Hiring a Part-Time, Contract or New Attorney

Volume 38 Number 5

By

About the Author

Wendy L. Werner, principal of Werner Associates LLC, is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She is also a member of the ABA LPM Section’s Law Practice Today Webzine Board. 

Law Practice Magazine | September/October 2012 | The Recruitment and Retention Issue
CONGRATULATIONS. YOU NEED HELP.

If you are a member of a small firm, or you are a solo practitioner and find you have more work than you can manage, it’s time to get assistance. If you are turning away business that you have the knowledge to perform but not the capacity, it’s time to hire someone.

But one of the concerns that many small firms have is whether they have the capacity to take on a full-time person, or frankly whether they want the commitment of adding additional head count with all of the accompanying responsibilities and financial commitments. They are also concerned that, while they think they need help, they are not sure if the workflow is sufficient to support a new employee day in and day out.

While lawyers are becoming more familiar with alternative fee agreements, they may not have explored alternative employment relationships. Before you take the plunge into the legal hiring market, it is a good idea to analyze your options before determining the choice that will be right for you.

Hiring also takes time. This is one main reason that a rigorous process is frequently shortchanged. If you are busy enough to hire, you may feel that you are really too busy to commit the time necessary to do it well. Investing in the process up front is therefore key to finding a person who will help you get the outcomes you are seeking. 

DEFINE THE ROLE

The shifts in the economy have caused employers of all sizes to reconsider work arrangements. But before you decide you need a contract lawyer, make sure that you are not running afoul of labor and employment rules and regulations. Job titles are not the basis for determining an employee’s status—activities are. And if you are telling someone when they must report to work, what their work hours will be and the direction of all of their activities, they are behaving as an employee, and you will be required to treat them as such when it comes to taxes and withholding. Read the fine print first.

While you may be moving in the direction of getting additional help slowly, people often find that work volume expands to fit the available staffing. If you think that you need someone part-time, once you have brought a person on board, you often realize the work itself, and your ability to manage it, will expand to fill your new capacity. If you are hiring someone on a part-time or contractual basis, you may want to determine in advance the likelihood of his or her ability to grow with the available work. It will help you manage the workflow as you expand. At the same time that you are analyzing capacity, make sure that you also consider the work level. While you may think that you need someone fresh out of law school, remember that you will have to factor in additional time to provide training for a person new to the profession. And while you may think that you need an attorney, explore the capacity that an experienced paralegal might be able to provide. Lastly, think with the result in mind. What are you trying to provide with this increased capacity? New opportunities for growth in your practice, development of a junior attorney, additional hours on a few big cases or something else? Remember that when you begin the interviewing process, candidates will want to know some of these things. If you haven’t asked and answered these questions beforehand, you aren’t ready to proceed.

SOURCING CANDIDATES

Anyone who follows legal market news knows that many lawyers are looking for work. But to a small firm or solo practitioner interested in hiring just one person, the idea of sourcing candidates may seem daunting. However, a number of easy resources are available to assist you. First and foremost, write a good and thorough job description. If you have done your due diligence on what you need, this should not be difficult. Because job listings in “old” media were charged by the word, many descriptions were too brief. If you want specific kinds of experience to perform specific tasks, write about them in detail. If you have experience requirements, name them. You can be sure you will still attract candidates who do not meet your minimums but you will at least have a greater likelihood of attracting people who have experience doing the work you want to have done. When you post the position, give your firm name. Posting anonymously will make good candidates wary, and getting your name out in a growth mode is simply good public relations. Remember to state the benefits as well as the requirements for candidates. Even in this job market, the search is a two-way process. So list what you are offering in the way of an office environment and employee benefits.

If your office is near a law school, post the position, no matter its level, at the school. If you can, make contact with the law school career services director. Such personnel are anxious to help their graduates find jobs, and many maintain strong contacts with their alumni. Most schools will let you post a position description of any length for free. Some will also let you conduct interviews at the school should this be more convenient for you. Check out your state and local bar position posting services. Some are free or reasonably priced, and in this market, candidates will find your posting.

Require a cover letter as well as a résumé. It is your first chance to see a writing sample, no matter how brief. Give contact rules. If you don’t want any phone calls, say so. If you want all résumés to be sent to a specific email address, you may want to create one solely for this purpose. Put all candidate correspondence in one folder on your computer. If you have a support staff person, you may want to enlist his or her assistance in managing the candidate correspondence. To create greater efficiency, avoid the temptation to read every résumé as it comes in—wait until you have a number of applicants’ materials on hand. Use your job description as a template when determining candidate suitability.

Once you have decided whom you want to interview, try to block sufficient time to see everyone in a short amount of time, preferably in a day or two. Resist any thoughts of “winging it” by instead reading résumés in advance and formulating interview questions based upon your stated requirements. Screen candidates before recruiting them. In other words, before you talk at any length about yourself, your firm or your practice, determine whether or not the candidate is suited for the position. If you are talking more than 25 percent of the time during an initial screening interview, you are talking too much. Your questions should be focused on past experience, as it predicts future performance. Ask questions that get to the size and scope of the candidate’s past experience and performance outcomes. Once you have determined finalists, interview them again. Be prepared at this juncture to answer candidates’ questions about you, your firm and your practice.

When making the decision, it is understandable that you will rely upon your intuition about how a candidate would fit into your firm, but do not fail to properly consider the evidence provided in the interviews. Always check references. Have specific questions about experience, attitude and motivation observed by previous supervisors. It’s easier to train someone for skills than it is to fix a poor attitude. When you bring a new employee on board, don’t make assumptions that he or she will know what you want. Be clear and open about your preferences as well as your expectations. The onboarding process is critical to candidate success but is often ignored in the relief of having found someone to help out. Investing time early in the employment relationship is key to meeting the goals you initially set when you decided to bring a new person on board.

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