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On Boating and Hiring Lawyers

by Erik Mazzone |

I did not grow up in a boat family, but my wife did.

They had a little Boston Whaler that they trailered to the Chesapeake on the weekends and used for water skiing, crabbing, and otherwise doing fun summer stuff on the water. The photos from that time look amazing, and they all reminisce about how fun those days were. But one day when my wife and her folks were reliving some fun boating memory, my father-in-law pulled me aside and told me: “the two best days in a boat owner’s life are the day you buy the boat and the day you sell it.”

Hiring in a law firm is pretty similar. Once we decide to hire a new team member, we are often filled with optimism about our sunny future of getting more things done, having more time in the day, and if we are really lucky, maybe making a little bit more money. We picture that our new hire is going to be the key that unlocks those brighter days ahead.

Unfortunately, like buying a boat, those brighter days are largely an illusion. Or if not quite an illusion, let’s say, an incomplete picture of what life may be like with the new team member. We do not picture the time and energy it takes to train someone, the challenges of an imperfect fit with the firm culture, or the frustration on all sides when the new hire does not work out. Yet all of these are real, and irritatingly common problems we encounter when growing our firms with new additions.

Part of the reason hiring is so hard is that we get swept away with unrealistic and emotional ideas about how life is about to improve instead of focusing on the less exciting managerial basics that we can put in place to improve the chances of success for our new hire. These basics are not especially fun or exciting, but they give our firms and our new team members a greater chance to find our way to making those visions of bright futures a reality.

Twice in my career, I have managed large teams, and those experiences have given me the opportunity to learn a lot by making a lot of mistakes. Along the way, I have read countless books and articles on management and hiring, but I am a devotee of keeping things simple (let’s leave off the “stupid” – there is enough negativity in the world already without us adding to it) for small law firms. 

To that end, I have three rules that I pulled from those books and articles (to say nothing of the hours of good advice I received from folks who were farther along in their careers) that work well in small law firms and are not overwhelming to learn, understand and remember. Here they are:


Hire Slow 

The first rule of hiring club is do not talk about hiring club. Wait, no, that’s not it.

The first rule is: hire slow. This can be a challenge to put into practice, especially because in small firms we generally wait until we absolutely, positively need another person before hiring someone. It is understandable, our budgets and teams are not bursting with extra cash and managerial capacity, so we need to be judicious before adding a team member.

I have on several occasions been in that same position; for whatever reason (bad luck, organizational slowness, etc.), I would find myself interviewing a person who I needed to on-board weeks ago. It makes you feel desperate, and that isn’t good for anyone.

Interviewees can smell desperation on you; the smart candidates walk away. The opportunistic ones use it to negotiate better compensation packages. The ones who do neither are not likely to be top tier candidates. Desperation leads to bad decisions, which leads to bad fits, which leads to bad endings.

The key here is to unhook the hiring process from your overstuffed caseload and endless to-do list. If you decide that getting the right person eventually is more important than getting the wrong person now, it allows you to be choosier during the selection process. You should really evaluate whether a candidate has shown the intellectual rigor to thrive as an attorney in your firm and demonstrated the cultural fit to become a valued and collegial member of your team.

I advise clients to establish a time frame for a new hire start date at the beginning of the process and to avoid the time frame “as soon as humanly possible.” Three months is a good starting point. Use that time frame to establish the pace of your process and articulate it to your candidates: “we’re planning for a September 1 start date, but we can be flexible for the right fit.”

It really helps to get out of urgent mindset.


Decide the KPIs in Advance

Your new hire is not going to solve all of your firm’s problems. You know that already. But, if you hire and train well, and plan thoroughly, they hopefully will solve the problems you are hiring them to address. I frequently lean on some of the words of Stephen Covey from his classic, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “begin with the end in mind.”

It really helps to get a lot of the noise and magical thinking out of the hiring process to decide in advance what the key performance indicators of the new employee will be. It allows you to really hone in on what capabilities you need from your new hire, and it demonstrates to your candidates that the firm knows what it wants from its team members.

Let’s imagine a young lawyer is interviewing for a job with a law firm. The candidate asks her interviewer: “what do you expect from your first-year lawyer and what does it take for the lawyer to do an excellent job?” Great question. I love it when candidates ask questions that demonstrate they understand the assignment.

Now, let’s picture two possible answers: answer one is, “well, we want someone who wants to practice our kind of law, who will work hard, be a team player, and grow into a partner in our firm one day.” This is the answer given to a huge percentage of lawyer candidates for jobs. It’s fair, pretty accurate, and utterly unhelpful to the candidate. 

Okay, answer two: “we expect our lawyers to handle a caseload of X matters by the end of their first six months at the firm; we have a target of $Y in collected revenues per month; we survey our clients to ask about their satisfaction, and we expect our new lawyers to receive a client satisfaction score of Z. These are the key metrics that make for a successful first year as you learn to practice law in our firm.”

The second answer tells the candidate exactly what is required to perform and how the performance is judged. It demonstrates that the firm knows what it is hiring for with the new attorney and that there is a decent chance that a new lawyer in the firm will be able to meet the expectations the firm holds for them.


Hire Like an Investment

My last rule for hiring is that I try to hire like I am evaluating an investment (because, what else is a new team member for your firm if not an investment?)

That means a few things: 

  • I try to have a long-term orientation about how I will assess value. Some lawyers may take longer to mature and become productive than others, but growing a law firm isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Where two candidates are relative to one another after 6 months isn’t necessarily predictive of where they will be after 3 years.
  • I try to look for undervalued candidates. Every firm wants the candidate with the highest grade from the best school who was editor of the law review. But there are lots and lots of very bright law graduates with all kinds of value to contribute to a firm whose grades and resume are not as glittering. If you can figure out how to spot diamonds in the rough among the candidates, they will be less competitive to hire, less expensive to compensate, and may end up being every bit the superlative lawyer as the folks ahead of them on class rank.
  • I always hoped every hire I made would be a long-term success with our team, but sometimes things do not work out. Once you have done your best to hire, train and manage well, if a candidate is still not performing at the level you need, it is time to part ways. I try (and it is really hard) to not be emotional about investments or hiring and firing decisions. Once it has gone bad, the only path forward is to accept that and move on. This is the counterpart to hiring slow: fire fast.

I hope that helps those of you who are recruiting now to grow your firm or replace someone who has left. It is a challenging project to find new team members, but it can be one of the most highly leveraged things you do to help your practice thrive.

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