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   Jan/Feb 2002


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Hire Right

Fit the Talent To the Firm

By Kevin E. Joyce

CAREFUL, IT’S NO TIME FOR FOOLISH HIRES. Build your hiring process around your firm’s strategy. Use behavioral interviewing. Consider personality tests when making your most important hires. With a carefully crafted process, you’ll employ just the right talent to ratchet up your firm’s performance and stay competitive.

It’s official. The heated economic growth of the past decade is at a halt. Firms of every type are looking hard at their workforces. But just because the economy’s soft, that doesn’t mean the hiring stops. It may be the perfect time to reevaluate how you hire your people in the first place.

Talented people are the key to your success in any climate, though perhaps more so when the market is slow and the competition gets tougher. An effective hiring process, however, does more than increase the odds that you’ll find talented people. It helps you find the talent that fits into your firm and the available position. It helps boost retention of employees, in whom your firm makes a substantial investment. And in the end, it can help boost the bottom line still more, because even one good hire can provide what’s missing and dramatically improve your firm’s performance.

What specifically can you do to enhance your hiring process? Here are three steps to improve the fit of your new employees with the open position and your particular firm.

ONE: Make Your Organizational Strategy the Cornerstone

Be certain your firm’s overall strategy is the major consideration throughout the hiring process. That means paying close attention to the firm’s self-identity, its goals, objectives and direction.

Apply the strategy when you create a profile of who the successful applicant ought to be. As Edward Lawler says in his highly acclaimed book From the Ground Up, "It is critical that there be a fit between the types of employees who are hired and the values that the organization espouses in its mission and values statement." So, for instance, if your firm’s mission is to overtake a major competitor, you may want to make competitiveness one of the qualities you look for in job applicants.

In addition, use the strategy in deciding how to advertise the position. For example, a firm that values diversity has a number of options. It might include an invitation to women and persons of color in all print advertising and announce an opening for an associate’s position to the Black Law Student Association at the schools where interviews are planned.

Then, use the strategy when you outline the topics to be covered during applicant interviews. If client satisfaction is one of your firm’s primary goals, for instance, ask questions based on that topic when you’re interviewing.

And don’t forget to apply the strategy to interpersonal relations with job applicants—during interviews, in letters and on the telephone. Treat applicants the same way the firm’s mission statement says clients and employees are to be treated.

Making the firm strategy the foundation of the hiring process will ultimately pay big dividends. From the start, each person hired will be more comfortable with the firm and the firm will be more comfortable with its new employees.

TWO: Use Behavioral Interviewing to Find the Right Experience

You’ve found several great candidates who may seem to fit well into the firm. Now, how do you make the interview itself as productive as possible? The key is to use what is called competency-based questioning or behavioral interviewing.

Every job requires different competencies, ranging from technical skills (such as knowledge of WordPerfect) to interpersonal skills (such as talent with written communications). Before the interview, you must identify the core competencies required for optimum performance in the available position. In fact, it’s best to identify the required competencies at the outset of the hiring process, before announcing the opening. Then, take those competencies and use them to develop behavioral interviewing questions, focusing on whether the applicant appears to have what it takes for on-the-job success.

HERE’S HOW IT WORKS. An employer conducting a behavioral interview asks the applicant specific questions about actual past behavior to better predict the applicant’s future behavior, should he or she be selected for that position. The interviewer asks for examples of times when the applicant demonstrated specific skills or behaviors that the job requires. This works because past behavior by human beings is known to be an indicator of similar, future behavior (unlike the securities industry).

Behavioral interviewing requires a substantial amount of preparation. You must take a close look at the open position and identify what behaviors are needed to assure outstanding performance by the new employee. Then, base the questions you ask during the interview on this analysis of job skills, abilities and knowledge.

Let’s look at some examples of competency-based questions:

? Large Firm has an opening for an associate in its appellate practice. The firm knows that an appellate specialist must be able to juggle a number of deadlines (for filing notices of appeal, briefs and appendices and the like). So, the firm identifies the ability to handle deadlines as a key competency for this position. The interviewer will want to learn about the candidate’s experience in meeting deadlines. The interviewer might ask: "Give me an example of a time when you were faced with a number of deadlines at the same time, and tell me how you solved that problem."

▪ Firm of One is looking for its first associate. A solo practitioner, Ms. One wants to find a new lawyer to take responsibility for her practice in traffic court, so she can devote more time to probate work. A lawyer in a criminal defense practice can expect to have at least some clients who are dissatisfied with the sentences they receive. So, Ms. One would ask this question during the interview: "Describe a time when you had to deal with a customer or coworker who was very upset, and tell me how you handled the situation."

Behavioral interviewing questions are often open-ended. As a result, you must be willing to allow periods of silence during the interview, so the applicant has an opportunity to recollect a situation that is responsive to the question. Also, note that you’re not asking hypothetical questions—so don’t allow applicants to describe how they would have behaved. Have them describe how they actually behaved. Insisting on specific answers will improve the accuracy of your predictions about the applicant’s on-the-job behavior. Just as you maintain control of an adverse witness by using leading questions, you must maintain control during the interview. Follow up on incomplete answers. If the candidate veers away from the subjects you outlined beforehand, say you want to get back to discussing the individual’s qualifications for the position.

Remember, too, the importance of nonverbal communication. The interviewer’s job is both to listen to applicants’ answers and to observe their behaviors. Signs of defensiveness while discussing a subject critical to the position (such as the appellate practice applicant’s experience with deadlines) are strong clues as to whether the individual will fit the position.

