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Steps for Effective Hiring

by Erik Mazzone |

Hire slow, fire fast. 

If you read any of the voluminous advice published on hiring, this old bromide is very likely to be the first thing you come across. It’s pretty good advice, if a bit limited. 

Hiring a person for a law firm is like buying a house: it’s expensive and long-reaching decision that deeply affects your (work) life, and one that is too often made with a process that is ill-defined, rushed and lacking clear markers for success. In both house purchases and hiring, you will feel compelled to make this big decision quickly and on the basis of an entirely too small set of information. Going slow is sensible advice for reducing the chance of a mistake.

Going slow, unfortunately, also increases the risk of missing out on opportunities, in real estate and hiring. The market for hiring law firm employees has been almost as nutty as the real estate market over the past few years; if you drag your feet in either arena, you can lose out on some of the best options.

The key is to have a hiring process that balances the need to move relatively quickly without losing the ballast of process, buy-in and solid deliberation. So, how does a small firm with limited staff accomplish this? 


Begin with the end in mind – the position description

Stephen Covey highlighted beginning with the end in mind as the second of the habits of highly effective people in his influential productivity book. Beginning with the end in mind also marks a highly effective hiring process. 

What Covey meant when he referred to beginning with the end in mind is that, “all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint.” In other words, by envisioning the successful conclusion of a project – articulating to ourselves, what does winning look like in this situation – we dramatically increase our chances of reaching that success. 

In hiring, beginning with the end in mind means starting with a well-crafted, thoughtful, and accurate position description for the role. This description should include competencies required, duties to be performed, metrics by which performance will be judged, qualifications needed, who the position reports to, and any other relevant information about the job. If you are new to writing formal position descriptions, here’s a good primer from the University of Florida.

A good way to test if your position description is detailed enough is to share it with a lawyer outside your firm and ask them if they had to conduct the interviews with applicants for your firm’s position, what would they look for in the interviews based on the description. When their priority list matches your actual priority list, you’re in business.


Fit the person to the role

Sometimes in a hiring process, you come across a candidate who is fantastic. Talented, smart, hard-working and a great personality fit and you can imagine working alongside them happily for years. But unfortunately, by virtue of background or desire or location or some other key factor, they are not a great fit for the actual role you have open. 

It’s tempting in these situations to hire the talented person and assume you can tailor the role to suit them. I get it – these five-star recruits don’t come around often and it is awfully hard to let one go past.

But changing the job to fit the applicant is is a mistake. If you adjust your position descriptions to your candidates, you will create roles and processes that are highly individualized to your current team making them harder to fill when the current folks inevitably move on. Your org chart becomes a jigsaw puzzle with open spaces that only the last applicant can possibly fill. Because it was built expressly for them.

It’s better over the long haul to have practical position descriptions which you can envision multiple people being able to successfully fill. Even if that means sometimes you miss out on someone who is a high caliber candidate, your firm will benefit from a system that gives everyone a chance to do their best work, not just for the benefit of one- or two-star employees.


Map the process – decision makers

Getting the interview process scoped right is critical.

You don’t want a process that is too cursory and short. If your entire process is a resume review and a 30-minute interview by a single point of contact in your firm, you are increasing the chances of a bad hire. More process and greater stakeholder involvement will reduce your error rate.

The cost of reducing that error rate is that it slows the process down and drives it toward a committee approach, which can cause other problems of its own. Like choosing candidates that nobody likes but nobody objects to. 

The solution here is to map your process. Involve the right people in the right order, so that all key decision makers are involved but you don’t have extraneous meetings packed with extra bodies providing opinions that you don’t intend to listen to.

In general, for process mapping I recommend:

  • Identify the key stakeholders who need to be involved – direct supervisor, etc. 
  • Interview in order of seniority/value of time – save the people with the most valuable time for latest in the process
  • At each stage, get a formal recommendation to advance the candidate or terminate the process
  • No more than 3 rounds of interviews 
  • Use a gating interview (10 minutes) via video to verify resume information and weed out any candidates that don’t meet minimum qualifications, such as licensure, etc.
  • Use group interviews sparingly, if at all; the signal to noise ratio on these isn’t worth the time cost


Review resume for qualifications - interview for fit

The first culling of candidates happens at the resume stage. You, or your designated team member will review applicants for meeting the basic qualifications. You should be able to determine by background, work history, and educational attainments, does this candidate have the raw material to successfully perform this role somewhere?

Which means that by the time you are interviewing the candidate, you are really vetting for the intangibles. Your job now is to determine, does this candidate have what it takes to succeed in this role in our firm? “Fit” is an undefinable mix of factors from work ethic to culture fit to career ambitions to team chemistry. This is the highest value portion of the hiring process and it is at this point that I suggest the managing partner (or other hiring stakeholder) contribute. You already know the candidate’s qualification; now you have to decide if hiring this person helps move your firm forward?


A realistic definition for success

The last point for your hiring process is to formulate a realistic definition of what success looks like. 

I’ve worked with lots of law firms who fall in love with candidates fresh out of law school and begin working on succession plans the minute the offer has been accepted. They envision that the candidate will become a partner and then eventually buy the firm and… you get the idea.

That’s way too much pressure to put on the decision. 

I recommend to firms they build they envision associate training and development with an expected tenure of 36 months. If the attorney stays on longer than that and becomes a long-term fixture in your firm, awesome. If they only last 18 months before you or they decide to part ways; well, you didn’t lose out on your firm’s entire future. 

When you decide on an expected tenure (36 months or otherwise) you also make it easier to create a rational training and development process to help that attorney do their best work and make their best contributions to the firm over that period.



Hiring well is hard. And it hasn’t gotten any easier in the past few years. 

It is also one of the most impactful and expensive long-term decisions you make for your law firm. Give it the best chance of success by having a solid process, involving the key stakeholders, and knowing what success looks like… before you post your ad. You, your existing team, and your future candidates will all benefit.

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