General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 15, Number 3
July/August 199

The Right Way to Hire -- The Business of Law ®

Edward Poll

Good hiring practices are a key element in building successful professional service businesses like law firms. It’s been estimated that each employee turnover costs an organization anywhere from three months to a year in salary, depending on the position.

Obviously, hiring correctly is important. The following three critical phases or steps of the hiring process were outlined to me in a recent interview with Bruce Barge, Senior Vice President of Aon Consulting.

Identifying Job Requirements

Employers need to take the time to think about the requirements for the job. You want to determine what will differentiate a person who will be really good at the task from someone who will probably not succeed. Ask yourself: "What kind of knowledge am I looking for? What sort of skills? What kind of behaviors do I need to see?"

For example, if you are a transaction attorney who wants to bring a strong litigator into the firm, it may be irrelevant whether the litigator has business development skills ("finder"). In this example, you want a lawyer who is an expert in the litigation process and can take care of the existing clients ("grinder").

Your list of job requirements will be the basis for the next two steps.

Setting Up a Screening Funnel

If you have a large number of resumes coming into the firm, you need to set up a "screening funnel" to manage all the applications. The goal is to take the many candidates coming in at the top end of the screening process and gradually narrow them down so that by the time you get to the bottom of the funnel, you’re dealing with only the two or three most qualified ones.

At the top of the funnel, use a "resume screen" to weed out people who are obviously not qualified or who you know aren’t going to make the final cut. You can set up a process very quickly for rating a resume based on the job’s requirements.

At the next level, you can try a "telephone pre-screen." Use a short checklist that takes no more than five to ten minutes to go over with applicants to make sure they are in the right salary range, have the right technical qualifications, and have the right attitude.

These two early screens are very effective because they don’t take very long or cost a lot of money. They allow you to focus more of your time on the remaining, better-qualified candidates. An optional final screen, helpful if you can whittle the number of applicants down to a reasonable size, is some sort of testing. One approach is a general ability test. For example, when you’re looking for secretarial or office staff, you want to evaluate the candidates’ word-processing skills, including words per minute, error rate, etc. If you’re looking for a mid-range professional, you might want to see written samples of the candidates’ work. You could also suggest a hypothetical client relations scenario and ask the candidates to write a description of how they would respond. Ask them to tell you in writing what staff situations were difficult for them in their previous employment and how they handled those situations. These two approaches assess the candidates’ ability to interact effectively with clients and/or to manage staff.

The advantage of using a paper-and-pencil or job-simulation type of test is that it’s a different situation than a formal interview. It’s been proven that the more kinds of screens you can use, the broader the picture you will get, and the more likely you will make the best possible decision.


The structured interview is the mainstay of the hiring process. The goal is to acquire a more in-depth understanding of the best candidates and really choose someone who is going to be with you and productive for the long term.

The problem is that interviewing is not a very effective screening tool as it is commonly applied, because most employers do what’s called an "unstructured interview." They sit down and just throw questions at the candidate off the top of their heads. The evidence shows that the prediction of success from this type of interview is almost zero. It just doesn’t work!

A number of things can be done to make interviewing an effective hiring tool. First, remember to make the interview job-related. If you’ve identified the job requirement areas discussed earlier, now is the time to use them. Put your interview questions into two categories: the "can-dos" and the "will-dos." The can-dos relate to the knowledge areas that a person needs to have. "Are you familiar with the laws in a given area?" "Do you have the following word-processing skills?" The answers to these questions will give you a good sense of whether the person has the necessary core knowledge.

Then link the "can-dos" with the "will-dos." These are more behavioral-type questions that will help you find out whether the candidate will show up for work on time, treat clients well, and interact effectively with co-workers. The way to get at the answers to these sorts of questions is to find out how the candidate handles "critical incidents." Critical incidents are examples of behavior where a person could perform either very well or very poorly in the job.

You do this by asking questions to elicit "situational judgment." You give a person a hypothetical situation—hopefully one drawn directly from the job setting—and ask, "How would you handle this?" A variation would be to ask the prospective employee to identify specific experiences she has had related to a particular behavior. For example, if one of the skills that you’re looking for is a client-service attitude, ask the candidate to describe past situations in which she has shown a client-service attitude in a difficult situation. Perhaps she dealt with a difficult client or was under pressure and someone was demanding a quick answer. Asking either of these types of question can be very effective because they really get at how a person might perform for you.

Finally, there are three common mistakes that people make when conducting an interview:

Many interviewers talk too much during the interview. Sometimes they want to rescue an uncomfortable candidate by giving him the answer or by talking about the firm. Ask your questions, and then get out of the way and let the candidate talk.

Interviewers often ask very general and vague questions. "What are your strengths?" "What are your weaknesses?" These questions produce very little of value, and it’s easy for the prospective employee to have a stock answer ready.

Unfortunately, interviewers occasionally ask questions that are illegal. As a general rule, avoid questions that have no obvious reference to the specific job performance or that would be in violation of employment laws. You can’t ask someone, for example, how many children he has, his marital status, or whether he has been disabled in the past. Besides being inappropriate, these questions are discriminatory. Not only will you turn off a prospective employee but also you risk a lawsuit.

There really is a right and a wrong way to hire staff and lawyers. The wrong way will get you into trouble, in terms of wasting your time and money, and perhaps legally. Many employers try to "wing it" when hiring because they are not trained psychologists and are very busy people. After all, if we weren’t busy, we wouldn’t need to hire someone else! But a little forethought and planning will go a long way to make you more efficient in the hiring process and more effective, not just lucky, in selecting the right person the first time.

Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a certified management consultant in Los Angeles who advises lawyers and law firms on how to deliver their services more effectively while increasing profits. He is the author of Secrets of the Business of Law: Successful Practices for Increasing Your Profits and The Profitable Law Office Handbook: Attorney’s Guide to Successful Business Planning . To comment on this column, call 800/837-5880 or send e-mail to .

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