interviews. The people they meet will significantly influence the candidates’ impressions of the firm. Remember, not everyone is a good interviewer. Select people that will be the best representation of the firm.
Consider teaming with Human Resources to conduct an annual interviewer training session. It is essential that everyone on the interviewing team be updated on the current legal issues, as well as armed with the same interviewing techniques. A knowledgeable team can help protect the firm against potential audits and ensure that interviews are consistent. Most likely, senior attorneys’ interviewing methods and their knowledge of the legalities involved need some maintenance.
Today’s interviewing encourages the use of the Behavioral Interviewing method, which emphasizes that past performance is an indicator of future performance. This method allows interviewers to take control of the interview by focusing on open-ended questions and the candidate’s previous experience. Behavioral interviewing investigates areas of leadership, teamwork, challenges, and motivation: all key elements to a candidate’s success in a new position. Questions can be directed to the skills needed, as well as current case law in the group’s area of practice. When assessing lateral candidates, it is extremely important to obtain a complete understanding of how these people performed in their previous positions. Through their answers, interviewers will gain an idea of how the candidates will function at the firm.
The compilation of a smart interview team and targeted questions will guide a practice group towards identifying the correct lateral hire for its need.
Joining the Team
To get the best return on investment, top priority is ensuring the new lateral Associate stays at the firm long-term. Quick integration and a welcoming atmosphere are key factors to the feel of the Associate’s arrival. New Associates make up their minds whether to stay or leave within their first few weeks at the firm. First impressions matter. Every firm needs a tight integration plan and orientation model to send a strong message that the firm is a serious business. An accidental impression of disorganization will cause Associates to wonder if the firm functions haphazardly in all areas of practice. Prior to any new hires’ arrivals, the Recruitment Department should work together with the Professional Development team to establish a solid training program, orientation schedule, and integration plan.
New Associates should attend firm-taught trainings that relate to both the practice areas and the core values of the firm. Every firm has a different style that needs to be infused in new staff. Every hiring team should know how things work internally in its firm. Lateral hires will be able to jump right in at a faster pace if they are adequately briefed on the firm’s expectations. These training sessions should also incorporate a sense of firm transparency. By immediately reviewing the “hidden secrets” of how partnership is decided, how salaries are determined, and how clients are billed, new hires will get a sense that the firm is forthcoming and wants everyone to do well. One suggestion to accomplish this is for firm partners to be the sessions’ teachers. Their participation in these trainings will send the right message that teamwork is essential. Everyone helps.
A solid orientation schedule will instill a feeling of trust in the new lateral Associate. By knowing where they are going next, how to work the firm’s systems, and meeting the support staff of the firm, new Associates will feel acclimated quickly. A smooth transition plan eliminates the worry of being left behind. If possible, send out the orientation schedule and completion forms a week before Associates’ start dates; this advanced notice will alleviate anxiety and allow them to be fully equipped. A feeling of preparedness will set the tone for how the Associate perceives the firm’s organization as a whole.
Personally, Associates also want to feel that they have a support system at their new office. This feeling should resonate with them throughout their entire career at their new firms. In order to connect new lateral Associates with the legal staff, they should be paired with integration mentors immediately. An integration mentor should introduce the Associate professionally and socially to others at the firm, while also helping guide the Associate through his first few weeks. Integration mentors should schedule monthly check-ins with their Associates to see how things are going well into the Associates’ first years.
Additionally, it is essential that lateral Associates are provided with a network of internal contacts. Everyone has different work styles and personalities; not everyone will mesh well. If an Associate’s work style differs from someone else’s, the Associate should not feel forced to leave. The firm should do it’s best to make sure an Associate has the opportunity to work on many teams to prevent this situation. Firms need to monitor the new Associate’s workflow in and out over his first few months to observe if he is receiving equal distribution. Additional internal contacts will also help the Associate feel that he can discuss his thoughts and be an integral part of the team.
Lastly, remember that firms like to have fun. It is important to be able to bond with coworkers outside the confines of the firm’s walls. Recruitment Committees should welcome new lateral Associates through social events to which spouses can also be invited. If spouses like a new workplace and its people, laterals will feel much more comfortable and at ease during their transitions.
Continue the Trend
Throughout this rigorous process of identifying and hiring the correct lateral, hopefully Recruiting Committees learned a bit more about their firms, their strengths, and their strategic hiring plans. The challenge ahead will be the continuation and implementation of these newly-honed techniques. The key is to stay ahead of the curve, study the market, and regularly meet to discuss current and future situations at your firm. When the next time arrives to build a practice group, your team will be ready.
Tacie Steidel is Legal Recruiting Manager at Washington, DC-based intellectual property law firm Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox P.L.L.C. She is a member of the Washington Area Legal Recruitment Administrators Association (WALRAA) and the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). Ms. Steidel can be reached at email@example.com.
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