Volume 19, Number 1
January/February 2002

Finding, Training, and Retaining Law Firm Personnel

By Susan D. Goldstein

Finding skilled senior administrators, paralegals, contract negotiators, and legal secretaries is an ongoing issue for law firms and companies. However, recruiting resources are now more varied and plentiful. Advertising on Internet job-posting sites such as monster.com, vault.com and law.com presents the opportunity for a firm to reach a much broader pool of candidates than ever before. Law firms and companies can also take advantage of their own websites to advertise internal openings. The key to successful online recruiting, however, is to describe the position in the most explicit terms possible so that the human resources department is not flooded with resumes from unqualified candidates.

Advertising in local legal publications is an excellent way to reach regional candidates; for executive staff, also consider the Wall Street Journal, which has readers all over the country. Utilize internal resources—referral bonuses can yield positive results. When a lawyer laterals into your firm, always ask whether he or she wants to bring a secretary or paralegal. Hiring team members from the lawyer’s previous firm can mean a smoother transition. A legal secretary or paralegal who joins the firm with a new lateral hire will be motivated to learn the systems, policies, and procedures that will help the lawyer to practice law more efficiently.

Another resource for hiring legal staff is outside recruiters. The best recruiters have proven track records of sourcing and placing competent legal staff and have worked with many top-tier law firms. Recruiters should be able to write thorough job descriptions for positions and should know which firms have the caliber of candidates to fit open positions. A good recruiter knows the culture and environment of your firm and is prepared to market your opening to the most appropriate candidates.

The advantage presented by outside recruiters is their knowledge of the marketplace. The fee is worth it because the recruiter is on top of the frequent changes in your legal community (which partner just left a large firm and took significant clients, several associates, and support staff with him; or which lawyers who stayed behind might be nervous in the aftermath of the departure and could be well qualified for positions in your firm). How do you reach them? A good recruiter will know the person to call, when to call, and how to position your firm and the opportunity it pre-sents. A good recruiter will be able to present offers in a way that will help candidates make the best decision.

Winnowing Out the Chaff

After a pool of candidates has been identified, a preliminary phone interview is useful to narrow the group to those individuals with the desired skill set. When contacting candidates to arrange a phone interview, let them know what questions will be asked: Why are they interested in the position, what skills will they bring, and what are their major strengths and weaknesses. With advance warning, candidates have the opportunity to consider the questions, inventory their work experience, and give considered responses. This is not the Spanish Inquisition—the goal of the phone screen is to support your interest in the candidate, not to trip them up with trick questions. Candidates who know in advance that they will be expected to describe their strengths and weaknesses will probably be more honest than if they are taken off guard by such a request.

During the interview process, candidates should meet not only with their immediate supervisor but also with senior members of the firm and support staff. Candidates interviewing for a secretarial position to a partner should meet with associates and paralegals that also work with the partner. Every potential new hire should meet with the managing partner, executive director, and senior members of the staff. The more people involved in the decision-making process, the better the chances are that you will hire a successful long-term employee.

Lateral attorney candidates should meet with the office administrator in addition to the attorneys. The administrator can share valuable information relating to firm culture, policies, and procedures that might not be covered in the attorney meetings. By offering candidates the chance to meet with representatives from both the professional and support staffs, the candidate will be better prepared to make a well-informed decision regarding your firm’s opportunity.

Training Considerations

After you have hired a new secretary, paralegal, administrator, or lawyer, what should happen on his or her first day of employment? Send an introductory e-mail to everyone in the firm, containing a brief history of the new employee’s work history, pertinent personal facts, and the new employee’s phone number and e-mail address. Some firm training programs include computer training and meetings with the benefits manager or human resources representative, records manager, MIS, office services, etc. A copy of the orientation schedule should be given to the new employee on the first day, along with the documents that need to be completed for payroll and medical benefits, a copy of the policy and procedures manual, and state/federal mandated employment information. Designate a space on the orientation checklist that the employee can initial to confirm receipt of the materials. Providing a comprehensive orientation package can help the employee feel confident with the firm’s infrastructure and feel cared for by the employer.

During the first week, arrange a day-by-day schedule for the new hire. Allow for at least two hours of computer training each day. Other items might include orientation meetings with office services, telecommunications, library services, marketing, and every department with whom the new employee will interact. Assign a "buddy" who can shepherd the new employee around the firm, make introductions, take the new employee to lunch on the first day, and discuss amenities available in the neighborhood such as parking facilities, dry cleaners, and drug stores.

Computer training should be intense during the first week, with support provided on a regular basis for at least the first six months. Firms and companies that take the responsibility for actively training employees have fewer problems when it is time to upgrade systems and software. If your IT department is not large enough to maintain individual training for each employee, schedule group computer training sessions during the monthly lawyer luncheons, staff meetings, and other firm meetings that occur on a regular basis.

Companies from whom you purchase software should offer training sessions as part of the purchase price. Scheduled off-site training has the additional advantage of creating a captive audience so that lawyers are not running in and out for phone calls and secretaries are not being pulled out by lawyers for "emergencies." Training is effective only if employees make the commitment to be there and listen.

Staff Retention

Employees stay at firms for factors other than money. If employees are respected and actively listened to, if they contribute to and have a vested interest in helping the company meet its goals, they are more likely to stay with an organization. Benefits such as flexible schedules for new parents or paternity leave put a firm on the cutting edge of employee retention. Tuition reimbursement, sabbaticals, employer-paid dependent health coverage, and alternative work schedules are creative perks that can help retain valued employees.

Susan D. Goldstein is a recruiter with Dougherty & Associates in San Francisco. She has been a law office administrator and support staff recruiter and was operations manager at the attorney search firm of Major, Hagen & Africa. She can be reached at 415/773-8280.

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