Behavioral interviewing will help you find someone who can easily adjust to the specific demands of the job because they’ve met similar demands before.

THREE: Implement Personality Tests to Identify the Proper Fit

Just as it’s important to find an individual who fits the firm’s strategy, it’s important to identify the personality that matches the available position as well as the organization’s needs. In this context, personality is the combination of interests, abilities and aptitudes that make every individual unique. There are various psychology-based tests available to determine where a person’s interests, abilities and aptitudes lie.

For example, the Learning Style Inventory, developed by David A. Kolb, is founded on the concept that human beings learn in four basic ways: through concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. By testing an individual’s tendency toward these four learning modes, the LSI identifies that person’s learning style. There are four styles: assimilation, divergence, convergence and accommodation. Someone with an accommodating style, for example, learns mostly through concrete experience and active experimentation and is best-suited to situations in which one must be able to adapt to changing circumstances. These individuals, who are sometimes seen as pushy and impatient, are often found in action-oriented jobs like sales and management. It would be helpful for Ms. One to know which of her applicants is an accommodator, one who might be well-suited to the criminal defense position at her office.

Compare the Large Firm, which is looking for an associate whose primary responsibility will be to write appellate briefs. The type of person best-suited for a brief-writing position is likely an assimilator. Assimilators tend to learn by reflective observation and abstract conceptualization. They tend to be comfortable with ideas and often work in research. If the firm knows that the candidate who scored highest with the interviewers doesn’t have an assimilating learning style, it might take a second look at the other leading applicants.

The more important a position is to the organization, the more important it becomes that the individual’s personality fits the position. A firm with a vacancy created by the departure of its top rainmaker may want an assessment of applicants’ sales aptitude and ability. A partnership seeking to replace a soon-to-retire office administrator may consider testing for an inclination toward supervisory duties and an understanding of how to manage people. Tests have been created, and validated, that can be used to assess any number of personal characteristics.

Any firm can use test results to better match individuals with the jobs they’ll perform. A better fit should lead to greater job satisfaction and help the organization avoid problems such as burnout and high turnover.

Talent + Fit = Success from the Start

Making bad hiring decisions can have dramatic consequences, from unproductive employees and interpersonal conflicts to increased workplace stress and high turnover. Take the time to assure that your hiring process incorporates all the steps needed to find the right people. Writing samples, academic records and references are all essential because they tell you who has the talent. But there’s more to hiring than simply finding talent. Use the organization’s strategy, behavioral interviewing and personality tests to match the job applicant with the position and with your firm. Maximize your opportunity to hire just the right person by looking at talent plus fit.;

KEVIN E. JOYCE, J.D. (k.joyce@sev.org), principal of The

Quantum Group, LLC, in Ohio, consults with professional service

firms for improved performance.Contact him at (419) 824-0636.

[SIDEBAR 1]

MAP YOUR FIRM’S FUTURE

Establishing an organizational strategy is nothing more than doing group goal setting. And there’s an avalanche of research demonstrating the efficacy of goal setting. Proof of the benefits is so overwhelming that it’s become "black letter law" in management circles that successful organizations invariably have a strong sense of self-identity. In Built to Last, for instance, James Collins and Jerry Porras present a compelling case that companies with a strong sense of self-identity, expressed through their mission, values and culture, almost always outperform their competitors. Collins and Porras show that an organization that knows what it is and what it wants to become is likely to reach its goals. All other things being equal, then, a firm with specific and challenging goals is likely to be more successful than a firm without them.

"Strategy" here is much more than the numbers that might be found in an organization’s long-term plan. Successful firms do more than run the numbers. They draw a picture of themselves that is easily communicated to partners, employees and clients. That picture is a map to move the organization from where it is in the present to where it wants to be in the future.

Every law practice is well-served by taking the time needed to create a mission and values statement. But putting that statement in place and putting it in use are two different things. Putting it in use means incorporating the firm’s strategy into day-to-day operations. The hiring process is one place where an organizational strategy can certainly be put to good use.

The following readings will help you on your way:

Built to Last by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras.Harper-Collins, 1994.

Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development by David A. Kolb. Prentice-Hall, 1984.

From the Ground Up by Edward E. Lawler III. Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Finding and Keeping Great Employees by Jim Harris and Joan Brannick. AMACOM, 1999.

Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent by Marcia Pennington Shannon and Susan G.Manch. ABA, 2000.

— Kevin E. Joyce

[SIDEBAR 2]

AND THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS …

The frenzied bidding for major league baseball talent reached new heights last year when the Texas Rangers signed shortstop Alex Rodriguez to a $250-million contract. Despite that mind-boggling investment and an outstanding individual performance by Rodriguez, the Rangers stumbled through the season at the bottom of the American League West.

But compare Rodriguez and the Rangers to Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. In 1956, Boston added the future Hall of Famer to its lineup. Russell led Boston to its first NBA championship in his rookie year. He also became the cornerstone of a Celtics’ dynasty that won 11 titles in Russell’s 13 seasons with the team.

How do you explain the difference between the two hires? It’s a matter of fit. Russell’s rebounding, passing and defense were exactly what the Celtics were lacking. On the other hand, Rodriguez, a superb player in the field and at the plate, couldn’t fill the Rangers’ needs. The Texas ball club could have used a couple of good pitchers more than a great shortstop.

The right fit between Russell and the Celtics made Boston a basketball dynasty. Making the right fit in all your hiring decisions can transform your organization, too.

—Kevin E. Joyce